Monday, November 19, 2007

Nicolas de Staël

Yesterday I went to see an exhibition of the work of the Russian abstract painter Nicolas de Staël, in the Pedrera, here in Barcelona. There are many things about his work that I - as an economist can readily identify with. Obviously the colour, and the rhythm. If I could only find this rhythm, and the langauge of colour he uses. I also identify very strongly with this:

Toute ma vie, j'ai eu besoin de penser peinture, de voir des tableaux, de faire de la peinture pour m'aider à vivre, pour me libérer de mes impressions, de toutes les sensations, de toutes les inquiétudes auxquelles je n'ai trouvé d'autre issue que la peinture."

Here are one or two paintings:

And here is a piece from Richard Wollheim that I wouldn't want to lose track of.

Yellow Sky, Red Sea, Violet Sands
Richard Wollheim

Nicolas de Staël by Jean-Paul Ameline · Centre Pompidou, 252 pp, €39.90

Nicolas de Staël was an experimental painter. The first half of the 20th century abounded in experimental artists. Not so the second half, which abounded in innovatory artists of one sort or another, and the difference is that the innovatory artist innovates in order to give his work a distinctive look, whereas the experimental artist innovates in the hope, later to be confirmed or disconfirmed, that this new look will help him do better justice to his subject matter.

Staël was born in tsarist St Petersburg in 1914, the heir to a family of generals and higher bureaucrats in the Imperial service. His father, General Vladimir de Staël von Holstein, was vice-governor of the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, where famous liberals had been incarcerated at the Tsar's pleasure. His mother came from a more cultivated family, and was related to the composer Glazunov. At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917, the family was compelled to leave Russia, and they eventually settled just outside Brussels, where they managed to lead a life of comparative comfort. In due course, Nicolas, in defiance of family tradition, announced that he wanted to be an artist. In 1933 he enrolled simultaneously in the Académie des Beaux-Arts as an architectural student and in the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts as a painting student. The education that he received was eclectic, but at least as important an influence on his later work were holidays that took him in 1934 to Provence, in 1935 to Spain, and in 1936 and again in 1937 to Morocco. Wherever he went, he visited the museums, and immersed himself in the work of the Old Masters, but these travels exposed him to what was ultimately to be his most profound source of inspiration: the sun-drenched South.

On his second visit to Marrakech, Staël encountered a young painter, Jeannine Guillou, who was leading a nomadic life in Morocco with her husband and their young son, Antek. After a short while, Jeannine and Antek came to live with Staël, and, on their return from Morocco in 1938, they slowly travelled through Italy before arriving in Paris, where they took a small apartment. Staël never returned to Brussels, and in Paris he acquired his first dealer, Jeanne Bucher. The next year saw the outbreak of war. In January 1940, Staël, who had enlisted in the Foreign Legion, joined his regiment in Algeria. In May, France confronted defeat, but it was not until September that Staël was demobilised and rejoined Jeannine and her son, who had moved to Nice. In 1942 Jeannine gave birth to a daughter, Anne, and, in September 1943, all four moved back to Paris, which was intellectually more exciting, though politically more dangerous.

The war years were a period of true hardship for the Staëls, as for many others: work was very hard to come by, and so were artists' materials. However, in Nice and then in Paris, he widened the range of his acquaintance with his fellow artists, and, above all, he listened to artists' ideas, particularly to those which derived from Kandinsky, the Russian abstractionists, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and the Bauhaus. Indeed, by the time he moved to Paris, he was a self-declared abstract artist. The portraits of Jeannine, with which the recent Beaubourg exhibition opened, and which reveal the influence of El Greco and Blue Period Picasso, were now a thing of the past.

Up to 1946, when for the first time it takes on a distinctive physiognomy, Staël's work exhibits a number of characteristics which belong to the stark wartime and postwar sensibility, but it would be hard to predict from these well-made paintings any of the glory that was to come. Pride of place is characteristically ceded to a group of simplified forms that stand on long, sharp props, first cousins to the pointed legs that will shortly become an over-familiar feature of postwar British figurative sculpture. Sometimes in front of these forms there will be a dishevelled fence made up of wires or loosely connected batons, while an eerie, uncanny light shines out from the background.

