While I can’t say that many great artists came out of the province of Samara, two world-famous masters of art can be called sons of the local soil. Konstantin Gorbatov, born in Stavropol-on-Volga, is one, while Filipp Malyavin, born in the village of Kazanka, is the other. I’d like to talk about Malyavin today, this bright and extraordinary figure of the Russian modernism – this emigre who managed to become one of the most fashionable painters of the Silver age, the epoch of the Russian avant-garde.
He was born in October 1869 in the family of a peasant. As a boy he loved above all two things – the sound of bells ringing and to draw with charcoal. “I always, always looked at its belfry and onion domes, and was extraordinarily glad when I heard its ring, especially during the great festivals. I’d first hear the strike and then the ring, and when I looked around, everyone’s crossing themselves, and it seemed to me that behind that ring, far far away, was something else, much better and more wonderful,” Malyavin recalled later. The youngster’s interests led him with a monk he knew to Mt Athos, where, aged sixteen, he joined the Orthodox monastery of St Pantalaimon. For nearly six years he served his noviciate, working at the monastery’s studio of iconography, where the gifted youth absorbed its basic principles. He then got into trouble with the authorities for portraying icons in his own style, diverging from the canon. Here fate intervened when the sculptor Vladimir Beklemishev, at the time touring through Greece, visited Mt Athos and saw his sketches and pictures. Beklemishev recognised Malyavin’s talent and invited the young man at St Petersburg. Beklemishev helped Malyavin pass examinations and become volunteer at the Academy of Art. This was in 1892. Beklemishev recalled, “Malyavin was an interesting fellow. Gifted with a remarkable, inquiring mind, he was a veritable infant when it came to real life. He had to learn everything from scratch. We had to wean him away from all his monastic training.”
Malyavin was fortunate in his teachers. In 1894, he worked in the studio of Ilya Repin, who helped him unearth his unusual talent. Fairly soon thereafter, he began to exhibit his portraits and genre works, some of which were seen and purchased for his gallery by Pavel Tretyakov. But his great success – bordering on scandal – came to him in 1899 when he presented at the Academy of Art his painting Laughter. This was a competition piece in order to receive the title of artist. For that time, it was too bold. Everything in it shocked the public, the academy and the critics: the subject matter, the bold composition, the colour and brightness, and the deliberate lack of completion. He was accused of lacking plot, the absence of any ideas, the careless manner of execution and sundry other sins. The famous critic Stasov referred to the laughing women as Shakespeare’s witches from Macbeth, and called the illustrated scene devilish. So Malyavin ended up receiving the title of artist not for this bold and scandalous Laughter, but for portraiture.
And yet the French received Laughter with great and positive feeling! At the World Fair in Paris in 1900, Malyavin was feted for his temperament, artistry, brightness, the depiction of village life and deep understanding of Russian life. The painting received a gold medal, and was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in Venice, where it remains to this day.
From Europe, Malyavin returned a famous artist. He married, bought a mansion at a picturesque location near Ryazan, and until 1920 lived here almost continuously, painting his famous peasant women. In 1902, he painted Three Peasant Women, which also went abroad, acquired by the Luxembourg Museum in Paris.
Malyavin’s bold art with its contingent backgrounds, large figures, shallow spaces and extraordinarily resonant colour, emphasised the decorative. Yet in the early 20th century it was often regarded as a challenge. His painting Whirlwind, shown at the Mir Isskustv (World of Art) exhibition, was perceived by his contemporaries as directly connected to the revolutionary sentiments of the era. It should be noted that since his early days of iconography, Malyavin wielded red paint with panache. Critics said of the painting: The colours burn. To look at them for long hurts the eyes, and still one doesn’t want to turn away. There is something fascinating and attractive about them. The Tretyakov gallery quickly procured the painting.
The final work by Malyavin in Russia was the Portrait of Lunacharsky, which he showed in 1922 at the exhibition of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. Lunacharsky introduced Malyavin to Lenin, and obtained access for the artist into the Kremlin to paint from life the Communist leaders. Malyavin did not paint pictures glorifying the leaders of the Revolution. Although his sketches from the period, including images of Lenin, still survive, in Soviet times they were not remembered as from 1922 he lived abroad.
Malyavin was permitted to travel to France to set up a solo exhibition. He stayed in Paris, and his exhibition took place in 1924 to much acclaim. Contemporaries recall that the artist tried hard to integrate into the alien environment and unfamiliar life. Till World War II, Malyavin continued to produce graphic and pictorial works dedicated, always, to Russian themes. He painted landscapes and portraits on order, but he never returned to the heights of his previous achievements. Some critics attribute this to his lack of general education, the lack of depth in his knowledge of world culture; his art was created largely intuitively, founded on untrained temperament. Many say that Malyavin’s skills could not develop abroad, and that they atrophied at some point. Fyodor Chaliapin remarked that Malyavin’s old women were now skinny and lean faced, and only the air of his native lands could refresh him…
However, the artist continued to work hard abroad, took his exhibitions throughout Europe, sold well. The Second World War found him in Brussels where he was detained by the occupation authorities, interrogated on suspicion of espionage and released. The artist suffered terribly, walked halfway across Europe to Nice. The seventy year-old body of Malyavin could not handle the strain, and he died on December 23, 1940. N. Kozhevnikov recalled that Malyavin’s daughters had to sell fifty of his paintings for a son to an art dealer from Strasbourg to cover his funeral costs.
Having lived the last twenty years of his life abroad has determined his position in the western art markets. His legacy – about 90 paintings and hundreds of drawings – have been actively sold at auctions over the past two decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was scarcely an auction at Sotheby’s that did not have a work by Malyavin. Prices for his works have steadily climbed – from five to ten thousand dollars in the early 1990s to half a million dollars today. Malyavin’s Riding a Sled (1933) was estimated at £220,000 and sold for £517,700 at auction in 2009. Most of Malyavin’s works are sold from private collections. Because of this, often previously unknown works pop up at auctions. So in 2010, a previously unknown painting by Malyavin Portrait of the singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya in the costume of a boyar in Kursk was sold in the Czech Republic. It was displayed at an exhibition of his works in Prague, and then disappeared into a Czech private collection. Works of Russian artists of this level hadn’t been seen at Czech auctions in the previous ten years. The portrait was sold for 2.5 million crowns (around $120,000) having started at 650,000 crowns (about $30,000).
It was essential for the Volga Art Gallery to add to the two drawings purchased many years ago, and to obtain at least one complete painting by our great countryman. In November of this year, the wish came true. Malyavin’s The Sheep-Shearer, coming from a British private collector, was purchased at MacDougall’s auction house in London.
Now the works of Filipp Malyavin can be seen on display at the Volga Art Gallery side by side to the works of other great masters of Russian painting, who can be called the forerunners of modern realism – great sons of the Volga, K. Petrov-Vodkin, K. Gorbatov, S. Yuzhanin.
[Translated from Филипп Малявин в Тольятти, Tolyatti Main News, Monday.info. (December 11, 2012.)