"Long live the beautiful East!...Long live nationality! Long live the style of rayonist painting that we created - free from concrete forms, existing and developing according to painterly laws."
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Natalia Goncharova Signature
"Rayism is the painting of space revealed not by the contours of objects, not even by their formal colorings, but by the ceaseless and intense drama of the rays that constitute the unity of all things."
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Mikhail Larionov Signature
"I find those people ridiculous who advocate individuality and who assume there is some value in their 'I."
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Natalia Goncharova Signature
"More than anything else we value intensity of feeling, and its great sense of uplifting."
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Mikhail Larionov Signature
"Contemporary Russian art has reached such heights that, at the present time, it plays a major role in world art. Contemporary Western ideas can be of no further use to us."
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Natalia Goncharova Signature
"The painter sees new forms created between tangible forms by their own radiation, and these are the only ones that he places on the canvas."
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Mikhail Larionov Signature

Summary of Rayonism

Considered the pinnacle of avant-garde art by the founders Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, Rayonism (sometimes translated from Russian as Rayism) developed new ways to express energy and movement. From its conception as a subset of Russian Futurism, Rayonism drew from scientific discoveries and the theoretical conceptions of the fourth dimension. The movement was very self-consciously modern, even as it incorporated elements of traditional folk culture. It was also fiercely nationalistic, projecting itself as a distinctly Russian style, despite its obvious inspiration from European movements including Cubism, Orphism, German Expressionism, and Futurism.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Influenced by both close connections to an international avant-garde and native traditions of Russian art and craft, Rayonism captures the contradictions of Russian culture in the pre-Revolutionary era. It was presented as an unapologetic combination of cosmopolitan and nationalistic impulses, sometimes referred to as Everythingism. This encyclopedic approach to style and subject was considered the essence of the modern pace of life.
  • The style and subjects of Rayonism reflected contemporary scientific and metaphysical developments. The adoption of transparency and fractured objects was influenced by changing understandings of the material world through the discovery of x-rays and radioactivity. The world no longer could be thought of as purely solid and concrete. This, in turn, reinforced fourth-dimensional theories of space and experience as a continuum of our observable universe. By focusing on light as subject matter, the artists could dissolve objects into their surrounding space; these layers of transparency were thought to be representative of the fourth dimension.
  • The Rayonist interest in popular culture and materiality (known as faktura) broke with the expectations of fine art. Believing that their work spoke to larger questions of existence and spirituality, the Rayonists aspired to break down the boundaries between art and life. This would be mirrored in the work of the later Suprematist and Constructivist artists, who embraced faktura as a means of constructing spiritually-charged spaces in the post-Revolutionary years.

Overview of Rayonism

Rayonism Image

The brainchild of life-long partners Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, Rayonism synthesized elements of Russian avant-garde painting to create a deliberately modern style. As Russian Futurists associated with the Knave of Diamonds (also known as the Jack of Diamonds) group, they had experimented with Neo-primitivism, which recovered traditional motifs in a style that tried to replicate the naïveté of folk art, along with Russian Cubo-Futurism, which blended Cubist distortion with depictions of movement. In 1912, when Larionov and Goncharova broke with the Knave of Diamonds group to stage The Donkey's Tail exhibition, they rejected the notion of stylistic unity and included a broad range of work. This pluralism would remain part of Rayonism, even as the artists began to define general themes of the style. In part, scientific writings on the discovery of radioactive rays and x-rays were instrumental to their depictions of dynamic time and space (Larionov had most likely read Marie Curie's Radioactivity and The Discovery of Radium, both recently published in Russia).

Key Artists

  • Mikhail Larionov was a Russian avant-garde painter and the founder of Rayonism, the first movement that celebrated Russian abstract painting. Larionov was also a major promoter of Post-Impressionist art during the early twentieth century, and helped widen the international appeal of artists like Matisse, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.
  • Goncharova was part of the Russian avant garde generation involved in a relentless exploration of different visual styles. She also co-founded Rayonism with her life partner Mikhail Larionov.

Do Not Miss

  • After the Russian Revolution, collaborative groups formed in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, publishing journals, organizing debates, and curating exhibitions of their work. Artists such as Natalya Goncharova, Kasimir Malevich, and Vladimir Mayakovsky reject past approaches and looked to Russian icongraphy, French Cubism, and the avant-garde of Europe for new directions for art-making. The movement was mostly not connected to Italian Futurism.
  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.