In 1946 these mannerisms drop away. The high-heeled forms disappear, the batons become the primary constituent of the picture, and the fierce glare of the background turns into a gentle inner effulgence, of which Staël remains the master. There is a new intensity in the work. A key piece in this development is a horizontal painting, 142 by 161 cm, entitled La Vie dure, painted in October, and possibly a work of mourning for Jeannine, who had died at the beginning of the year in the course of a therapeutic abortion. The painting is monochromatically brown, drifting into black and brownish greens, colours to which Staël gives a brilliant luminosity.

In becoming the supreme motif, the baton also becomes the object of a new painterly attention. In effect, some of the batons are divided up into square sections, painted in thick paint with only minor differentiation of colour between them, except where some of the sections are painted in lead white. What distinguishes the sections are subtle differences in the weighting of the paint. Here we have the origins of the tesserae, which, in a few years' time, are going to take over the work. Meanwhile, the paintings increasingly assume the character of architectural capriccios. It is no surprise that a painting executed in 1947 should be called Hommage à Piranèse. We are in the phantasmagoric world of Piranesi's Carceri prints, in their later, or darkened, state.

In the years 1950 to 1952, there is another series of changes. In the first place, the tesserae are no longer a unit but the unit of Staël's painting: the works are measured out in squarish blocks of paint. And, once this mode of organisation is achieved, we start to become aware of one of the most remarkable characteristics of his art: his all but infallible sense of scale. This shows itself in the way the format of the picture determines the size and number of the tesserae, or in the way the size of the tesserae determines their number and the format of the picture. Or in the relative burden of pigment that the different units of the painting are made to carry. Unlike some of the 'thick' painters of our day, Staël does not seem to have regularly taken the picture back to the bare canvas as he built up the surface. On the contrary, he appears to have gone on adding paint either with the brush or, more commonly, with the palette knife, until he got the different parts of the canvas appropriately loaded or in the right balance with each other. There is nothing in the record or in the photographs of the various studios he occupied to suggest that he was a scraper.

Second, the palette lightens. Dark, lugubrious earth colours surrender their dominance to whites, creams, lemons, pinks, and the colour that Staël makes sing: grey. The third change was presented by the organisers of the Beaubourg exhibition in a singularly dramatic fashion. In a room hung with seven or eight largish paintings, each one in some way a variant of the others, and all called Composition, the spectator was suddenly brought up short by the last painting. In nearly all ways it continues the series, though it is somewhat larger and dated not 1951 but 1952: it is entitled Roofs. Staël had begun his long march back into figuration.

Staël the abstract painter is a more complex, more ambiguous figure than the surface appearance of his pre-1952 paintings might suggest. In the first place, he was always a heavily representational painter. There is, in other words, no attempt to lose the sense of depth or to flatten the picture: there is always the exact opposite of Clement Greenberg's idea of the assertive 'picture plane'. Second, Staël's hero among the great figures of the Ecole de Paris was Georges Braque, the supreme painter of the object. The two men had met in 1944, and for a period of time saw each other at least once a week. For Staël, Braque was 'the greatest living painter in the world'.

A conversation of January 1950, reported by Staël's friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël's commitment to abstraction. 'Look,' he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, 'here are objects, and this is just what I don't represent.' Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. 'Now, look, that's painting. L'entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don't interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.' Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: 'Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.' These are the words of what we might call a holistic realist. Scorning perspective and resemblance as means to achieving figuration, Staël edged his way into figuration by first training himself to respect the painting as a wall, then by learning how to create an overall represented space. The depiction of objects came third. Objects could be depicted only when the space into which they were to fit was complete, and this was the point Staël felt he had reached by February 1952. The year that followed showed him his instincts were right. He ended the year by writing: 'I do not contrast abstract painting with figurative painting.'

What is startling about Staël's production in 1952 is its vast range. As well as the beautifully encrusted work that he continued to do in the studio, of which the great studies of bottles are the supreme achievement, paintings which are, with their overload of pigment, landscapes in themselves, Staël turned himself into a plein-air painter. Stuffing his pockets with tubes of paint, and carrying boards generally 12 by 22 cm, he ventured out along the Seine valley, up to Le Havre, out into the Ile-de-France, and he returned with landscapes, painted in thick paint with a palette of blues and greys and pale greens, the horizon low, skies vast and of intense liquidity, and the scene arranged in parallel bands.

