During a recent week in Florence I made about a dozen visits to an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi. “The Russian avant-garde, Siberia and the East” makes a case for the influence of shamanistic cult objects on Kandinsky, Goncharova and other 20thcentury Russian artists. The reason I went so many times, however, was simply that I wanted, again and again, to look at seven paintings by Pavel Filonov (1883-1941), whom I—and many Russians—consider the most remarkable of all the many great Russian artists of the last century.
Many of Filonov’s paintings are huge and extraordinarily detailed. Seen closely, every element of Filonov’s works takes on a life of its own. One square centimetre of canvas could, if enlarged 50 or 100 times, be an entire Paul Klee—or a Miro, or a Kandinsky. Another square centimetre is more roughly textured—like the wrong side of a piece of richly coloured embroidery. Another square centimetre may be relatively empty—not a pattern but a delicate wash of colour. Each time one steps back from observing the detail of Filonov’s paintings, the work as a whole has changed. Living Head is full of joyful colour. But if you look at the painting as a whole, what you first see are the outlines of a rather mournful face.
Filonov was born to a poor family in 1883, and both of his parents died before he was 14. In 1897 his eldest sister married a prosperous engineer and the family moved from Moscow to St Petersburg. Dismayed by their new bourgeois comfort, Filonov slept on the floor, working meanwhile as a house painter. Determined to be an artist, he failed the entrance exams for the Academy of Arts three times. On his fourth attempt, he was accepted because of his exceptional knowledge of anatomy. Soon he was thrown out—for not listening to his teachers, refusing to bow to an important princess who was a patron of the Academy and “corrupting his fellow students with his works.” He was reinstated but then left of his own free will. From 1910, together with such figures as Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky, he regularly took part in projects and exhibitions linked to the avant-garde.
Filonov appears to have seen the Revolution as the realisation of a dream of world harmony. Even later in life, he was reluctant to relinquish this belief. Some of his paintings bear grandiose and optimistic titles, such asFormula of the Period 1904—July 1922. Universal Shift in the Flowering of the World via the Russian Revolution. Often, however, there is a contrast between the paintings’ titles and their more melancholy mood.
Filonov was single-minded and intransigent. He worked 18-hour days and often lived just on tea, bread and potatoes. Throughout his life he inspired devotion, but he repeatedly sabotaged attempts to help him. Offered a professorship at the Academy in 1919, he refused to accept it unless all courses at the Academy were taught according to his own methods. The director, of course, did not agree to this.
The rather misleading name that Filonov gave to his method was “Analytic Art.” Believing that a painting should grow in the same sort of way as any other form of life, Filonov would start in one corner of the canvas and steadily work his way up and across to the opposite corner. Opposed to all pre-determined schemes, he believed that every painting should follow its own laws. As early as 1912 Filonov attacked Picasso—not for being outrageously innovative, but for creating a new academicism. “Cubism,” he wrote, “has reached a dead-end because of its mechanistic fundamentals.” After quoting these words, the artist Marina Koldobskaya goes on to describe Filonov’s own paintings as “pulsating and breathing crystals, knots and nets flowing into each other before the eyes of the onlookers.” Filonov’s work is indeed anything but mechanistic—even when, as in his paintings relating to the First World War (in which he fought on the Romanian Front), he is representing deathly and mechanistic forces.
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …