Filipp Andreevich Malyavin (October 22, 1869, the village of Kazanka, Samara Province - December 23, 1940, Nice, France) was a Russian painter and draftsman. He began to master the basics of painting in the monastery of Mount Athos, from where he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and studied under the personal guidance of Ilya Repin. He painted portraits, for the most part, combining the main characteristics of impressionism, expressionism and modernism. Since the 90s of the XIX century, he had been gaining major inspiration in painting powerful portraits of men of the people and had been diligently developing a peasant theme almost until the end of life.
Features of the artist Filipp Malyavin’s works: his paintings were rather indefatigable and had an exuberant character to them. His art did not fit into specific stylistic boundaries and impressed both with the scale of the paintings (Malyavin rarely took up canvas less than a square meter in size) and with his passion for painting, which was embodied in the swift pressure of a swirl brushstroke and fiery red colors.
The biography of the artist Malyavin was as exuberant, exciting and eccentric as his paintings were. Being a child from a poor peasant family, he had made his way from a novice in the monastery of Mount Athos to a student at The Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and then became a fashionable, widely known painter in Europe.
His independent and peculiar vision of the Russian peasantry provoked the indignation of domestic critics and the delight of overseas connoisseurs of exotic art performed by an extravagant prodigy from the Russian outback.
As Lomonosov but in painting
A native of the village of Kazanka (the current territory of the Orenburg region) very early began to show his interest in painting. “I ran collecting coal,” Malyavin recalled, “and painted everywhere – on the walls, on the wheels, on the gates, and even on ash.” In addition to drawing, the boy was fond of creating clay figurines and gave them away to everyone who was interested in birds and animals.
His grandfather was famous for his skill in woodcarving, so Filipp had an opportunity to learn what beauty was early on. And when he inherited pencils from his grandfather, it was a real treasure for the future artist. The neighbors, seeing his desire for drawing, persuaded his father, poor farmer, Andrei Ivanovich, to send his son to study art. But he, barely making ends meet, grumbled in response: “There is no possibility for a peasant to become a scientist, especially if we’re talking about poor people”.
Little Filipp, aside from other things, was distinguished by intelligence and quick wit. He easily learned to read and write under the mentorship of a local sergeant major. And since only images of saints in a rural church were available in terms of any works of art at that time, the boy became interested in pursuing the dream to learn icon painting. He was fascinated by the Athos icons, so he strove to get into the workshop on the Holy Mountain in order to master that craft there.
His mother, Domna Klimovna, too, was not particularly delighted with her son’s choice. “Only orphans are given out of the house,” she said. But fate decreed otherwise: a sixteen-year-old teenager, Filipp, went after the Athos monk, who, by a happy coincidence, visited relatives nearby. The villagers raised funds together for a long journey to Greece – they believed in growing talent so much.
Someone just came down the hill
Malyavin became a novice in the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos. From 1885 to 1892, he worked diligently in the icon-painting workshop, observing the strict monastic charter. But the peaceful course of ascetic life was interrupted by the artist’s acquaintance with the Russian sculptor, Vladimir Beklemishev, who visited the Holy Mountain during his European voyage. He was so impressed with Malyavin’s artworks that somehow convinced the monastic brotherhood to give the icon painter manumission, and shortly after that, he arranged his admission to the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and even lodged the artist in his own apartment for a little while.
Malyavin seriously stood out from the crowd of students: “He was a long-haired young man who was wearing a calotte hat. He seemed rather shy, confused and lonely “monk” dressed up in some sort of a cassock or, at least, it appeared to be that way. He was looking down and baptized a sheet of paper before starting to draw” – that was how his classmate Ostroumova-Lebedeva described her meeting with the artist.
But it was not only about the unusual appearance and pleasant temperament that amazed everyone about Malyavin at the Academy. His enthusiasm and learning abilities allowed him to master the head drawing class in just two months and to finish the figure drawing class for the same amount of time. And he painted as swiftly as his Swedish impressionist colleague Zorn, who the artist was often compared to.