And then, as though this venture into reality was not enough, in March 1952, a friend had tickets for a night-time football match between France and Sweden at the Parc des Princes, and he took Staël and his wife: Staël had married shortly after Jeannine's death. Caught in the brilliant floodlights, the movements of the players and the contrasts between the colours of the different teams amazed Staël, and, in the next few weeks, he produced a deluge of small sketches, dark blues, whites, reds, greys, which captured the balletic high points of the game. They are works of remarkable figurative improvisation. But it is evidence of how far Staël suspected his exuberance had outpaced his attainments that when he came to paint the definitive work of the series, a vast canvas 200 by 350 cm, shown at the Salon de Mai, most of the identifiable traces of the human body had been eradicated. Poised between the green of the pitch and the black of the night sky are batons and tesserae in which the dancer and the dance, the player and the game, are merged.

The following year witnesses another re-engagement with the human figure, this time mediated by music, Staël's second great love, in which again his tastes were broad. He loved classical music, he loved the Second Vienna School, above all Webern, and he loved jazz. The musical event that occasioned the second return to the figure was a revival in 1952 of Rameau's Les Indes galantes, which had not been seen for two hundred years. This time, however, Staël allowed the experience to mature, and it was only in spring 1953 that he produced two large, clearly figurative canvases, followed by two wonderfully ambiguous panoramas, one entitled Ballet, the other Orchestre, both 350 cm wide, painted largely in harmonies of grey. In one case the dancers and in the other the musicians struggle out of abstraction into life.

By mid-1953 Staël was an internationally famous artist. Besides Paris, he had had successful exhibitions in London, Berlin, Denmark, New York, and he now had as his American dealer the prestigious Paul Rosenberg, whose stock included Géricault and Delacroix as well as Picasso, Matisse and Braque. He knew painters, poets, musicians. René Char and Pierre Boulez were among his close friends. His greatest work lay ahead of him, but it did not require magical gifts to see that the end might not be all that far off.

In the first place, New York had by now established itself as the arbiter of contemporary art, and it was not an easy or reliable patron. Open in many of its attitudes, it found it hard to take truly seriously any new artist whom it had not been the first to acknowledge. And, should it turn against an artist, it had at its disposal a critical vocabulary at once so ethicised and so disjointed from the objects on which it was directed that it could endow its whims of judgment with an air of total authority for which it had to offer no rationale. Tom Hess, a spirit of the age (and one more free than most), who had previously enthused over Staël, still praised some works as adequately 'severe' and 'difficult', but in others he now saw signs of 'sentimentality'. New York was announcing, as Greenberg had always insisted it should, that critical approval could not be taken for granted. Critics can undo what critics have done.

Second, the extraordinary life-enhancing gifts that had brought Staël thus far could all too easily, under the impact of either internal or external frustration, lead him over the brink. Finally, but unsurprisingly in such a force of nature, Staël was unable to separate the demands of his work from his private passions.

In August 1953 he bought a trailer, put into it Françoise, their children, Ciska Grillet, a painter friend of René Char, and Jeanne Matthieu, the daughter of a farmer whom he had come to know through Char, and whom he endowed with magical properties. For a month they travelled through Italy, revisiting Naples and Pompeii, but the culmination was Sicily. The great temples of Magna Graecia at Agrigento and Syracuse, the mosaics at Palermo and the constant transformation of brilliant colour overwhelmed Staël. He spoke of evenings when the sky is yellow, and the sea is red, and the sands are violet. He took in everything, filled notebooks with observations and notations, swam in the sea, but postponed painting until he had returned to France, where he finally cemented his dependence on the South with the purchase of a large house, surrounded by castellated ramparts, at Ménerbes. He moved in with his family in December.

At first, work went slowly, painfully. He was trying to woo out of his memory an art of recollection in which to portray a countryside that he already thought of as a landscape of ghosts. In the new year of 1954 work went better, and it's possible that when, in February, snow covered the house, he was helped by the contrast between what he saw through the windows and the images he retained in his head. By the spring he had completed what was his greatest work. Drawing on recent experimentation with collage, he brought into being large slabs of red and yellow, of orange and green, which he then fixed in place with the aid of a rigid vanishing-point. In their sheer saturation of colour and their free-floating expressiveness, these works were unrivalled in boldness and sustained directness by anything that happened in the second half of the 20th century - though some may find a similar note in the late Delta landscapes (exhibited in London earlier this year) by the Californian painter Wayne Thiebaud.

