Pavel Filonov

Pavel Filonov was a prominent Russian art theorist, painter, and poet. He began art lessons in St. Petersburg around fourteen years of age, but had shown interest in art since the young age of three years old. In 1908, at the age of twenty-five, he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. He had sought admittance since the year 1903, but had been denied four times due to failed entrance exams. His time at the Academy did not last long; after just two years he was expelled. His works were not necessarily considered abstract, but his use of color was considered too lewd, and he was accused of influencing fellow students in a negative way.

After leaving the Academy, he joined the Russian avant-garde art group, Soyuz Molodyozhi, and was a contributor to the group’s magazine. In addition to art exhibitions, the group also participated in theatrical productions, the most famous of which was the Russian futurist opera entitled “Victory over the Sun.”

Finding community and confidence in this society which was strong during the years of 1910 to 1914, as well as harboring frustrations towards the highly praised Cubism movement, Filonov published an essay entitled “The Canon and the Law” in 1912. The essay contains his convictions regarding Analytical Realism, also known as “Universal Flowering,” which refuted the stark surface geometry of Cubism. 

Rejecting preconceived schemes that often accompanied Cubism, Filonov’s artistic philosophy revolved around a desire to reveal the inner soul of objects in his paintings, a belief system he remained devoted to his entire life. Later in his artistic career he was also close to Russian futurist painters Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov.

Upon the beginning of World War I, Filonov enlisted and served on the Romanian front. His experiences in the war led him to be an active member in the Russian Revolution of 1917, serving as Chairman of the Revolutionary War Committee of the Dunay Region. His first exhibition was in 1919, after the tumult of the war and revolution. Beginning in 1923, he served as a professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, the same academy from which he had been expelled thirteen years earlier. During his career he organized the large art school called, Master of Analytical Realism, which eventually had up to seventy members.

By the end of the 1920’s the Soviet government asserted its control in many aspects of life, including the arts. His lack of adherence to the new movement of “Socialist Realism” pushed him into obscurity. However, he held fast to his artistic convictions, and Filonov rarely made money from his paintings, as he refused to sell them to individual patrons. His desire was to give them all to the Russian Museum as a gift, so they could start a Museum of Analytical Realism.

Over time, his economic hardships worsened due to the ever-stronger Soviet restrictions on artists and their exhibitions. In 1941, Filonov starved to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. For a time after his death, it was forbidden to exhibit any of his works, because it would have made them easy to steal. There is a legend, however, that his paintings have been protected by the ghost of Filonov, and anyone trying to steal them are destined to die, become paralyzed, or suffer a terrible misfortune. Filonov’s desire to gift his works to the Russian Museum was finally realized after his death, when many of his works, which had been saved by his sister, were passed on to the museum.