Important Art and Artists of Rayonism

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian Style) (1911)

Artist: Natalia Goncharova

This painting is one of a series on peacocks, where Goncharova combines elements of the primitive styles of Egyptian and Russian folk art with Rayonist abstraction. The result reflects the juxtapositions and contradictions common to the style, as she freely mixed ancient and modern influences. Showing the peacock's head and neck in profile, she borrows the composite pose (common in Egyptian art), which allowed for the greatest amount of information to be described in simple contours. Likewise, the tail is spread out in a frontal view, to highlight the defining characteristic of the subject. The blocks of brilliant color suggest Russian folk painting and decorative arts. Their non-descriptive, unrealistic hues transform the recognizable shape of the peacock's plumage into an abstract array of color.

Following principles of Realistic Rayonism, the peacock is clearly delineated and yet remains simply the point of departure for the more eye-catching green oval of the body and the intensely colored, semi-abstract tail. That tail creates a sense of independent movement as the colors contrast and create visual tension, yet the composition of the feathers can also be read as a classical architectural arcade or a painter's palette. These allusions are not contradictory, but allowed to co-exist and ultimately create a more dynamic field of possible interpretations.

Old-Fashioned Love (1912)

Artist: Mikhail Larionov

The literary concept of Zaum poetry, comprised of nonsensical sounds that assaulted traditional language structures, was embraced by the Russian avant-garde as a means of breaking with the past. Like the Italian Futurists, who were contemporaneously adopting similar approaches in their poetry, the intent was to create a wholly modern, sensorial alternative. Alliances with sympathetic visual artists, such as this collaboration between Kruchenykh, a radical Russian Futuristic poet, and Larionov, were common.

Like the Rayonists, Zaum poets wanted to break into new forms of expression; Kruchenvkh first began publishing postcards before embarking on lithographed books and collaborating with other poets and artists. Old-Fashioned Love was the first of his collaborations with Larionov; Larionov and Goncharova would eventually partner with him on eight books, including Igra v adu (A Game in Hell) in 1912, Worldbackwords and Pomada (Lipstick) in 1913.

This front page shows Larionov's Rayonist depiction of a vase of flowers, with the contours exaggerated in thick, forceful black lines. Limited by the lithographic medium, this print was nonetheless an important step in the development of the "rays" of light as Larionov balanced his representation of an object with his disintegration of that object into light. The work remains Realist Rayonism; indeed, his images in the book drew from natural subjects - flowers, leaves, vines - and human figures illustrated in the Neo-primitivist style of Russian lubki. These lubki were inexpensive woodblock prints that decorated many Russian homes; they provided a common source of native folk iconography for the avant-garde, who valued both their naïveté and their nostalgic familiarity. That he alternates between the forward-looking Rayonist style and retrogressive primitivism reflects the open and all-encompassing stance of the movement. Similarly, Larionov staged the Target show at the same time that he was organizing the exhibition "Original Icon Paintings and Lubki," which focused on highly native and traditional forms of image-making.

Cockerel and Hen (1912)

Artist: Mikhail Larionov

In this work of Realistic Rayonism, the artist depicts a dynamic rooster in rays of red and gold; a hen, barely identifiable, appears in golden planes of color beside it. While the objects of the painting are discernable, the true subject, however, is their merging with the background space and their disillusion into rays of light and vectors of energy. This is particularly evident in the left half of the painting, as the lines of reflected light intersect in a chaos of dynamic force lines.

From the early development of the movement, Larionov emphasized the symbolic and visual power of light and radiance, an interest that belies the influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. In his modernization of those 19th-century studies of light, however, he explained, "it is not the objects themselves that we see, but the beams of rays that emanate from them, which are shown in the picture with color lines." The light rays come from the objects and the surroundings, and as a result the subject and its surroundings are integrated into their surrounding environments. Like Cubism, the distinction between the object and its space is complicated, however the Rayonists were motivated by their metaphysical interests in the fourth dimension and their search for a unified expression of energy that surpassed the concrete object.

Useful Resources on Rayonism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino

"Rayonism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino
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First published on 22 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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