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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Geneviève Cloutier

Painting as Experience in Pavel Filonov's Philosophy of Analytical Art

In his memoirs on Russian futurism, the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh relates this anecdote about a series of visits he purportedly made to Pavel Filonov at the time when the painter still moved in avant-garde circles:

I remember in the summer of 1914, I once dropped on his “cottage” a large attic. . . . A large canvas stood on the easel – an almost finished picture, “The Carpenter’s Family”[1]. . . . The thing that most took my interest was a large over-life-size cockerel in the foreground, glowing with all the colours of a greenish rainbow.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Calling in the following day, and glancing at the painting, I was staggered: the iridescent-green cock had vanished, in its place an entirely blue one, just as colourful, triumphant and painted to the last feather.

I dropped in some three days later – the cock was a monotonous coppery red. It was dimmer by now, grubbier.

I was stupefied.

“What are you doing?” I asked Filonov. “The first cock would have been the pride and joy of any other painter, Somov, for instance! Why have you ruined the two roosters? You could have painted them each time on a different piece of canvas. Then you’d have preserved some marvellous work of art!”

Filonov answered tersely, after a pause:

“Yes... every picture I paint is a cemetery, the last resting place of many pictures. And I don’t have enough canvas...”[2]

This anecdote is noteworthy because it tells us a great deal about Filonov’s approach to art: an approach that puts special emphasis on pictorial practice – on the creative moment – while relegating the finished product – the “painting-as-object” – to a position of secondary importance. In this paper, I propose to examine this particular aspect of Filonov’s conception of art (namely, his focus on the extra-aesthetical dimension of painting) by relying on the theoretical texts in which the painter developed his artistic system – a system that he called analytical art. Special attention will be paid to how his manner of envisaging art participates in what is probably the most ambitious project of the Russian avant-garde: defeating time and overcoming death by means of creative activity.

The first difficulty that any reader meets when first approaching Filonov’s theoretical texts – apart from his particularly convoluted style – is understanding the meaning of his many enigmatic keywords, whose definitions tend to change from text to text. Some examples include: “sdelannost” and “sdelannye kartiny,” (which are usually translated in English as “madeness” and “made paintings”) “analytical art,” “formula,” and “mirovoi rastsvet” (“universal flowering”). Among them, the concept of madeness is probably the most frequently encountered, and is the one that best matches Kruchenykh’s anecdote. Filonov uses it in various contexts. For instance, “Long live creativity as madeness, i.e. as scientifically organized and highly committed, conscious labor,”[3] or “The art of painting is madeness – which denotes understanding the content, implementing it by form and reducing this form to its utmost degree of significance, clarity and force of inner intensity.”[4] What apparently lies at the core of the concept of sdelannost is the idea of persistent work, of work considered as a process – that is to say, something which takes place in duration instead of being merely goal-oriented. “The sum total of the painting is the sum total of the time spent working on it,”[5] said Filonov, who could himself spend years working on a painting and, as we will see below, spoke of the work of art as a record of the various processes that take place within the artist during the time of its creation. His words echo those of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who wrote in Creative Evolution:

But, to the artist who creates a picture by drawing it from the depths of his soul, time is no longer an accessory; it is not an interval that may be lengthened or shortened without the content being altered. The duration of his work is part and parcel of his work. To contract or to dilate it would be to modify both the psychical evolution that fills it and the invention which is its goal. The time taken up by the invention is one with the invention itself. It is the progress of a thought which is changing in the degree and measure that it is taking form. It is a vital process, something like the ripening of an idea.[6]

The type of “work” involved in the concept of sdelannost is, first and foremost, intellectual work: study and reflection. Carelessness is not allowed in the practice of an artist who deserves to be named a “master” of analytical art, as Filonov called his disciples; each and every brush stroke must be carefully thought out. “To paint is to study. Study literally everything that is in the external world, everything in your internal world (for you yourself are a piece of nature) and in the internal world of anybody,”[7] wrote the painter. This does not mean, however, that analytical art is not also physically demanding – not so much because painting is in part manual work but because it is something to which the artist must devote his entire life to the point of neglecting his own body and needs. Filonov seemed to take particular pride in the fact that he painted day and night, with his “back turned to the window for 25 years,[8] sleeping only a few hours a night and feeding on nothing but tea and black bread. He tried to impose this strict life hygiene on his students, whom he asked to paint at least eight uninterrupted hours a day, in addition to attending lectures and reading as many books on as many subjects as possible. On such points, analytical art evokes some monastic principles. In fact, one could say that the concept of sdelannost transforms painting into a way of life.

