Pavel Zaltsman was a diversely and acutely talented person, foremost as a painter and draftsman with recognizable highly individual style. Despite the obvious influence of Filonov’s school known as “Masters of Analytic Art” which Zaltsman joined at the end of the 1920th, his own art always remained independent, reflecting his strong personality and unique world view. He borrowed from Filonov, discretely and selectively, only those aspects that were consonant with his own aspirations and experimentations.
Zaltsman’s oeuvre was not limited only to painting. He left his mark in various areas. As a professional cinema artist he collaborated on many films. He wrote wonderful poems and sharp, unusual prose. Those texts, which have been gradually recovered from Zaltsman’s archive, are only now, posthumously, reaching their audience. Finally, he left insightful memoirs.
Zaltsman’s works are not exhibited often, although they are represented in many significant museums. In the history of Russian art of the twentieth century, Zaltsman’s role has not yet been acknowledged and appreciated to its full extent.
Born in 1912, Pavel Zaltsman experienced a tremendous and intense period of the twentieth century which was not always conducive to creative work. Many adverse circumstances hindered his effort: a campaign against “formalism” in art; World War two; the German siege of Leningrad and the subsequent evacuation to Kazakhstan. His social (non-working class) and national (his father was German, mother – Jewish) background worked against him: he was denied access to higher education and later, when evacuated to Kazakhstan, was not allowed to leave it for many years as a potential German traitor. Until the end of his life, for more than forty years, Zaltsman stayed in Kazakhstan, in complete isolation from the centers of cultural life. This undoubtedly made his development as an artist very difficult. Despite that, Zaltsman managed to continue his creative work, leaving a heritage which deserves wider recognition and appreciation than its currently achieved level.
In 1925, Pavel Zaltsman, who was thirteen at the time, moved from Odessa to Leningrad. After finishing school, he started working in a cinema studio under the supervision of Egorov and Arapov. Zaltsman became a professional cinema artist and worked in cinema throughout his life, later becoming the artistic director of “Kazakhfilm”. In his younger years, working in cinema allowed Zaltsman to travel widely. “Actually, I chose films to work on depending on their destinations,” wrote Zaltsman later, “Karelia, Ural, Crimea. But most of all – and with greatest interest – Middle Asia. Pamir, Zeravshan, Gissar mountains, Isfara.”
These travel experiences provided stimulating impulses for Zaltsman’s both artistic and literary work. By 1933, Zaltsman, who was then only twenty, had started writing his first novel “The Cubs”. When he read fragments of this text to Filonov, the latter harshly commented in his diary: “Zaltsman has surprisingly sharp observation skills, although his prose is still “raw”, immature, a “first attempt”. Some fragments of his writing (…) are almost astonishing.”
Zaltsman made contact with Filonov after reading a magazine article that contained some reproductions from the exhibition of “Masters of Analytic Art” in the House of Printing. Zaltsman was struck by both the astute asceticism of Filonov’s home and the paintings that he saw there: “My first impression was nearly a shock, – and when I left I was not sure that I would ever come back.”
But he did come back, and after receiving first instruction regarding the method of “craftedness” (sdelannost’) joined the group of disciples, which by that time had shrunk as a result of some factional in-fighting. Zaltsman soon became friends with Mikhail Tsibasov and Tatiana Glebova (both of whom were much older than Pavel). Another member of Filonov’s group, Alisa Poret, introduced Zaltsman to Harms. This meeting was important in the context of Zaltsman’s later literary activity.
Among the works from this initial period of Zaltsman’s involvement in Filonov’s school “The Five Head” (1929 – 1930) is particularly interesting. This very carefully crafted and meticulously executed water-color work pre- empts the main stylistic characteristics of the style Zaltsman was later to develop. The dense composition of heads does not leave much space or depth. It does not draw the viewer’s gaze in, on the contrary – its energy goes from the inside out, nearly erupting the borders of the work. From the surface of the canvas, we are observed at by a group of five faces of different scale. Their looks are anxious and intense. They are linked to each other neither by a common story thread, nor by the space that they share. The composition appears to be skewed towards the upper right corner (while in fact it is perfectly balanced by the hand with the stick in the lower left one). Behind these faces, which look more like masks despite their obvious textural rendering, the real shapes of the heads become elusive, while the contours of figures almost disappear. The foggy background is more decorative, only hinting towards some kind of romantic landscape in an art-nouveau style. The only themes that unite these disengaged faces are the gloomy greyish-blue color and intense feeling of anxiety.
Emotional expressivity, hypnotic intensity of gaze is also typical of the self-portraits in pencil of that period. Some influence of cubism can be detected in their jagged plasticity. On the other hand, they are very realistic and depict young Pavel well, although he does look on them older than his seventeen years.
In the beginning of 1931, Filonov commended Zaltsman’s work which followed “the principals of analytic art”. His development was progressing in the right direction, in Filonov’s view, who obviously accepted Zaltsman as an analytic master.
