Research series: Russian Art and Artists (16): Towards Revolution

“The City Square” – Natalya Goncharova’s 1914 set design for Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Paris [MoMA, New York]

Through the first half of 1914, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company and holding an exhibition of Goncharova’s paintings. The declaration of war, however, sent them back to Moscow. Larionov was called up. Goncharova portrayed the war as a mythic encounter, Russian soldiers accompanied by hosts of angels.

Goncharova: Mythical Images of War from a series of lithographs published late 1914

These are, remarkably, patriotic, notes Anthony Parton: “an apocalyptic view of the war in which Russia and its allies were supported by an angelic host in their battle against dark material and spiritual forces.” Other images include St George, St Michael and angels fighting with aeroplanes: see University of Notre Dame for full series). There is a sense in this apocalyptic vision of spiritual battle that Goncharova is invoking the ‘Destiny of Russia’ concept: that Russia is “divinely ordained to play a key role in shaping world events”.

Other artists were also forced to return home. Chagall returned from Paris to marry his beloved Bella:

Marc Chagall: The Birthday [1915; MoMA]

Having found a desk job with the War Office, he was nevertheless horrified at the idea of being conscripted, the talk of war all-encompassing:

Chagall: The Smolensk Newspaper [1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The sole word visible in the newspaper is “war”. Walther and Metzger, write in the Taschen monograph of Chagall: “The ‘paper is on the table between the two men, whose conversation appears to deal exclusively with the carbage ahead in Europe. The olf Jew, resting his chin thoughtfully in his cupped hands, is thinking of the compulsory conscription Tsarist regimes have been imposing on his people from time immemorial. [His opposite number] whose suit and hat pronounce him to be a bourgeois, [is not] at all enthusiastic either; he is seen mopping his brow in distraction.”

Chagall wasn’t called up, indeed he remained in Russia through until the early 1920s, as did Wassily Kandinsky who, like Goncharova, saw Russia in a grand, epic and spiritual light:

Kandinsky: Moscow – Red Square [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

Amidst the richly vibrant colours and textures, lines and patterns, we see Moscow, with all its churches and cupolas; Red Square has been painted frontally, raised on the heavenly hill. Right at the centre, Boris and Gleb, the two founding Saints of Russia gaze upwards. Above, we see the rainbow, symbol of the Archangel Michael:

the chief archangel, the Archistratig, the head
of the Lord’s heavenly warriors, the guard and protector of God’s honour.
Under his leadership the heavenly forces defeated the devil in battle. He
is therefore the patron saint of chivalry and warriors… [Museum of Russian Icons]

The artist wrote that he particularly loved the time, when the sun goes down and “melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating.” This hour of sunset is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.”

Much had changed since Kandinsky had last been in Moscow, and whilst his ‘ways of seeing’ – that colour vibrates with emotion like music – were radical, others had even more far-reaching visions that would lead to Liubov Popova’s 1921 vision of the city which, with its light and air, steel and glass, stands in extraordinary contrast to Kandinsky’s Moscow:

. Popova: maquette for the City of the Future [1921, photographer unknown]

So how did we get there? Well there’s a photograph of Popova’s studio (taken by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924) that suggests the course that Russian avant garde art took in the wake of Malevich’s Suprematism.

Right: Space-Force-Construction [1921; Tretyakov]

The paintings on the wall above the City of the Future model are from Popova’s Space-Force-Construction series, which had evolved from the colour architectonic paintings we saw in our last episode. Malevich had created, in Suprematism, an entirely new artistic language that dispensed with representation and perspective, emphasising instead geometric shapes and dynamic movement. That breakdown of traditional painting – the Black Square and White on White being the most radical examples – and ways of seeing visual art, led to a period of deep, analytical experimentation of line, colour, shape, movement and recession. Olga Rozanova was painting ‘non-objective compositions’ that, by 1917, were truly brilliant examples of such experimentation:

Non-Objective Composition [1917, Ulyanovsk]; Green Stripe [1917, Rostov]; Colour Painting [1917, St Petersburg]

For Rozanova, colours and colour combinations were the primary building blocks of creative art. For other artists, other aspects came to prominence. In the photograph of Popova’s studio, for example, we see her space-force-construction paintings emphasise line as the dynamic force and – essentially – she brings material texture (faktura) to the fore: notice the paint veers from smooth to rough, and notice especially that this is not painted on traditional canvas, but unprimed plywood, large areas of which are left bare.