The fusion of life and artistic practice advocated by Filonov has various implications. One of them is that the painter categorically rejects the concepts of “sketches” or “studies” in his teaching, as if the very notions of “trial” or “first attempt” are incompatible with the practice of art: “The pupil works as student master and works only on the made object, developing it to the utmost degree of accomplishment and perfection insofar as he is able. . . . Studies, sketches and rough drafts are completely rejected as being a futile waste of time and work.”[9] If the sum total of a painting is the sum total of the time spent working on it, then every single gesture counts and no part of the painter’s work should remain in the shadow of the completed painting. In fact, everything that is created, everything that is done in any field of human activity is always, in some sense, a permanent addition to the world and as such should be taken seriously. Thus, the goal of the artist should not be to make paintings that are as perfect as possible, but to paint as perfectly as possible – an imperative that is laconically expressed in a note from Filonov’s journal where the painter blames a student for painting “nice things” but with a “poor working method.”[10]

Filonov’s relative indifference to the aesthetic dimension of the work of art as compared to the working method that lies behind it derives in part from his order of priorities when it comes to artistic creation, but also relates to another principle of analytical art: the idea that anyone can become a painter if he or she adheres to its set of rules. The fact that the practice of art should be made accessible to all is a crucial element in Filonov’s philosophy, given that its sustaining conviction is that art has an active role to play in forming individuals and building society – a task that is far too important to be reserved only for those endowed with such rare gifts as “talent” and “inspiration.” All that the practice of analytical art requires, in theory, is the ability to work hard, and this is something that is within most people’s capacities. As Filonov states rather straightforwardly in a text known in English as “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art:” “We can make anyone a first-class master-researcher-depictor. For that you don’t need ‘training,’ ‘genius’ or ‘talent’ as the bombastic ignoramuses and cheats of izo ideology maintain you do. All you need is maximum analytical tension and the utmost persistence in your work.”[11]

But what exactly is the role of art in forming individuals and building society? Where does its power lie? One can find the beginning of an answer to that question in another definition of sdelannost that Filonov proposes: “Creativity, i.e. madeness, whatever is depicted in the painting, is, above all, the reflection and record (via material) of a struggle – a struggle for the development of a higher intellectual plane in man, for the existence and [effect] of this higher psychological art on the viewer, i.e. it makes the viewer higher, summons him to be so.”[12] Filonov’s discourse here takes on Darwinian as well as Bergsonian accents, and it is not an isolated case. In fact, Filonov’s whole philosophy of analytical art can be considered to be centred on a very liberal interpretation of the theory of evolution, called active evolution, that was popular among Russian artists in the beginning of the 20th century, and especially among those who adhered to the loose set of ideas known as “Russian cosmism.”[13] At the core of the concept of “active evolution” lies the idea that human beings should make use of all the resources of art and technology to transcend the biological limits of the human condition. For the avant-garde painter and musician Mikhail Matiushin, who enthusiastically adhered to these ideas, it led to the development of expanded vision, a technique that was supposed to help stimulate centres of vision located in the rear lobes of the brain.[14] Filonov, for his part, entertained more “ethical” designs. In his work, in place of the idea of “expanded vision,” one finds what could be labelled a concept of “expanded consciousness,” or the idea that art must help individuals to extend their intellectual faculties and to become better persons in all respects. In “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” for instance, the painter talks about “the possibility of implementing [man’s] intellectual reorganization for the better,” and mentions “the possibility for his intellect to develop and act upon the high stages of evolution that are physiologically accessible to him.”[15] In another text he adds: “evolution can be forced on by intellect or by political revolution . . . Artistic effect should be based on the constant analytical forcing of the intellectual evolution.” [16] Here, the idea of active evolution is replaced by that of forced evolution.

One may wonder what art can really do to “force” a process that would normally take millions of years. And who, in the end, will be allowed to enjoy its effects? It is another fundamental principle of Filonov’s philosophy that art must benefit the viewers as much as the artists, at least as long as contemplation takes the form of a veritable work. For the artists, evolution will occur first and foremost due to the rigorous intellectual work involved in the practice of art. When they understand the mechanisms of the world and the complex arrangement of the forces that constitute life, they will be able to transform it and to transform their selves as well. The viewers to whom this knowledge will be transmitted, for their part, will be asked to pursue the reflection initiated by the artists and to make their own discoveries.

