Futurism and After: David Burliuk (1882-1967)

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 
#1 2009 (22)

February 20 2009 marked the centenary of the publication of the Futurist manifesto, in which Marinetti denied past artistic traditions and expressed his passionate admiration for a new technological era with its emphasis on speed, industrialization, and changes in the style of life, with a resulting strong demand for new artistic forms, styles and media. “The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements. Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that does not have an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries!” Marinetti wrote. “What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed. ...We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”

Three years later in December 1912 the birth of Russian futurism was marked by a manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”. For the Russian Futurists, as for their Italian counterparts, the past was dead. The avant-garde means to make it new, means no homage to the poets and artists of any glorious past. The 1912 manifesto (signed by David Burliuk, Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, and Vladimir Mayakovsky) declared: “The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphs,” and exhorted fellow poets to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”

The Russian Futurists were headed by a passionate and successive organizing leader David Burliuk , who in 1910 together with his brothers Nikolai and Vladimir founded the group “Hylaea” (Greek for ancient Scythian lands) at an estate near Kherson located by the Black Sea. This very group in 1913 was to become Futurist. It is worth noting that the Russian Futurism was more “verbal-centric” than “visual-centric”. And thus the Burliuk brothers were joined by poets like Vasily Kamensky, who called himself “a futurist-songfighter”, and the “budetlyanin” (a Russian neologism from the future form of the verb to be — “budet”) Khlebnikov, who, according to the outstanding poet Osip Mandelshtam “dug underground routes to the Future”; Alexei Kruchenykh, often referred to as the “Rimbaud of Russian Futurism”; and the internationally known Mayakovsky, in whom Burliuk was the first to recognize a genius. Although “Hylaea” is generally considered the most influential group of Russian Cubo-Futurism, other futurist units appeared, such as Igor Severyanin’s Ego-Futurists in St. Petersburg, or the group of poets “Tsentrifuga” in Moscow which was close both to Futurism and Symbolism (with Boris Pasternak among its members), alongside a few others in the Ukraine (in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa).

The short burst of Futurism in Russia, the mere existence of which was due to the fact that it united phenomenal personages of the artistic circles of the first decade of the 20th century, was honoured by a book “Futurists” written by the Russian famous man of letters Kornei Chukovsky. And it was he who made an exact but ironical comparison of Moscow “cubo-futurists” and Petersburg “ego-futurists.” At the same time others like Velimir Khlebnikov in his poem “Burliuk” (1921) praised his friend’s wild energy (also noticed by Burliuk’s mentor in Munich Anton Azhbe, who called his student “a wonderful wild steppe horse”); or like the poet Nikolai Aseev who paid tribute to Burliuk’s sarcastic manner in the poem “Mayakovsky Beginning”. David Burliuk since the 1910s has been known and referred to as the father of Russian Futurism (his own definition of himself), and though the life span of the movement was short, the name of David Burliuk was and still is a symbol of epatage, artistic notoriety, and scandalous public behavior mixed with inexhaustible creativity. For the majority of amateurs his name, however, remained only in the annals of art history of the first quarter of the 20th century. But what came after?

A large scale exhibition “Futurism and After: David Burliuk, 1882-1967” which was on view through March 2009 in the Ukrainian museum in New York is an homage to the artist and the first major US show of Burliuk’s art in nearly half a century. The site of the exhibition reveals the connection of Burliuk’s native Ukraine and America, the country that became his Motherland from 1922 until his death in 1967.

According to Jaroslaw Leshko, president of the Ukrainian Museum in New York, “many of these works have not been exhibited in New York City so this is a unique opportunity to take a close and rare look at the whole career of one of the 20th century’s important avant-garde artists through the prism of his own collection now in the possession of his granddaughter [Mary Clare Burliuk].”

More than 100 works, including some of Burliuk’s photographs and personal belongings, enabled visitors to overview the part of Burliuk’s art that was created beyond, and after, the Russian period of his burlesque activity — during his trips to Siberia, to Japan and his residence in the United States. It is probably due to the fact that this show displays quite a number of family rarities that you start to feel Burliuk’s artistry the moment you enter the exhibition. Among them are Burliuk’s eye-catching, garish, cubistic patchwork vest and some of his single-drop earrings, and his glass eye; there is also a display of his easel, paint brushes, his paint box and pallets alongside the ink-on-cardboard portrait of Burliuk by Arshile Gorky (1930), a bust of the artist by Chaim Gross, and a bust of the artist’s wife Marusia Burliuk by Isamu Noguchi.

