David Burliuk and Gauguin in Film

In 2008 Bob Duggan 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, Duggan 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 Duggan.

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.

Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde

The second film in the series “The Russian Avant-garde” grew out of the first in that Rodchenko phot0graphed many of the new buildings which had been built in Moscow and which were themselves a product of the avant-garde. Through researching Rodchenko I quickly became interested in the Russian avant-garde as a whole and the outline of a second film had already began to emerge before the first was finished. I researched the buildings I wanted to film and spent a few weeks travelling across Moscow discovering where they were located and how best to film them. I really wanted to show the relationship between avant-garde art and its influence on architectural design of that period. I decided to structure the film around 3 main figures: Tatlin, Malevich and Melnikov. I wanted to start work in April using the same cameraman, Valentin Savenkov, as I used on the Rodchenko film. I also wanted to start in early April as some of the buildings would be hidden by trees once the leaves started to grow. We managed to get going in late April but because the spring is late in Moscow there was no real problem with leaves on trees. Some of the buildings were suffering from neglect as can be seen in the film but many were in remarkably good condition. Filming on the streets of Moscow is not without an occasional adventure and the Architecture film was no exception. The first problem arose when we wanted to film inside the house that Melnikov had built for himself, a construction of two cylinders inter-cut into each other. Valentin said that maybe Melnikov’s son who lives there now would let us film inside. It might seem amateurish, not having planned this before and then suddenly decide to knock on someones door on the off chance that they will allow us to film inside their home but in Russia this is quite acceptable. We rang the bell and the gate was opened by an eighty year old man who was Melnikov’s heir and son. Thin and wiry, he looked at us with a quizzical expression of curiosity and annoyance. Valentin explained the situation and then let slip that the film was about constructivist architecture. I knew this was a mistake and I was not making a film about constructivist architecture in any case. Melnikov’s son looked at us with a hurt expression in his eyes, saying, in an pained tone of voice, “Papa wasn’t a constructivist – Papa was an artist”. That was it, I knew we weren’t going to get in under any circumstances. I went back a few days later by myself and tried to negotiate with him but again it was no good. I could see he was tired of film crews and people wanted to look inside the building all the time.

Later there was a building which I wanted to film not far from Lubiyanka. It was a government building and I had already spotted a policeman standing nearby but before I could warn Valentin he had the Betacam out and up on the tripod. The Policeman waved his baton at us and Valentin took the camera off the tripod and we moved on. All in all it wasn’t a good day and I didn’t get everything I needed.

I decided to try and film some of the more difficult buildings with a smaller camera on my own which wouldn’t draw such attention to myself. I shot several buildings which I needed for the computer graphics which I planned and some of the buildings which I had missed the first day of shooting. I was filming a building in a quiet region of Moscow and gradually I could feel that people were checking out what I was doing. I had feeling someone would call the police. I just got everything that I need filmed and in the distance I could see a police car coming down the road. Fortunately I already had the camera packed away and was walking up the road towards were they were coming from and they drove straight past me. They stopped at the building where I had been filming and out of the corner of my eye I could see they were speaking to some one who came out of a building opposite. I dodged quickly into a small road between two buildings and walked quickly to the metro where I was able to blend in with the crowd.

The following day I went to Red Square to shoot some material. There I could happily pose as a tourist and remain relatively anonamous. Or so I thought. It was a very hot sunny day and I began filming around the Moscow Museum which faces onto Red square and Manezh square. If you have been to Moscow, Manezh square has an enormous statue of Marshall Zhukov on a horse. Within minutes I was surrounded by a group of homeless guys who wanted to know all about the project and spoke knowledgably about what were the best angles from which to film buildings. “We know everything about this place, we live here” which of course they did – literally on the streets. They probably wanted to help me for money but I did get the distinct impression that the just wanted to help me because they were genuinely interested in what I was doing. I talked to them for a while and then moved on.

A friendly faced thin middle aged man with a sun-burnt face, then stopped me and asked me to film him. “I’ve just spent twenty years in prison and I have come to Red Square on my first day of freedom. Take a picture of me so that there is something to say that I have existed”. He smiled amiably as I filmed him and then we parted. Five minutes later we bumped into each other and smiled foolishly at each other. Fifteen minutes later, again we bumped into each other, in a different part of the Red Square complex. We both stopped and he said to me “this is the third time we have met, lets exchange coins”. He gave me one ruble and I gave him one ruble from my pocket. “You’re a good guy” he said and we shook hands and I never saw him after that. I don’t know what the significance of exchanging coins is but it seemed very important at the time.

One of the main components of the film is the computer graphics. I had never worked with computer graphics before but I thought for a film about architecture it would be appropriate. I found a guy called Vladimir Sokolov who was recommended to me by a friend and I explained to him what I wanted to do. We worked out some simple story boards and he came up with what I think are some interesting graphics of Tatlin’s Tower and Malevich (see videos below) plus some others.