In summary, for Filonov, biological evolution derives essentially from knowledge. The more knowledge one gathers, the better he or she becomes. Accordingly, one is allowed to think that the progress made by a generation will be transmitted to the next, and so on until the human race has risen to a quasi-divine state. But more than the desire to become a better person and to be able to fully develop one’s potential, it is probably the more visceral desire to overcome death, to find a comforting alternative to religious explanations of the destinies of mankind that explains Filonov’s interest in the theories of evolution. “We believe that the one who possesses the idea of evolution also possesses eternal life,”[17] writes the artist. In so saying, he reminds us of the most prominent Russian “cosmist,” the philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, who developed in his two-volume essay The Philosophy of the Common Task (Filosofiia obshchego dela) an ambitious program that revolved around the idea of definitely eradicating death, which he considered the greatest of all evils. Fedorov’s project, as eccentric as it may be, reaches something fundamental in Russian avant-garde, which was obsessed with questions of time and death. This obsession is reflected in Filonov’s pseudo-evolutionist beliefs and in some of his favourite concepts and keywords, such as “eternal spring.”[18] It is also emblematized in Velimir Khlebnikov’s Tables of Destiny (Doski sud’by), in which the poet’s quest for the “laws of time” is motivated by a desire to understand the deeper causes of war (and death), and by a hope that it will eventually be possible to defeat them. Other instances of the theme of victory over time and/or death in Russian avant-garde art and theory can be found in the poems of Elena Guro, Vladimir Maiakovskii and Nikolai Zabolotskii,[19] among other writers, as well as in the architectural projects of Konstantin Mel’nikov.[20]

As one digs deeper into Filonov’s philosophy of analytical art, it becomes even clearer that, for him, the visual aspect has only a secondary role to play. “Any work of art, whatever it may depict, is, first and foremost, the recording of the intellect of the master making it,”[21] says the artist. The very idea of sdelannost, which equates the painting to the trace of an experience, recalls Rosalind Krauss’ definition of the index: “the type of sign which arises as the physical manifestation of a cause, of which traces, imprints, and clues are examples.”[22] The work of art that is considered a trace, unlike the traditional image, does not represent something. Instead, it points to something: the concrete time that the artist spent working on it, the development of his ideas, and his personal evolution during that period. It can be abstract or figurative – it doesn’t matter. On such points, one could probably connect Filonov’s philosophy of art with that of Jackson Pollock, whose fear of finding himself making “mere abstraction, abstraction uninformed by a subject, contentless abstraction for which the term – wholly pejorative . . . – is decoration” is reported by Krauss in another article.[23] “Experience of our age in terms of painting – not an illustration of – (but the equivalent),” wrote the American painter in an undated note preceded by a typically filonovian imperative: “No Sketches.”[24] In the end, this radical refusal of aestheticism might very well be the most avant-gardist feature of Filonov’s work and philosophy of art. Indeed, now that the “shock” effect of works that were once scandalous has long faded, and now that recuperation has brought into question the very possibility of the avant-garde, it seems increasingly obvious that it is only by seeking beyond the aesthetical dimension that one can hope to find, still active, the subversive aspect of avant-garde art. Here it is important to stress that the choice between aestheticism and its refusal does not belong only to the artists; it also belongs to the viewers every time they look at a painting or a sculpture. This is basically what Krzysztof Ziarek explains in his book The Force of Art, which includes some interesting remarks on the concept of the avant-garde. Proposing a definition of the work of art as “a force field, a region where social forces and the historical moment inscribed in art through the process of its creation become reoriented and transformed, given a new momentum, as it were, beyond what appears possible within the historical parameters of the existing society,”[25] Ziarek writes: “. . . the claim that avant-garde works have lost their historically radical nature is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of or lack of attention to their forcework. It only confirms the restrictive enclosure of the artwork within aesthetic categories – precisely the very procedure that the avant-garde so forcefully called into question.”[26] It is undoubtedly with such a “post-aesthetical” and “nonobjectified” conception of the artwork[27] that one must approach Filonov’s paintings. Perhaps one can even find the beginning of an explanation to the painter’s gradual and voluntary estrangement from his fellow “leftist” colleagues in the years that followed the Revolution in the fact that he felt they were incapable of really bringing art beyond the realm of aestheticism and that, in their obsession with the idea of progress, they continued to produce works of art that were subject to the assaults of time. What Filonov wanted to create were works of art that cannot be severed from life: works that stand in some “permanent present” and thus avoid the destructive effects of time. Because of this project, he is probably the painter who went the furthest in the Russian avant-garde’s quest for immortality.

