DAVID BURLIUK: PORTRAIT OF AN AVANT-GARDE ARTIST

На пляжі, 1921

ВАЛЕРІЙ ШАПОВАЛОВ 22 КВІТНЯ 2019

This essay was a finalist for the VII Art History Contest held by Stedley Art Foundation.  

I first heard this strange name while reading an article about Mayakovsky in school. It referred to the young poet by a term unfamiliar to me at the time – “futurist”. Among this cohort, the name Burliuk immediately caught my attention. His name alone was interesting enough. I found several of his poems and immediately learned one by heart. But could I at that age have comprehended his greatness? Somehow I subconsciously felt the inner strength of the word “Burliuk” and the primitive and irresistible that lived within.      

Three years later I would make my first visit to the National Art Museum. It’s naïve to write that some force immediately led me to the 20th century Ukrainian avant-garde hall on the second floor, but that’s exactly what happened. That was my second encounter with David Burliuk, and this time it was decisive. The first thing I noticed was the spectacular colors that cascaded from the canvas with freshness and beauty. A timeless cosmic event unfolded on the painting. In the center was a toy horse with a spiral – an ancient symbol of cosmic movement. Other spirals and galaxies flutter in the sky. A figure gazes from behind the building on the left. Maybe it’s the artist. Next to him is a bucket of paints. He looks in wonderment at the horse and the spiral, and around his head is something like a nimbus. Watching all this is a calm, black creature, similar to a horse, with a pair of big white eyes. The puzzled artist, the toy horse in the center and the mysterious black observer. The movement of the spiral transforms the canvas into a cosmic carousel. The ordinary world of the painting has been broken, the paints have become free and now speak unobstructed with the spectator.    

David Burliuk is rightly considered one of the main figures of the Ukrainian avant-garde. His name is most often associated with this period of art history. Burliuk is widely known as “the father of Russian futurism, teacher of Mayakovsky, author of scandalous manifestos”. But all these titles apply to just a period of ten years. In Ukrainian Wikipedia, 47 years of the artist’s life are squeezed into one short sentence: “First he emigrated to Japan and then to the USA.” But Burliuk’s biography is unique: the revolution in art that he and his group created in the Russian empire, the furor in Japan, where Burliuk became a pioneer of new art, and then the artist’s near 50-year struggle for recognition and relentless search for himself in America. The artist changed throughout his life, but he never betrayed who he was.  

David Burliuk was born in Semyrotivka, near Kharkiv, in 1882. There were six children in his family. Two of them, Volodymyr and Liudmyla, also became artists, and his brother Mykola became a poet. The part of his memoirs where David describes his childhood can be reduced to a simple truth: he draws all the time. He draws, draws, and draws some more. By second grade the other children are calling him “artist”, and the local art teacher writes to his mother about the boy’s talent and “spark from God”. The young boy’s future was foreseen even back then. 

The first big museum that 15-year-old David visits is the Tretyakov Gallery, and as he later writes, the next seven years he is influenced by the realists: Repin, Shishkin, Serov, Kuindzhi. The artist is already leading the war in the name of new art before he even turns 30, and his former idols become his enemies. Repin says about an exhibition of Burliuk’s paintings: “These followers of Cezanne are ruining paintings with their donkey’s tails!”. But time would put everything in its place.  

In 1902, 20-year-old Burliuk studies in Odesa. During the three-month summer holiday he makes more than 350 sketches! For David, spending 20 hours a day drawing was normal. A shocked teacher told him: “This isn’t art, it’s factory production!”. But Burliuk ignored his teacher’s admonishment and work diligently all his life: the artist created several thousand works over his lifetime!

A year later, David and his brother Volodymyr went to study in Munich. The Burliuk family soon made their presence known. The brothers deliberately walked around the city center in clothing that was exotic for the Germans: felt boots, sheepskin coats and fur hats. David’s baroque behavior can be explained by one other biographical note – the Burliuk veins flowed with blood of the restless Zaporizhian Cossacks. According to the artist, his ancestors were scribes of the Zaporizhian army, and he always gave special importance to his genealogy. Sensing David’s unrestrained energy, a teacher at the Munich Art School would aptly call him a “wild horse from Russia’s black earth”. 

