Artworks and Artists of Rayonism

Progression of Art

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian Style)

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.

Oil on canvas - The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Old-Fashioned Love

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.

Book with lithographs and lithographed text on cream wove paper - The Art Institute of Chicago


Cockerel and Hen

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.

Oil on canvas - The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow



Artist: Mikhail Larionov

It is possible, but quite difficult to locate the two bottles, five tumblers, and goblet on a table in this painting, as the objects have been rendered in layers of transparency and broken up by intersecting rays of light. In this transitional work, between Realistic Rayonism and Pneumo-Rayonism, remnants of the objective world are simply points of departure for the light rays. Even the title veers toward abstraction, as it refers to glass as a substance, rather than as the objects made from it; while focusing the viewer on the materiality of the objects and the transparencies of their depiction. One well-informed review of 1913 wrote that the painting depicted, "simply 'glass' as a universal condition of glass with all its manifestations and properties."

Larionov considered Glass to be his first fully Rayonist painting. It is, indeed, one of the first in this style to be publicly exhibited, appearing at the 1912 World of Art show that predated any published explanation of Rayonism. The precise date of the work is murky; for a 1914 exhibition in Paris, the artist dated the work to 1909, but this date is certainly untrue. It was an attempt to claim precedence over other abstract styles.

Oil on canvas - Guggenheim Museum, New York


Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red

Artist: Mikhail Larionov

In this work of Pneumo-rayonism, any reference to the external world has vanished in intersecting dynamic light rays and colored planes. The space becomes tangible, a palpable shape. Indeed, an energetic but indefinable form, full of depth, layers, and movement seems to inhabit the canvas. Space and energy are the subject of the painting.

And yet a clear message is conveyed. The title's use of the word "domination" indicates the conflict between the colors, their fight for primacy. By this stage, Rayonism had quickly evolved from merely describing light rays to what Larionov called, a "painting of space revealed the ceaseless and intense drama of the rays that constitute the unity of all things." In this larger evocation, he felt that colors produced different reactions, and that, by manipulating their density, he could create a construction of sensations and effects. Thus, the color lines and planes are meant to provoke intuitive feelings and as the red dominates this space, it becomes the means of communicating with the viewer.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

c. 1912-13

Nature Morte aux Fruits

Artist: Natalia Goncharova

Demonstrating the stylistic fluidity of Everythingism, this painting features the Cubo-Futurist depiction of Neo-primitivist objects; only the transparency of the still life explicitly marks the painting as Rayonist. A table overflowing with fruit - pears, apricots, plums, grapes, oranges, lemons, and watermelon - appears along with plates, a crystal bowl, and, at the top right, a white napkin with a traditional lubki image of a man riding a blue horse. Everything is rendered transparent; the pits can be seen inside the apricots, and, through the translucent watermelon, the plate on which it rests is visible as is the detail of its floral pattern. This intermingling of layers unifies the objects, even as they are dissected by this x-ray vision.

Goncharova unites a number of disparate elements in the work: some of the fruit like the oranges and lemons would have been exotic, whereas plums and apricots were not; the dishware is both hand-painted Russian porcelain and expensive glass. The startling modernity of the depiction is interrupted by the highly traditional folklore element of the horse and rider (a motif also adopted by the Russian-born Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky). Similarly, the tablecloth in the lower right resembles embroidered Russian linen and evokes a simpler, domestic past. While the style is modern, the subject is not. We are presented with an abundant, colorful feast that is recognizably Russian and familiar.

The painting follows contemporary theories on transparency as an expression of objects unified by scientific vision that could see beyond concrete surfaces. Indeed, the three-dimensional world is no longer a solid reality in and of itself, but subject to the artist's x-ray vision, making seen what was impossible to the ordinary eye. The painting was likely included in Goncharova's 1913 solo show, where it would have been one of four paintings to feature transparencies. The work also appeared at her 1914 show with the title, Still Life (Principle of Transparency). The composition also incorporates a collage aesthetic, layering objects without blending them in a unified pictorial space or scale. This collage quality had been celebrated by the French poet Apollinaire as emblematic of the modern experience. This link is made clear, as Goncharova gave the painting to Apollinaire; an inscription on the back reads, "As a souvenir to Mr. Apollinaire from his admirer, Natalia Goncharova June 1914 Paris."