The Sicilian landscapes were not easy to follow, and Staël sensed that, in order to effect the transition from a landscape of memory to one of perception, radical changes had to be made. These changes first evince themselves in some views of the Paris bridges. The colours are no longer saturated, indeed they take on a certain mistiness. The pigment thins, and the canvas is stained rather than covered. Staël applies gauze and balls of cotton wool to staunch the flow of the paint. By now he was convinced that it was only under Jeanne's tutelary guidance that he could move forwards, and in September 1954, leaving his family, he installed himself in a new studio in the citadel of Antibes with windows opening onto the gulf across the ramparts: paradise for someone who was happy, hell for someone who was not. He had two kinds of subject matter: the studio seen from within, the Gulf of Antibes seen through the double windows. The last paintings are hard to judge. What is clear is that they are uneven, though where the road forward lay is not easy to discern. It needed patience and the careful observation of friends to work it out: both were in short supply.

On 5 March 1955, Staël paid a short visit to Paris, and seems to have been rejuvenated by two concerts, one of music by Schoenberg, one of Webern. For an entire night he walked through the streets of Paris with Jeannine's son, discussing the future. On his return to Antibes he started on a canvas, 600 cm wide, entitled Le Concert. It presided in its unfinished state over the exit to the Beaubourg exhibition, an enormous cello or double bass, like a very pale pear, dominating the right-hand side. By now Jeanne seemed inattentive, and Staël knew that he had lost the confidence of the one person on whom he was most reliant: himself.

On 16 March he flung himself from the terrace of his studio in Antibes onto the ramparts below.

Just around the time of Staël's death, a new form of figuration was beginning to attract the critical attention of Western Europe. Fierce, committed to centralisation, somewhat self-consciously anguished, it did not entirely reject the decorative, but it turned it more into foreplay. The principal exponent of this new art was Francis Bacon. How Bacon's art would have appeared had Staël spared himself, and had it been seen in the bright illumination of Staël's genius, is an interesting question.

Pavel Filonov

Pavel Filonov (1908- 1941)

Pavel Filonov was born in Moscow. Early orphaned, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he began taking art lessons. From 1908 to 1910, he attended the Academy of Arts, but was expelled in 1910. In 1911, he came in contact with the Union of Youth and contributed to its exhibitions. Next year, he traveled to Italy and France. In 1913, Filonov designed the stage set for Vladimir Maiakovskii's play "Vladimir Maiakovskii:.A Tragedy", where the backdrop was painted in cubo-futurist style by both Iosif Shkolnik and Pavel Filonov. The backdrop depicts the modern city against whose alienating but exciting background the poet rebels.

Over the next two years, he worked as an illustrator of futurist booklets, published his transrational poem The Chant of Universal Flowering (Propoved' o porosli mirovoi), and started developing his artistic theories, the so-called Ideology of Analytical Art and the Principle of Madeness (see extracts below). In 1919, Filonov exhibited at the First State Free Exhibition of Works of Art in Petrograd. In 1923, he became a professor at the Academy of Arts and an associate of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk). In the same year, he published the "Declaration of Universal Flowering" in the journal Zhizn' Iskusstva. Two years later, the painter established the Collective of Masters of Analytical Art (known today as Filonov School). Because of continuing attacks and ostracism, Filonov's exhibition planned for 1929-30 at the Russian Museum did not open. In 1932, he contributed to the exhibition Artists of the RSFSSR Over the Last 15 Years. His life and creativity was cut short by the war. He died of pneumonia during the siege of Leningrad in 1941. In 1967, he had a posthumous exhibition in Novosibirsk.

Only in recent years Filonov's art received international recognition. The images produced by his mind contributed significantly to the intellectual growth of the avant-garde in Russia. His artistic character was founded upon some uncompromising ideals to which he was committed, as he demonstrated in the early years of his work by not accepting the ideology of the Academy of Art in St.Petersburg. Filonov left the academy in 1910 and chose to ignore the mainstream current of art to further develop his personal style. Through his art, Filonov sought to observe and understand the forces that comprise the human existence, both the internal and external factors. He aimed to achieve a systematic knowledge of the world and it's human inhabitants. Filonov's paintings were in effect not mere images with meaning; -- his work went beyond that -- they were manifestations of intellectual concepts, something derived from his theory and ideology. The viewer of the art was to observe a "projective intellect" within the imagery. "A picture suggests to the mind of its viewer a single conclusion, which cannot be translated into words."

After the 1917 revolution, Filonov worked to complete the development of his "analytical painting". The changes in the Russian society brought inspiration to the Futurist artists. Filonov dedicated much of his time and effort to artistic research and creativity, working on his paintings as much as 18 hours a day. In 1925, having found many followers and supporters for his style of expression, he founded a school in Petrograd, which was shut down by the government in 1928, together with all other private artistic and cultural organizations.

In "Ideology of Analytical Art" Filonov explains what he expects from his student artists (and, of course, from himself):

A work of art is any piece of work made with the maximum tension of analytical madeness [sdelannost' -- The word is Filonov's neologism, derived from the Russian verb "sdelat'," -- to make, to do. Used in its perfective form, the verb denotes the completion of action].

The only professional criterion for evaluating a piece of work is its madeness.

In their profession the artist and his disciple must love all that is "made well" and hate all that is "not made."

In analytical thought the process of study becomes an integral part of the creative process for the piece being made.

The more consciously and forcefully the artist works on his intellect, the stronger the effect the finished work has on the spectator.

Each brushstroke, each contact with the picture, is a precise recording through the material and in the material of the inner psychical process taking place in the artist, and the whole work is the entire recording of the intellect of the person who made it.

Art is the reflection through material or the record in material of the struggle for the formation of man's higher intellectual condition. Art's efficacity vis-a-vis the spectator is equal to this; i.e., it both makes him superior and summons him to become superior.

The artist-proletarian's obligation is not only to create works that answer the demands of today, but also to open the way to intellect into the distant future.

The artist-proletarian must act on the intellect of his comrade proletarians not only through what they can understand at their present stage of development.

Work on content is work on form and vice versa.

The more forcefully the form is expressed, the more forcefully the content is expressed.

Form is made by persistent line. Every line must be made.

Every atom must be made; the whole work must be made and adapted.

Think persistently and accurately over every atom of the work you are doing. Make every atom persistently and accurately.

Introduce persistently and accurately into every atom the color you have studied -- so that it enters the atom just as heat enters the body or so that it is linked organically with the form, just as in nature a flower's cellulose is linked with its color.

Painting is the colored conclusion of drawing.

Filonov's legacy is vast, but very few canvasses of his are accessible to the public. Almost no pictures of his are found in Western museums, and any piece of paper identified as a work of Filonov evokes wild enthusiasm at auctions. While Malevich is considered the trademark of the Russian avant-garde, Filonov is its strategic secret, an Atlantis sunk deep in the Russian Museum in St.Petersburg. Some fragments that have no reasonable explanation nor adequate price get to the surface occasionally.

We were hard put to break out of the habit of poverty

Pavel Filonov could answer Soviet questionnaires about his social origins with pride: he was a son of a wagon driver and a laundress. In search of a better lot his parents moved to Moscow from Ryazan with a bunch of kids and a 100-year-old granny. Pavel was born on December 27, 1882. When he was five his father, the breadwinner, died suddenly. His mother was consumptive. The boy of five was placed as a dancer in a chorus line in the local cafe where he honestly earned and brought home 9 roubles a month. In his free time he would help his sisters embroider towels and tablecloths for sale. Beauty clearly attracted him. Not him alone: his sister Yekaterina painted and Yevdokiya had a voice — it was predicted that she would become a singer. The children were close friends. In 1896, their mother died, and Pavel's sisters looked after him. Strict discipline and helping each other were a law in the family and helped it to stay afloat. In 1897, the eldest and beautiful sister Alexandra married a prosperous engineer and took the whole family along to St.Petersburg.

Pavel did not like his new bourgeois life: he refused to sleep on a mattress and threw it down on the floor, he would not wear "decent" clothes; at meals he would sit on the edge of the chair, and, to economise he never ate a full meal. He learned the professions of house painter and janitor: it could mean tarring sewer covers or designing elegant interiors. At least, handling paints was not distasteful to him, and provided an opportunity to earn some money.

It was clear to him from his earliest years that he was an artist. And that the only path in Russia to a career in art was through the Academy. So he began to storm the fortress of the Academy. It turned out to be hard and time-consuming.

Filonov failed the examinations three times in a row. The fourth time he was accepted out of sympathy for him (for his exceptional knowledge of anatomy). Soon, however, he was thrown out of the Temple of Arts: he would not listen to the instructors, did not befriend schoolmates, and would not bow to the patroness Great Princess Maria Nikolayevna.

Filonov was expelled "for corrupting his fellow students with his works". He appealed, was reinstated and then quit of his own free will: he had mastered all the classical knowledge. He felt he should look for answers to his questions elsewhere.

