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Mikhail Larionov - Biography and Legacy

Russian Painter, Writer, Illustrator and Set Designer

Born: May 22, 1881 - Tiraspol, near Odessa, Russia
Died: 1964 - Paris, France

Biography of Mikhail Larionov


Mikhail Larionov was born into a Russian Orthodox family in Tiraspol, Russia, in 1881, in the home of his mother's parents. His father, Fedor Michailovich Larionov, was a doctor and pharmacist at the Tiraspol Military Hospital, and his mother, Aleksandra Fedorovna Petrovskaya was a farmer's daughter.

Mikhail Larionov <i>Self-portrait</i> c.1910-12

He lived a happy childhood in Tiraspol, where he enjoyed exploring the town and the lush landscape with its sprawling meadows and gardens. He would return to the province throughout his adult life to find inspiration for his painting.

His family moved to Moscow in 1891, where, at the age of twelve, he began his secondary education at the Voskrensky Technical High School in Moscow, graduating with a diploma two years later. In 1898, he went on to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he worked under the landscapist Isaac Levitan. At the art school in 1900, he met fellow student Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova, who proved to be an important early influence on the young artist. The two would form a personal and professional partnership that would last until Goncharova's death in 1962. As Goncharova would later say, "since me and Larionov once met, we've never parted." The couple's parents were not pleased with the relationship, but the young couple moved into an apartment in Moscow nevertheless, where they lived and worked together.

Training and Early Work

Larionov had his first exhibition in 1902 and went on to train under Vasily Baksheev, Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. It was around this time that the young artist's behavior became disruptive and he started causing problems at the school. In one instance, he took up all the available wall space at the Moscow school by hanging 150 of his paintings, leaving no room for the work of other students. It has been suggested that the director of the school told him to remove his work, and when he refused, he was expelled. (This story has never been proven and Anthony Parton, a leading Larionov scholar, claims it is apocryphal. The school's archives suggest that he was asked to leave for failing to complete his work.) Nevertheless, Larionov soon gained a reputation as a troublemaker bent on shaking up the establishment. During the remainder of his studies, he was expelled from the school two more times. Although he was reinstated at the Moscow School, he was expelled with a second class diploma in 1910 for leading a student demonstration. As he said around this time: "All that has become established in art depresses me...I sense stagnation and it suffocates me... I want to escape from these walls to a boundless space, to find myself in constant motion..."

As fate would have it, he met Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian art critic, patron and founder of the Ballets Russes, in 1903 at a Moscow exhibition. The two formed a close professional relationship that would continue into the late 1920s.

By 1906, Larionov was gaining recognition for his paintings from critics and collectors and he began exhibiting his work in earnest. That year he was invited to show with the Union of Russian Artists, and in Paris, he was invited to participate in the Russian art exhibition at the Salon d'Automne. While in Paris he was introduced to the work of Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and the Fauves, and quickly fell under the spell of French modernism. The following years were the most prolific of Larionov's life, as he embarked on a frenzy of painting, literature, film, cabaret, performance, and the organization of multiple exhibitions. Although critical reception of his work was mixed, he exhibited frequently. During this time he befriended other members of the Russian avant-garde, including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Georgy Yakulov.

In 1910, he was a founder member of the Jack of Diamonds group (Bubnovyi valet, 1910-1917) which advocated an alternative exhibition society for young artists eager to break free from artistic tradition. However, relations with other members became frayed and in 1911 he broke from the group and formed a new collective with Goncharova; the Donkey's Tail (Oslinyi Khvost, 1911-1915). Within the context of the new group, Larionov and Goncharova advocated for the creation of a new Russian contemporary art that drew less on European art and instead looked to Russian artistic traditions. (The group's name, The Donkey's Tail, referred to a famous hoax in which art critic Roland Dorgelès and friend Frédéric Gérard tied a paintbrush to a donkey's tail to produce a painting that was then exhibited, without explanation, at the 1905 Salon des Indépendents.) The group included Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, and Aleksandr Shevchenko. Their first exhibition was met with controversy when the Public Censor, who objected to the display of paintings with religious subject matter under a title that included the word "tail," told the police to confiscate several of Goncharova's paintings. Goncharova herself was a provocative figure and in 1910 she was put on trial for pornography for nude life studies in one of her exhibitions. She was later acquitted.