This recognition of the very materials used in art-making and the materiality of the art-work itself was central to the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin.

Valdimir Tatlin: The Sailor (probably a self-portrait) [1912; State Russian Museum]

Tatlin, having run away from home as an eighteen year old, became a sailor, travelling the world. Even so he kept up with the avant-garde artists, friends with both Larionov and Goncharova, and painted in the ‘primitivist’ style as we see in The Sailor. Living in great poverty, Tatlin managed to visit Paris and his hero Picasso in 1913 – returning to Russia filled with radical Cubist ideas. As Camilla Gray notes, it was in the winter of 1913-14 that Tatlin took the first step towards what would become Constructivism. Now the difficulty is that many of the early works were lost or destroyed, so there is a reliance on black & white photographs. Here, however, is that first step:

Tatlin: The Bottle [1913; location unknown, photograph from Camilla Gray’s “The Russian Experiment in Art”]

With wallpaper, wood, metal and glass, The Bottle is an exploration of different materials and their properties – the “culture of materials”; Camilla Gray explains: the object, the bottle, is still recognisable as the shape that has been incised onto a strip of metal. But it is not the individual object that is Tatlin’s subject matter, rather its ‘bottleness’ is being analysed. We see the shape silhouetted against a metal strip. But of course one can see through glass, so Tatlin recognises that idea of ‘seeing through’ by using a wire mesh. Moreover, glass is shiny, so the metal behind the mesh has been polished. Each element of a glass bottle has been isolated, taken separately and re-considered. The curve of the bottle, for example, has been taken away from the bottle and transferred to the near-cylinder of metal right at the centre – the reflection of light on the metal paralleling the reflection of light on the bottle. As this metal cylinder arcs out into real space, it contrasts with the flat silhouette of the bottle and the flatness, to the left, of a square of wallpaper. However, even the wallpaper’s flatness is usurped by its trompe l’oeil decorative patterning. Gray summaries: “Thus, a typical ‘enclosed’ space [the bottle] is dissected part by part, attribute by attribute, the analysis being conducted in a series of planes which contrast the idea of ‘real’ and ‘illusory’ space.”

Left: Wood, Metal, Leather [1913-4; Tretyakov Gallery];

Right: Painting Relief: Selection of Materials (iron, stucco, glass, asphalt) [1913-4; presumed destroyed

Using a variety of raw materials – wood, tin, plaster, glass, steel and more – Tatlin explores and combines them to create contrasting textures that illuminate the material properties of each element, extending the ‘picture’ out into real space. This extension he then takes further, removing any reference to the flatness of the framed picture, by creating corner-reliefs:

Corner Relief [1915; destroyed]

Corner Relief [1916; State Russian Museum]

“These corner constructions were Tatlin’s most radical works. In them he has created a new spatial form: a continually intersecting rhythm of planes whose movements jut into, cleave, embrace, block and skewer space” – Camilla Gray.

Alongside Tatlin was fellow-constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, whose initial works on paper and canvas explored lines, which Brandon Taylor in Tate Papers perfectly emphasises are ‘non-descriptive lines’, and would lead, like Tatlin’s work, into three-dimensional ‘real’ space:

Rodchenko: Line Construction [1920; MoMA]; Spatial Construction: Circles within Circles [1921; whereabouts unknown]

You’ll have noticed that we have slipped into post-Revolutionary time, and the Constructivists were very much part of the revolutionary aesthetic those first few utopian years, their artworks tending towards the scientific and the architectural. Notice, for example, the parallel here:

On the left we have Rodchenko’s “Composition No.47” [1917; oil on wood, State Russian Museum], the principles of which the artist re-directs two years later into, on the right, a Design for a Kiosk [1919; private collection]. The avant-garde’s radically new ways of seeing and creating were – at least to them – allied with the radical transformation of society. Even Malevich’s Suprematism was deployed in the decoration of post-Revolutionary Petrograd/Leningrad:

This is Natan Altman’s design for Uritsky Square (Palace Square) in Petrograd in celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. An unknown photographer captured the scene: a cheering crowd behind whom large ‘Suprematist’ panels (of colour) had been constructed:

This, however, is another story for another Research Series.


Russian Art & Artists – Towards Constructivism

Thank you so much for following this series, i hope you have enjoyed and, as ever, if you are able to donate it is hugely appreciated. All best wishes for now.


