Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) was a central figure during the decade preceding World War I in the emergence of modern art in Russia. Through his efforts organizing shows as well as his paintings and those of others, Russia not only entered the mainstream of contemporary developments but moved to the forefront.
Russia produced an extraordinary number of artists of genius at the turn of the century, among whom would be counted Goncharova, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Malevich, and Larionov. The rapid social and technological development at that time occurred in conjunction with an equally rapid cultural upheaval. Russia had been a country of two cultures—one, that of the masses, rooted in the folk and religious traditions of the past, and the other, that of the aristocracy, based on—if not miming—the conservative taste of Western Europe. Larionov and many of his contemporaries rejected the past and celebrated everything associated with modernity.
In 1898 Larionov was accepted as a painting student at Moscow's College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. His independence was quickly demonstrated by his rare attendance of classes, as he preferred to work without the interference of direction in his own studio. He did this initially at his family's home but soon had his own apartment-studio in Moscow.
By 1900 Larionov had met Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), a fellow student studying architecture who became his life-long companion and eventually his wife. Owing to his encouragement she transferred to the Department of Painting, thus beginning their many years of mutual collaboration and influence. Larionov's enthusiasm for his work is indicated by his having presented great numbers of paintings for his monthly critique. In 1902 he submitted so many (150) that he was told to remove some. His refusal to do so brought about his expulsion.
At the time Russia, like so many other countries, was becoming acquainted with the various styles that had evolved often decades earlier in the international art world of Paris. Larionov's expulsion marked the beginning of his Impressionist and Symbolist work. Despite his readmission to the Moscow College the following year, he continued his stylistically independent path. In 1906 Larionov was represented in the World of Art Show (St. Petersburg), in the Union of Russian Artists exhibition (Moscow), and in a special section of Russian art organized by Diaghilev for the Salon d'Automne (Paris). It was at the last of these shows that the Fauves had their infamous first public showing. Larionov attended the opening and visited London as well while abroad.
Reflecting the tendency toward primitivism, as in the work of Gauguin or Rousseau, in 1907 Larionov started to paint in a manner inspired by Russian folk art. The flat shape and line, unmodulated rich and decorative color, and bold pattern of these works can also be related to Expressionism. Larionov also directed his efforts toward organizing shows of avant-garde Russian art, such as the Ass's Tail, Target, and Knave of Diamonds exhibitions in Moscow.
During his call up for military service (1908-1909) Larionov did his "soldier" series that is similar to the contemporary German Expressionist work of Nolde, Kirchner, or Mueller. There is a deliberate tone of naïveté that suggests folk tales having been given visual form, much like that in the paintings of Chagall, who was probably influenced by Larionov. Russian artists were particularly drawn to Cubism and Futurism. As early as 1908 Larionov used broken, angular forms in a representational context, much like the German Expressionists, in combination with rich, Fauve color.
Larionov's major contribution was development of a new style called Rayonism, one of several completely abstract or non-objective forms of visual expression that were being explored at the time. In an essay of June 1912 he noted the theoretical basis of this style, which was formally propounded in his "Manifesto of Rayonists and Futurists" of 1913. Rayonism concentrates on the rays of colored light to the exclusion of all other aspects of perception. What the eye sees is the colored rays of light that have reflected off the objects and are radiating back to the eye. Larionov thought of light rays as the primary element to visual perception and as dynamic forces moving through space. Larionov seems to have thought of the surface of his Rayonist paintings not as flat planes but as a white atmosphere through which colored rays move without defining the space. This emphasis on light as a basic, dynamic, cosmic force allies Rayonism with Futurism, which had attracted much attention in Russia.
The tendency at the time to perceive historical, technological, economic, and social forces leading to the creation of a new world could be thought to have found an equivalence in the visual arts with Rayonism. The lack of a measurable space (as in Glass, 1912), of representational content, and even of a figure/ground relation in an abstract art of moving colored strokes (light or color) was a radical departure from the art of the past. Only Impressionism, with its emphasis on light (color) and technique (strokes), would seem to stylistically anticipate some of the premises of this style. From the many rays of light perceived by the artist's eye particular ones were recorded for their emotive or visual effect. This related Rayonism to the several decades old search for a new abstract art based on the principle of color orchestration. The crystalline effects of his paintings suggest the influence of the Analytical Cubism of Braque and Picasso, while Larionov's vibrant color recalls the Fauves or the German Expressionists. Rayonism affected few other artists, Goncharova and Franz Marc being the most important. By 1914 Rayonism had reached its short-lived conclusion, even in the work of Larionov.
Futurism, which viewed dynamism as basic to modern experience, was likely a theoretical influence on Rayonism as well as a stylistic influence in its emphasis on rhythmic patterns implying sequences of movement. The use in Futurism of themes of industry, automobiles, and images of the modern technologically changing world affected Larionov and Goncharova in their preoccupation with animated surfaces and the occasional employment of emblems of contemporary life, such as street signs.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Larionov was inducted into the Russian army, but he was discharged the following year. He and Goncharova moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, to work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In 1919 they permanently settled in Paris where this collaboration continued with Diaghilev until 1929. Leaving Russia marked a decisive break in their careers as artists. While they had earlier done some work for the theater, Larionov and Goncharova hereafter worked exclusively for various ballet troupes. Their scenery and costume designs were so radically different and imaginative that they influenced the interpretation of the ballet in question. Larionov even ventured into choreography to establish total artistic control of his theatrical efforts. Starting in the late 19th century, especially with Richard Wagner's operas, there had been a movement to create a union of the performing and visual arts. This Larionov continued well into the 20th century.
The interest in the second half of the 20th century in radical Russian art from the period prior to the 1917 revolution has resulted in a revival of awareness of Larionov and his contributions. He is heralded as a pioneer of abstract art and as an innovator of theatrical design and choreography.
Of the sources available in English there are several important articles which should be consulted: Mary Chamot, "The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov," The Burlington Magazine (June 1955); Susan Compton, "Italian Futurism and Russia," Art Journal (Winter 1981); Charlotte Douglas, "The New Russian Art and Italian Futurism," Art Journal (Spring 1975); and Magdalena Dabrowski, "The Formation and Development of Rayonism," Art Journal (Spring 1975). To view Larionov in the perspective of his Russian cultural milieu, consult Camilla Gray, The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922 (1962).