Mikhail Larionov, Sergey Mikhailovich Romanovich, Vladimir Andreevich Obolensky, Natalia Goncharova, Moris Albertovich Fabbri and Alexander Vasilyevich Shevchenko at the Donkey's Tail exhibition, 1913

In 1912, inspired by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's lectures on Futurism, Larionov began his first explorations into Rayonism (sometimes termed Rayism); a groundbreaking new movement that synthesized Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism. Larionov claimed to have painted his first Rayonist painting in 1909, but he was not always accurate with his paintings' chronology. He would often omit the date on his paintings or backdate his canvases after the fact, sometimes by more than a decade. As Anthony Parton has noted: "Inaccurate memory undoubtedly played its part, but Larionov was a shrewd propagandist of [his and Goncharova's] historic role as painters."

At around the same time, Larionov and Goncharova began to explore Neo-Primitivism, which, taking from traditional Russian Lubok prints, icons, and peasant arts and crafts, consolidated the ideas put forward by Donkey's Tail group. Namely, that the new art should look to popular Russian art forms and focus on everyday subjects The following year the Jack of Diamonds and the Donkey's Tail groups reconciled their differences and began to collaborate on exhibitions.

Their varied activities from these years - avant-garde art production, theater and performance, literature and poetry - can be categorized under the larger rubric of Russian Futurism, which dominated the Russian avant-garde between 1910 and 1916. Neo-Primitivism and Rayonism were particularly important for the history of modern Russian art in the years leading up to and following the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Mature Period

Aleksei Morgunov's <i>Portrait of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov</i> (1913) references Édouard Manet's 1882 <i>A Bar at the Folies-Bergére</i>.

By 1913 Larionov found greater independence and began to break away from the groups he had previously worked with, preferring instead to consider himself one of the "futurepeople." He wrote at the time: "We, Rayonists and Futurepeople, don't wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about contemporary Western art...We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our creativity, those existing both yesterday and today such as cubism, futurism and their synthesis rayonism." This crystalized the concept of "everythingism", which meant that all styles from all periods were accepted.

<i>Red Rayonism</i> (1913). Watercolor on paper. The Merzinger collection, Switzerland.

The same year he became involved in set design, producing sets for Bolshakov's play Plyaska ulits, a dynamic spectacle in which the actors, floor, and stage were in constant movement. The play was a form of "Futurist Theatre," which rejected accepted theatrical conventions in favor of aggressive improvisation. Larionov and Goncharova also organized Futurist evenings, during which they would paint their faces with Rayonist designs and entertain and abuse the crowds. On one such evening Larionov called the audience "jack-asses" and "boors". As the poet Mayakovsky wrote: "The feeling... ran so high that if the police had not intervened, everything would have ended in a bloody battle." The venue was later shut down.

Mikhail Larionov (c. 1916-1917)

During this period Larionov also explored fashion design, even publishing an outrageous manifesto stating that men should wear sandals with painted feet, shave off half their facial hair and plait yellow tassels in their hair. Women meanwhile were told to go topless with painted breasts.

The two had successfully whipped up a storm of publicity which was compounded with scandalous stories in the press and risqué media interviews. The following year they left Moscow for Paris, where they worked on the set design for Sergei Diaghilev's ballet Le Coq d'Or. They moved to 65 Boulevard Arago and became friends with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn introduced them to the French avant-garde. Their first exhibition in Paris was attended by the glitterati of the day; Coco Chanel, Pavlova, Max Jacob, Robert Delaunay, Jean Cocteau, Constantin Brâncuși, Georges Braque, André Derain and Pablo Picasso, among others.