The charmed stranger

An educated youth must see the world. This view was widespread at the beginning of the century even in Russia. People without the necessary means were willing to walk or even crawl to touch "the holy stones".

According to his official biography, he went on a trip down the Volga (meaning visits to the monasteries on the Volga) during the years of 1905-07 revolution. It is hard to say what wisdom he learned from the holy fathers while young men of his age were fleeing from police prosecution, but he lived his life according to the behests of Russian ascetics: do not amass riches, do not pursue a career, and pass on to others what you have been able to comprehend.

In 1911 Filonov obtained a passport as a pilgrim. He went by boat down the Volga, then went to the Caucasus to visit Novy Aphon, from there to Constantinople to see St.Sophia, and then crossed the sea to Jerusalem. He left no journal of his travels, only a few sketches, but it is evident that the journey taught him more than the Academy.

People of other races, traces of ancient civilizations, the art of other epochs, and the inspiration of other religions. Pictures of an archaic and patriarchal life not distorted by "the age of iron" stirred him. He discovered that the slums and factories of big cities (he did not seem to notice the palaces) were not the only ornaments of the world.

He had left home a master able to paint anything; he came back an artist knowing what to paint. His antagonism towards the industrial society became his artistic message, the city his personal foe. One of his first mature works was The Victor of the City. He would repeat that motif in countless works: giant human heads emerging from the technogenic chaos and overcoming it by tremendous willpower. Filonov joined the Bohemians of St.Petersburg in early 1910 and took a willing part in exhibitions of the avant-garde "Soyuz Molodykh" (Allliance of the Young). His colleagues treated him with cautious respect. The alliance included some brilliant artists: Matyushin, Guro, Kruchenykh, the Burlyuk brothers who came from Moscow on visits, Malevich and the young Mayakovsky who raised hell. But nobody exhibited as much professionalism. "Filonov does not talk much, he is withdrawn, extraordinarily proud and impatient", noted Kruchenykh. "He despises evasiveness". Despite their leftist phrases, the poets and artists of Soyuz seemed evasive to him (except Khlebnikov with whom he struck up a friendship). Young people from well-to-do families, they were full of enthusiasm and had high hopes for brilliant careers. Filonov scared them with his readiness to dissolve in anything "small". "Banished from their bodies, the souls of animals rushed into the man and settled in him. They've built animal cities in his heart".

Painted by Filonov, I am looking down
From the wall like a dead-tired horse.
He's painted so much pain
In the eyes of the horse's face,.

These lines belong to poet Velimir Khlebnikov about his portrait done by Filonov.

Drawing every atom

The East was not alone in seeking the wisdom of the world. The West did it, too. In 1912, some kindly person bought a painting of Filonov's, and he decided to spend the royalty on travels in France and Italy. Two hundred roubles (a factory worker's wage for six months) proved not to be very much. A large part of the way Filonov covered on foot, sleeping at night in hay stacks and barns, paying for his meals with his drawings (strange as it may seem, taverns bought them eagerly). He saw the Louvre but "didn't loose his head". He did not see the Sistine Chapel as he had lacked the two lire for the entrance fee. It is not known if he met any of the then gurus of the European avant-garde: Picasso, Matisse, Braque. After half a year he came back home fiercely hostile to the West's urban, mechanistic and imperialistic civilization. In 1912, Filonov was the first Russian artist to speak out against the French maitres in the treatise "The Canon and the Law".

Daring of that degree has to be understood. Bohemians were completely taken with Cubism. Picasso was a celestial while Filonov was a little known advocate of towns with all their troubles. Nevertheless, Filonov declared that "cubism has reached a dead-end because of its mechanistic fundamentals", that a picture, being a model of the world, must not follow a preconceived scheme. Like every living thing in nature it must grow from the particulars to the general. The "organism" against "mechanism": each point on a picture is alive, is capable of evolution and, like every living thing, is unbelievably complex. His pictures turn into pulsating and breathing crystals , knots and nets flowing into each other before the eyes of the onlookers (Filonov's fans used to say in the '60s that he was a forerunner of the principles of bionics; his admirers today point out the similarity of his "organic pictures" to the structures of the world- wide web). It has been observed that a very powerful magnification of Filonov's pictures does not affect their quality. On the contrary, it reveals more and more details invisible to the naked eye. He called it "the principle of making completely": with a very fine brush he would paint vast canvasses revelling in the "delight of hard work" and asserting that it is in selfless work that man bares his immortal soul. When he did it at last, he was convinced, the centre of the universe would shift to Russia that possesses "unforgettably wondrous temples, the art of craftsmen, and icons".

In a trench

Such primitive patriotism was not rare before the Great War. However, writing treatises differs from becoming a soldier. One of his avant-garde friends recalled asking Filonov if he would go to war. "As it is I'm waging a war already, but not for territory — for time. I am in a trench wrestling with the past for a shred of time." He was waging his war not only with the brush but also with a pen. He revealed the gift of a tongue-tied prophet. As if having touched the world's deepest antiquity that had gone into the subterranean fire... his words would emerge as a precious alloy that begot his book, Singing the World's Germination, wrote Matyushin in admiration.

"Singing" did not keep him from being drafted, and in the autumn of 1916 Filonov, a private in a Navy Regiment of the Baltic Fleet, was sent to the Rumanian Front. After the February Revolution of 1917, the conscientious Marine was elected Chairman of the Soldiers' Congress in the town of Izmail and later served the revolution as Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Pridunaiski Area. It is not known what Filonov did to promote the proletarian dictatorship in Moldavia. We know only one thing: the prospect of a career in the Soviets held no attraction for him. Back in Petrograd (formerly St.Petersburg) in 1918 after the war was over, he handed the regimental colours to Comrade Podvoisky and resumed his work as an artist.

The nation was in a fever of renovation. In 1919, a vast "free exhibition" was opened right in the Winter Palace where artists of all trends showed their work without any panel of judges. (Apparently it was the idea of Larisa Reisner whose dream was to make St.Pete a "Naval Athens". "Filonov looks like an Ararat at the exhibition", wrote the caustic Shklovsky.

At a conference in February of 1919, it was decided to open the Museum of Artistic Culture (MAC) which would exhibit only contemporary "inventor's" art (the scientifically industrial phrase was in vogue with the avant-garde). At the same time, the objective was set to reform (in fact, to destroy) the Academy of Arts, a hotbed of conservatism. Filonov made up an outline of a course in "analytical art". He was offered a professorship. But he would accept it only on the condition that all the courses at the Academy would be taught using the "analytical method". Three times humble petitions were presented to him but Filonov was adamant . The Director handed down his verdict: "Filonov will come to the Academy only over my dead body".

By 1923, the victory of the new art seemed complete. Filonov wrote the declaration, "Entry into the New World Golden Age". At his suggestion the MAC was turned into a research organization named the State Institute of Art Culture. Kasimir Malevich was appointed its director. Filonov was to head the Department of General Ideology.

It is hard to say what it meant in practical terms because the institute he had set up kept him in that position for only two months. He was insufferable, of course. He knew the Truth, so no one's decision on any matter suited him. Any suggestion of his was actually an ultimatum, and in the social turmoil of that time very few were willing to obediently follow the self-proclaimed guru.

He called it persecution.

Family plays

Home life with him was no easier. When his beloved sister Evdokiya did not invite a charwoman to her wedding, Filonov refused to attend the dinner. He lived in her room, so while the celebrating was in full swing he sat painting, his face turned to the window.

Later he was given a room, a good one with two windows, in a house at 19, Karpovka Embankment. The first thing he did was to get rid of "everything that he had not bought with his own money. All that he had borrowed from his sisters" he either gave away or sold. He whitewashed the walls himself, and washed the floors every day.

A room in the same building was given to Yekaterina Serebryakova, an old revolutionary, who was a member of Narodnaya Volya. She knew a painter lived in the house, but did not know who. and after the death of her husband she went to him with the request to do her husband's portrait. Filonov did it and refused to take any money for it. So she offered to teach him English. In gratitude he painted her portrait...

Their marriage looked like this: since they lived in different rooms (by God! I do not know in what sense I used the word 'lived'), every morning they visited each other for a cup of tea. She was 20 years older (he was 40), and he called her daughter. He refused to dine in her room or accept anything of material value from her because he "did not even have 20 kopecks to bring an apple as a gift to his wife". For her birthday he painted a silk scarf that took him one and a half months working 16 hours a day to do.

One day Yekaterina Alexandrovna felt bad in the street (it must have been a stroke) She was brought to a hospital and was being put to a ward. Someone had located Filonov who raced to the hospital, took his wife away from the doctors and, having no money for a cab, carried her home in his arms across the whole city. He nursed her back to health and taught her to speak anew... When the city was blockaded by the Nazis, he would make her eat some of his rations. She outlived him by some five months. His sisters dragged two sleds to the Serafimovskoye cemetery: one with Filonov's body, the other with his wife who went along to pay her last respects.

