Rayonism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Rayonism
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).
The Fourth Dimension
Through their friendship with the artist Mikhail Matiushin, the couple also encountered the work of Peter D. Ouspensky, a Russian mathematician and esoteric philosopher whose fourth-dimensional theories influenced all iterations of the Rayonist style. Notions of the fourth dimension were popular in the early-20th century, but were often rather unscientific. Expounded in his The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1912), Ouspensky's theory of the fourth dimension influenced other artists as well, including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Weber, Umberto Boccioni, Marcel Duchamp, and Kazimir Malevich. His fourth dimension was a realm of cosmic consciousness, accessible to artists and mystics able to see in flashes of understanding that which could not ordinarily be seen. Drawing upon Hindu ideas, Ouspensky defined the fourth dimension as a unified state, where a human being was integrated with the environment; this element particularly appealed to Goncharova, who had an ongoing interest in Hinduism. The idea that true reality was not visible to the eye seemed to be confirmed by the scientific discoveries of radioactivity and x-rays, which also provided a formal inspiration for the visual elements of the style.
Esoteric and spiritual, Ouspensky called for artists to become "Supermen" who would lead the way into a new consciousness. This characterization was not uncommon among avant-garde artists of the time, including Kandinsky and Malevich, who also believed themselves charged with guiding people to higher levels of thought. For the Rayonists, this manifested in their use of the term budushchniki, roughly translated as "future people" to describe themselves. To illustrate their new painting style and positioning themselves as the movement's creators, Larionov's Rayonist Portrait of Goncharova and Goncharova's 1912 Portrait of Larionov were included in their July 1913 manifesto.
Exhibitions of Rayonism
The exact beginning of Rayonism is difficult to pinpoint, especially since Larionov occasionally backdated his work to make it seem more prescient. The first confirmed appearances of Rayonist work were in 1912, published in the book, Old-Fashioned Love (which included Futuristic poetry by Alexei Kruchenykh with Rayonist images by Larionov). Larionov's Glass (Method of Rayonism) and Rayonist Study were also exhibited that year at a World of Art exhibit, and Rayonist Mackerel and Sausages at the Union of Youth show. In June 1912, the first definition and description of the movement were published in a manifesto brochure, "Rayonism." Although it was certainly influenced by German Expressionism, Italian Futurism, and French Orphism, the press cast the style in a nationalistic tone with Pavel Ivanov describing it as "entirely Russian with a completely new technical method." The couple introduced the movement to their friends, Maurice Fabri, Mikhail Le Dantiu, Vladimir Obolensky, Sergei Romanovich, and others who were part of The Donkey's Tail, a group that rejected European influence in favor of art rooted in their motherland. That fact that they named the show after an infamous 1910 hoax in Paris, when a canvas painted by attaching a brush to the tail of a donkey was exhibited as modern art, reveals the complexities of their relationship with the West.
The First Exhibition: Target
Rayonist painting officially debuted in the 1913 Target exhibition, organized by Goncharova and Larionov as a deliberate provocation after the outraged response to The Donkey's Tail. To publicize the show, they held a public debate on avant-garde art and theatre at the Polytechnical Museum. The evening attracted a great deal of media, mostly due to the ensuing chaos, described in the local newspaper: "Mr. Larionov, the presiding chairman, prevented one of the critics from speaking. The audience protested, surrounding the stage. Running up, Larionov threw an electric light bulb into the audience, then the water decanter. Someone from the presidium hurled a chair into the audience and made off. A student shouted that he had caught the man who threw the chair into the crowd and boxed his ears. A genuine fight began. The police were called into the hall and the meeting was closed." The intent was to create a sensation and to break with the staid traditions of art; the event was a mixed success. Indeed, as a result of the confusion, the Russian press mistakenly identified Larionov and Goncharova as associated with Italian Futurism, whose members often deliberately antagonized their public with similar stunts.
The Target exhibition also sought to change the standards in showing works by painters not affiliated with any group or style and de-emphasizing personality by focusing less on the individual artists. The result was very eclectic, including Russian Futurist and Neo-primitivist work by former members of The Donkey's Tail, work from the group of professional, commercial sign painters, children's art, and paintings by amateurs.
This wide-range of styles reflects the synthetic nature of Rayonism, which positioned itself as the culmination of modern art. (This strategy would be repeated in 1915 with Kazimir Malevich's announcement of Suprematism.) Indeed, the show's statement celebrated "all the styles that existed before us and which have been created today such as Cubism, Futurism, Orphism. We declare that all combinations and mixtures of styles are of value." Within this mix of modernist movements, they staked a claim as being the most advanced, declaring "We have created our own style, Rayonism, whose objectives are spatial forms and making painting independent, governed only by its own laws." At a time when few movements were explicitly pursuing abstraction as an end goal, the Rayonists made non-objectivity a central aim of the style. This announcement of Rayonism was overshadowed, however, by the media attention given to the opening event and the eclecticism of the work shown. The movement itself attracted few artistic practitioners; Goncharova and Larionov would be the most dedicated and most widely recognized.
A more deliberate pronouncement was made in July 1913, when "Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto," authored by Goncharova and Larionov, was published. The manifesto was co-signed by a number of avant-garde artists, most of whom had participated in the Target exhibition, including Ivan Larionov (the artist's brother), Timofei Bogomazov, Kirill Zdanevich, Mikhail Le-Dantiu, Vyacheslav Leskievsky, Sergei Romanovitch, Serge Oblensky, Morits Fabri, and Alexander Shevchenko. The manifesto's declarations repeated the points of the Target brochure, but more carefully established Rayonism as a new style that was definitively Russian. They advocated a national art, identifying Russia with the East, while, at the same time, celebrating, "the whole brilliant style of modern times." Possibly to dismiss any comparisons with European avant-garde styles, the manifesto also rejected "individuality as having no meaning for the examination of a work of art" and asserted "that there has never been such a thing as a copy...(as) art cannot be examined from the point of view of time."
The movement's central form, "The ray... depicted provisionally on the surface by a colored line," was described as "spatial forms arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects, forms chosen by the artist's will." Similar to the force lines of Futurism, these vectors both described and dissected the objects depicted, creating a sense of movement that guided the viewer through the composition. This dynamism was considered a visual representation of the fourth dimension, which had both a temporal character and a metaphysical quality of higher consciousness. Seeking to evoke sensations, the manifesto explained that the "length, breadth, and density of the layer of paint are the only signs of the outside world - all the sensations that arise from the picture are of a different order; in this way painting becomes equal to music while remaining itself."
Rayonism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The distinctive splintering effect of Rayonism began as a way to extend objects into their surrounding space. This was thought to represent fourth-dimensional unity and the energies between all things. In works such as Bull's Head (1913), Larionov features a simple subject (often one from Neo-primitivism, such as this common farm animal), but explodes the contours of the bull to create a dynamic and active field of energy. The bull is no longer a discrete object, but part of a larger, pulsating cosmos. This example of Realistic Rayonism would soon give way to works that created those sensations through color and line, leaving behind subject matter to focus on purely formal qualities. Although the Rayonists were predominantly painters, they did experiment with other formats for their work, including publishing and performance.
The earliest Rayonist paintings were in the Realistic style, explained in the Target exhibition leaflet as "depicting existing forms." Yet, already the artists aspired to more abstract and metaphysical goals that would achieve "the erasure of the border between what is called a picture plane and nature." In this vein, first-generation Rayonist paintings, most often by Goncharova and Larionov, worked from an existing form, usually an identifiable natural subject, as a point of departure. That object was then distorted by the fracturing of its shape by radiating light rays that created geometric facets and divided planes.
Realistic Rayonism drew upon Ouspensky's explanation of mathematical theories on the fourth dimension and how forms could be created by extending the contour lines of a three-dimensional object. This provided a strategy for abstracting from the original object, and in time Rayonist artists would abandon that link to the concrete universe in favor of pure depictions of light and energy. In a relatively brief period of time, the subject of the painting was displaced by an emphasis on the rays, as can be seen in Larionov's Cockerel and Hen (1911), where only one wing and the head of the cockerel are recognizable. This abstraction led to the development of Pneumo-Rayonism.
In July 1913 Larionov published a manifesto that declared "Pneumo-rayism or concentrated Rayonism" as the "next stage" in modern art. Also known as Unrepresentational Rayonism, this period rejected the representation of objects from the concrete world. All that remained of the painting's inspiration or subject was a reference in the title; the paintings themselves depicted only intersecting light rays and dynamic color planes. Works such as Sea, Beach, and Woman: Pneumo-Rayism (1913) teeter between abstraction and non-objective art as Larionov dissected and decomposed the subject beyond recognition. By the time of his Rayist Composition (1913), the subject was entirely removed and the surrounding environment was consumed by abstract lines and planes of color. Larionov believed that these paintings of line and texture created "the sensation of the fourth dimension."
Theories of the fourth-dimension provided philosophical and pictorial guidance. A number of Goncharova's Pneumo-Rayonistic works were inspired by the forest, which Ouspensky believed to exemplify the "life-activity" of the fourth dimension. Similarly, the rays depicted were thought to project a sense of energy and movement while alluding to the original subject. Depicting light allowed the artist to represent layers of reality and transparency, thought to be one method of visualizing the fourth dimension. Conceptualizing the fourth dimension as a comprehensive expression of life and a higher plane of consciousness, the term "pneumo" may allude to "pneumatism," an ancient Greek idea, in which the breath of the pneuma is associated with all life.
Breaking down the boundaries between art and life was a common concern among the Russian avant-garde. From the beginning, performance was an integral aspect of Rayonism, reflected not only in the provocative events surrounding their exhibitions, but in their creation of artistic cabarets. In 1913 Goncharova and Larionov opened a cabaret called The Pink Lantern, followed by The Tavern of the 13, both in Moscow. In these short-lived performance spaces, they featured face-painting, tango dancing, confrontations with the audience, and artistic disputes. Larionov's essay, "Why we paint ourselves: A Futurist Manifesto" explained that "It is time for art to invade life."
Film and photography were enlisted in these efforts. The Tavern of the 13 was made into a 1914 film, Drama in the Futurists' Cabaret No. 13, starring Goncharova and Larionov who were both depicted wearing facial Rayonist tattoos. This disfigurement was intended to mark the transgressive nature of their art and to transform themselves into futuristic living canvases. It also drew upon the tradition of Russian carnivals that included minstrels, clowns, puppet shows, and other popular entertainments, providing another attack on the traditions of art by erasing the distinction between 'high' art and 'low' art.
At the same time that Goncharova and Larionov were promoting Rayonism, they also maintained a multiple approach to style, which they referred to as "Everythingism." Thus, they and their colleagues mixed elements of old and new, high and low, Neo-primitive and modern. In her 1913 "Creative Creed," Goncharova proclaimed it her right to simultaneously disregard "symbolism, decadence, futurism, all of which I have experienced," and incorporate these styles into her work. Her statement shows a profound connection to Ouspensky's claim that "moments of different epochs, divided by neat intervals of time, exist simultaneously, and may touch one another"; both reflect the sentiment that the quickened pace of modern life had created new sensations of time and experience, making obsolete the old differentiations of styles and ideologies.
The artist Ilia Zdanevich and Larionov promoted this eclectic artistic practice, particularly in exhibitions that mingled styles freely. The first "Everythingist" event took place in December 1913; here, a painting such as Goncharova's Rayonist Garden (1912-1913) exemplifies the multiplicity of the style, synthesizing a Cubist treatment of foliage, Futurist use of text, and Neo-primitivist color with a Rayonist treatment. As the artist Benedikt Livshits explained, "Essentially, 'everythingness' was extremely simple: all ages and movements in art were declared equal. Each of them served as a source of inspiration for the everythingists who had conquered time and space."
Later Developments - After Rayonism
Though Goncharova returned to the style as late as 1956 (in her painting Rayonism of that year), the movement ended in 1914 with the departure of the couple for Paris. Here, their styles changed radically as they began designing for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes productions. Their later work in the post-Revolutionary period would replace the splintering effects of Rayonism with more concrete geometric abstraction.
However, the movement had a long lasting and profound influence on the development of Constructivism and Suprematism, particularly affecting the revolutionary artists Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. By building from national folk styles and Neo-primitivist painting to increasing levels of abstraction, Rayonism made possible the characterization of non-objective painting as a Russian style. Because it integrated elements of western European painting, such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism, into a local style, it provided a national source for modernism that also helped to position abstract painting as the first style of the 1917 Revolutionary government.
The Rayonist idea that equated painted rays with the immateriality of light provided new possibilities for the materiality of painting and encouraged artists to think about the form and structure of their paintings as meaningful. When Malevich wrote "Any picture consists of a colored surface and texture... and of the sensation that arises from these two," his emphasis on form reflects Rayonist abstraction. Similarly drawing upon Rayonist ideas, the Constructivist Popova embraced "the line as color," arguing that the line "directs the forces of construction." She, along with many of the Constructivists and Suprematists, was also influenced by Larionov's faktura, a term that refers to the surface or texture of the painting. Faktura would become a critical component of post-Revolutionary Russian art, particularly in the monochromatic panels of Malevich and Rodchenko and the sculptural constructions of Vladimir Tatlin. Indeed, Tatlin paid homage to his roots in Rayonism, avowing "We all came out of Larionov."