The artist Grabar, another fellow student in the personal workshop of Ilya Repin, where Malyavin continued his studies after the reform at the Academy, recalled how he painted his portrait: “One day, he brought in his paint box and, approaching me, asked me to pose for a portrait. I just mounted the stretcher bars of high and narrow format on an easel with a new canvas to start the sketch of the sitter. Malyavin asked me to borrow a stretcher and in one session he created a portrait that made a sensation at the Academy. The portrait was completed in one sitting, and it shocked everyone to such an extent that the next day all the professors came running to look at it; Repin also came, admiring the power of clay work and the vitality of the portrait.”
The question is: to laugh or to cry
Already during his studies, Malyavin had found the theme of his whole life: from sedate and well-meaning salon portraits, he moved on to explosive monumental panel paintings, entirely devoted to the environment he knew better than anything else – the Russian peasantry. His graduation painting “Laughter” (1899) had made so much noise that the venerable academics awarded Malyavin the coveted diploma only because of Repin’s personal intercession. Having brought recognition in Europe and a gold medal to the artist at The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, the scandalous painting made him famous in his homeland as well.
Thereby, for some five-year period, the strange “monk” had become a big figure in the art world with substantial fees and a wealthy clientele. In 1906, at the age of 37, Malyavin received the title of academician and went abroad for three years. That trip made a huge impact on the already eccentric artist.
Having met Malyavin in Paris, Ostroumova-Lebedeva barely recognized him as her once modest classmate: “Once, he came to us and surprised us with his “European” appearance. He was wearing an overcoat, there was a cylinder on his head, and you could see long strands of hair hanging under it. He was also wearing bright red gloves and shoes of the same color. All of those clothes looked ridiculous and baggy on him. In his desire to dress up, he was naive and touching. We returned to Russia together. He made us laugh and embarrassed with his behavior in the carriage. He carried several wooden snakes with him. They, if taken by the tail, held horizontally in the air and at the same time bent with a movement very similar to living snakes. Malyavin poked out such a moving snake from the side or from above to the neighbors, and when some venerable German man or woman started screaming, he laughed out loud. We could not calm him down, and he, like a boy, had fun with all his heart.”
Power is in the truth
Having gained not only an enviable reputation in Europe, but also a much better financial situation, Malyavin bought the mansion not far from Ryazan. There he settled with his family for the next two decades, continuing to diligently produce magnificent portraits of his beloved peasant muses, both in size and content.
After the 1917 revolution, he was even trying to adapt to new realities. For some time he was engaged in cultural and educational activities among the masses, arranged the opening of an art gallery in Ryazan and taught in free art workshops. However, like many people of art at that time, Malyavin did not last long under the new regime. In 1922, he immigrated first to Berlin, and then to Paris and Nice, which became his last refuge. In 1940, he was not lucky to end up in occupied Brussels, where he was arrested on suspicion of espionage.
And, although the Gestapo chief, who turned out to be a connoisseur of art, let go of the seventy-year-old man peacefully, the way back home had frazzled him. He had to make his way from Belgium to France on foot, which drained the already elderly artist who was stricken by the arrest. Immediately upon returning to Nice, Malyavin entered the clinic, but he wasn’t able to leave its walls alive.
There is a legend according to which the original talent of an extraordinary painter was highly appreciated by Picasso himself. In response to a question by art critic Alpatov regarding Pablo’s opinion of Russian painting, he allegedly showed the drawings by Malyavin and enthusiastically declared: “Look at this portrait of Lenin - this is a living and genuine Lenin!”
What we know for sure is the secret because of which “the singer” of the Russian peasantry succeeded in so accurate, life-like artworks, the authenticity of which caught attention of the founder of Cubism: “You do not have to pay attention to colors, tones, sculpting, drawing; you embrace the whole object with one eye and delve into its character, its spirit and, when you catch something, bring it to the canvas without thinking that the tones are dirty, dark or light, that is to say, it’s not about the colors, it is about the truth.”