This is the last regular ‘episode’ in this ongoing series as ‘live’ events return, but there will be further articles in the future – simply “follow” The Common Viewer and a notice will appear in your email inbox.

To send us on our merry way then, with all best wishes, here is Varvara Stepanova’s 1920 painting “Musicians” [Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]:


Words and Pictures: Medieval Moments

Since my post about Medieval church wall-paintings in the “Rambling with Rothenstein” series last year, I have had half an eye on all things that touch on the visual culture of life in the Middle Ages.

For anyone who shares this curiosity, you may be interested in J.L.Carr’s short novel “A Month in the Country”.

Written in the late 1970s, it looks back to the summer of 1920. A young man, Tom Birkin, returned from the horrors of the Great War to train as a specialist in the restoration of wall-paintings. His first job takes him to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, deep in the English countryside, to an ancient church. “It was tremendously exciting”, he says, “to begin with I didn’t know what I was uncovering.” By the end of the second day he has uncovered a head and face of Christ, delighted by the colours that suggested the medieval artist was one of high calibre: “And, as the first tinges of garment appeared, that prince of blues, ultramarine ground from lapis lazuli, began to show – that really confirmed his class – he must have fiddled it from a monastic job – no village church could have run to such expense.”

The novel is extraordinarily subtle as his memories of the war gentle mingle with his meetings with villagers, a brush of romance and a broad contemplation of English life; it’s a subtlety that belies some deep themes if one were to seek them out. For me, though, it is this day-by-day revelation of the wall-painting that is so fascinating, and Birkin’s contemplation of the artist and his world:

“it’s not at all easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages. They weren’t us in fancy dress…”.

Yet, gradually, he does get to ‘know’ the artist, through the details of the image (a large Doom painting) and the touch of the paintbrush, as far as it might be possible across five centuries. By the end of the tale, he stands before “the great spread of colour” recognising that, for those past few weeks, he “had lived with a very great artist”.


I was delighted to see fragments of a medieval wall-painting myself last week, at St James the Less Church, in Hadleigh, Essex.

My guide, local historian Sandra Harvey, told me that the Norman church had been built probably in the 1140s during the reign of King Stephen. But it wasn’t until the 1850s, during restoration work, that the whitewash was removed from the walls to reveal painted texts, border decorations and some extraordinary images.

Those that survive today include an angel and a painting of St Thomas of Canterbury inscribed “Blessed Thomas” and dated to the early 1170s. This is of course intriguing, as Thomas Becket had been assassinated in 1170, perhaps on the orders of King Henry II, and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. Only months later, the King “humbled himself in public penance at Becket’s tomb” which became a site for pilgrimage as Becket became something of a medieval cult figure. That the Hadleigh painting is so early suggests the church’s proximity to Canterbury and the King, perhaps via the Priory at Prittlewell.   

Other paintings at St James the Less could not be preserved, however Mr H.W.King (who oversaw the work) made some drawings, the most wonderful of which shows there had been a large depiction of St George and the Dragon from the 15th century.

The Knight, on horseback, impales the dragon, thus securing Christian good over evil, whilst the Princess watches on along with, in the background, the King and Queen who appear to be applauding from Hadleigh Castle (which had been re/built in the 14th century).

Oh to have seen this in colour!

I did find a version of St George and the Dragon here: from a church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire, just to give a sense of the Hadleigh picture.


My other ‘medieval moment’ has been via Charles Spencer’s book “The White Ship” which tells the history of a medieval disaster when Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Aetheling, was one of the many to die when the White Ship – the Titanic of its day – was shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy.

The book is split into three sections. The first, Triumph, tells the story of Henry – the third son of the Conqueror – as he makes his way towards ruling both England and Normandy. It’s a complicated story, with inter-familial and strategic marriages, births both in and out of wedlock, bitter sibling rivalries, bloody battles, awful punishments and the complex relationship of kingship and papal authority. Eventually Henry secures both lands and brings a certain peace and order. His triumph, then, is to marry Matilda of Scotland, with whom he has a legitimate male heir, William Aetheling and a daughter Matilda.

I love Spencer’s imagined description of the charming and handsome seventeen-year-old William:

“Drawing on the aristocratic fashions of the time, we can guess how William Aetheling was turned out when he waited in Barfleur to make his sea passage home. If we picture him swathed in the finest sil shirt and tunic, with a fur-trimmed brocaded cloak thrown over his shoulders – to combine magnificence with warmth – we are probably not too far from the truth. If, in addition, he was following the fashion that had taken root during his grandfather’s rule of England and was still in vogue, his shoes would have been long with pointed toes.”

