Pavel Filonov was Russian painter, graphic artist and poet. He came from a working-class background; orphaned in childhood, he moved to St Petersburg, where he earned money through embroidery, house painting, restoring buildings and icons, and other tasks such as retouching photographs and making posters and wrappers for goods (a practical apprenticeship he never forgot). His interest in drawing and painting developed through copying, making portraits and the close study of human and animal anatomy. He entered the Academy of Arts, St Petersburg (1908) with difficulty but he left without graduating; his only important teacher was L. E. Dmitriyev-Kavkazsky (1849–1916), with whom he studied privately. Largely self-taught, he was a man of considerable intellectual powers.
Filonov’s earliest mature work dates from 1909–10, notably A Hero and his Fate (oil on canvas; St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.). Subsequently, partly for financial reasons, he generally painted in watercolour or oil on paper. He wandered extensively through Russia, the Near East and western Europe. From 1910 to 1914 he exhibited regularly with the Union of youth and he met and collaborated with the leaders of Russian literary Futurism, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksey Kruchonykh, but Filonov’s modernism was essentially his own. It was rooted in Russian folk and primitive art, in medieval Russian wall painting, in the linear manner of Dürer, the teeming imaginations of Bosch and Bruegel, the heightened, crowded realism of works by Vasily Surikov and Konstantin Savitsky and in the fragmented textures of the work of the Symbolist Mikhail Vrubel’.
In 1919, he exhibited in the First Free Exhibit of Artists of All Trends at the Hermitage. In 1923, he became a professor of St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and a member of the Institute for Artistic Culture (INKhUK). He organized a large arts school of Masters of Analytical Realism (over seventy artists). Their work influenced suprematism and expressionism.
In 1929, a large retrospective exhibition of Filonov art was planned at the Russian Museum; however, the Soviet government forbade the exhibition from going forward. From 1932 onward, Filonov literally starved but still refused to sell his works to private collectors. He wanted to give all his works to the Russian Museum as a gift so as to start a Museum of Analytical Realism. He died of starvation on December 3, 1941 during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad.