A noted Russian futurist, Kruchenykh, called him “observer of the invisible”. Pavel Filonov (1881-1941) was not just an outstanding painter, but also a visionary art theorist. In his theory of analytical art, he reconciled avant-garde with Russian Cosmism, overcoming dualism of expressionists with their dichotomy of dream and reality, inherited from romanticism. At the same time, his aesthetic vision goes far beyond art manifestos and prevailing art movements of that time, like futurism, suprematism , expressionism, fauvism, cubism, etc. It’s an integral analytical system whose sound methodology imparts universal application for complex studies.
In his essay “Declaration of the World Flowering”(1923), Filonov wrote: As I know, see, analyze and prefigure, every object contains not just two predicates of color and form, but an entire world of visible and invisible phenomena, their emanations, reactions, inclusions, genesis, being, known or hidden characteristics, which in their turn, consist of countless predicates. He condemns simplistic paradigm of form and color only. For him, they represent just dead shells of object. Instead, he believes in its metamorphosis and organic development. That’s the basic principle of Filonov’s theory of analytical art. Master, depicting a tree should be mainly interested in hidden process that gives life to the tree, not just in its appearance. Aesthetic object and nature share the same principle: they cannot tolerate anything that inexpedient and spontaneous. His concept of completeness or made-ness (sdelan-nost in Russian) is opposed to everything that is undeveloped, incomplete and unplanned. Such coherent parallel between painting and biology appears unprecedented in art history. Made-ness of aesthetic object, according to Filonov, is a result of deep reflection. Made-ness implies bringing to light embryology of aesthetic object from the moment of its conception. Viewers are invited to observe the very birth and transformation of subject matter not only externally, but internally. They can participate in this sacred act by becoming a co-creator of of the painter. The more consciously and forcefully the artist works on his intellect, the stronger the effect the finished work has on the spectator, he wrote in “Ideology of analytical art”. In his early article “The Canon and the Law” (1912), he renounced cubism for its realism and surface, geometry in terms of its inability to capture the inner soul of aesthetic phenomena. Cubism reached a dead-end because of its mechanistic fundamentals”, he wrote.
In his paintings, there is no story line, but even so, they are graphically structured and remarkably detailed. Filonov's pictorial space is about dynamic of objects that seem to multiply themselves. This effect of multiplicity is a key element of his art. For instance, in composition " Man and Woman” (Adam and Eve), repeated gestures of arms subdue both plot and object, taking over the whole space. Gestures dictate the main semantics of the painting and structure its cryptic rhythm and meaning with all possible combinations and endless variants of perception. Spectators and pedestrians surround the central figures who are being observed by different eyes and minds. Each vision is different, therefore, the couple is aligned to the process of visualization. In this painting, perception amounts to creation. By being observed, a man and a woman are being manifested to the viewer. In fact, it's the viewer who generates it all. Main characters are being beheld by what Filonov called “the knowing eye”, which he placed above "the seeing eye". Viewers standing outside join those on the canvas. In fact, boundaries between the two are gone. We become infused with what For Filonov appeared the most sacred of all concepts – “creative virus”. In a way, it's a “contagious” biological agent nobody can resist or be immune to. As K.V. Sergeev noted in his book “Culture and Space” (2004), “Biology of development” of aesthetic object is indisputably the main semantic center of his paintings. In “Flowers of Universal Blooming” he shows all possible variants and possibilities of flowering. We don’t see the flower as static form, but we see its life, sprouting from the picture. The vivid kaleidoscope of fleeting colors instills sensation of ongoing creative life giving process.
His exclusive technique of small precise brush strokes and finest points with mesmerizing palette served the chief purpose: to manifest the Universal Flowering in full dynamics. Think persistently and accurately over every atom of the work you are doing. Make every atom persistently and accurately, he instructed his students. Universal Flowering stands as metaphor for the infinite creative process. It also suggests implementation of art in microcosm on all structural levels to ensure its self-reproduction.
