Pavel Yakovlevich Zaltsman had never had any formal education in art. That was not a result of lack of financial means or ability, but rather stemmed from a particular approach to life – self-sufficiency. He realized this very early in life. It was evident in the confident, stubborn refusal to follow the officially prescribed path towards higher education that he demonstrated since his school days in Odessa. Such education did not represent an ideal for Zaltsman; on the contrary, it was a burden, comprised of trivial knowledge and mechanical approaches that mould an artist in accordance with the expectations of mass culture.
It’s unlikely that such an attitude was approved by Zaltsman’s family. Nevertheless, this approach became definitive in the development of his unique personality, which later on demonstrated rare integrity and allowed Pavel to develop expertise in an astonishing range of disciplines in the humanities and to formulate a unique and complex world view. Even during his school years, Zaltsman defined himself as a person determined to make his own choices and take responsibilities for them later in life. This went against the conformist attitudes prevalent in over-regulated Soviet society and pre-determined rather difficult relationships for him as an artist in society.
Since early childhood, Zaltsman’s interest in art, literature, poetry, and history – all those areas that relate to the search for meaning by the independent thinker – was complemented by his passion for drawing. Very early, Zaltsman became interested in depicting the human body and portraying unique characters. His own idiosyncratic style, combining contour drawing with attention to three dimensional characterisation of the object, had nothing in common with the naturalistic technique of the classics. Zaltsman managed to keep and systematize his early drawings. They demonstrate that he was a naturally gifted artist producing nearly perfect images from very early on – practically without any technical training and polishing.
Zaltsman’s art, his unique approach to craftsmanship, was developing as a result of self-determination, through his self-discipline and the systematic selection of artistic preferences guided by his personal taste.
The critical moment in Pavel Zaltsman’s formative years was the move of his family to Leningrad – the centre of cultural life in Russia at the time. Even before he met his teacher there, Leningrad’s museums and libraries, avant-garde exhibitions, personal encounters with artists, writers and poets – many of whom represented Russian cultural elite – provided a stimulating environment for advancing his self-education.
Zaltsman systematically studied the great collections of paintings, sculptures and drawings in the Hermitage and Russian museum. He approached them as a researcher capable of analyzing the complex dynamics of art movements and synthesizing them within an overarching historical framework. It was at that time that Zaltsman formed a great affinity with the two poles in art: classical and avant-garde.
Later in life, Zaltsman was able to say without feeling any sense of contradiction: “There is nothing better for me in painting than Italian Renaissance”/ “I prefer the portrayal of a man in the Russian Classicism and among some members of The World’s of Art”/ “History hasn’t known painting of such depth and originality as that created by Filonov”.
European and Russian classical heritage formed the basis of fundamental understanding of beauty and of eternal standards of high culture for Zaltsman.
The broad spectrum of avant-garde movements between the 1920th and the 1940th launched profound changes in art practice and philosophy. Art was freed from obsolete canons. The old was destroyed in order to create space for the new. It was an exciting and promising process.
Cultural life in Leningrad at the time resembled that of Paris. These parallel developments in Russia and in France were brought about by similar historical factors. The logic of continuity was challenged by the paradoxes of unpredictable explosions both in arts and science, accompanied by the unprecedented emergence of talents and emotions of new intensity and scope. For the first time in history, art was given permission to exist for its own sake. A significant proportion of artists and viewers shared this philosophy.
For the majority, the choice at the time appeared to be obvious: to advance the new – as an opposition to the museums, understood as archives of history, – while history itself undertook a radical turn, changing its appearance and meaning.
For selected few, and Pavel Zaltsman was one of those exceptions, the choice of a way in art was far from simple. For him, the search for a synthesis of classic and contemporary in art became a super-task, demanded by his uncompromising character. The – at the same time brave and reasonable, prepared to take the risk but calculating of the consequences. Naturally, Zaltsman came to share, to a degree, the aspiration of avant-garde experimentation in art; however, he was not prepared to abandon the ideals he had developed in his years of studying classical heritage in Hermitage.
It is impossible to understand the trajectory of Zaltsman’s development in this context without referring to the main event of his life – his encounter with Filonov.
