In 2008 Bob Duggen reviewed the film “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde on artblogbybob. His comments about the section which referred to Gauguin in the film led to a reassessment of the way the whole series of documentary films called The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance. was constituted, of which “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde” is a part and was produced by Michael Craig and Copernicus Films in 2007. On his site, as well as commenting on the quality of the photography in the film, Duggen explained that he was especially interested in the part of the film about David Burliuk and his trip to Ogasawara, a small Japanese island in the Pacific ocean about a thousand kilometres south of Tokyo. David Burliuk admired and drew inspiration from Gauguin. In 1920, after several successful exhibitions in Japan, Burliuk traveled to the Ogasawara islands to recuperate after his gruelling journey through Siberia and paint in the manner of Gauguin who also traveled to the island of Tahiti in the early 1890s in order to develop what he believed would be a new art for a new era. Gauguin was himself also strongly influenced by Japanese art and this overlapping of interest in the film was of particular interest to Duggen.
When this section was included in the film, not only did it have implications for the structure of the film, in so far that Burliuk was interested in Gauguin and wanted to emulate Gauguin, it also had implications for the entire series. Gauguin was a precursor of the Russian Avant-garde and strongly influenced this unique artistic event in the history of world art. In this sense the episode devoted to Gauguin did not simply draw together strands of the Burliuk film but also drew the strands of the entire series together, connecting the sometimes disparate and amorphous phenomena which is known as the Russian Avant-garde. The Russian avant-garde incorporates movements from neo-primitivism, rayonism,constructivism and lasted roughly through a period from the 1880s until the early 1930s. This section of the film about Burliuk, gave the series a prisim though which all the various themes of the series could be viewed even if the structure is somewhat imposed on the material. Self evidently any structure which is applied to the history of the Russian avant-garde is not a true reflection of its development but merely a method of organising material into a coherent and accessible form for digestion by the public or viewer. The most important thing while preparing such a film is to be aware of this framework as something which is imposed and try not allow it to dominate an understanding of the material. In this way the viewer can reach their own conclusions or can be stimulated to discover the subject further for themselves. An example of the problems which arise for instance is associated with the whole project of presenting artists as if they were individuals working in isolation of the world around them. I will try to explain this in more detail.
In the west we privilege the individual over and above the collective and this is a result of our liberal humanist tradition derived form Christian-Judaeo concepts of the individuals place and role in the world. The development and progress of western culture is presented as a parade of past individual geniuses who serve as pillars or supports upon which society rests and in the present a further group of lone geniuses which will propel it into the future. For many Russian avant-garde artists and writers this obsession (or what they considered an obsession) with individual genius was in their eyes an obstacle to artistic progress and a false assessment of the contribution by artists to the overall development of society. As Alexander Rodchenko commented in the 1920s that in the modern era, in the age of the machine and industrialisation …”there will never be a unique airplane or car” ..therefore …”we need artist workers, not geniuses”. This belief was further underlined by Osip Brik, the futurist thinker who announced in a clear attack on the notion of authorship and its connotations of genius, that if Pushkin had not written Eugene Onegin somebody else would have sooner or later. This brings me back to the documentary arts series: The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance. Nearly all the films where about individuals “Rodchenko and The Russian Avant-garde”, “Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde”, “Kandinsky and the Russian House”, “Mayakovsky” and of course “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde”. Only one film in the series “Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde” has a more general thematic structure, however even in this film I concentrated on three main figures – Malevich, Tatlin and Constantine Melnikov. It was very difficult to wriggle out of such a thematic straight jacket but nonetheless in each film a concerted attempt was made to relate the individual accomplishments of each artist to the wider concerns of the period and not portray them as lone geniuses working in isolation of each other but part of an artistic movement which had deep roots in the social and political events of the early part of the 20th century. Artists like Gauguin, Kandinsky, Burliuk and Rodchenko were grappling with some of the same artistic problems of their age, albeit exploring different solutions depending on the context in which they found themselves. The film “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde”, with its reference to Gauguin’s influence on the work of the Russian avant-garde artists of the era, presented an opportunity to draw together many of the threads which constituted this artistic epoch without forcing a preordained framework on the series. Instead the viewer could make up their own mind as to how the phenomena of the Russian avant-garde developed and influenced art in Russia before and after the revolution.
“David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde” was released on DVD in the autumn of 2007. The film charts the work of the Russian futurist David Burliuk in Japan. After he left Russia during the Russian civil war, David Burliuk spent two years in Japan and put on exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto and Yokohama. His influence on the growing Japanese futurist movement was immeasurable where he worked with Japanese artists such as Kinoshita and Murayama. The film features locations in Moscow, Tokyo, Kyoto and a small Island called Ogasawara in the Pacific Ocean which Burliuk visited in the manner of Gauguin.Japanese art was was gradually transformed in the Meiji period of the late 19th century and early 20th century after the Meiji restoration which heralded Japan’s entry onto the global stage.
