Pavel Filonov was one the greatest Russian artists of the 20th century—so why isn’t he better known?by Robert Chandler / December 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
During a recent week in Florence I made about a dozen visits to an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi. “The Russian avant-garde, Siberia and the East” makes a case for the influence of shamanistic cult objects on Kandinsky, Goncharova and other 20th century Russian artists. The reason I went so many times, however, was simply that I wanted, again and again, to look at seven paintings by Pavel Filonov (1883-1941), whom I—and many Russians—consider the most remarkable of all the many great Russian artists of the last century.
Many of Filonov’s paintings are huge and extraordinarily detailed. Seen closely, every element of Filonov’s works takes on a life of its own. One square centimetre of canvas could, if enlarged 50 or 100 times, be an entire Paul Klee—or a Miro, or a Kandinsky. Another square centimetre is more roughly textured—like the wrong side of a piece of richly coloured embroidery. Another square centimetre may be relatively empty—not a pattern but a delicate wash of colour. Each time one steps back from observing the detail of Filonov’s paintings, the work as a whole has changed. Living Head is full of joyful colour. But if you look at the painting as a whole, what you first see are the outlines of a rather mournful face.
Filonov was born to a poor family in 1883, and both of his parents died before he was 14. In 1897 his eldest sister married a prosperous engineer and the family moved from Moscow to St Petersburg. Dismayed by the…