Anyone who has watched the 2017 satirical movie The Death of Stalin will have a darkly humorous although roughly factual understanding of the events of 5 March 1953, when the Soviet dictator finally met his end. After 3 decades in which ‘Stalinism’ had increasingly dominated all aspects of political and cultural life in Russia and the wider Soviet Union, it would take the country many more years to adjust to life without this fearsome ruler.
The ever-popular Espionart post Stalin by Picasso (or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache) introduces readers to the equally ridiculous story of Picasso’s comically bad tribute to the newly-deceased tyrant. However, the painting of the leader that I find the most fascinating, due to its ambiguously perceptive portrayal of his menacing and mercurial character, is an oddly unrepresentative work by the Russian avant-garde painter, Pavel Filonov.
In the early 1910s, Filonov developed a unique painting style that he called Universal Flowering (Mirovoi rastsvet). Using fine brushes, Filonov meticulously crafted dense networks of line and colour, resembling the finest filigree or spider silk, that built up kaleidoscopic images from which the viewer can gradually distinguish layers of people and objects. He referred to these works as ‘formulas’. Filonov blended artistic inspiration from across Russian history with post-revolutionary experimentation, incorporating folk art, orthodox iconography, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and magical realism. While he was a contemporary of luminaries such as Malevich, Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and Mayakovsky, Filonov’s work has remained relatively unknown outside Russia due to his socialist principles. Refusing to sell his work to private collectors, even when he was left penniless and destitute, Filonov instead remained committed to his promise to leave his life works to the proletariat, hoping that they would eventually be housed in a dedicated museum in St Petersburg.
However, as Stalin consolidated his authority and gradually reduced all opportunities for deviation from his all-encompassing vision for Soviet life, Filonov was one of many Russian artists whose commitment to the revolutionary cause was cruelly betrayed. Previously renowned as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Filonov was left struggling to survive after his work was condemned as bourgeois and his large retrospective exhibition was banned in 1929. After more than a decade eking out a living in this inhospitable environment, in 1941 Filonov became one of the first of an estimated 1.5 million Russians to starve to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Yet it would take over 40 more years for Filonov’s work to be made available to the general public, after his descendants were finally permitted to bring his paintings out of the storerooms of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg in the late 1980s.
Sometimes lost of this dramatic biography is Filonov’s decision in 1936 to paint a large, sombre portrait of Stalin. That year, the period now known as the Great Terror or Great Purge was just getting started. Over the following years, political rivals, intellectuals and anyone else who Stalin saw as a potential threat to his total rule was condemned in a series of show trials or summarily arrested in the middle of night, tortured and executed. With little evidence to the contrary, Filonov’s portrait has been explained as an unsuccessful attempt to curry favour with Stalin’s regime by producing an official portrait of the ruler. But this haunting image, where Stalin appears to emerge out of the darkness, his eyes empty, black holes, his cold, hard stare unflinching and merciless, his face appearing more like a death mask than living flesh, instead suggests to me Filonov’s feelings of helplessness and inevitable tragedy in the face of the unforgiving Stalinlist machine.