In his iconic painting “The Feast of Kings” (1913), the feast is presented as an overwhelming mystery, organized in rhythmic fluids of intermingling colors and tones. We see the painter's vision as a mental structure, as if depicted by some invisible deity. The moonlight, sieved through the canvas, enhances its spiritual and emotional impact. Velimir Khlebnikov believed the painter depicted “the feast of dead bodies, feast of revenge”. Inspired by Gothic cathedrals he saw in Europe, Filonov slides through the stained glass of mind’s window to portray what only a “knowing eye” is able to visualize –the kings, observing their own death, partaking from sacred or rather anti-sacred ceremony of self-destruction. Some critics assume that this painting is a demonic version of The Last Supper. The thing is Filonov’s paintings are never about what they seem to be. This painting is not about The Last Supper or any other religious plot. It’s about the artist’s ability to turn decomposition and death itself into spellbinding mosaic of unbroken whole. It’s not really about death or Apocalypse, but initiation into Filonov’s vision of art. It's about the artist's demiurgic ability to weave his own dimensions, which each of us can extend further by being pervaded with creative "atoms" his paintings are spun from. As the painter declared himself in his pamphlet known as “Made Paintings”, people from all over the world will be coming to pray to them.
His whole life was a model of asceticism. Pavel was orphaned at a very young age. For loyalty to his art principles, he was expelled in 1910 from St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. In 1912, the painter traveled to West Europe with very limited financial resources. He had to pay for food with his water-colors and drawings and walk from one city to another. He visits Louvre, but does not lose his head.
In 1912-1915 Filonov is involved in the art group the "Union of Youth", founded by Matyushin and Guro. The association harbored the most outstanding trends of Russian avant-garde. Filonov's affinity for futurism with its bold experimentation in art and literature resonated in decorations he painted for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s tragedy of the same name, staged at the Luna Park theater in St. Petersburg. He also illustrated books of poems by Khlebnikov. In 1915, he published an extremely elaborate poem Chant of Universal Flowering, written in futuristic and “zaum” style. Khlebnikov admires it and encourages him to write more. In 1916, the painter was enlisted to serve in the army and was sent to the Romanian Front. During October Revolution of 1917, he became the Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Dunay Region. In 1919, his paintings were exhibited in Hermitage at the First Free Exhibit of Artists of All Trends. In 1922, some of his paintings were displayed in Berlin at the First Exhibition of the Soviet Art. In 1923, Pavel Filonov worked as a professor of St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and becomes a member of the Institute for Artistic Culture. He founded his own school of Masters of Analytical Realism that included over 70 artists – the largest group of artists that ever existed in Russia. In 1925, he decorated Gogol’s play Revizor with his students. In 1929, Soviet Government bans his exhibition at the Russian Museum. Filonov refuses to sell his paintings to private collectors in spite of all economic hardships he endured. He firmly believed his legacy belonged to his country and Russian people. His only love – Ekaterina Sererbiakova – becomes his wife in 1922. She was 20 years older her husband, but he lovingly called her “my daughter”. He idealistically believed the cause of October Revolution and the social justice. His sister, Evdokia Glebova, once recalled that Pavel walked out from her wedding in outrage. He was upset that her maid was not sitting at the table among the guests. According to Evdokia, he would never go to a doctor. When Pavel was ill, he would just sit on the chair with closed eyes and rest. He died of starvation in 1941 during Leningrad's 900 days Siege, survived by his beloved wife only by few months. After WWII, his paintings were donated to the Russian Museum of Saint Petersburg by Evdokia Glebova. In 1989-1990, his works were fully presented at the center of Georges Pompidou in Paris.
In general, Pavel Filonov’s theory of analytical art is inseparable from Russian Cosmism, based on holistic views and the notion of wholeness and interconnection of man, society and Universe. At some extent, his aesthetic system is akin to Vernadsky’s teaching of noosphere and global consciousness as well as to Alexander Bogdanov’s tectology – an organizational science of dynamic wholes. Both Filonov and Bogdanov systems stemmed from biology, which served as methodological matrix for their ideas.
Some Filonov’s paintings, like numerous images of heads, for instance, may appear monstrous, but it’s just a physical appearance, which Pavel Filonov placed much lower of what mind’s eye could apprehend. Gruesome and tragic was also the time he happened to live in, but the painter embraced it all -- every bit of it -- as his own. He never saw himself outside Russia and her historical destiny, turning down all lucrative offers to immigrate. For him, harmonious society was the fruit of progress, creativity, and complex growth. “Simplicity and primitiveness of life is not harmony yet, as harmony is reconciliation of contradictions, not merely their absence; harmony is unification of diversity and not a simple uniformity”, Bogdanov stated. Pre-historic and primitive harmony was not Filonov’s ideal either.