Part Two is titled Disaster: the White Ship, on which William was travelling from Normandy to England, met with a mighty collision against a rock. As water rushed in, William’s bodyguards got him onto a rowing boat. However, hearing his half-sister’s screams as the ship splintered further and both crew and passengers were hurled into the freezing sea, William made them turn the little boat back to try and rescue her. Those flailing in the water grabbed on to the returning boat, seeking safety, yet ultimately pulling everyone down into the water. Henry I’s dream of securing long-lasting peace, so that England and Normandy might be passed down to his legitimate son, had been shattered.

The third part of the book, Chaos, tells of the anarchy as lands on both sides of the Channel return once again to on-going rivalry, battles and bloodshed. The shipwreck had a huge impact on the course of history leading, on Henry I’s death, to the unsettled reign of King Stephen.

There is an extremely poignant manuscript image of Henry mourning the death of his son:

British Library, Royal MS 20 A.ii, fol. 6v.

You may have seen or read that Charles Spencer has been taking scientific diving teams out to the site of the shipwreck to learn if anything of the ship might remain, which really would be extraordinary, and rather exciting.


As a postscript, there’s a great article by Simon Heffer:

Medieval church paintings were the PowerPoint presentations of their day (

in which he concludes: “With luck, as churches continue to be repaired, more such ancient masterpieces will be found, their glaze protecting them from centuries of whitewash; and once more our ancestors will speak directly to us.”


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (15): Suprematism – Malevich, Rozanova and Popova

We’ve seen over the last few episodes that, since Diaghilev’s comment in 1905 that “we are witnessing the greatest historic hour of reckoning, of things coming to an end in the name of a new unknown culture”, the Russian art world became a site of rapid, experimental change through the work of artists such as Goncharova, Chagall, Kandinsky and many others. This explosion of painting was linked to the work of modernists right across Europe – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso – adopted into and transformed by the Russian context of ideas, culture, philosophy and indeed the increasingly unstable political situation.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, links with European artists were cut but, within Russia, the avant-garde continue their radical experimentation.

Out on the streets there were strikes and demonstrations. The news from the war is that tens of thousands of men – barely trained, barely armed – are dying en masse at the front. It becomes clear that Tsar Nicholas is clueless at military strategy and that the Tsarina is influencing social policy by way of the disreputable figure of Rasputin. The strikes and demonstrations grow louder, increasingly political as left-wing activists, especially the Bolsheviks, rally citizens towards revolution.

Meanwhile, artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has been quietly cooking up a revolution of his own…

Malevich: Peasant Women in Church [1911; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

As with the other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich had explored Symbolism, Impressionism and by 1911 a Post-Impressionist “Primitivism” akin to that of Natalya Goncharova. These brusque paintings were very much part of a radical art movement that intended to shock the viewer with their non-naturalist depictions and roughly-textured painting. With its roots in Paul Gauguin’s pictures of Brittany and the villagers of Pont-Aven from the 1880s, Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” also reflects – especially by way of the mask-like faces – the more recent work of Picasso, in particular perhaps Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Paul Gauguin: Breton Peasant Women [1894; Musee d’Orsay, Paris]

& Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

What is fascinating about Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” canvas is what is on the other side of it. Note how the peasant women are painted really quite sculpturally, they are rotund, their arms and bodies look solid… well on the ‘verso’ of this painting, we find Malevich, just one year later, moving away from that brusque, textured primitivism to take on, via a version of Cubism, a much cleaner sculptural, and uniquely cylindrical style:

Malevich: The Woodcutter [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The human form has been radically simplified, yet one feels the woodcutter’s strength; he is a monumental figure reflecting his importance in village life. All around him are cylindrical logs – neither background nor foreground – integrating the figure into his work, this very moment of concentration. It’s a delicious patterning of distinct, clearly formed shapes, and they have a sense of movement and dynamism.