[1] Kruchenykh here is obviously referring to the 1914 painting Peasant Family (Krest’ianskaia sem’ia), known before the revolution as The Holy Family (Sviatoe semeistvo).

[2] A. Kruchenykh, “Pavel Filonov,” in Our Arrival: From the History of Russian Futurism, A. Myers, transl., Moscow, RA, 1995, p. 71.

[3] P. Filonov, “I Shall Speak,” in Pavel Filonov: A Hero and His Fate. Collected Writings on Art and Revolution, 1914-1940, J. E. Bowlt and N. Misler, eds. and transl., Austin, Silvergirl, 1983, p. 226.

[4] P. Filonov, “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” in A Hero and His Fate, p. 146.

[5] “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” p. 149.

[6] H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, A. Mitchell, transl., New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1911, p. 340.

[7] “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” p. 150.

[8] T. N. Glebova, “Vospominaniia o Pavle Nikolaeviche Filonove,” in Khudozhnik, issledovatel’, uchitel, J. Bowlt, N. Misler and A. Sarab’ianov, eds., Moskva, Agey Tomesh, 2006 [http://www.filonov.su/pdf/filonov_book.doc], p. 326.

[9] P. Filonov, “Lecture at a Conference in the Department of Painting at the Academy of Arts,” in A Hero and His Fate, p. 204.

[10] P. Filonov, Dnevniki, Sankt-Peterburg, Azbuka, 2000, p. 427.

[11] “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” p. 152. Note that izo is the abbreviation that Filonov uses throughout his texts for izobrazitel’nye iskusstva (visual arts).

[12] “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” p. 145.

[13] On Russian cosmism, a philosophy according to which human beings should do everything possible to rise above their biological condition and transcend their limitations in space and time, see: S. G. Semenova, “Russkii Kosmizm,” in Russkii kosmizm: Antologiia filosofskoi mysli, S. G. Semenova and A. G. Gacheva, eds., Moskva, Pedagogika-Press, 1993, p. 3-33.

[14] On Matiushin’s technique of expanded vision, see: B. Ender, “For an Exhibition of Works of the Department of Organic Culture at GINKhUK, 1924”, in Organica: Organic, the Non-Objective World of Nature in the Russian Avant-Garde of the 20th Century, October 23, 1999 January 28, 2000, curated by Alla V. Povelikhina, Köln, Galerie Gmurzynska, 1999, p. 61.

[15] “The Basic Tenets of Analytical Art,” p. 148.

[16] “I Shall Speak,” p. 234.

[17] P. Filonov, “Kanon i zakon,” in Khudozhnik, issledovatel’, uchitel, p. 47. My translation.

[18] According to Evgenii Kovtun, Formula of Eternal Spring was the original title of the 1927-28 painting that came to be known as Formula of Spring. See: E. Kovtun, “P. N. Filonov i ego dnevnik,” in P. Filonov, Dnevniki, p. 42.

[19] See for example Guro’s short poems from Sharmanka, Maiakovskii’s poem “Pro eto” and Zabolotskii’s poetic cycle “Stolbtsy.” On the theme of death abolition in twentieth-century Russian literature, see: Irene Masing-Delic, Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1992. In this book, Masing-Delic devotes a whole chapter to the work of Zabolotskii. However, she pays relatively little attention to the rest of the avant-garde.

[20] On Mel’nikov’s “architecture against death,” see the chapter “Architecture Against Death: The System of Melnikov’s Art,” in S. F. Starr, Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 240-258.

[21] P. Filonov, “The Concept of the Inner Significance of Art as an Active Force,” in A Hero and His Fate, p. 156.

[22] R. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1985, p. 211.

[23] The Originality of the Avant-Garde, p. 237.

[24] The Originality of the Avant-Garde, p. 229.

[25] K. Ziarek, The Force of Art, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 19.

[26] The Force of Art, p. 120.

[27] The Force of Art, p. 8.