By the time they met, Filonov was already a great Master whose talent and geniality was fully evident. The magical power of Filonov’s art was inspirational. It urged to live, feel and act in an authentic, honest, open way. Incomprehensible and oblique for some, mysterious and enigmatic for others, Filonov’s art became for Zaltsman a persuasive demonstration that even the most outrageous dreams can come true.
As an innovative artist, Filonov exceeded the most radical experimentations with art form both in Russia and in the West, while working with dedication and finesse comparable to the Italian, German and Dutch Old Masters. Through his art, Filonov confronted the major challenges that humanity faced in the twentieth century while his method remained a great mystery, presenting an inquisitive mind with irresolvable intrigue forever.
In his new disciple, Filonov found a committed devotee, an attentive and accurate follower of the methods of the analytic school of art. However, from his very first works under Filonov’s guidance, Zaltsman concentrated on his own version of the method, radically different from the mainly modernist efforts of other members of the school. Zaltsman’s style can be characterized by its substantial degree of realism, circumscribed subject matter and particular attention to the image of man – his contemporary.
At the outset of his work in Filonov’s school, Zaltsman created a series of group portraits, often depicting the artist himself surrounded by his peers. Those works combined the aesthetics of Renaissance, in its Russian “gentle” understanding, with composition typical for Filonov’s figures and background with rich layered texture achieved through the combined use of oil and watercolour.
According to various estimates, between forty and sixty people passed through Filonov’s school. Filonov did not follow any particular teaching method, but rather inspired his students by his personal example, by working as a mentor surrounded by his apprentices in a medieval fashion. The students tried to model their work on their teacher’s, often engaging in projects too complex for them, later left unfinished. The main problem inherent in working with Filonov (which neither he nor his students realized at the time) was that Filonov’s main talent was his ability to create new forms. Such ability is rare. Even the most talented artists are, by and large, not the creators of new forms, but interpreters of them. As a result, the school as a whole produced a number of replicas of Filonov’s themes of varying quality. Another factor that limited productivity of the school was the tragic fate of Filonov’s students, the majority of whom became victims of the World War Two and the siege of Leningrad, just as Filonov was himself.
Pavel Zaltsman occupied a special and separate position from the rest of the school, which by the time he joined represented an established group. Perhaps, he better than others realized the danger of being overpowered by Filonov’s influence. Zaltsman borrowed very selectively from the analytic school, mainly in the area of general methods, or particular drawing and painting techniques. It was critically important that Zaltsman managed not to succumb to the temptation to copy the images and subject matter of Filonov’s pictures. As such, Zaltsman’s approach sharply contrasted with that of other students who did try to copy Filonov’s particular innovation in terms of images and forms. At the time, Zaltsman’s position might have been perceived as a conservative shying away from radical avant-garde. Only later do we come to understand that Zaltsman as a true follower of Filonov who, nevertheless, did not sacrifice any of his individuality. Then the self-imposed limitations that Zaltsman exercised with regards to borrowing Filonov’s innovations became doubly meaningful. Without engaging into true modernist breakthrough, which only Filonov himself could carry out, Zaltsman managed to incorporate those elements of Filonov’s approach that suited his own unique aspirations and propensities. He followed Filonov’s main principle to polish and perfect a limited number of relatively small but meticulously executed paintings. By doing this, he more than any other of Filonov’s students, was like his teacher in achieving that finesse so highly valued and advocated by Filonov himself (the principle of “sdelannost’”, variously translated as “making completely”, “well made”, “craftedness” and “madeness”).
It appears that Filonov did understand and appreciate Zaltsman’s unique talent. Coming from the realist tradition himself, Filonov did not object to Zaltsman conservatism. Even in the paintings that he corrected, Filonov was careful not to interfere with the unique manner of his student.
World War II, the siege of Leningrad, the death of Filonov and the loss of old close friends in the process of evacuation to Kazakhstan (which turned into involuntary exile enforced by the government) changed the life of Zaltsman’s family radically and irreversibly. For the rest of his life, Zaltsman was deprived of a stimulating cultural milieu and the possibility of showing his works to a large audience. The most important part of his artistic work – painting – became an almost underground secret activity, without even a hope that it could be shown at any stage in the future.