Miraculously, in escaping from Leningrad when it fell under the German siege in summer 1942, Zaltsman managed to take with him most of his works. Relatively small but carefully crafted oil paintings and water-colors demonstrate that the initial period of learning – if present at all – was very brief for Zaltsman. By the middle of the 1930th Zaltsman had developed the mature style which he was to follow for the rest of his life.
Most often, the entire space of the painting is occupied by a group of people in the foreground, leaving very little background, and practically no depth and atmosphere. Just as in Filonov’s painting, in Zaltsman’s works the space is densely packed. Emotions “pour out” from within onto the viewer. However, very rarely can the viewer make eye contact with any of Zaltsman’s characters. Pensive, self-reflective, eternally preoccupied with their inner world, his characters remain isolated and alienated even while standing very closely to each other and sharing a crowded space. In fact, this crowdedness only highlights the impenetrable solitude of each of them:
The ship is floating, and we are sitting
Still in a grey fog, dense at night.
The lamp shakes the borders of the circles,
But we stay silent, without knowing each other.
In this paradoxical world of Zaltsman’s lonely characters, contact and human relatedness are impossible; his characters live intense but utterly disconnected lives. Zaltsman found the right compositional formula for this – a compact group of disengaged people. Interestingly, even in his self portrait (oil, 1937) Zaltsman presented himself in a similar manner – between two other figures, closely positioned in space but not connected psychologically. And later, Zaltsman repeated this several times, surrounding his self-portraits with various disengaged faces.
In the packed, condensed space of Zaltsman’s works of that period, in the psychological intensity of his characters and in the detailed meticulous execution, the strong influence of Filonov’s school is obvious. At the same time, Zaltsman visual style was always precise, calculated and realistic. Primitivisation, expressionism, breaking the plasticity of the forms, abstract symbolism were always alien to Zaltsman. Of the members of Filonov’s school, Zaltsman came closest to realism. His graphical works were slightly more experimental and expressively laden.
Filonov noted in his diary that in 1931 Zaltsman showed him his illustrations for the magazines “Rezets”, “Young Proletariat”, and “Perelom” published in Leningrad. These magazines are still available in the libraries. Zaltsman illustrated short stories of the writers of the period, most of them insignificant and long forgotten. It was, above all, a means of earning some money for the young artist. However, the fact that Zaltsman showed them to his teacher indicates that he treated this work seriously. The magazines were badly printed on cheap low-quality paper. The laconic, simple drawings were influenced by the aesthetic popular at the time of poster-like expressionism.
Zaltsman’s illustrations stand out because of their expressive, quick contours in ink. They are dynamic, lively, “illustrative”; they don’t have much in common with the dramatism of characters of his oil and water-color works of that period. The artist confidently constructs dynamic compositions, economically delineates figures. Sometimes he uses montage of images presented on different scales. At the same time, Filonov’s influence can be felt in the heavy, schematic, sculptured rendering of hands and feet with clearly visible veins. Sometimes he uses doubling of contours indicating a turn of the head or emerging movement.
In 1933, the prestigious publishing house Academia published a massive volume dedicated to the Finnish epos “Kalevala” illustrated by thirteen members of Filonov’s school, including Zaltsman, under their teacher’s supervision. This joint venture by Filonov’s students made a statement regarding the school and its leader’s aesthetic principles and positions. The artists presented themselves as one group, without indicating individual authorship of any particular illustration. This highlighted the uniform approach to the project and internal cohesion of the group. The finished result was very integrated.
Unique stylistic features of Filonov’s approach complemented and resonated with the original features of “Kalevala” very well. Filonov’s syncretism, irrationality of combination of images in space and detailed textured rendering of the surfaces worked much better than any direct attempt to illustrate the epos.
However, Zaltsman himself, even though he executed his part of the project brilliantly, has never had a natural tendency to approach art as illustration. He was a literarily attuned person, and often used images that resonated with the writings of the authors he valued or his own literary experiments. In his early graphical works, there are some romantically-colored images such as an ancient ship against the background of cliffs – “The Shore” (1939), “The Ship” (1942-1945) or elegant and fragile images of female beauty – “Female Figure” (1939).
Later, while he was already living in Kazakhstan, a few particular compositions and images became dominant in his works. The main one continued the tendencies already present in his early oil paintings: to use a group of figures cut at waist length and positioned on the foreground of the picture. The characters in these groups are always disconnected from each other; they are, in a way, groups of loners. They face the viewer but ignore him as well. They are beyond communication. Being intensely focused on their own inner life, they create a tense emotional atmosphere, not due to a common action, but rather as a result of concentration of alienation in each of them.
During this time, Zaltsman rarely used oil – mainly because of his extremely difficult financial circumstances and living arrangements. But his tendency to create generalizations persisted and became evident in large water-color works.