The film was complicated by the fact that I needed to change studios half way through the editing process and this led to a lot of delays. At that time I was less familiar with studios in Moscow than I am now and more or less had to go on other peoples recommendation’s. The studio I found was alright but I didn’t want to make another film there. Once the film was completed I was contacted by the International Festival of Cinema and Technology to submit the film for participation in their festival which was being held in Toronto that year. They nominated it for best documentary film in the competition but the prize went to another film.


Mayakovsky was probably the most problematical film to make from a number of points of view. Firstly Mayakovsky’s poetry is very specific and avant-garde although there are some very good translations in English. However I wanted to retain the original Russian to preserve the original rhythm of his poetry and this caused considerable problems. I had to understand the poetry myself in the first place before I could start working on the film. This is easier said than done when reading from the Russian. In addition to this I wanted to shoot in the The State Museum of Mayakovsky on Lubyanka and this required some delicate negotiations with the museum administration. In the end we agreed the terms under which I could film inside the museum but not without some restrictions. Also once again I had to find a new studio and also a new camera operator. In both these cases I was lucky. I found one of the most prominent documentary film cameramen in Russia, Slava Sachkov, who has long experience in the Russian film industry and is a director himself and a partner in the Film Company “Ostrov” in Moscow which made “Seven up” for the BBC and Granada TV, not to mention a host of award winning Russian documentary series. I don’t think I could have found anybody better and we immediately formed a good working relationship. We shot a lot of material around Moscow to start off with and then all the graphics, photographs and pictorial material from archives etc. On the agreed day we then went into the Mayakovsky Museum to film more material. Its one of the most original museums ever devised, designed in the a style of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s, with sloping floors and iron girders poking out in different directions It’s a vast constructivist ensemble designed to house the collection of Mayakovsky’s work and life in a way that on the one hand arrests the viewers attention and on the other deconstructs their visual sensibilities. One of the good things about the museum is that it is like a film set albeit a little unconventional and so it made an ideal place to film, lending a specific emotional atmosphere to the film. Mayakovsky had a room in this building on the top floor in which he ostensibly shot himself in the heart. In the 1970s the entire building on Lubyanka was taken over and converted into a museum dedicated to Mayakovsky. With Slava’s professional camera work we were able to get some unusual shots which I was able to use in several sequences in the film. Slava managed to get exactly the right balance between light and shadow to give the film the edge and atmosphere which I was seeking.

One of the things I wanted to do in the film was to use an actor to read Mayakovsky’s poetry. I thought this would be an easy thing to do but I interviewed actor after actor. Sometimes they had the right kind of voice a deep velvety bass but they were unable to catch the rhythms of Mayakovsky’s complicated imagery. Also Mayakovsky had a very specific timbre, powerful and rich, as he said of his own voice it could hammer rivets into steel plates. Mayakovsky’s live performances were notorious and nobody could better him in live debates and the futurist evenings at the Polytechnic Museum where the read out their declarations and manifesto’s. At first I couldn’t understand what the problem was with these actors until someone explained to me that in this new era, i.e. since perestroika many of these skills are being lost and younger actors no longer need or wanted to study the necessary skills for this type of reading. I decided the next best thing would be to actually find recordings of Mayakovsky himself reading his poems. I went to the All Russian audio archive in Moscow. They had some recordings of Mayakovsky but also other recordings of actors from the 30s,40s and 50s reading Mayakovsky’s work. Some of it was excellent and just what I was looking for and I selected about ten large fragments from Mayakovsky’s larger poems plus several complete poems such as “Could you not”. I wanted to include a fragment from the poem “Lenin” but there was no recording of this work at the audio archive. In the end I found an older actor called and got him to do some reading. He had a perfect voice and actually knew most of “Lenin”off by heart. He knew exactly how to use his voice and tailoring his intonation and vocal stylistics to great effect. The recordings where Mayakovsky is reading himself are not in good condition but the power of his voice and personality come through and the recordings stand in the same way as visual archive footage, which although sometimes in poor condition have a dynamism and authentic amplitude.

The film took a great deal of time and effort especially as I decided to make a Russian version as well as an English version. I felt this was necessary and I hoped to show the film to Russian audiences.

As with all these films about the avant-garde one film almost seamlessly leads into another and because Mayakovsky wrote many plays as well as poetry and was championed by the Theatre director Meyerhold, as a new Aristophanes, it was natural that the next film in this series would be about Meyerhold. Mayakovsky wrote several plays for Meyerhold, The Bathhouse, The Bedbug and Mystery Bouffe and while Meyerhold liked to have complete control of his productions he permitted to Mayakovsky to be present at rehearsals at all times and valued Mayakovsky’s contributions and observations at all levels of the production process.