Perceptions of Japan as a closed and traditional society changed in the aftermath of the Meiji restoration. There was a Rush to modernize and industrialize Japanese society. Someartists were beginning to recognize the hegemony of industrial society and its profound implications for art and culture. It spawned a counter culture in Japan with a tendency to rebellion by those who saw in modernisma progressive opportunity but also itstendency for alienation. However it was Burliuk who translated to Japanese audiences developments in Russian art .
After just two weeks inJapanhe had organised an exhibition inTokyoentitled “The first Exhibition of Russian Paintings inJapan” which opened on Oct 14that the Hoshi pharmaceutical head quarters in Kyoboshi. There are few records left of this exhibition but reviews described astonishing works of dangling socks and matchboxes attached to paintings and painting rendered on cardboard.
Part of the film involved visiting an island called Ogasawara which is situated in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 kilometres south of Tokyo. The Journey takes around 26 hours and can only be reached by ship. Burliuk visited the island and spent about three months there painting and relaxing after his mammoth journey through Siberia and onto Japan and the various exhibitions in Tokyo and Kyoto. It made a warm change from the icy blasts of a siberian winter. I had already decided that I would follow Burliuk’s journey to this island as well as film in Tokyo and Kyoto. I had already completed half the journey, albeit on a comfortable flight from Moscow to Tokyo. Now it was time to go all the way, as far as Burliuk himself went.
Burliuk was a keen student of Japanese culture and much like his idol Gauguin he immersed himself in Japanese culture and art. Interestingly enough Burliuk’s Journey to Ogasawara began when he left by ship from a point not far from where Basho started his travels in old Edo the former capital of Japan which became Tokyo. Basho was another wanderer poet much like Burliuk who was destined to travel throughout the world seeking new inspiration for his art and life.
I wasn’t sure how the Ogasawara material would relate to the rest of the film. In fact sometimes I doubted the wisdom of going there at all. This all changed after my interview with Akira Suzuki. A friend of a friend recomended me to interview him as a Japanese expert of Burliuk’s time in Japan in general. He writes about Burliuk’s work and art and translates his books from Russian into Japanes He as published several translations of Burliuk’s writings from Russian into Japanese as well as a number of books about Burliuk and Fialev, the Czech artist who traveled to Japan and Ogasawara with Burliuk. (Follow this link for more information about Akira Suzuki’s work). Akira Suzuki turned out to have a wide knowledge of Burliuk’s life and work in Japan, which very few people would have known if any at all. This inside knowledge and understanding proved invaluable for the film. This was especially true when he explained how Burliuk wanted to visit a south sea island and spend time painting there much like Guaguin. This was the reason he visited Ogasawara. Suddenly many things fell into place and I understood why Ogasawara would be important to the film and indeed the series about the Russian avant-garde overall. Burliuk was the Father of Russian futurism and was heavily influenced by Guaguin as was much of the Russian avant-garde itself either through Burliuk’s influence or generally through other artists.
Guaguin himself when searching for a new form of art drew upon Japanese art as a way of discovering a new style or a new direction in art. As he said himself “artists have lost, ……all their instincts, one might say their imgaination and so they have wandered down every kind of path in order to find the productive elements they hadn’t the strength to create”. Gauguin was the first European artist who consciously sought to synthesis the expressive means of various epochs and peoples with European artistic techniques, in particular the Japanese, opening up new possibilities for painting and art.
Burliuk also was forever seeking new rhythmical structures and innovations in his work, simple solutions for expressing new ideas and phenomena. In this the Japanese artistic values of the ornamental organisation of the surface of the canvas would provide him with ample material for study.
Akira Suzuki explained how Burliuk not only organised exhibitions and gave lectures, he thoroughly familiarized himself with Japanese life. He took care to understand a complicated culture full of diverse subtleties and nuances. Burliuk tried to penetrate the meaning that lies embedded in the aesthetic life of Japanese culture and art much like his idol Gauguin.
The importance of Gauguin for Burliuk cannot be underestimated. Gauguin was a precurser of the 20th cnetury avant-garde movementas a whole. His independent and bold search for a new form of art had an enormous influence on the development of the decorative principles of the Russian avant-garde.Far from the turmoil of civil war and revolution Burliuk believed he could live and work in an environment of relative safety.