To a degree, the discontentedness from the outside world was a common fate of all Russian intelligentsia after the war, when the Soviet system attacked all expressions of individuality as potentially dangerous for the dominant ideological view with renewed vigour. For many years, Zaltsman had to hide his works at home, which was akin to the Russian Museum where, in the storage rooms, the masterpieces of Russian artists disapproved by the system (including Filonov himself) were kept unseen for years. It looked like the continuation of Zaltsman’s creative work in his early years in Kazakhstan was almost impossible.
However, the integrity and strength of Zaltsman’s character were such that even under those circumstances he managed to maintain his personal way of life and not to surrender to external pressure. Against the odds, he not only continued to work but achieved higher, more productive levels. The self-sufficiency he had demonstrated from the very beginning of his career now became a protective shield, sheltering him from aggressive external influences. Facing the necessity to survive, Zaltsman consciously and purposely constructed his life along two dimensions: one public – officially accepted, as a loyal citizen, which allowed him to work within a system; and another private – hidden, where only a select few close friends were allowed and even then only to a certain extent. It was in the latter that the most important artistic work took place.
It was this private world – built on the ideals formed during his youth among artists in Petrograd, on Filonov’s spiritual heritage, on continuous literary and poetic readings, and inhabited more by imaginary characters of Zaltsman’s paintings than real people – that became a refuge and catalyst for Zaltsman’s creative work. However, even facing the necessity to retreat from the public domain, Zaltsman did not become bitter and negative. Rather, he accepted the limitations imposed by fate with the serenity and calmness of a philosopher.
This was not an easy process. There were consequences for both his personal and creative life. In the first decade in Alma-Ata, Zaltsman barely produced any paintings. He did not like to talk about that time, and we can only guess how stressful and traumatic that period was for him.
By the beginning of the sixties, Zaltsman had undergone a substantial change in his self-understanding as an artist. He realized that his talent lay mainly in the area of graphics, not in working with colour through painting. Zaltsman often expressed dissatisfaction with his achievement in this area, sometimes in exaggerated form, nevertheless reflecting correctly the fact that linear outline was a more powerful expressive element in his works than painting. The transition to work only through graphical means also marked a new period in the appropriation of Filonov’s heritage by Zaltsman. As a mature master himself, Zaltsman was finally ready to incorporate an analytic approach developed earlier by Filonov into his art. He moved from images reproducing reality (portraits) to pure creative fictional images (the invention of new forms).
Early Zaltsman’s paintings captured his youthful impressions – refined faces, shaped according to the canons of classical beauty, infused with Mozartesque optimistic lyric. Zaltsman’s mature graphical works are built on free fantasies, combining elements of human lives separated from any historical context. While some romanticism can still be felt in these works, there is much more anxiety here, some tragic motives, the theme of futility and doom, a degree of irony and grotesque. While the composition is still perfectly balanced and the colours are refined, the protagonists have lost their beauty – as if their features have absorbed all the anguish and drama that their creator had experienced by then. By that time, Zaltsman was the last surviving and actively working member of Filonov’s school. It is through his efforts that Filonov’s principles of analytic art were not simply continued but expanded and appropriated to reflect the unique issues of the second half of the twentieth century.
The formal side of representation started to play more significant role in Zaltsman’s graphical works. Inspired by Filonov’s play with forms, Zaltsman was developing his own ways of moulding and deforming images. At this time two types of graphical works became dominant in Zaltsman output – compositions of faces and half-figures against the abstract architectonic backgrounds, and fictional empty landscapes dominated by architectural forms.
Thematically, his compositions of figures, in turn, fall into two categories. One has more prominent “Jewish” flavour: there are some scenes reminiscent of Odessa and little Jewish villages. Another line is based on Kazakh types. All the works are anonymous and allegorical: they relate to the generalised past. Shaped by numerous previous experiences of the author, the images are deprived of any concrete resemblance to their prototypes and represent people in general. Even within those two broad geographically and ethnically defined streams their specificity is rather vague.
Two characteristic features in Zaltsman’s graphical content matter should be noted. It is well know that all avant-garde artists did not embrace well-developed story line, which was often pejoratively dubbed a “literary” approach. Accordingly, in Zaltsman’s works it is difficult to see illustrative, narratively-based approach as such. However, by his own propensities, Zaltsman was close to the literary means of creation: he was writing actively in the poetic and prosaic format and those works are still waiting to be published and read by a large audience. For those who were familiar with Zaltsman’s experimentation in literature, his graphical works resonated very well – even if they related to yet unwritten novels and poems. On the other hand, Zaltsman’s work as an artistic director in cinema influenced his compositions, often constructed as cinematic shots.
