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Painting this or that canvas, an artist may not identify himself and leave his signature and date.
In time this creates problems for art critics and art appreciation experts. Hence come so many canvases in art galleries, museums and private collections - canvases painted by "unknown artists". It takes a lot of time and effort to identify the authors. This work involves the concerted effort and expertise of men and women competent in the pictorial arts and in the style of individual painters. Subtle and meticulous work with enigmas here and there...
By Natalia BRIEDIS, head of the opticophysical research sector, National Research-Restoration Center, Kiev, Ukraine
Experts had to grapple with enigmas like that when examining a series of paintings attributed to the brush of David Burliuk (1862- 1967)-an avant-garde artist and poet, who stood at the cradle of Russian futurism, a revolutionary movement born to life by the fitful decades of the early 20th century.*
Since his ideas and aesthetic credo were consonant with those of his contemporaries who sought to break the bounds of convention in literature, in the pictorial arts and on the stage, he made common cause with such standouts as Kazimir Malevich (avant- garde artist), Vladimir Mayakovsky (avant-garde poet and artist) and Velimir Khlebnikov (avant-garde poet).
In 1920 Burliuk left Russia - he lived first in Japan and then in the United States, where his works gained recognition already in the 1920s (and later, in Europe too) as a challenge to artistic canons which he would simplify down to primitivism. Burliuk ran a peculiar, individual gamut of colors meant to emphasize the intrinsic freedom of his ego.
David Burliuk did not sign and date some of his canvases. To make sure he was the author indeed, the Kiev Museum of Russian Art and the National Art Museum of the Ukraine invited a panel of experts for examination using the method of radiography (roentgenography) which allows to identify the individual style of a particular artist of the brush. The canvases in for expert examination were painted in the early period of Burliuk's artistic career. But four were signed and dated by the 1920s. Those were Merry-go-round (1921), Self-portrait(1921), Women of Hot Countries (1921), and Fishermen (1927). With the use of radiography we could determine the individual style of the author and thus take these paintings as a standard for comparative studies.
The Merry-go-round symbolizes a rotating wheel of life. We see a nude human figure in the middle of a sacrificial table. The ancient signs and symbols of this painting are characteristic of the futurist idiom that fills the words, notions and images with a profound philosophical meaning vis-a-vis a new era. At first glance it looked like a regular picture, there was nothing special about it. Yet radiography revealed something curious: the upper coat of paint that actually had no white lead in it was but half-formed; and there was another picture that had nothing in common with what the artist depicted on the canvas. Thanks to the significant difference in the radiographic density of paint coatings there came up the previous planar image of an angular futurist figure merging into the visible picture. Besides, way over to the left we could clearly read the signature and the date: Burliuk, 1928. But how come? Did not the author put another date, the year 1921, on his Merry-go-round?
These two signatures, opposite each other, were a clue to how the author treated his subject in the process of work: the original image was done in saturated, rough dabs of white lead against a dark (blue) background. Thereupon some elements of this image were used in the Merry-go-round, while others were painted over, but still coming through in the radiograph.
We must say that the partial painting over of the original background around the central figure or some other images (in this particular case, of an elephant-steed) is part of the pictorial technique manifest in other canvases by David Burliuk. One of the contemporaries of David and Vladimir Burliuk (both brothers were artists) and their friend, Benedikt Liwschitz, who made a thorough study of their works, had this to say about the attitude of the brothers to their work: "The Burliuk, not prone to slush sentimentality and flirting with their own past, would be quite ruthless in throwing their prematurely aged brainchilds from ... the Tarpejum saxum." That's why David Burliuk would use some of his older canvases for new paintings. As far as the Merry-go-round is concerned, Burliuk first produced it in 1921, and then again, as a remake, after 1928.
Yet another subtle point: David Burliuk, unlike his younger brother Vladimir with his penchant for a variety of geometric designs, preferred, as Liwschitz says, a "synthetic landscape: elements of the sky and expanded planar compositions imaged from four points of
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author.- Ed.
* See an article in this very issue of our magazine, "Russian Art: In Search of Identity". - Ed.
view..." During his work for the theater David Burliuk strove for originality of costumes, makeup and stage scenery as well as in the design of geometric figures (rhombi, ellipses, parabolas). We see something of this kind in these two canvases too.
Another canvas, Self-portrait, is remarkable for the dedication: "To Burliuk Graham" (?). What is that-Graham to Burliuk? The signature, however, is not the main thing for authentication - let's first take a close look at what is depicted. Again, the image has two coats of paint: radiography reveals a fairly large portraiture, reversed. The technique (background, certain elements) is similar to that used in the Merry-go-round. Besides, another thing to attract our notice-the skittish, jumpy little clouds on both sides of the human head. That's something odd for the art of portraiture, suggestive of rather arbitrary symbolism. But taking a hard second look we see that the painter tried to efface his own signature, quite out of place here, for it belonged to some other work done before (unfortunately we could not read that signature under thick dabs of paint). The little cloud to the right is less conspicuous in the texture, it must have been placed here for symmetry.
A comparative radiography of the reversed portrait image of Self-portrait with another picture, Fishermen, showed some similarity in the countenances of the depicted persons
(light-and-shade transitions, thin lines of the ovals of the faces as well as other techniques used to lend dimensionality to the images).
But here we come up against another conundrum-the author's signature on the Fishermen. Studying the gamut and texture of dabs, we saw that a patch in the right bottom corner was somewhat
different from the general background, for this patch was primed for the signature. An X-ray photograph confirmed our guess: yes, the artist took off some of the upper coat of paint. The picture and the signature on it may not concur in time. One cannot escape the impression that the author was up to some tricks and manipulations to mislead other generations of art critics. But maybe the author was not David Burliuk, who knows... This subject requires further research.
Yet another canvas - Women of Hot Countries - up for expert examination, belongs to the Japanese period of Burliuk's life. In its pictorial techniques it is akin to other works that Burliuk produced in the 1920s. The simple planar images gain dimensionality through contrasting color lines salient against a light background. But judging by radiography, this painting differs from the above three technologically. First, the artist used a coarse- grained canvas. A grid or cracks (or craquelure, as we say) shows that part of the paint is damaged by numerous refurbishings. And then the palette: thick
dabs of white lead blur an X-ray image and make it spotty; all that interferes with visual perception. In technique and technology, the author reveals himself as a colorist above all. The very manner is illustrative of Burliuk's texture - he said that "putting on a dab is a sculptural moment", and "the color overpaint of a picture is granular, fibrous or flaky in structure..." (Liwschitz).
Always in tireless quest, Burliuk produced an enormous number of canvases, trying his hand now in oils, now in tempera or in water colors. He was amazing both in the choice of his subject and in bold, unorthodox techniques.
The radiography of a few from among his paintings enables an insight into the artist's workshop and allows to answer some of the questions bearing on various aspects of his work. However, too many question marks are still there. David Burliuk's heritage is worthy of an all-round, in-depth research. We are on the initial leg of our road yet in studying the lifework of this talented master who left a bright trace in the culture of Ukraine, Russia and America.
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