A special part of the exhibition is devoted to Burliuk’s almost two year — from October 1920 to August 1922 — active avant-garde intervention in Japanese artistic life, at that time characterized by a strong striving for westernization and modernization in practically speaking all spheres of life — political, social and economic. As Ihor Holubitzky remarks in his article for the exhibition catalogue “David Burliuk in Japan”, all these formed a “favourable cultural climate for an exhibition of modern Russian painting”. And though his stay in Japan is sometimes regarded only as “a brief interlude between Burliuk’s life in Russia and his resettlement in New York City”, the Japanese received the artist and his friend the renowned artist of Ukrainian origin Viktor Palmov enthusiastically; both were the organizers of the “ First Exhibition of Russian Paintings in Japan” due to the support of ROSTA (the Russian Telegraph Agency, with which Mayakovsky was very active). The first exhibition of new Russian art in Japan showcased 473 works by 28 artists, including works by Burliuk’s friends Malevich and Tatlin (150 works were by Burliuk himself and 43 by Palmov).

In 1921 the Royal Family paid due attention to Burliuk’s artwork, organizing his solo-show in Kyoto and purchasing some of his paintings. Naturally, he painted intensively following a variety of styles and trends and techniques. Thus, there are on view his abstract-futurist works, pleinair landscapes (“Japan Palm”, 1921), genre scenes (“On the Train”, 1922) and portraits (“Viktor Palmov”, 1921; “Marusia in Japan”, 1922; “Japanese Woman”, 1922). When in the USA, Burliuk seemed never to lose his contacts with Japan, having organized a benefit exhibition in New York after a devastating earthquake in Tokyo in 1923. He also used his “memory-experience” in his Japanese motifs until the end of his life.

In 1922 Burliuk and his family (his wife Marusia and two young sons) landed in New York. Contrary to the idea that he deserted Russia to escape the Bolsheviks he worked from 1923 to 1940 as the art editor and proofreader for the “Russian Voice”, a Communist newspaper. He also published a magazine “Color & Rhyme”. In 1925 in New York the two great Russian Futurists Mayakovsky and Burliuk met, and the latter became the poet’s guide and the one who acquainted Mayakovsky with Elly Jones (nee Siebert), the mother of the poet’s only child, Patricia. To commemorate the meeting of the two great Futurists Mayakovsky left a pen portrait of Burliuk which he signed in Russian and dated in English (it was shown at the exhibition).

Life in the USA satisfied Burliuk’s curiosity and his keen “futuristic” attention to new technologies and a novel life style. Here he was able to find a variety of industrial enterprises, modern conveniences, and futurist-style architecture. And here again the artist made a twist in his artistry — he created the Radio-style, accompanied in his futurist way by two “Radio-manifests”. In her article contributing to the catalogue Miroslava Mudrak paid tribute to Burliuk as a “Radio-modernist”. She writes: “Burliuk’s Radio-style evolved in the late 1920s as an artistic philosophy informed by Aristotelian ‘entelechy’ (the Greek word for a state of completion or perfection, the attaining of a body’s or object’s final aim) — the sensory actualization of form through the creative agency of art.” In order to make the term clearer Mudrak uses the Russian word “faktura” to describe it: “First articulated in 1912, ‘faktura’ is revealed through a raw, tactile display of impastoed threads of pigment sometimes mixed with clods of soil, or ‘lined’ with plaster-like icons and frescos. It describes subliminal perceptions of primordial bio-geological rhythms in nature, recorded with the radiant enthusiasm of quasi-ritualistic process of rudimentary essences on a painting surface. Burliuk’s ‘faktura’ brings us face to face with brute modernism as if touching the ‘coat of some fabulous wild beast’... Shaped by the principles of ‘faktura’, the concept of Radio-style can thus be described as an abstract painting of coloured space inspired by the invasion of mechanics offering a composite layering of organic forms that have morphed into mechano-morphic entities. Radio-style is about past and future, the petrographic and cosmological in one fell swoop — an embodiment of Burliuk’s metaphysical self in the active present.” The Radio-style is represented at the exhibition by several works (“Harlem River”, 1924; “Advent of Mechanical Man”, 1925; “Ferry Across the Hudson”, 1925).

