Progression of Art
Acacias in Spring
This early work by Larionov shows a cluster of acacia trees isolated against a bright blue sky and puffy white clouds. Looking upward, the dark green tree trunks soar up, filling the canvas with their boughs. The sky is rendered in speckled azure and cornflower to suggest a clear and fresh day, while small clouds pass lightly through. The painting, which reveals the artist's close observation of nature, was inspired by Russian Post-Impressionist Igor Grabar. According to Anthony Parton, leading Larionov scholar, "The unusual viewpoint and use of boughs and branches form a skeletal structure within which to display the dappled effects of foliage and sky recall Grabar's painting February Azure of 1904."
Painted while Larionov was still a student at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, during his "Impressionist" period (1902-1906), this work, and others from this period, earned him the name "the finest Russian Impressionist." Influenced by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Édouard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard, Larionov was a keen observer and he often worked outside - en plein air. Although he had moved to Moscow in 1891 to attend school, he returned often to Tiraspol, where he could paint in the garden of his grandparents' home, using an old wooden door as an easel. Acacias in Spring was one of a number of similar canvases painted in this manner, along with Rose Bush after the Rain (1904) and Flowering Acacias (1906). The works were lauded by renowned Russian critic Nikolay Punin, who dubbed Larionov's impressionist works as an important contribution to the development of Russian modernism.
Oil on canvas - The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
In this 1908 still life painting, a selection of pears have been placed haphazardly on a dark wooden tabletop, resting on a brightly colored cloth in pink and white and set against a green decorative background with a bold leaf pattern. Here, Larionov's use of bold colors, his flattening of the picture plane, and preference for decorative patterning, reveal the influence of modern French painting in the wake of his 1906 visit to Paris to attend (and participate in) the Salon d'Automne. In his still life paintings from this period he has synthesized aspects of Fauvism, Symbolism, and the still lifes of Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, which led to Larionov establishing a name for himself as the "Russian Cézanne." As Anthony Parton has noted, "Pears...recalls the flattened forms, lack of recession, perspectival distortion, and interest in modelling through tonal gradation that are found in Cézanne's later works." The use of decorative patterning and bold colors is also reminiscent of Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. Art historian Yevgenia Ilyukhina has said that in still lifes such as this, "Larionov engages in what might be called a dialogue with the French masters, sometimes even competing with them...His still-lifes are always full of motion...[they] seem to demand a new generic term: neither 'still life' nor 'quiet life of objects' is appropriate."
Pears was painted the same year as the first Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow, which Larionov helped organize with Nikolay Ryabushinsky. Ryabushinsky, editor of Golden Fleece, a symbolist magazine dedicated to art and literature, was influential in the Russian art world and later became Larionov's patron. The Golden Fleece exhibition was an important touchstone in the history of modern art in Russia, as it featured important works by modern French painters alongside the work of Russian artists. It proved particularly influential for Larionov who was seeking to create his own painting style that synthesized Russian and French painting traditions.
Oil on canvas - The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
A Stroll in a Provincial Town
In A Stroll in a Provincial Town, a group of crudely painted figures, almost caricatures, appear to walk along a street, while a waiter attends to a table at a café. Devoid of modeling or any attempt at geometric perspective, the figures appear to float across the painting's surface, hovering above the wide swath of grey paint that approximates a city street. The emphasis here on the horizontal is reminiscent of cartoon strips, which, as art historian Camilla Gray has noted, "produce[s] an effect of child-like indifference to conventional rules." Still borrowing themes and compositional strategies from French painting in his preference for dandy-like figures and social settings, Gray suggests that this and other paintings from this period are less concerned with creating a coherent scene than they are with developing a "caricature of a social scene [by] reducing it to a series of private, unrelated actions."
Among the first of Larionov's primitivist works, A Stroll in a Provincial Town reveals the continued, but diminishing influence of French painting, and his newfound interest in specifically Russian artistic sources, including folk art and Russian genre painting. In this work, the characters are depicted as flat, two dimensional shapes (similar to cut-outs) that are delineated with thick, dark outlines, in the style of Russian lubki. Popular since the 18th century, lubok prints, or lubki, were elaborately colored woodcuts or engravings with simple, flat designs that were originally religious in subject, but later incorporated social or political messages. Having worked through various modes of French painting from Post-Impressionism to Symbolism and the Fauves, he has begun to turn his gaze inward to native Russian traditions in an effort to establish a new Russian avant-garde.
Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
In this 1912 painting by Mikhail Larionov, a reclining woman, in the guise of Venus, has turned toward the viewer as she places a concealing hand across her lap. Clearly influenced by Manet's Olympia (1863-65), the Katsap Venus reverses Olympia's pose, and the requisite cat appears on an embroidered tapestry rather than at her feet. The maid is absent, and the flower has moved from behind the Venus' ear to her hand. While both works emphasize the flatness of the picture plane, particularly in rendering the bodies, the Katsap Venus is depicted with a heft and bulk that is absent from Manet's Olympia. In Larionov's Venus, the scarf and earrings are ethnic markers, used to identify her heritage and the yellow tone of the skin indicates her status as a working prostitute (in Russia prostitutes were required by law to carry a yellow card). The primitivist style - the flatness of the image, lack of modeling, use of vibrant colors, and the influence of signage and peasant embroidery - speak to Larionov's evolving relationship with European and Russian artistic models. Although the Katsap Venus is part of a larger effort by Larionov to re-appropriate antiquity, it is, according to art historian Sarah Warren, "clearly an antiquity mediated by modernism," as demonstrated through its clear reference to Manet.