Besides his wife and sisters there were some other close friends — his students. With the loss of his official status, Filonov became an informal guru for young artists seeking knowledge. He accepted them all, spending as much time as was needed with each of them. "Nobody had so many students as Filonov, from 40 to 70 at a time", recalls a contemporary.

There were many desiring to learn, but the turnover was great, too. Some were scared off by the amount of time and effort called for by the principle of "making completely", other, more energetic, by the amazing sameness of the "analytical pictures". Filonov's atelier turned into a factory capable of turning out any amount of works of exceptional quality. At the great exhibition in 1927 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, the Filonov people displayed several dozen large — up to 5 metres — canvasses done by teamwork as if by one person's hand. They depicted the new life, the old life, tractors, Madonnas, capitalists, workers, the epic of the Great Change.

On a global scale

"Starting from 1923, he had no possibility to teach and write for the press due to all the slander... Filonov has been accused of engaging in underground revolutionary work in pictorial art... Furthermore, he does not accept orders, nor charge for his lessons, and has declined two offers to publish his monograph... He has not exhibited any paintings since 1923. He has declined offers to take part in exhibitions in Paris, America, Dresden, Venice. He has over 300 "made" pictures and drawings that would be a deciding factor on the Soviet, proletarian and global scale. He has decided to give them to the Soviet State thinking there could be an exhibition of them in cities in the Soviet Union and European centres, as well as a separate museum of analytical art".

This was what Filonov wrote about himself, and this was what actually took place. It is possible that a complete withdrawal from ideological and career battles saved his life: he was not an obstacle to anybody. On the contrary, people came to him begging, yet he acted as if he wasn't interested. When the Soviet government suggested an exhibition of his works in the Russian Museum in 1929, any posturing was out of the question.

The exhibition was assembled and reviewed by the art authorities, but something went wrong: a favourable article was taken out of the catalogue. A new supervisor had been appointed who did not recognize the value of the "analytical method"... Filonov was respected. Many people tried to lobby his exhibition including the big official Isaak Brodsky. Nothing helped. Filonov's opponents played a trump card — they suggested inviting factory workers to the museum. They were sure that the men would demand removing the "abracadabra". The people's experts, unexpectedly, expressed their opinion in very strong terms: "Filonov is a real treasure-house, such an artist should not be left without attention". "The broad masses should be made aware of him because this art is revolutionary", "The workers themselves can decipher Filonov's pictures", and even "Someone who took part in the war against Germany would understand". But this did not help either. For 18 months the exhibition was in the halls of restricted access, and then it was dismantled.

No stocks of either fat or money "From the first days of July, I lived on only tea, sugar and a kilo of bread a day. On the 29th... in the morning I baked the last muffin, getting ready, like many, many others, to live without food for nobody knows how long", Filonov recorded in his diary in 1935.

Frugal as he was he had to exist somehow. He would accept his sisters' help only if he could repay them. He would not accept anything at all from his wife. He never had holidays: no summerhouse or sanatorium for him. Having no money to buy canvass , he did oil paintings on paper (a very fragile and unreliable technique). For many years his room was unheated. Summer and winter, he wore cotton pants and a jacket that had faded after endless washings.

He refused a pension and the ration offered him by the Artists' Union because they were designated for a needy person while he insisted they be listed "for artistic achievements". He stubbornly refused contacts with Western critics and agents although sometimes they offered royal terms.

In the early 1930s, Filonov's workshop accepted a big order — they were to illustrate the Finnish epic "Kalevala". Apparently, he once again declined a fee. His brother-in-law, the director of the Anti-Religious Museum, got him a job: he was to paint a map of the Northern Hemisphere in St.Isaac's Cathedral under the Foucault's Pendilum. It must have been a misservice. Filonov did not paint a map but a giant "made picture", working nights for four months straight lying on the stone floor. He spent the money to buy the first suit that he ever had in his life. He did not put it on even once, he was buried in it. For Filonov the blockade started some ten years earlier than for others, and ended on December 3, 1941. He died quietly: he went to sleep and never woke up. His sister Evdokia did not dare abandon her brother's treasures and decided not to leave starving Leningrad. At last, in 1942, she took several bundles of Filonov's canvasses and drawings to the Russian Museum. Some of them were shown to the Russian public 40 years later.