The Futurist rebellion of David Burliuk

Peasant with Chickens, 1953, David Burliuk. Peasant with Chickens, 1953, David Burliuk. Sold for $92,500 via Phillips (April 2010).

Often referred to as the father of Russian Futurism, David Burliuk (or David Burljuk) was a poet and cubist artist central to the Russian Avant-garde movement who challenged and even physically fought convention, before the natural delights of Long Island helped to temper his rebellion. 

Portrait of David Burliuk

David Burliuk in 1914 wearing Cubo-Futurist face paint. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

David Burliuk was a punk. Not a leather-jacketed Sex Pistols punk with safety pins through his ears, but as a rebellious figure in the Russian contemporary art world in the early part of the 20th century, Burliuk and his Cubo-Futurist cohorts challenged – even assaulted – social norms. They walked in public spaces wearing ridiculous clothes, painted their faces, wrote plays incomprehensible to the public, and were even known to fight audiences at their poetry recitations.

Born in what is now Ukraine in 1882, David Burliuk studied at Odessa Art School and the Royal Academy in Munich, where he was described as a “wonderful wild steppe horse” by his professor. It was clear that he was never going to fade into the background after graduation, and he formed the futurist literary group Hylaea in 1910 with his brothers (Waldimir and Nikolay Burliuk), along with Vasily Kamensky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksey Kruchenykh and Vladimir Mayakovsky

Untitled, David Burliuk.

Untitled, David Burliuk. Sold for £75,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2016).

The group morphed into literary Cubo-Futurism, which became the predominant form of Futurism in Russia. The group’s 1915 Christmas Party exemplified their taste for the Avant-Garde and refusal to stick to social convention. Guests were greeted by the tree hanging upside down from the ceiling, while others arrived with vegetables in their buttonholes and in bizarre make-up while war raged across Europe following the outbreak of World War I.

Momentous journey

But the revelry was cut short when, a year later, David’s brother, Vladimir Burliuk was drafted into military service and was killed in Saloniki in Greece. So, a year before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, David Burliuk fled Russia and began the long journey to the United States, where he eventually landed in 1922, having journeyed through Siberia, Japan and Canada on a momentous four year journey with his wife and two sons. 

Much like in pre-war Russia, Burliuk would embed himself in a group of pioneering artists, this time in Hampton Bays in Suffolk County, Long Island. Sharing politically progressive views, Burliuk and his comrades Nicolai Cikovsky and the Soyer brothers, Moses and Raphael explored a variety of styles, including realistic, surreal and folk-primitive. Collectively, the group were affectionately known as the Hampton Bays Art Group, as the Russian émigrés created a bohemian paradise of artistic progression and political discourse while making the most of the landscapes in their art.

Broad palette 

During this historically important early period Burliuk fused a variety of influences from Fauvism to Cubism and Futurism, which he absorbed and combined with his love of nature. This would become even more evident for David Burliuk in Long Island. Much his most sought-after work is from this Cubist period, with works such as In The Church (1922), Spring (date unknown), and Japanese Fisherman (1921) proving to be in demand with collectors and museums alike.

Burliuk would attract unwanted attention during the McCarthy era due to his involvement with organizations and publications that were alleged to have Communist sympathies, but it was his art that would leave the greater impression over time. Perhaps softened by the landscapes of the area, Burliuk’s once hard-edged Avant Garde approach and almost confrontational artistic style gave way to a gentler approach, as characterised by his later floral landscapes, which embraced soft hues, the generous landscape and a more Post-Impressionist style.

Extensive catalogue

As the first of the Hampton Bays Art Group to move to area, Burliuk’s house was a nest of activity for all things art related, as well as a social hub. Burliuk’s property included a gallery that hosted poetry readings, dances and exhibits. There was even a guest register where visitors shared their camaraderie with snatches of poetry and sketches.

Thanks to his time in this haven for artistic endeavor, works by David Burliuk at auction appear quite frequently, with prices at achievable figures. Thanks to his prolific output and the fact that he was roundly rejected by the mainstream art world and American public during most of his career, it is certainly possible for collectors to find pieces by David Burliuk for sale

Life after death

Burliuk’s work gained popularity in the mid-20th century, thanks to a surge in demand from famous modern art collectors like Onya La Tour. And by no means is art work all available for a bargain price, as his most valuable painting In The Church (1922) sold for over £320k ($660k) in 2007, featuring a prominent David Burliuk signature.

David Burliuk died in Long Island in 1967. That same year he was posthumously honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work is housed in many collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., as well as the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv, and the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto.

by Dan Mobbs