Russian Painter, Writer, Illustrator and Set Designer
Tiraspol, near Odessa, Russia
Summary of Mikhail Larionov
The groundbreaking work of Mikhail Larionov helped to bring the Russian avant-garde to new prominence in the first decades of the twentieth century. With work rooted in such disparate arenas as folk art, icons, prints, modern science, and optics, Larionov, along with his lifelong partner, Natalia Goncharova, was responsible for introducing not only the first non-objective painting style in Russia, but also a new distinctly Russian style of painting that eschewed Western influence in favor of models based in Russian history and experience. With wit, determination, and an early penchant for iconoclasm, Larionov sought to pull the backward-looking Russia, still steeped in traditional peasant arts and the mysticism of the Orthodox religion, into the realm of modern art. Like Kazimir Malevich, he made use of and transformed these seemingly naïve native traditions in order to create a new and radical art for Russia.
- Larionov was an important conduit between Russian artists and modern art in France. He helped organize the first significant exhibition of French Post-Impressionist and Fauvist painting in Moscow, and as a founding member of the Jack of Diamonds group, he advocated for an ongoing dialogue with artistic developments in the West.
- Seeking to set aside Western influence in favor of a new, distinctly Russian painting style based in native art and folk traditions, Larionov and his partner Natalia Goncharova initiated a new movement called Neo-Primitivism. Favoring garish colors, radical distortions, and everyday subjects, Neo-Primitivist paintings looked to icons and the colorful stylized woodblock prints known as lubki. This preference Russian precedents differentiated Russian Futurism from other pre-war avant-garde movements that looked to the "primitive art" of other cultures.
- Through his study of optics and the idea that art should depict the intersections of rays of light from objects, Larionov and Goncharova established the first nonobjective painting style in Russia called luchizm (variously translated in English as Rayonism or Rayism). Seeking to express dynamism and motion, Rayonism was an influential subset of Russian Futurism. It merged science and metaphysics - the X-ray and the Fourth Dimension - with his theoretical and artistic work to create a new, distinctly Russian, modern art.
- Beginning with their work for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Larionov and Goncharova brought a distinctive avant-garde sensibility to their set and costume designs for prominent ballet and theater productions. In so doing, they helped extend the reach and influence of Russian Futurism.
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.
Important Art by Mikhail Larionov
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mikhail Larionov
- A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th centuryBy by Sergey Yepikhin and others
- Goncharova/Larionov: Works on Paper by Natalis Goncharova and Mikhail LarionovBy Jane A Sharp
- ManifestesBy Mikhail Larionov
- Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964)By by Evgeni Kovtun
- Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-gardeOur PickBy Anthony Parton
- Mikhail Larionov and the Cultural Politics of Late Imperial RussiaBy Sarah Warren
- An Avant-garde Love Story: Goncharova and Larionov's RomanceBy Magda Michalska / Daily Art Magazine / February 11, 2019
- Larionov's Swiss ImpressionsBy Andrei Sarabyanov / The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine / 2018
- Living in the territory of art: New perspectives on Mikhail LarionovBy Yevgenia Ilyukhina / The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine / 2018
- Mikhail Larionov: A Master Comes HomeOur PickBy Anna Dolgova / The Moscow Times / January 15, 2019
- Modern art comes of age with a sweep of Putin's brushBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / January 19, 2009
- Mysterious, Radical Russian Avant-Garde Legends Natalia Goncharova And Mikhail Larionov Rise AgainOur PickBy Natasha Gural / Forbes / January 17, 2019
- United in Life & Art: Mikhail Larionov and Natalia GoncharovaBy Andréa Fernandes / Mental Floss / October 9, 2009