Late Period

Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova working on the stage setting for the ballet <i>The Golden Cockerel</i> in 1913.

The couple's ascent into international stardom was interrupted when Larionov was called to fight for the Russian Army with the start of World War I. In August 1914 he was mobilized as an adjutant-chief in 210th Bronnitsky Infantry Regiment. He was sent to fight in the Prussian invasion and was wounded in October, when he was concussed by an exploding shell and developed a kidney infection. He spent three months in the hospital before he was medically discharged in 1915. He returned to Russia to convalesce, but he never fully recovered his creative energy. As his friend, artist Serge Fotinsky, later wrote: "Because of his injury he lost the determination and persistency that a creative person has to have...He couldn't concentrate...He couldn't stay still, he went to bed at four o'clock in the morning and slept until two or three in the afternoon...Deep down he was not at peace, there was something gnawing at him, a kind of anxiety..."

Natalia Goncharova by Mikhail Larionov (1915)

The following year, Larionov and Goncharova left for Switzerland to join their friends Diaghilev and the composer Stravinsky to work on costume and set design. They spent much of the next few years traveling throughout France, Spain, Italy, England, and the United States. In London, they befriended the influential art critic Roger Fry, who wrote favorably about their work and promoted their designs for one of Diaghilev's ballets.

In 1919 the couple returned to Paris and immersed themselves once again in Parisian café culture, reigniting many of their friendships with the French avant-garde. Although they were happy to be back in Paris, Larionov's painting decreased significantly; some blamed his poor health, while others blamed laziness. That same year his brother died in Russia fighting in the Red Army.

Throughout the 1920s Larionov continued his work with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, which ceased in 1929 with Diaghilev's death. In the years that followed Larionov returned to painting and the couple began to work with other ballets and operas in Paris. They stayed in Paris, even after the deaths of several close friends, including Léon Bakst, Guillaume Apollinaire and Juan Gris. They could not return to Stalinist Russia, where purges were in full force and the avant-garde were considered enemies of the state. When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, they realized they could never go home. They applied for French citizenship that year and remained in France throughout the war. During a trip to London in 1950 Larionov suffered a stroke. He was taken back to France to recuperate but his left arm was paralyzed, along with the right side of his face After the stroke Larionov ceased creative activities altogether. The couple finally married in 1955, which meant that they could inherit one another's work if one of them should die. By this point Larionov's illness had taken its toll on both of them, and a friend remarked that Goncharova was "wasting away". She was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died in 1962.

Unable to cope alone, Larionov invited Alexandra Tomilina to move into his Paris home to help him. She became his secretary and guardian; they married the following year. In 1964 Larionov died at the age of 82. He was buried next to Goncharova in Ivry Cemetery, Paris.

The Legacy of Mikhail Larionov

A key figure in the Russian avant-garde in the years leading up to World War One, Larionov was, as art historian Andréi Nakov has noted: "A highly talented painter with an outstanding imagination...Larionov appeared like a meteor in the history of Russian painting." Thanks to the efforts of Larionov and Goncharova Russian Futurism was more than just a literary movement; it was also an important and influential movement in the visual arts.

Often described as a "forefather of abstract art," Larionov took from Italian Futurism to create a new abstract style known as Rayonism, which laid the groundwork for Constructivism. As Anthony Parton explained: "In stylistic terms, the influence of Larionov's Rayonism can be traced in the post-revolutionary work of several constructivist artists, including Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko." His reimagining of folk art and use of Neo-Primitivism can also be seen in mystical and naive style of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, who is thought to be influenced by Larionov.

In 1979, thanks to the hard work of Alexandra Larionova-Tomilina, Larionov's second wife, the Russian Museum and Tretyakov Gallery organized an exhibition which for the first time featured Larionov's works from both Russian and French collections in the same space. And although the couple could never return to Russia, in 1989 their combined works were at last collected and hung in the Tretyakov Gallery, which also stored their vast archive and library.

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Mikhail Larionov Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 02 Jun 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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