When 25-year-old Burliuk arrives in Moscow in 1907 his creativity takes off unrestrained: he has exhibits, participates in poetry evenings, and most importantly, becomes friends with young Larionov, Goncharov, Ekster and Lentulov – artists whose names today are associated with the revolution in art. The critics couldn’t understand their first artistic experiments: most newspapers perceived their exhibits as a failed joke. At best, conservative reviewers accused the artists of grotesquely imitating French pointillists Signac and Seurat, whose influence is visible in the early experiments by these young artists.    

But it would be primitivism and folk art that would play a key role in Burliuk’s artistic development. His family moved to Chorniak village in the steppes of the Kherson region at the height of the archaeological excavations there. The brothers became active in local expeditions and their collections filled with unique antiques. But the ethnographic value was of little interest to the brothers, who were more engrossed in their artistic content – drawings on numerous pieces of ceramics, and stone statues, with their archaic power. Other artists of the Russian Empire discover it for themselves at the same time. Artist Natalia Goncharova said: “Undoubtedly, the art of my country is much deeper than everything I know in the West!”. It was the irrational force of the archaic that fueled the local avant-garde to go far beyond the boundaries drawn by the great artists of the West. Naïve art had a huge influence on Burliuk – much of the brothers’ collection consisted of icons and rural paintings. The folk image of “Kozak Mamai” was one that the artist would return to throughout his life.   

The appearance of Picassos in the hands of Russian collectors Shchukin and Morozov was a great revelation for the young artists – their toolset had grown considerably. Moreover, the depth of Picasso’s work contained a primary source that was identical to the Burliuks’ Scythian finds – art by the people of Africa, who for a long time were the Spaniard’s inspiration. The poet Livshits wrote: “Cubism is good, but not entirely new. The Scythian stone babas are also cubism.” It was perhaps the first time that the artistic searches for self in the country or people are replaced by targeted searches for one’s influence on the whole universe.   

For contemporaries, Burliuk had no equal. His appearance was like a logical continuation of his surname: short but with a massive and somewhat clumsy body. David’s bombastic face resembled that of a fat lizard. He liked all women, without exception – the more voluptuous the better. And he considered his own thirst for creativity a sexual sign, instinctive self-reproduction in the future. The left glass eye that he had since childhood became David’s source of pride. To imagine yourself in his position, try to spend at least one day with one of your eyes covered: ordinary things will look suspicious, they will seem dangerous, the world around you will seem shifted – it’ll be like a futuristic painting! He wanted to be the first in everything, so he deliberately misdated his paintings, saying that way he could paint earlier than others.      

Burliuk was the first art manager of the Russian avant-garde. He was always organizing exhibits and performances, publishing collections of new literature, promoting young artists and poets, introducing the world to the genius of Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky. He relied on scandals, and art demanded this of him. With every manifesto the young Burliuk gave the retrograde public a slap in the face. Otherwise, the artists wouldn’t have been noticed. He was hated and adored at the same time.    

But it’s a big mistake to see Burliuk as just a futurist with a painted face. He was an artist, first and foremost. And credit should be given where credit is due: unlike most avant-garde artists of the time, who, having picked up the “formula” of a style, immediately rejected it and began from a blank sheet, David was very consistent – he could work perfectly in many orientations at once. Fauvism, expressionism, cubist forms, naïve and folk art coexisted with his realistic landscapes. The artist refused to recognize dogmatism in art, always putting the creator’s individuality first. For most of his colleagues, David’s polystylism seemed vulgar. When Burliuk asked to participate in the exhibition “0.10”, Malevich mockingly refused, writing: “This is an extreme exhibition, there will be no naturalist landscapes in it at all.”       

The front line of the revolution cuts off 35-year-old David and his family from Moscow. He ends up in the provinces, but even there they’d heard of the outrageous “father of Russian futurism”. His Siberian tour was a bit hit – he crossed the Russian Empire, leaving behind followers and first-rate paintings. That’s how Burliuk reaches the shores of the eastern sea. On the other side is Japan, where it’s rumored local collectors pay large sums for new art. Accompanied by his friend and talented artist, Viktor Palmov, optimistic Burliuk heads to Tokyo.    

