David Burliuk and Gauguin in Film

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.

Meyerhold,Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde

Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde

Meyerhold’s task was to combine the three dimensionality of the actors body with the flat two dimensionality of the set design. In order to solve this problem he turned to the developments in the graphic experiments of the Russian avant-garde, people like Popova, Rodchenko etc. He also wanted to move away from a theatre based on words or text for expressing emotions and ideas, to a theatre based on gesture and movement in order to create and widen the possibilities for creating an emotional atmosphere in any given play. For instance Chekov wrote(roughly speaking) for one type of theatre which was actor/text based. It consisted of a series of exercises and movements in which an actor could collectively, either with a partner or a group of actors, develop non textual or non verbal ways of expressing inner emotions. Through the movement of the actors body, emotions which could not easily be represented by words i.e. crowd scenes or group or mass action revealed themselves on the stage. One of the first plays in which all these elements were synthesised was “The Magnanimous Cuckold”. Popova designed the set as a moving dynamic construction almost like a machine in motion. The actors deprived of any make up or costumes struggled to find their feet in this unusual set construction. Here however Meyerhold’s training of biomechanics helped and both actors and set were synthesised into one grand machine moving in unison to the rhythm of Meyerhold’s direction. In order to show how Meyerhold achieved this in a documentary film it was decided to use actors to “recreate” Meyerhold’s techniques. A simple solution was devised of filming the actors performances as shadows. We shot the shadows with an English actor in Moscow who had previously studied at the Moscow Arts theatre. We weren’t quite sure how to go about filming biomechanics so we improvised using the knowledge that we had. The idea of the shadows was to make the presentation more abstract and less concrete so that the emphasis would be on the movement itself rather than the person. This, as far as I understand was echoing some of Meyerhold’s ideas. Once again I asked Slava Sachkov to film the sequences of shadows. tried to move to a movement director based performance.

His productions included influences from Kabuki theatre which is based on mime and dance, the action developing around a series of gestures and poses as much as a result of the text of the play. With both of the above in mind, Meyerhold developed a specific training technique for his actors called biomechanics.