All at once, talking with Akira Suzuki, the themes of the Russian avant-garde, David Bulriuk, Guaguin, Japan, Japanese futurism and a south sea island merged into something concrete and understandable in the context of a film and in particular a film about Burliuk and his relation to Russian and Japanese futurism.
From his writings we can imagine Burliuk’s thoughts as in the early morning light the ship approached Ogasawara. Coming out on deck he could gaze on the fantastic sight of an island he had never seen before.
Akira Suzuki was a knowledgable and relaxed interviewee. The thing I liked most about him on screen is his easy and friendly delivery. I had the choice of interviwing him in English or Japanese. In the end I went for the Japanese with English subtitles as his enthusiam and excitement for the subject comes through when speaking in his own language. This was exactly the mood I wished to create in the film and in this Akira Suzuki helped me a great deal. The things he knew about Burliuk had a personal quaility about it, one could feel that he had a strong attachment towards Burliuk and a feel for the subject as well as having engaged in the research. His anecdotes and stories about Burliuk in Japan could only have come from sources close to the Japanese.
On a later visit to Japan Akira Suzuki took myself and my wife Natalia to the very place where Burliuk boarded ship to Ogasawara. It is a quiet stretch of water in the heart of Tokyo. Later the same day he took us to a nearby region where the Hakia poet Basho lived and composed his poetry and from where he set off on his journeys around Japan seeking inspiration and enlightenment. I couldn’t help thinking of Burliuk who set off not very far from the spot where Basho undertook his spiritual journeys around Japan and wondering if Burliuk felt any connection with the great poet of Japanese literature given that Burliuk was as much of a poet as he was a painter.
A few days later Akira had another surprise waiting for us. He asked me would I like to see an original painting of David Burliuk which a friend of his had in his possession. Of course we jumped at the chance. The next day we arranged to meet and we all travelled by metro to Ikejiri-Ohashi.
A short walk from the station was a small modest shop-front gallery overshadowed by one of those giant exressways which are raised above the city on tall thick columns and criss cross Tokyo. We went inside and were introduced to a gentle mannered man in his late 50s who owned the gallery. After some tea and getting to know each other he brought out a cardboard carton and gradually took off the wrapping to reveal a beautiful unframed canvas of a village on Oshima in 1920 which Burliuk painted on one of his visits to the island. For the first time I realised why some people want to collect or horde great works of art. The magic of being close to something or someone through their work was literally breathtaking, especially somebody who I had been researching for so many months. It felt like small currents of electricty running through my spine. I thought I had come to know Burliuk quite well but gazing at a work of art which had been painted in Japan and which I could pick up and look and touch and feel, was a very different experience from seeing something in an art gallery and moreover by an artist of such stature in the Russian avant-garde. When I turned the painting round to look at the back, there in faded Russian and Japanese, was written, that the painting had been exhibited in the “First Exhibition of Russian Painting in Japan”. I and Natasha examined the painting for maybe half an hour. It was an experience that I didn’t really expect, in so far as looking at a painting can be such an energising event. It is something which is difficult to put into words
The second half of the film is about Burliuk’s influence on the Japanese avant-garde itself which was considerable. After he emigrated finally to America with his family the legacy of his time in Japan continued to live on and influence Japanese futurist artists like Kinoshito and Murayama who had a strong influence in all areas of Japanese cultural life – literature, architecture, the visual arts, design and to a large extent theatre.
The explosion of passions was reflected in the two exhibitions оf the Sanka association, in the second half of September 1925. Because “Sanka in the Theater” attracted wide attention, the exhibition was crowded with more visitors than the organizers had expected. Augmentedby an extra 122 works, this exhibition was the largest оf the avant-garde movement. Disparate media and subjects scandalized the public: а Dadaist assemblage of two ropes entitled Lumpen Proletariat Аапd B was executed by TokiOkamoto who had cometo the gallery and made it on the spot; the entrance tо the gallery was decorated by а large, three-dimensional hybrid assemblage; apart from these Dadaist pieces, somepure geometric works were also shown.
The exhibition was an experiment, a scandalanda social event.
The Japanese avant-garde attempted to cut across two opposing trends in Japanese art. The national traditionalist approach in art and the westernization of art which had gripped Japanese culture. Informed by Burliuk’s experiments and their own innovations they searched for new art forms which would liberate them from the confines of these two trends.Burliuk conceivedelements ofsurface plain, texture and colour as tangible elements in painting asserting the two dimensionality of the picture surface. Suchbold experiments in painting were readily taken up by Japanese futurism and the avant-garde in general giving the innovations of Japanese artists a global outlook and focus at a time when Japan was still emerging from a period of isolation and coming to grips with industrialization and its social consequences.