Treasures from the Vault: David Burliuk

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

David Davidovich Burliuk was born in 1882 in Semyrotivka near Kharkiv, Ukraine. He began his artistic training in Odessa before traveling to Kazan, Munich, Paris, and Moscow. Referred to as “an omnivorous artist, interested in everything and open to the whole world,”i Burliuk’s travels speak to the fluid international sharing of ideas and styles between artists that was a hallmark of that time.  

Active in important avant-garde exhibitions in Kyiv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Munich, in 1911, Burliuk and his brother, Vladimir, participated in the Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibition in Munich with Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Gabriele Münter, among others. Kandinsky and Marc published a related almanac of the same name in which they wrote, “The whole body of work we call art knows neither borders nor nations but only humanity.”ii Burliuk contributed an article entitled “The Wild Russian.”  

Burliuk organized a group of avant-garde artists and poets named Hylaea, the Greek name for the ancient Scythian lands (a region of central Eurasia). Acknowledged as the father of the Russian and Ukrainian Futurist movement, it was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, not Burliuk, who first published a Futurist manifesto in Italy in 1909 in which he turned his back on the past and looked enthusiastically towards the city, industry, and machines to inspire an equally dynamic new art. The works attempted to show movement in time and space using fractured planes.  

Subsequently, in 1912, Burliuk and Hylaea penned “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” Based on its title, it comes as no surprise that the document called to upend old traditions that had become stale and outmoded. He and his group traveled to 17 cities throughout Russia promoting their Futurist art and poetry in performances. Burliuk was flamboyant and iconoclastic; he was often adorned with a black top hat, paint on his face, a single drop earring, and was known to wear a radish or carrot on his lapel. 

Burliuk absorbed ideas gained from his travels in Italy, Germany, and France. Although revolutionary in style, his art embraced his Ukrainian heritage, both past and present, over Marinetti’s fascination with technology. Images of the Cossack had hung in Ukrainian homes since the 17th century. In Burliuk’s Cossack Mamai (1908) the artist used exuberant colors like Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck in France and fragmented space into planes like Pablo Picasso in his Cubist works. Art historian Myroslava M. Mudrak pointed out that Burliuk’s group “regarded themselves, symbolically, as modern-day combatants fighting the timorous complacency of the bourgeoisie, hence their association with ancestral warriors.”iii Burliuk prided himself in being a descendant of the Cossacks. Myroslav Shkandrij described the Cossack as “a national hero who defended his people, primarily against Tatar and Turkish incursions from the south, he is an archetypal figure, symbolic of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency.”iv  

Burliuk left for Japan in 1920 and introduced Futurism there. In 1922, he and his wife moved to New York City; he became a US citizen in 1930. From 1923 to 1940 he was the art editor and proofreader for the Russian Voice, a Communist newspaper. He also published a magazine, Color & Rhyme.  

The museum’s undated watercolor entitled Sancta Simplicitas brings together unconnected items on the beach. Its enigmatic quality may have been influenced or reinforced by European modernist art that was being introduced to the American public in the 1920s and 1930s in New York.  

A watercolor that shows a sea with a ship and castle in the background, with mountains breaking up the seascape and skyline. In the foreground, a man smoking sits beneath a sign with "sancta simplicitas" on it. Strewn around the yard the man sits on are books, statues, and instruments. A jester points to a plinth and to the right is a castle.
David Burliuk, American, 1882-1967. Sancta Simplicitas. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper, undated. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Dorsky, 1977.80. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Italian Metaphysical School painter Giorgio de Chirico’s first solo exhibition in the US was organized by the Valentine Gallery in 1928. A forerunner to Surrealism, de Chirico painted lonely views of piazzas and long colonnades that included unrelated objects that often alluded to Greco Roman culture. The Serenity of the Scholar (1914) was included in the exhibition. In 1932, the Julien Levy Gallery presented the first exhibition on Surrealism in the US, including Salvador Dalí’s dream-like Persistence of Memory, one of his most famous paintings. Surely, Burliuk would have seen these exhibitions, and their influence is evident in the museum’s watercolor.  

In Sancta Simplicitas Burliuk juxtaposes objects from different time periods, like de Chirico. There are references to Greek and Roman culture in the triumphal arch, Doric column, and fallen marble head. Architecture and tall ships from centuries later combine with enlarged hardware that litters the grass. While de Chirico’s work tends to be melancholic and Dalí’s anxious, Burliuk’s is lighthearted, perhaps due to the vividness of the watercolor paint. He also uses an incisive line of someone adept at caricature, adding to its sense of play. The seated man smoking may be the artist. His nod to classicism is presented with a bit of irreverence, though, as there is a large egg tethered to the top of the Greek column. A sign bears the Latin phrase sancta simplicitas, meaning holy innocence or simplicity, often used to mock someone’s naivete. This satirical tone is emphasized by the presence of the gesturing clown or fool, a figure who is often the one holding wisdom in literature and art.  

Sancta Simplicitas, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s The Dreamer (1938), and Ancient Greek Man (1933) share this surreal, humorous quality. It is likely that the museum’s watercolor dates to the 1930s as well. In The Dreamer, Burliuk also drew from classical themes, in this case the Cyclops Polyphemus from Greek mythology. The floating man in the top hat may be the artist back when he was in Europe and Russia.  

In 1940, Burliuk purchased a home in Hampton Bays, Long Island, and he and his family made it their year-round home in 1941. His paintings often recalled imagery from his years back home in Ukraine of peasants, cows, and the fields. At this time, he formed a summer artist colony called the Hampton Bays Group that included several emigrés from eastern Europe and other Americans: Nicolai Cikovsky, Rafael and Moses Soyer, John Graham, Milton Avery, and Arshile Gorky. In this way, he continued to flout borders and focus on the human in art.

i Yevgenia Petrova, Russian Futurism and David Burliuk: “The Father of Russian Futurism” (St. Petersburg, Russia: Palace Editions, 2000), 173. 

ii “The Blue Riders Almanac The Book,” DOCPLAYER, March 17, 2022,

iii Myroslava M. Mudrak, “Incidental Modernism: Episodes of Symbolism in Modern Ukrainian Art, “ Harvard Ukrainian Studies 36, no. 3-4 (2009): 315. 

iv Futurism and After: David Burliuk 1882-1967 (Winnipeg, Canada: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2008), 13. 

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