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Art History

Georgy Filippovsky, Catcher of the Elusive
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Illustration for ‘Odessa Stories’ by Isaac Babel

any works created by artists repressed or silenced during the Soviet times were saved by private collectors. Such is the case with Grigory Georgievich Filippovsky, a classic name in the field of book illustrations.

An artist who in 1938 fell victim to the Stalinist terror, Filippovsky was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and later exiled to the town of Syktyvkar, where he nevertheless managed to work as a theatre designer. Freed in 1948, Filippovsky returned to Moscow to start working as a book illustrator, one of the few creative outlets available to persecuted artists. He died in 1987. For the first time a solo show was organized at the house-museum of book publisher I.D. Sytin in 1995 by a private art collector Emmil Kazandzhan. The paintings and drawings were hung in two beautiful exhibition rooms at Tverskaya Ulitsa 12, and revealed different aspects of the artist’s amazing talent. Since then many other exhibitions of Filippovsky have been held in Moscow, including at the Tretyakov Gallery, The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, The Kovcheg Gallery, the A-3 Gallery, and the Literary Museum.

Born in Minsk in 1909, G.G. Filippovsky’s whole creative career is nevertheless connected with Moscow where he moved at the end of the 1920s.

His paintings, subtle in color and sophisticated in technique, seem to convey the mood of the artist’s inner world. “Behind the Wings” (1932) captures the miraculous atmosphere of life in the theatre while “Leningrad” (1937) is a somewhat gloomy painting, seeming to foreshadow the catastrophe of World War II and the tragic blockade of the eponymous city.

Illustration for ‘Death by Tarelkin,’ by Sukhovo-Fobylin

His works also include a number of portraits of artists who Filippovsky was friends with: Painter Lev Zevin (1935), Architect A. Pevzner (1952), writer Samuil Marshak (1962), artist Vladimir Miloshevsky (1979) as well as several portraits of poet Boris Pasternak.

Pasternak and Filippovsky met in 1955, and their friendship lasted until the poet’s death in 1960. “Pasternak at the Grand Piano at his Dacha in Pererdelkino, near Moscow” (1956), two pencil portraits of the poet (1955) and, finally, a portrait entitled “Pasternak as Hamlet” (1956); all these portraits “are seeking to grasp the fundamental” as the poet wrote in one of his poems. “To the catcher of the elusive, Grigory Georgievich Filippovsky,” wrote Pasternak as an inscription on one of his portraits painted by the artist.

In addition, during their acquaintance, Filippovsky created a new series of illustrations for Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Filippovsky was closely linked with the so-called “Group of 13,” a group of painters, which included Zevin, Miloshevsky, the Burlyuk brothers, the Kashin sisters, Drevin, Udaltsova, Mavrina, Kuzmin and others. In the words of Kazanszhan, the group were “Russian impressionists with a good, solid realistic foundation,” although, in the heyday of Socialist Realism, they were clearly distinct from the establishment art world.

Filippovsky studied at the All-Russian Higher Art Workshop, which in the 1920s ranked as one of the best art schools in Europe. His teachers were Gerasimov, who gave the artist his initial academic base, Osmyorkin, who taught him audacity and scrupulous attention to form, and Drevin, who imparted the subtlety characteristic of the Group of 13’s work. Filippovsky’s Portrait of a Girl (1951), stands as a fine example of the artistic credo of the Group of 13.

In fact, Kazandzhan wonders why Filippovsky was not a member of the Group himself.

The range of fiction which the artist illustrated is enormous: from Konstantin Fedin’s “Towns and Years” to Geovagnoli’s “Spartakus”, Paul Scarron’s “The Comic Novel”, William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” and Maupassants’s short stories.

His original drawings for Alfonse Daudet’s “Tartarin de Tarascon” (1965), Moliere’s “Don Juan” (1951), Sukhovo- Kobylin’s “Dramativ Trilogy” (1936) and Boris Pilnyak’s “The Naked Year” (1965) have also survived thanked to Kazandzhan’s efforts. Part of his collection of Filippovsky’s works are drawings for Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker” (1955), the phantasmal color world; a striking contrast with the black-and-white drawings for Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet,” the French author’s novel about the pragmatic life of the French bourgeoisie.

Illustration for ‘Odessa Stories’ by Isaac Babel

Illustration for ‘Odessa Stories’ by Isaac Babel

Kazandzhan thinks that Filippovsky the artist started with his illustrations to “Odessa Stories” by Isaak Babel, which appeared in 1931. Filippovsky was only 22 at that time, but his debut was very successful. Babel himself liked Filippovsky’s works. Maxim Gorky also approved of them. After that A.M. Efros, one of the leading figures of Moscow cultural life of that time, offered Filippovsky to work for the Academia Publishers. That’s where the artist illustrated “Spartakus”, “Hamlet”, Scarron and Tegner. It was a good time in the Soviet book publishing. Many wonderful books with superb illustrations were published. But then came 1937 and Academia was dispersed. Filippovsky and Babel were sent to gulags. However, unlike Babel, Filippovsky survived and was released thanks to the intercession of Kukryniksy (the acronym of 3 famous Soviet satirical artists – Kupriyanov, Krylov and Sokolov).

After the gulag a new period of the artist’s creativity began. He was commissioned to make illustrations for two volumes of Balzac and

Illustration for ‘Odessa Stories’
by Isaac Babel

Flaubert alongside with other outstanding artists – Kuzmin, Miloshevsky, Mavrina and Bekhteev. The most important work was given to Filippovsky. He was entrusted to illustrate “Salambo”, the only historical novel by Flaubert and the highly philosophic novel by Honore de Balzac “La Peau de chagrin”/ “The Shagrin Skin”.

Emil Kazandzhan himself has made a unique contribution to Russian culture. During the Soviet period, the collector acquired a great deal of art from “underground” painters, literally saving the works from total destruction. His collection includes works by such Russian 20th century artists as P. Kuznetsiv, V. Lebedev, N. Krymov, A. Rylov, A. Tyshler, A. Fonvizin, V. Ryndin, N. Kuzmin, T. Mavrina, A. Ivanov, A. Sofronova, V. Yakovlev, M. Akselrod and others. “Sometimes I would buy pictures, which had been lying in dusty piles, from the artists’ widows,” says Kazandzhan. “It was only after restorers Tamara Aristarkhova and Larisa Yashkina had worked their wonders with them that they became works of art again.”

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