Zaltsman’s approach to male and female images is markedly different. If man for Zaltsman represents aggressive, risky, ego-driven drive, woman is, first of all, an object for contemplation and admiration and a stimulus for human drama. In the depiction of male figures, the hands are often accentuated while the rest of the body is poorly elaborated, blending in with the background. Female figures are often presented as half-naked or naked in their materiality. There is no grotesque here, the emphasis is on classical beauty of body and face.
Some male types move from one picture into another. They are represented as risk-takers and gamblers, warriors and traders, sly wise men, ironically interpreted dreamers. Some of the female images are undoubtedly based on real personages of the turbulent and intense private life of the author. Interesting male characters are shown in their mature age; the attractive women in Zaltsman’s paintings are always young.
It is informative to trace the development of the architectonic theme in Zaltsman’s paintings, influenced by Filonov’s interpretation of city-scape, which in turn owed a great deal to the Byzantine iconography depicting cult architecture. Zaltsman’s forms can best be described using Malevich’s term “architecton”, since they are neither landscapes nor historical views. There is no analogues in the history of art, apart, perhaps, from El Greko “The View of Toledo”. The abandoned villages, towns and cities bear in their half-destroyed buildings traces of unknown disappeared civilisations. They are akin to dreams about the past where features of the real buildings have turned into abstract symbolic constructions, pure forms. As in poetry, the rhythm, the proportions, the harmony is more important here than words or a story-line. The picture works through specific visual means which cannot be captured through narrative.
What are the commonalities between the mature style of Zaltsman and Filonov? Let’s briefly outline the most important ones, keeping in mind that such analysis is inevitably limited by time and space and has to leave much aside – including Filonov’s system as a whole phenomenon.
Zaltsman’s figurative compositions always include a group of people in some action, although this action does not necessarily bind them together and there is no single easily identifiable story-line in the picture. These features were also prominent in Filonov’s paintings, where narrative was always vague, interpreted by viewers individually. Filonov’s paintings were composed of the isolated images of people, each “in himself”, each existing in his own circumscribed reality. Although they were united as parts of one compositional whole, each of them represented a separate story line. Pavel Yakovlevich defined such co-existence of independent characters, each occupying unique temporal and spatial position within one compositional whole, as simultaneity. This allows us to understand one important feature of the structural organisation in Filonov’s and Zaltsman’s works.
Zaltsman’s compositions of faces and figures are obviously influenced by late- Filonov images of faces and masks. They are equally complex structurally. However, there is one important distinction highlighted by Zaltsman himself: “Filonov created abstract general types, while I am more concerned with individual concrete people”. Another distinction relates to the degree of deformation. Filonov created very complex deformations, as a result of which concrete forms and images often mutated into pure abstractions. The role of deformation in Zaltsman’s work is more limited – it is mainly used to highlight particular features of an image.
Within his analytic approach, Filonov also insisted on the “organic” method of creating forms and a final composition. He was opposed to the formulation of the ideas of the work, to preparatory sketches and drafts and to the use of models. The creative process is immediately reflected in painting and as such becomes an integral part of the work of art itself. Filonov urged the development of a work of art from small parts, from details – to the whole, from a chance occurrence of an element to any logic and regularity. This inverted sequence of the creating of a painting is peculiar and unique in Filonov’s analytic method.
The second period in Zaltsman’s art is closely linked to this principle. On a clean sheet of paper, in ink and gouache, different elements of a future work emerged in an apparently random order, to form a united whole later, through a transformation, unpredictable and unforeseen even by the creator. It is reminiscent of Freud’s interpretation of art as an artist’s exploration of his unconscious, those areas of his personality of which he is normally not aware. Perhaps that was the driving force behind “free” non-programmed creation of art works.
Filonov elaborated the theory of almost organic growth of form from the initial miniscule element, often individual stroke or point (the principle of “universal flowering”). However, Filonov’s pointillism was not a method of filling in an already given shape, but the method of constructing forms as such. By its nature, a form developed through this method becomes a different form.