In the 1930s Burliuk turned to realism “flavoured” with a mysterious fairytale like mood. He painted New York streets, gloomy urban scenes with gnomelike figures, poor inhabitants of lower Manhattan (“Foot of the 10th Ave. New York”, 1946). Regarding this part of Burliuk’s legacy Dr. Mudrak concludes: “Burliuk’s immigrant perspective on the working class of the 1930s and 1940s ... offers a unique, and still largely unstudied, contribution to American Social Realism.” In 1941 Burliuk moved to Hampton Bays, Long Island, where he was the main player in the Hampton Bays Art Group — an artistic colony, which united the Soyer brothers, Rafael (who painted a portrait of Burliuk and his wife in 1943) and Moses, Milton Avery, and Arshile Gorky.

During World War II he made what some have called “his Guernica” — a large canvas “Children of Stalingrad” (1944), depicting the tragic life of the orphans of the heroic city... Curious children’s eyes seem to study the viewer trying to find an answer to the vital question: “To live or not to live?” Naturally this (though rather naive) painting dominates the exhibition as a screaming bright emotional splash on the wall. This work is not the only testimony of the artist’s “political” art. His “Lenin and Tolstoy” (1925-1930) — an attempt to depict two real symbols of Russia — the Past embodied in the image of Tolstoy and the Future embodied in Lenin, ploughing up the soil of future impressive success of Soviet Russia — became a paraphrase of Ilya Repin’s “The Ploughman Tolstoy in the Fields”.

The exhibition opens with the most popular of Burliuk’s work, “Cossack Mamai” (1908) — his fauvist tribute to Ukrainian folklore and festivity of life. This painting alongside a dozen other early paintings evidence his absolute artistic emancipation to mix Fauvist, Cubist and Futurist tendencies (like “Bricklayer”, 1912; “Man with Two Faces”, 1912; “Neomorphism”, 1918; “Primavera”, 1913). Somehow in the 1940s and 1950s Burliuk again turned to Ukranian folk naive realism, recollecting his joyful childhood impressions in his colourful steppe landscapes, Ukrainian girls and genre scenes (“Two Ukrainian Girls”, 1948; “Uncle and His Niece”, 1950s).

In 1949-1950 the Burliuks made an eight-month trip to Europe and — as the curator of the exhibition Dr. Miroslav Shkandrij marks in his opening article to the catalogue — from then on they visited Europe almost every other year; they became great travelers who in 1962 made a trip around the world (a propos, Burliuk was 80 at that time). The first trip gave vent to Burliuk’s life-long admiration of Van Gogh and inspired him to a series of works dedicated to the great Dutch artist (“Cafe de Nuit”, 1949). When in 1956 and then in 1965 he came to the Soviet Union Burliuk visited Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov and the Crimea — in the collection of Mary Clare Burliuk there is his painting “Crimea” dated 1956. He was welcomed in the USSR but was not honoured either by an exhibition or a publication.

Special attention is given to the last decade of the artistic activity of this master with his really unique “power of dynamic creation”. The still-lifes of the 1950s and 1960s show the artist’s ability to enjoy life in its flourishing glory (“Flowers with Angels”, c. 1950s). When by the end of his life the aging artist experienced some difficulty and inconvenience working at the easel he switched to miniatures painted on wood. This part of the exhibition is of an absolutely peculiar interest — set in glass cases these paintings vary from purely realistic (“Girl with Red Lips”, undated; “Man with Teapot”, 1964), to the avant-garde (“Rainy Day Man”, undated) or naive.

One cannot but agree with Dr. Skandrij who remarks: “Throughout a long career the artist often changed his style, but his irrepressible inner vitality sustained him and left its marks on all his works.”

In conclusion, the major part of this retrospective exhibition showcases Burliuk’s heritage from the American half of his life and thus is of special interest for those viewers (both connoisseurs and professionals) from elsewhere, but particularly from Russia, who happened to be in New York between November 2008 and March 2009. But most special about it is the fact of Burliuk being part of Russian/Ukrainian/American, in other words international art history of the 20th century. The influence of his creative outrageous personality on the generations that followed cannot be overestimated. As Vladimir Mayakovsky perceptively put it back in 1914, Burliuk was “the best artist among poets, and the best poet among artists” — and arguably his unique and inimitable temperament and persuasively self-confident personality may have sometimes prevailed over the purely artistic results of his gushing creativity.

The Editorial Board of the Tretyakov Gallery magazine express their gratitude to the Ukrainian Museum, New York for the images used in the publication.

All works are in the collection of Mary Clare Burliuk.





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