Also known as Russian Venus, the Katsap Venus is one of a series of ethnic Venus paintings - which included the Jewish Venus and the Gypsy Venus - that Larionov produced in 1912. The unfinished Venus series, according to a contemporary account by Larionov, was also to include Turkish, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Black, Ukranian, and French Venuses, each of which would be identifiable by "characteristic features" as a celebration of ethnic diversity. A newspaper article published at the time stated that Larionov's three Venuses were produced as an exploration of ethnological canons of beauty. Larionov scholar Anthony Parton has argued that the Russian [Katsap] Venus is, in fact, an army prostitute. ("Katsap" was a derogatory Ukrainian term for Russians and is used to describe a Ukrainian prostitute who services Russian soldiers.) Parton adds: "The theme of carnal love, symbolized by the army prostitute, was a crucial aspect of Larionov's neo-primitive ideology. It referred to instinctive feelings, represented a shocking subject for his audience, but above all, in the tradition of Manet, replaced the academic image of Venus with that of a specific type of woman in contemporary society - an early and tangible goddess of love."
Oil on canvas - Nizhny-Novgorod, State Museum of Art
Spring. Seasons of the Year (New Primitivism)
One of four paintings representing the seasons of the year, Spring, which includes text, trees, human figures and animals, is rendered in a naive style that is almost childlike in its simplification of forms. Working in a Neo-Primitive style, which Larionov used to subvert the "Western" fine art tradition, the Seasons of the Year were inspired by the artist's interest in various native and primitive art forms that are combined with references to pagan and classical deities. Divided into four quadrants, Spring is awash with vibrant gold and yellow that serves as a background for a series of images and text that appear to float on the painting's surface. The radically simplified forms are seemingly unconnected to one another. In the top left quadrant, two putti appear to be helping the female figure to fly, while a crudely painted bird extends a flowering branch. In the left quadrant we see lines of Russian text and at the top right, a flowering tree with caterpillar and butterfly beneath. The painting's seemingly disparate elements pay tribute to the artist's heritage, and, as Anthony Parton has noted, "reinvigorate painting by returning to the stylistic principles of native Russian art forms and the pictorial conventions of naive artists and peasant craftspeople." In addition to these native Russian painting traditions, Larionov also references children's drawing, representing the seasons with naïvely painted elements that are situated within rigid right angles, which, according to art historian G. G. Pospelov, are reminiscent of children's notebooks.
The four Seasons of the Year paintings marked a turning point in Larionov's work and the end of his Neo-Primitive style. Having rejected Western painting styles in favor of Russian models, the Seasons came on the heels of his abrupt departure from the Jack of Diamonds group due to their continued allegiance to modern French and German art. Painted in 1912, the same year he founded Donkey's Tail, Spring was an important example of Larionov's synthesis of various Russian and Eastern styles and traditions. It was shown in the group's first exhibition, called the "Target," in Moscow in 1913. As an attempt to address the indigenous cultural traditions of Russian art in the face of academic and modernist traditions imported from the West, the painting, and the exhibition it was included in, were intended as a provocation to audiences still looking to the West. The radical simplification of forms seen in the Seasons paintings paved the way for his Rayonist compositions of the following year.
Oil on canvas - The Tretyakov Gallery
Sea Beach and Woman (Pneumo-Rayonism)
In this 1913 non-objective painting, Larionov has wholly embraced abstraction, using intersecting diagonal slashes of blue, red, and white paint to create a sense of energetic dynamism that bears little resemblance to the painting's title. An example of Larionov's Rayonist paintings, a style he developed with Goncharova, Sea Beach and Woman gives visual form to his newly elaborated Rayonist theory. Informed by his interest in optics, radiation, X-rays, and the Fourth Dimension, the artists sought to depict the dynamic intersection of rays of light. He later described Rayonism as the painting of "intangible forms and immaterial objects" in space. The term Rayonism comes from a literal translation of "luchizm," luch meaning ray in Russian. (It is also sometimes called Rayonism.) As Anthony Parton has said: "Larionov's rayism...was an abstract and nonobjective style of painting. The first Rayonist canvases depict rays of light reflected from everyday objects which shatter the picture space, while subsequent works represent only the rays themselves which intersect to create dynamic planes of color."
Despite its relative importance to later Russian art, Rayonism attracted few followers. Larionov was nevertheless eager to explore the various aspects of this new work, expounding on his ideas in four manifestos. This theoretical work fascinated the avant-garde at the time. He wrote: "Hail to our rayonnist style of painting independent of real forms, existing and developing according to the laws of painting. (Rayonism is a synthesis of Cubism, Futurism and Orphism.) . . . The style of Rayonist painting promoted by us is concerned with spatial forms which are obtained through the crossing of reflected rays from various objects, and forms which are singled out by the artist." Rayonism was thus a synthesis of ideas gleaned from the international avant-garde and native Russian art and folk culture, but also from his interests in science and the Fourth Dimension. Importantly, Larionov's shift to non-objectivity allowed him to focus on color, shape, and the texture of the paint of the canvas, rather than on subject matter or symbolism. This new focus on painting's essential elements proved influential for the future of Russian art, including Suprematism and Constructivism.
Oil on canvas - Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany