May 2023

Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

My Correspondents on the
Theme of David Burliuk:
Painter-Poet, Futurist, Provocateur

  Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Gregory Vernitsky
Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

This last February, guest writer Gregory Vernitsky brought into this series the figure of painter David Burliuk, who is generally recognized as the Father of Russian Futurism. Gregory gave us tantalizing glimpses of how Burliuk crossed paths with Kandinsky [see here].



David Burliuk, with face paint and earring.


From this flowered some interesting private exchanges with both Gregory and Jelena, the latter a frequent contributor to this series. I'm not selfish enough to keep their letters to myself so, with their permission, I am sharing them for readers here. (My contributions are in italics.)


As a preface, here is a delightful piece of miscellanea from Gregory. Beyond his art student life in Odesa in the 1960s and '70s, I learned of his very early involvement in an important children's theatre, and pressed him for more:


I'm not sure if I can count these, but—I tie-dyed some simple tunics for costumes, and modeled the head of a very ugly Father of the City to be placed on a partition in the middle of a scene. In a play by Jerzy Jurandot, I also played one of three angels sent to check whether Sodom could be saved. Another angel—M. Rashkovetsky—is now a leading Ukrainian art critic and museums organizer. The wife of the third angel is a director of the Bleschunov Museum in Odesa. Quite an important time…  


"Revolution," 1917


Presently, Gregory sent the following, describing Burliuk from the perspective of many of his generation:


Regarding Burliuk—he wasn't romantic—he was a serious artist, a practical and savvy guy. He sat out the Revolution and Civil War in Siberia, went to Moscow, was almost killed and left Russia for good. He was 40—not exactly a young man. On the other hand, he never lost his leftist spirit—his friends were socialist artists, and in 1940 he even begged the Soviet Government to accept his own large collection of Mayakovsky related materials. But we, in the '60s and '70s, didn't know him as an important artist, only as a scandalous author of shocking poems and catchy revolutionary posters. Our leaders were old and ugly, the Revolution was a bloody mess, full of betrayal, violence and senseless destruction—but for most young people it was a romantic, idealistic struggle for a better future. And Burliuk, as a rebel against established norms, was a part of it.  


It was a long way to overcome Soviet propaganda.


It wasn't only an Iron Curtain; it was also the other side of a mirror.




Next, Jelena sent me some preliminary remarks on Burliuk. The "Slap in the Face" she refers to was a manifesto-like statement Burliuk published in a tone we might now associate with Punk—that is, incendiary, vulgar, insulting, jarringly uppity. With phrases such as "perfumed lechery" and "filthy slime," revered writers such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were to be jettisoned to make room for the new. In short, Burliuk and cohorts spit in the eye of the high-profile cultural figures that preceded them. [The link to the full text is below.] This was published in the first collection of Cubo-Futurist poetry, which listed Kandinsky's name prominently among its supporters and included four of Kandinsky's poems.

Kandinsky was understandably, well, pissed off. He hadn't given permission to use his name or texts for such an endeavor, only found out about it by chance, and asked a Moscow newspaper to print his stern note of displeasure. Ever the lawyer and teacher, and sixteen years older than Burliuk—and pretty kind considering how mad he was—Kandinsky worded part of his objection this way [translation Lindsay/Vergo]:


    … I warmly condone every honest attempt at artistic creativity, and I am prepared to forgive even a certain rashness and immaturity of young authors: with time and with the correct development of talent both faults will disappear. But under no circumstances do I consider permissible the tone in which the prospectus was written. I condemn this tone categorically, no matter whose it is.


Some years later, though, Kandinsky sent long-distance greetings to Burliuk through a mutual colleague. Now to Jelena:


Kandinsky exhibited the Burliuk brothers Vladimir and David in Munich—great avant-garde; Vladimir [d. 1917] the better one! (Munich's Lenbachhaus owns a few.) Kandinsky was also exhibited by David Burliuk in Moscow, and said that David Burliuk was very sweet and helpful (although he was a loud rascal!). They exchanged art works and letters. But in 1913, Kandinsky distanced himself in response to Burliuk's radical, even brutal, publication, "Slap in the Face of the Public."…  My Slavic professor knew David Burliuk very well in New York, and I own some of his late, somewhat ridiculously self-centered souvenir-journals, with his
retrograde, figurative art in them. But he was able to afford living in Florida every winter. He faked his good early avant-garde work, which he could not take along when leaving Russia the Eastern-China way; very difficult, and it took a long time...





"Farm Seen from the Air," 1910. Sold at Sotheby's in 2021 with the Note: "Despite the date inscribed on the picture, this painting was executed
significantly later in the United States."


Not long after, Jelena filled out her remarks.


My Heidelberg professor of Slavic Studies, Dmitry Tschizhevsky, had formerly taught at Harvard, and at that time he had been in close contact with David Burliuk. In Heidelberg he continued (at least from 1959 on) to receive Burliuk's journal, Color and Rhyme where, in my opinion, the painter exaggerates his importance within the Russian-Ukrainian
avant-garde movement. Admittedly he and Mikhail Larionov had been the leading figures in Moscow, and Burliuk definitely always the loudest one, but as an artist less esteemed than his brother Vladimir. Kandinsky liked him and the whole gang, exhibited him in Munich in 1911/12, printed Burliuk's article about "Anarchy in Painting" in the famous almanac, The Blue Rider, found him helpful when he and the Munich group were invited to exhibit with the Knave [Jack] of Diamonds artists' group in Moscow. They exchanged letters and paintings and had projects in common in Russia—until… [here Jelena referred again to the "well-known" "Slap" incident.]


So since the director of Lenbachhaus Munich, Hans Konrad Roethel, knew that I was familiar to some extent with David Burliuk, he told me a secret, an embarrassing one:

In 1960, (when I was not yet his assistant) he had planned an exhibition with David Burliuk, finding his early, half-abstract works interesting: "Everything was arranged, and the artist arrived in Munich with a large wooden chest full of paintings. As usual, after being shipped, such chests have to wait for a while before being opened; also I preferred to open it by myself in the evening. That was a good decision, there were no witnesses. Because the first thing that shocked me was the smell of fresh oil color. And then I had a sleepless night. How to tell Burliuk that he was fooling me, that he had "faked" his old motifs and insisted that he had saved them all and brought them to America. How was I going to make clear to him that I simply could not dare an exhibition now? The next morning we met, but instead of accusing him I simply said that an exhibition would not be possible. His reaction? No reaction! As if he had expected it, he simply left together with his chest full of his 'new-old' paintings."  — I asked a close friend of Roethel's if she knew that story, but no. I suppose it was too embarrassing to talk about at the time. But of course in the Burliuk literature a 1960 exhibition in Munich is mentioned anyway!


And of course he was not the only one—the artist Pavel Mansurov and many others did the same, and some museums had a hard time finally admitting what they were showing on their walls. Making one's "own fakes" is certainly a lesser crime than making "unauthorized fakes" by just
anyone. Is there a new category for such "post"-artworks?


About these "auto-fakes," perhaps something shifted for Burliuk over time: Somewhat later, Jelena sent me her own copy of a Burliuk catalogue by Elena Basner. On page 8, I spotted this passage:


"David never tried to conceal his repetitions of his own early works. When publishing several of his later replicas, he would inform the public that those particular earlier works of his had been lost, and so he had repeated them in his own hand."


*   *   *


Link to brief specifics on the writing of "Slap" and the full text of it:




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Curator, writer and editor, Kandinsky Anew Series
Lissa Tyler Renaud MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (thesis on Kandinsky's theatre), summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Lifelong actress, director. Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project (1985- ) for training based on Kandinsky's teachings. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, and ed. Selected Plays of Stan Lai (U. Michigan Press, 3 vols.) She has taught, lectured and published widely on Kandinsky, acting, dramatic theory and the early European avant -garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden.
She is a senior writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

Gregory Vernitsky , M.S. Marine Engineering, is a painter and sculptor, originally from Odesa, Ukraine. There, he designed sets and costumes for a youth theatrical company directed by the celebrated Jurij Alschitz, who studied with one of the last students of Stanislavsky. Since emigrating to the United States in 1991, Vernitsky has worked in painting, sculptural wood carving, and found object assemblage. He is also a collector and restorer of found art. Now a Mechanical Engineer, he experiments with different styles and techniques, using the same engineering, physics and material science principles for his sculptures. A longtime member of San Francisco's ArtSpan, since 2011 he has exhibited in large and small group shows, mostly in San Francisco and around California. Along with other recognitions, Vernitsky received the Blue Ribbon Jurors Choice Award at ArtSpan Open Studios Exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center in 2013, and the distinguished Sheridan Prize for Art Artist's Choice Award in December, 2022. To see his sculptures, visit https://gregoryvernitsky.weebly.com/


Jelena Hahl-Fontaine , formerly Hahl-Koch (PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg) is one of the world's leading Kandinsky scholars, her professional life having centered on Kandinsky for over 60 years. She was Curator of the Kandinsky archive at Lenbachhaus, Munich, the primary Kandinsky repository. Publications include a major monograph, Kandinsky; the Arnold Schoenberg-Kandinsky letters; Kandinsky Forum vols. I-IV; and many writings on A. Jawlensky, A. Sacharoff, V. Bekhtejeff, the Russian avant-garde, and more. Taught at the Universities of Erlangen, Bern; Austin, Texas; and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Has lectured widely at prestigious venues of Europe, America and Australia. For her other articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Kandinsky Anew
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