In Part One, I talked about the range of options that artists faced after the revolution of 1917, and now I will continue with the artists who decided to emigrate and keep doing art they felt like doing, not the art that the Soviet authorities wanted them to do. This part is about David Burlyuk, a futurist who was a true visionary, albeit not as recognised as Kandinsky or Malevich.
Stay true to art, emigrate
David Burlyuk (35 in 1917)
By 1917, David Burlyuk had become a popular if scandalous painter, poet, critic, educator, performer, and the self-proclaimed “father of futurism” in Russia. His futurist manifesto came out in 1912, three years after Marinetti’s. While both declared dynamism and machinery the new idols, they diverged on tactics: Marinetti vowed to wage war on the art of the past, and Burlyuk, in a typically Russian way, just flipped his finger at it.
In 1915, ahead of his time by a hundred years, he shocked the public by his live performance of his poem “I love a pregnant man”. His fashion ideas would put to shame Elsa Schiaparelli’s humour or Vivienne Westwood’s punk statements. He was the first to start tearing trousers in the way jeans are washed and holed today.
Whenever I look at Burlyuk’s paintings, I see a scavenger, creatively inventive and hungry, constructing an apparatus of unclear but far-reaching purpose out of creative innovations he finds strewn around himself. Most artists stick to a certain style, at least for a few years, before they develop their chosen style or move on to a new one. Burlyuk could work in a multitude of styles, all at the same time. Look at this gallery of paintings he made in just one year, 1910. Impressionism, expressionism, cubism, futurism, abstractionism don’t just sit next to each other, they cross-fertilise. He practised in painting what he preached in his poetry, “anything we come across can become nutrition source”.
Given Burlyuk’s finger-flipping tendencies, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that the revolution was an instant inspiration for him. In 1917, he was staying with his family at his wive’s estate 1500 km to the east of Moscow, doing futuristic paintings and supplying hay to the Russian army. He left his family in the safety of the village and rushed to Moscow to be a part of the future that he envisioned. In Moscow, he befriended a group of anarchists, and moved in with them to the fittingly named “Anarchy House”.
Burlyuk’s vision of the revolution, its fight against the powerful past with everything the new society could scramble together, is in this work that makes use of carton, metal, oil, and whatnot. Burlyuk despised the art of the past but loved the innocence of Lubok, Russian primitivist folk art, and crafted a curious mixture of Lubok-styled figures, abstract geometry, and found objects. Two years after Burlyuk, El Lisitsky created his now world-famous abstractionist poster based on similar compositional ideas. The graphics in it speaks the language of war and victory even without help from the slogan “With the Red Wedge Beat the Whites”, the Whites here standing for the White counter-revolutionary army.
At first, the revolution seemed everything a futurist artist could dream of: tectonic changes in society, the claim of a just distribution of wealth, the toppling of royal sculptures, the need for new art forms, capable of enlightening and motivating the working class, and, of course, the fight with the past. Museums had become soulless warehouses storing useless artefacts. The Russian Avant-garde was flexing its revolutionary muscle.
It was in the winter of 1918 when Burlyuk went ahead – or rather up – with a radical performance. Less than a year before that, Duchamp brought a urinal into an exhibition to install a non-art object into an art space and revolutionised the definition of art. Burlyuk did the opposite to Duchamp’s. Balancing on a fire-escape ladder, he nailed his paintings, taken from the art-space of the artist studio, to the wall of a building in the centre of Moscow. He deprived art of the value that recognised art-spaces mystically provide to objects, perhaps, hoping to see if the public would become the value-adding agent. The public tore the paintings down on the same day. It took almost a hundred years for Banksy to succeed with basically the same endeavour.
The Anarchy House was a great place to be at a great time until it suddenly wasn’t. For a few months after the revolution, Bolsheviks toyed with opposition until they decided that enough was enough. They rounded up anarchists put them against the wall. It was a miracle that Burlyuk escaped the firing squad. The romantic vision of the future shattered, he fled back to his family.
In a few months after his return, the region was taken by the forces of the anti-communist government of Admiral Kolchak that controlled Siberia and the Far Eastern parts of Russia. Burlyuk got cut off from the revolution, but not from art. Unrelenting artist and promoter, he took his family on a trip across Siberia, organising lectures, poetry evenings, exhibitions of local artists, and sales of their paintings at each stop-over. He set out with ten paintings, and by the time he got to Vladivostok, he had close to 300. With Vladivostok about to be “liberated” by the Bolsheviks and art world in hibernation, Burlyuk sailed over to Japan. He arrived on October 1st, 1920, and opened an exhibition of Russian artists in Tokyo on October, 14th. I cannot but wonder at his organisational talent.
While David Burlyuk enjoyed the glamour and success of Tokyo’s exhibition that draw attention and appreciation of the Imperial court, his younger brother Nikolay, also a former member of the Futurist group and a promising writer was drafted in the army of the Ukrainian anti-Bolshevik government. Unlike David, safe from conscription because he’d lost his left eye when he was a kid, Nikolay had been drafted by each and every fast-changing regime during the hectic revolutionary days. In the end, on December 27th, 1920, he was executed by the Bolsheviks.
Having spent two very productive years in Japan, David Burlyuk took his family to New York. He set up a publishing house, an art gallery, and continued his artistic career – all the while working for a newspaper that was supportive of the Soviet Union. He didn’t like mentioning Nikolay in his correspondence with friends, fearing repercussions for the rest of his family that stayed in Russia.
He had 30 personal exhibitions as a painter between 1930 and 1960 and was allowed to visit the USSR twice, in 1956 and 1965. Quite well-off, but never famous, he died 1967 largely unknown to Russians, and mostly misunderstood by Americans – a lot of his art was based on Russian folk art style, something hard-to-get for a non-Russian. He claimed to be “the best poet among painters and the best painter among poets”, but truth be told he’d never reached the heights of his youth, although he had a profound influence on Russian conceptual artists and non-conformists in the 1960s and 70s.
In the next chapter, I would cover two more emigres and move on to the artists who stayed in Russia, survived the purges, but had to adapt – in one way or the other – to the realities of the Soviet propaganda and censorship. Stay tuned!