He quickly arranges an exhibition and immediately there’s a fuss. For the first time the press explodes with positive reviews. Burliuk was received better than when Marinetti, the leader of the Italian futurists, came to Russia. David immediately felt this and calls his rival the “Italian Burliuk”. The artist would flourish even more, combining futurism with Japanese culture. But purely formal searches weren’t his main goal – as always, all the varied techniques and directions used by David were brought together in his extraordinary paintings.      

Meanwhile, rumors of the horrors of the civil war came from Russia. David starts thinking about going to America – there was no vivid modernist art there yet, and the success of his shows in Japan encourages the artist to travel to the great country. His goal – to become the first futurist in the history of the United States.  

Burliuk spends nearly all the money he made in Japan on tickets to New York and rent for a small apartment. His sons went to school wearing kimonos, not knowing a word of English. David found some support among the emigrant community, but for the new spectator, Burliuk’s futurism was foreign. In the early 1920s, American painting leaned towards cold metaphysical art inherent in the paintings of de Chirico. Burliuk requests to return home, but is denied. In the Soviet Union, the artist was considered a traitor and deserter.     

The lack of money and longing for his homeland left their mark. A lost Burliuk opposes the capitalist society and paints monumental canvases on social issues. He again tries to adapt futurism to American realities, but his “Radio Style” manifesto is ignored by the public. His main source of income then comes from working in the newspaper “Russian Voice”.  

But all these failures don’t make Burliuk a worse painter. The artist’s work changes under the influence of local traditions: now his impasto paintings depict the ordinary life of workers and provincial dwellers – no drama, just the quiet, organized life of ordinary Americans. And once again, the audience finds itself in his canvases!

Surrealism soon influences David – the pictorial and symbolic inherent since his youth appear side by side. As abstract expressionism blossomed in America, David immerses himself in Van Gogh, whose influence he carried since his youth. As his circle of admirers slowly grows, Burliuk’s work starts to sell. His family’s dream to buy a small house finally comes true. But there was never even a trace of commercialism in the artist’s work. In each of his paintings one can see with the naked eye the great joy Burliuk had in making it. 

Despite his age, David travels frequently, and his beloved Marusia is always by his side. They married while in the Russia Empire and overcame all odds together. Burliuk made so many portraits of his wife that any woman he painted looked like Marusia. 

David visited the USSR when he was 74, on the invitation of Lilia Bryk from the Union of Artists. But the artist wouldn’t find any mention of his name in the large exhibit at the Mayakovsky Museum. The names of the poet’s teacher and friends were censored after his death. The best canvases of his youth would lie buried deep in the museum storage. Burliuk offers to exchange them for his new work, but he is denied. David’s repeated offers to publish a collection of his work in the Soviet Union are also ignored. He actively reached out, sent his paintings to the Soviet Union, but nobody opened the door for him. Burliuk was in despair, he couldn’t understand why his name had been struck from the history of art that he himself had built.      

The fate of his friends, the “budetlians”, members of the famous Gileya group ended tragically. In 1938 Mayakovsky shot himself in the head and the genius Khlebnikov would die that same year. Kruchenykh lived in poverty, and Kamensky, who lay paralyzed for almost 20 years, was necessary to no one. It pained David to think about this, but he didn’t stop loving life any less. His paintings are the best evidence of this. Emigrating to America saved the artist and gave him a chance to create freely. And he did, persistently and with great talent. That’s why Americans recognized him, that’s why they bought his work. David’s life is a story with a happy ending. He was surrounded by opposition, but even among them the artist found solid ground, realized himself as an artist, and died a happy person at the age of 84. 

“Ukraine has its most faithful son in me”, he wrote in his memoirs. The artist’s work is scattered around the world, and a small part can be found in his homeland. But do we understand who David Burliuk is? He is still considered the symbol of an era that ended 100 years ago. But David Burliuk is much more: he was the artist with the nimbus from “Carousel”, the painting mentioned earlier. That was him! Burliuk is a phenomenon. All his life he believed in what he did, and because of this his art will always be avant-garde. Burliuk is Burliuk.    

 

The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).

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