“I am finding the compositional solution while I am already working on the sheet of paper, without any preliminary sketches,” wrote Zaltsman. “My characters don’t find their places straight away, their faces often change angle. Sometimes this leads to a particular deformation in the face, but at the same time it makes it more expressive.” Indeed, some slight deviations from anatomically accurate depiction makes the faces of Zaltsman’s characters tense, full of pent-up energy. “Gradually, from the particular to the general the whole composition unfolds. In fact, it is not such a paradoxical principle after all.” These statements show that even after several decades independent of Filonov’s work, Zaltsman continued to be guided by the main principle of the analytic school – “from the particular to the general”.
Zaltsman’s approach to water-colors was highly rational and calculated. Despite the nature of this medium, Zaltsman’s water-colors are not characterized by immediacy, quick brush strokes or approximate rendering of the form. The surface is methodically filled with tiny pointillist touches. As such, these works demonstrate how the mature Zaltsman was adopting another principle of Filonov’s approach, “craftedness”. Pastel-like, gentle, shimmering colors serve to highlight plasticity of form. This imbues the images with almost monumental qualities. The static heavy heads look sculptured, not even modeled from clay but cut from a harder material, perhaps wood or stone. Some facial features, their cheek bones and eyes sometimes have a distinctly oriental feel. The three-dimensional rendering is always exaggerated and accentuated.
Zaltsman’s ink drawings are more emotional, nervous and expressive than the water-colors. However, compositionally, they are organized in a similar way – dominated by a group of people on the foreground. But there is a bigger variety of faces in his drawings and they are more active, their expression is almost grotesque. The faces form a kind of gallery of human characters – full of contempt or mistrust, irony or evil. Sometimes, among ugly masks a woman’s face appears, beautiful and sad, or a naked female body is floating in the middle of the crowd. As before, there is no coherent story or narrative uniting those characters. There is only a vague feeling that all of them take part in the grand human comedy, the mysterious and scary unfolding of life, in all its complexity and irrationality. Zaltsman described this as “An unfolding of thought embedded in visual images on the surface of the canvas.” His visual style was similar to his literary works, where everyday grotesque is interspersed with romantic fantasy and sometimes – with deliberate absurd.
Zaltsman’s drawing technique was as idiosyncratic, unique and calculated as his approach to the water-colors. He does not convey shape through its linear contour but renders it three-dimensionally through textures of various densities. Zaltsman’s repertoire of ink rendering is astonishingly varied. He drew tiny hooks and loops, concentrated shadows and semi-transparent nets of delicate dots, almost floating above the surface of his sheets and contrasting with deliberately left untouched patches of raw paper. The pulsating rhythm of black and white of different intensity contributes much to that unique anxious mood that emanates from Zaltsman’s drawings.
Using similar techniques Zaltsman created different atmospheres in his landscape drawings. All of them are united by one theme – a dead, abandoned city, full of awesome ruins, destroyed castles and surrendered forts. These stones buried with them irretraceable memories of disappeared peoples and cultures.
Perhaps these drawings were influenced by Zaltsman’s work in cinema as an art director. On the flat surface, he constructed the most complicated three-dimensional labyrinths, creating a feeling of great depth and structural complexity. Half-destroyed walls reveal the inner structure of buildings, massive and heavy in all their materiality.
And even if his city-scapes are not affected by destruction or the passage of time, this world is still humanless and impenetrable, divided into the awkward isolated cubes of blind buildings. All their details – fences and attics, porticos and stairs – are materially present, but the town remains empty and unwelcoming to any form of life.
The world that Zaltsman created is inhospitable and full of anxiety. It is an irrational world, bordering on absurd, subjective and deeply fictional. Nevertheless, it is a persuasive and self-contained world. The imagination of a great artist can capture the real specificity of time better than any “life-like” naturalistic reflection. As such, Zaltsman’s oeuvre – both his literature and art – embodied the tragic paradoxes of the twentieth century, as well as the dramatic life of the artist himself, with great precision.
. Zaltsman, P. Under Filonov’s sign // “Journal of Observations”. Moscow, 2005. P. 110.
. Filonov, P.N. Diary. Petersburg, 2000. P. 217.
. Zaltsman, P. Under Filonov’s sign // “Journal of Observations”. Moscow, 2005. P. 109.
. Zaltsman, P. Uland // Madame F., Moscow, 2003. P. 198.
. Filonov, P.N. Diary. Petersburg, 2000. P. 101-102.
. Zaltsman, P. Getting in Touch with Nature. Tvorchestvo, 1974, #12. P. 8.
. Ibid. P.9
Published in: Pavel Zaltsman. Live and oeuvre. / Copmosed by L. Zaltsman. Editor L. Univerg and A. Zusmanovich. – Jerusalem: Philobiblon, 2007. P. 180-187.
Translated by Julia Vassilieva