Zaltsman developed his own pointillism, inspired by, but different from Filonov’s. He used a greater variety of drawing methods, including hatching, cross-hatching, broken hatching and stippling. As a result effects created by Zaltsman are unique: contrasting black and white graphical surfaces vibrate, while soft semi-transparent water-colours shimmer.
Filonov introduced the notion or principle of “craftedness” or “madeness” as one of the foundations of the analytic school, however, he did not define it precisely. Consequently, Zaltsman differently interpreted this principle in various stages of his career. In early stages “well made” meant fine execution, multi-layered painting and images based on the ideals of classical beauty. Later, “well made” came to mean formal and compositional integrity and balance, structural logic, while the images were often crude.
The aim of this article was to show interconnection between Filonov’s and Zaltsman’s art. On the one hand, such comparison provides us with some insights into Zaltsman’s art. On the other, outside the dichotomy teacher-follower lie two different personalities and artistic practices.
Pavel Filonov was a rare visionary artist. His art had prophetic qualities, just as did his personality. Sooner or later (more likely later), the true scale of his output will be understood and he will achieve status as one of world’s leading artists, who managed to capture the specificity of the twentieth century in its artistic expression. Filonov’s art was influenced by various historical traditions; however, he managed to integrate those often contradictory lines within one overarching unique system.
As a person, Filonov, like many creative geniuses was rather eccentric. His judgments about art and people often sounded controversial and could have been perceived equally well as prophetic or deviant. His passion and dedication to art, which sometimes looked like mania, subordinated all other aspects of his life, which on a personal level was ascetic. People like that are often misunderstood and avoided during their lifetime and then only gradually gain acceptance after their death.
The talent of Pavel Zaltsman was of a different scale. He belonged to the few dozens of very talented artists of the first half of the twentieth century, who did not aspire to the global transformation of art. Their practice was adequately limited in its scope, methods and themes. On a personal level, Zaltsman displayed rationality and moderation, combining fitting-in within the system with his fidelity to the best traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Polite and measured in his reactions, judgments and gestures, Pavel Zaltsman was more like a cool London dandy than a Parisian frenzy modernist artist.
However, despite all those differences, both artists shared a similar fate. Like Filonov, Zaltsman was not understood during his lifetime and even today generates rather limited interest in a small circle of people with the special expertise and interest in Russian avant-garde.
Zaltsman was very modest in his self-assessment, positioning himself among “secondary” artists. His creative output is not as wide and varied as Filonov’s, but only very few artists could be considered comparable to Filonov.
Perception changes with time. What Zaltsman managed to achieve was unique and original: it did not replicate anything that had been created before him. His multi-figured compositions and his empty phantasmagorical towns do not have analogues. As such, Zaltsman’s oeuvre represents an important, integral part of the aesthetic landscape of the twentieth century.
Filonov’s school as a whole came to life as a phenomenon under difficult and mainly adversary circumstances through the efforts of people entirely committed to art practice, people who worked not for the immediate recognition or official approval. They were measuring their work by internal – and very high – standards. As such, it was deeply elitist art that required a commeasurable intellectual effort from the audience. Naturally, such art was ignored and rejected during the Soviet time. What is doubly sad is that now Russian avant-garde is experiencing a second historical rejection – prompted by the advance of mass culture in Russia, celebrating mediocre taste and expectations. American postmodernism fills prestigious galleries with art objects degenerated to the level of design production. Such art can not even aspire to posterity; it is created as a temporary fad. Nevertheless, this epidemic of post-modern art has pushed the greatest achievements of European modernism – from Renoir and Klimt to Picasso and Filonov – to the second position.
This anti-intellectual development is not something new and is happening not for the first time. Perhaps cultural process as a whole can be seen historically as cyclical movement, comprised of rhythmical ascents and descents. Perhaps we are only witnessing at the moment a temporary “low” before the new “high”. And we know all too well that sometimes great achievements in art become appreciated only after decades of indifference. However, an artist has neither time, nor the ability to wait, and it is often left to his creations to pass the message to the next generation. That how Pavel Zaltsman’s heritage functions today – it reminds us about the ideals of true, eternal high art and works as an antidote to the wide-spread anti-intellectualism and impoverishment of culture.
Published in: Pavel Zaltsman. Live and oeuvre. Jerusalem, Philobiblon, 2007
Translated by J. Vasilieva