As students, many of us learned that futurism was synonymous with Volodymyr Mayakovsky, but the famous poet only became a futurist after he visited the village of Chornyanka, located in the Kherson steppes, when David Burliuk hosted a group of friends at his family’s estate and ignited in them a new vision for literature – the idea of futurism. Yet, in school, we were never taught of David Burliuk, because he left the country during the Russian Revolution, eventually making his way to New York where he lived until his death.
Chornyanka was a place that was able to spark the imagination of young poets – Earl Alexander Mordvinova owned 50,000 hectares of the romantic Tavriya steppes, resonating with the Scythian spirit. A poet and writer at the time, Benedict Livshits wrote of Chornyanka: “Hundreds of sheep roamed the area, chasing flock from place to place, the direct offspring of Odysseus’ rams and sheep. In the fishing villages, which stretches from the sea to the overgrown reeds of Dnipro’s estuary, the homes are painted in striking colors, in pale peach, in white and turquoise, and adorned with fan-shaped palms or meandering greens rising out of Kherson vases.”
David Burliuk urged his young guests at Chornyanka to dismiss traditional poetry and its general assumptions. His peers, Volodomyr Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vasily Kamensky, Aleksei Kruchenykh, and Benedict Livshits, supported him, and he initiated the formation of a futurist literary group called “Hylaea” (the name the Greek historian Herodotus used to describe the area of Scythia at the mouth of the Dnipro River). However, not everyone agreed that this new movement should be labeled as “futurism,” that’s why they also called them “budetlianamy,” (men of the future). In 1910, the poets published an almanac called “A Trap for Judges,” and two years later, “A Slap in the Face of Public Trust.” This was also the name of their “Futurist Manifesto,” publicly declaring the group’s main aims and principles. Futurism proclaimed reverence for the future and a departure from the past, which evoked ruin and destruction. The movement’s dynamics were to change what they considered static sculptures, paintings and portraits. David Burliuk and his friends urged people to “wash their hands of the slimy books,” written by contemporary writers, despising their language, because they engaged in “word innovation.” Their movement attracted many followers.
David Burliuk is often called the “father of Russian Futurism.” This label can be explained by the fact that Chornyanka, at that time, was in the Russian Empire and the Russian language prevailed in that area. He, himself, said that he was “a Ukrainian steppe native,” and in 1937 he wrote to his colleague Mychailo Semenko, a theorist of Ukrainian Futurism, “I am mainly interested in Ukrainian folk art, Ukrainian archeology, and all that relates to Zaporizhia and to free Ukrainian Cossacks, of which I consider myself an integral descendant.” It could be no other way: David Burliuk was born on a Slobozhan farm in Semyrotivka, and raised on the Kherson steppes, he studied in Sumy and Odesa, as well as in Munich and Paris. His mother Ludmila Mychnevych drew him into his Ukrainianism. During the Russian Revolution he was sympathetic, embracing something new, which destroyed the old world. The Bolsheviks, however, dealt a painful blow to his family as his brother Volodymyr died, and his brother Mykola was shot. David Burliuk then traveled through the Urals and the Far East, arriving in Japan, and then making his way to the U.S., where he eventually died in Hampton Bay, New York on January 15, 1967.
The Life of David Burliuk resembles a hurricane in the desert. Above all, he was an artist-innovator, who was not acceptable to the Bolshevik regime. Even before the revolution he held an exhibition of futuristic paintings in Kyiv and Kherson, he published new collections, manifestos, and lectured in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, as well as other cities in Ukraine, illustrating futurism, editing journals and newspapers. In Munich he was part of an expressionist group called “The Blue Riders,” and in Japan, he taught artists to do linocut.
In his paintings, David Burliuk tried to capture the delight he had with primitivism, which he valued for showing an insightful perspective, and the fresh and primitive feelings of the artist. When in 1962 Burliuk requested to show his work in Kyiv, Moscow rejected his proposal. As paintings had already been shipped in anticipation of such a show, an exhibition took place in Prague instead. The artist’s legacy was treated differently in the U.S., where Burliuk’s work was displayed at the Cultural Center in Chicago in July 2006 at the exhibition “Modernism in Ukraine: 1910-1930,” as well as in November 2008 at the Ukrainian Museum in New York.
The Futurist Manifesto read: “The person who doesn’t forget his first love, won’t recognize his last.” I have long thought about the requirement to forget one’s first love, and have realized that in his later years David Burliuk remembered his first love. His paintings don’t show any abstract art. They are close to primitivism, like amateur artists, depicting ordinary people doing their daily chores. Burliuk sang the song of the Ukrainian steppes.
Note from the Editor:
In 1967 David Burliuk was posthumously awarded membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His paintings are in the collections of many world-famous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Smithsonian Art Museum, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, The National Art Museum of Ukraine, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. Burliuk’s works are also in many private collections.
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