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Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov was born on January 8, 1883 in Moscow, the
sixth child of a cabman. His father died in 1887, and his mother became
a laundress to support her large family. The children worked too, even
Pavel, the youngest, helped his sisters to embroider towels and sell them
in the marketplace.
At the age of 6 Pavel began to dance in the corps de ballet in small Moscow theatres to earn a living. In 1896, his mother died. By this time Pavel’s elder sister, Alexandra, was married to a well-to-do engineer. Her husband took all his in-laws to St. Petersburg and gave them all a decent education.
Pavel, who had shown interest in painting already at the age of 3-4 years old, began to study art and crafts at the School of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. As his main trade, he studied house decoration, to become an ornament and stucco molding painter, while also attending evening drawing classes. In 1901, Filonov graduated from the school with the diploma of master-painter and worked at different jobs, from wall coloring to the restoration of plafonds in the Hermitage. In 1903 Filonov tried to enter the Academy of Arts but failed at the entrance examinations. He entered the private studio of the academician L. Dmitriev-Kavkazsky, and studied there for 5 years. During that period Filonov attempted to enroll at the Academy three times, but never succeeded. In the summers he traveled to the Volga, the Caucasus and Jerusalem, and made many drawings and paintings from nature. In 1908 Filonov was admitted at last to the Academy of Arts. His works attracted the attention of both students and professors by their unusualness: they were not abstract and depicted their subject with full likeness, but were executed in garish, bright colors - reds, blues, greens and oranges. This manner did not conform to the Academy standards, and Filonov was dismissed “for influencing students with the lewdness of his work”. Filonov protested the decision of the rector Beklemishev, and was rehabilitated, but after studying for two years he left the Academy in 1910.
The first works that foreshadow his analytical method appeared in 1910: a watercolor Peasant Family, and oil painting Heads. In this painting, differently scaled images are combined on canvas, growing from each other and intervening to form a flowing phantasmagorical unity. In the 1910s, Filonov’s work was centered around St. Petersburg societies the Union of Youth and the Union of Artists (1910 -1913), in the founding of which he took an active part. To this period belong his famous works West and East, East and West, Men and Woman (all 1912-13) and The Feast of Kings (1913). These paintings combine elements of symbolism, neo-primitivism and expressionism. In 1912 Filonov traveled for 6 months in Austria, Italy and France. He travelled most of the way on foot, paying for food and housing with his watercolors and drawings, sometimes sleeping in barns or in the open air.
Filonov was inclined to a theoretical and rational explanation of his art. In 1912 he published the article Kanon i Zakon (The Canon and the Law), where he explained the principles of “analytical art” for the first time. Filonov’s talent as a public speaker and his deep knowledge of the art history of different cultures helped him spread his theory; his lectures were very popular and attracted many people.
In 1913 Filonov, together with the artist, I. Shkolnik, designed the
décor for the tragedy “Vladimir Mayakovsky”, staged at the
Luna Park Theatre, St.Petersburg,
In 1913 Filonov initiated the founding of a new artistic group which united artists who followed the principles of analytical art. In 1914 Filonov published a manifesto of analytical painting, Sdelannye Kartiny (The Made Paintings). Among the best works of the period are The Dairy Women, Three People at the Table, Flowers of the Universal Flowering, The Workers, etc. The meanings of Filonov’s works remain a mystery for the spectators because they were ingeniously encrypted. In his works, man-made things and natural things, people and animals, exchange appearance and meaning with one another, intermingling, flowing into another and becoming something wholly different. The essence of his method was to break up the visible world into individual elements and then to synthesize from them complex images full of hidden symbolic meaning. In his works he created an enciphered, mystical picture of the world, striving to extend the possibilities of representational art and make the invisible visible.
In 1916 Filonov was enlisted in the army and fought in the war. He returned to St. Petersburg (which was renamed Petrograd during WWI) after the October revolution in 1917. Like other leaders of the Russian Avant-Garde, Filonov hoped that the revolutionary changes in society would help him in spreading his ideas. Besides painting, Filonov taught at the SvoMas (Free Workshops) in 1918-1920, headed the ideological department of the Petrograd Academy (1923) and founded the group MAI (Masters of Analytical Art) in 1925. It was a society of Filonov’s pupils and followers. Under his leadership, they executed stage design for The Auditor (Revizor) by N.Gogol (producer I. Terentyev, the Press House, Leningrad, 1927), and the agit stsena ("promotion scene, a short play meant to promote political ideas) Korol Gaikin l (King Screw l), in the Club of the Vassiliev Metallurgists (Leningrad, 1929). During this period, Filonov created dozens of works, including the Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, (1920-21), Living Head (1923), Animals (1925-26), Formula of Spring (1928-29), The Narva Gates (1929).
By the end of the 1920s, the Soviet government had reinforced itself enough that it could being interfering and dictating its will in all spheres of life. In literature and art, it advanced the movement of so-called social realism. Filonov’s art did not correspond to its principles and he was virtually isolated and left without means. The painter lived and worked in poverty and hunger, but remained faithful to his principles both in his art and in his work with his pupils. In 1931-1933 Filonov's group worked on illustrations for Kalevala (a Karelian-Finnish epic) for the publishing house “Academia”. The painter refused to sell his works, hoping to create a museum of analytical art.
Filonov died of hunger during the siege of Leningrad on December 3rd 1941. His works were saved by his sister Evdokia Glebova and later she gave his paintings and graphic works to the Russian State Museum, which is where nearly all of them can now be found.
His first personal exhibition took place only in 1988, more than 50 years after his death.
Filonov: by Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov. Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.
Pavel Filonov: A Hero and His Fate : Collected Writings on Art and Revolution, 1914-1940 by Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov. Silvergirl Books, 1984.
Pawel Filonow und seine Schule. DuMont, 1990.
The Art and Architecture of Russia (Pelican History Art) by George Heard Hamilton. Yale Univ Pr, 1992.
A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists 1420-1970 by John Milner. Antique Collectors' Club, 1993.