Russian Reaction

Selections from DUMA
November 30, 2002

 

Shame to All but to the Dead (also called Unemployed-ville), David Burliuk, 1933Oil on canvas, 84 1/4 x 60 1/4 inches

Shame to All but to the Dead (also called Unemployed-ville), David Burliuk, 1933Oil on canvas, 84 1/4 x 60 1/4 inches

In 1991, the Duke University Museum of Art began assembling a collection of modern Russian art covering the period 1812 to the present. It is composed of works by artists who lived and worked in Russia and the Soviet Union, as well as those who left during the waves of emigration that took place from 1917 to the 1980s. More than 600 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs are included in the ever-expanding collection.

Two works by David Burliuk represent the early emigré experience: a 1921 Japanese seascape and a dramatic, mural-sized canvas (60 by 84 inches) painted in New York in 1933. This work, Shame to All but to the Dead (also titled Unemployedville), was first seen at New York's Grand Central Gallery in 1933; it appeared along with Burliuk's "Manifesto." It was not seen in public again until acquired by DUMA in 1997.

The painting and its manifesto reflect Burliuk's political and philosophical statement on the Great Depression. Burliuk was an energetic and prominent figure in the Russian avant-garde and became a leading figure in the futurist movement, exhibiting in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Inspired by similar Dada and Italian futurist examples, he helped organize numerous spectacles whose ribaldry shocked the public. He also wrote futurist poetry and collaborated with the poet Vladimir Maiakovsky on the famous manifesto "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" (1912).

Burliuk's activities were so influential that he was dubbed by Kandinsky to be "the father of Russian futurism." During the Revolution, he moved to Vladivostok, then to Japan, and later to New York City.

Shame to All but to the Dead features at its right edge a Hooverville (labeled "Unemployedville"), home to a group of men. Each represents a distinct character, as noted by the artist: "Fear, Cynicism, Babbitry, Embrio (sic) of Protest, Love for good-time under every condition." At the center of the painting, the philosopher Diogenes lies dead with stones over his eyes. His lantern appears at right in front of the unemployed. At the far left is the modern city, constructed by workers now neglected and forgotten, like those who built Cleopatra's Needle, the Egyptian obelisk in New York City's Central Park, visible in the background.

Burliuk concluded the manifesto that accompanied the painting: "An immense city with tens of thousands and piles of food wasting away provokes me to give my picture a title: Shame to All but to the Dead."