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Rayist Composition

Artist: Alexander Shevchenko

There is an almost postmodern element of self-referentiality and metarepresentation in this painting, which plays with the notions of figuration and abstraction (Realistic and Pneumo-Rayonism) by depicting an abstract painting as the subject of the canvas. Set in the center of the work is a discrete second painting, a Rayonist composition of superimposed Russian words, light rays and planes of color that form long extended triangles, pointing downward.

Shevchenko's hybrid of Realistic Rayonism and Pneumo-Rayonism creates a complicated paradox. The viewer must both study the represented scene and the abstraction of that secondary image. Furthermore, the light rays and forms that extend beyond the smaller image confound the boundaries of these two spaces. The Realistic element depicts the abstract play of colors, shapes, and textures on a canvas. As might be expected from such a self-referential work, there's also a hint of wit; the light rays are reflected from the smaller painting, suggesting that art itself lights up and colors the surrounding space.

Gouache on paper, laid down on board - Private Collection


Rayonism: Blue-Green Forest

Artist: Natalia Goncharova

In this painting, the Rayonist rays of blue, green, black, and white work on a representational and abstract level: they suggest the dense, dark foliage of the titular forest, while also evoking an energetic and overwhelming sense of life and movement. Goncharova painted multiple Rayonist works focused on this subject, perhaps drawing upon Ouspensky's belief that the forest, animistic and unified, exemplified what he called the "life-activity" of the fourth dimension. It was a space that was comprised of infinite individual units, bound together into one living biome. Goncharova takes this notion and adds to it the splintering vectors of Pneumo-rayonism, although there remains a suggestion of a woman's face on the left, and, at the bottom of the canvas, a large dragonfly.

The work was shown in Goncharova's 1913 solo exhibition; her artist statement for the show underscored this connection to mysticism and spiritual energies. Her contemporaries understood this cosmic scale as representative of fourth-dimensional theories that attempted to depict higher levels of consciousness. The art critic Anthony Parton, wrote "The painting is a bold attempt to recreate...the whole world in its spiritual and concrete totality." In any case, a sense of the forest as a dynamic and unified force fills the canvas; even the woman and the dragonfly exist as hints of perception, perhaps nothing more than imagined shapes in dense foliage.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Sunny Day (Pneumo-Rayist Structure Based on Color: Composition)

Artist: Mikhail Larionov

A prime example of Pneumo-rayonist abstraction, this non-objective painting also points toward the legacy of Rayonism in post-WWI, post-Revolutionary Russia. Larionov has created a formal composition of nothing more concrete than intersecting light rays, textured planes, and fragments of text. The work communicates to the viewer solely through the emotions evoked through color and line, as suggested by the equally abstract title.

At the same time, there remain suggestions of symbolism in the included lettering. Possibly the letters "KA," which appear in red at the center of the painting might be references to contemporary colleagues: either the Russian Futurist writer Vasily Kamensky (who developed ferroconcrete poems), or to Velimir Khlekbnikov's famous prose work, Ka, which was later referenced by Malevich in his painting Aviator (c. 1914). Given Larionov's interest (along with Goncharova) in ancient Egyptian art, it is also possible that this refers to the notion of a spiritual essence, known as the Ka, which was central to their conception of the afterlife. All three possibilities would amplify the pictorial energy created by color and line. The artist felt this work to be so significant that he gave the painting to Apollinaire following its 1914 exhibition in Paris.

The reference to structure in the title of this work reflects Larionov's innovative use of faktura as an element of the painting. Breaking from the flat surface of the canvas, he used paper maché, plaster dust, and glue to create a three-dimensional surface; this materiality also offered new possibilities for texturing, which in turn allowed for greater expressionism in the application of paint. Faktura, literally meaning "surface," emphasized the artist's unconventional choices in comparison to the classical importance of oil painting. From 1913-1914, Larionov often gave his non-representational work titles like "structural construction," or "colorful structure," as he increasingly composed his work according to texture and color, the intrinsic qualities of painting. This abstract understanding of purely formal terms, while maintaining a spiritual quality to painting would be key to Malevich's Suprematism and the work of Constructivists in post-Revolutionary Russia.

Oil on canvas - Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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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]. .
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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