Malevich: Taking in the Rye [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The paintings strike one as extraordinarily modern – that tubularity, the almost metallic sheen – and yet fascinatingly they depict the changing of the seasons and the traditional rural work that has been done since time immemorial. If there is a sense of ‘futurism’ here, it is far from the machinery, urbanisation, transport and war of the Italian Futurists. Closer to that sense of speed and dynamism of the city, and the fragmentation of modern life is:

Malevich: The Knifegrinder [[1913; Yale University]

“The workman sharpens his knives at the foot of a flight of steps, visible upper and lower right… The arc of the steps curves around the knifegrinder, whose rhythmic movements Malevich has indicated by the repetition of the foot upon the pedal, the repetition of fingers and hands and the duplication of the nose and other facial features. The grinding machine provides the pivot of the composition [as] the rhythm of rotation appears to spread out like ripples from the centre of the machine animating the flight of steps…” [John Milner: Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, 1996].

Through all this Cubo-Futurist experimentation, Malevich is searching for something: he wants to release art from matters of representation, from the depiction of nature and so-called reality. And, in 1913, he staged an opera at the Futurists Theatre called “Victory Over the Sun”.

Left: Poster advertising “The World’s First Four Productions of Futurist Theatre” at Luna Park Theatre, St Petersburg, 2nd-5th December 1913, including “Victory Over the Sun”.

Right: “The Aviator” painted by Malevich in 1914 [Russian Museum]

The main thrust of Victory Over the Sun, is that the sun represents nature, logic and rationality (the Enlightenment) and therefore the past and present. Victory will represent the future, and its hero is the Aviator or the New Man, of the future, a Traveller in time and space who was later painted by Malevich full of symbolic references. He wears a top hat with a ‘0’ on it from which come beams of light; the Zero might represent a starting point. The playing card in his hand might represent chance and the Tarot (which fascinated Malevich).

Understanding the painting can get rather complicated, for example the ray of light illuminates and splits some lettering which, together, in Russian spell “apteka” meaning “chemist” – the KA might refer to the character of a traveller in a poem, and/or to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Certainly there are layers of meaning, the images relating to language and words as well as possibly fellow Futurist poets involved in Victory Over the Sun.

The costumes for the Opera were designed by Malevich: they are quite bizarre visually with patches of bright colour, and also bizarre in effect: some of the colours would be illuminated by the stage-lighting, and so fragmenting the image on stage, moreover the costumes were made of soft fabric, undermining their solidity.

Malevich’s costume designs: State Museum of Theatre and Music, Saint Petersburg.

The Opera itself was bombastic and absurd. Unsurprisingly it had a mixed reception, some criticised its lunacy, others delighted in its eccentricity. Malevich himself was thrilled with it all, see: Victory Over the Sun for more detail.

As we can see from these newspaper images, Malevich’s backdrops were as peculiar as his costumes; and they include something very important. Joseph Kiblitsky of the State Russian Museum notes that the outline of a square appears in the first, second and third scenes, then, in the fifth, a pure black square on a white plane. It was the first time Malevich had depicted any type of black square. In the play, the image simply symbolises the victory over the sun, like an eclipse, the black covering the white. But for Malevich it seems there was more to it. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he had come about something by chance but that he knows is valuable. Throughout 1914 he experiments…

Malevich: Composition with ‘Mona Lisa’ [1914; State Russian Museum]

The words on the canvas: “chastichnoe” means partial; “zametnie” means eclipse; “peredatsa kvartina v moskva” means we have surpassed the picture in Moscow. Note how the image of the Mona Lisa has been crossed through and torn, it almost disappears in the cascade of Cubist squares – it is a partial eclipse of the old art. In solitude and secrecy, Malevich continues working in his studio and then, in 1915, there was an extraordinary exhibition:

0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition [December 1915; St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd)]

It must have been bewildering to any common viewer that happened to be passing by! And, displayed on the corner – just as a Russian would hang an icon – is Black Square.

Malevich: Black Square [1915; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an icon, the likes of which we had never seen before: the icon of a new world order, a new means of making art. Malevich has stripped away all representation and left us with nothing, a void, a blank, a black square. He called it the Zero of form (remember The Aviator’s top hat?).

Black Square seems to erase, end, annihilate all the paintings that went before. It is the end of art.

If the traditional Orthodox icon was our connection to the heavenly, then to what does Black Square connect us?

Outer-space? Nothingness?

It is worth noting that Black Square has no horizon: hang the painting any way you want and it remains a black square floating on a field of white – Malevich has released the artist from gravity.

But above all it is just, simply, a black square – a geometric, mathematical form. Unsullied by nature or politics or human history and society. It is pure. “It is the face of new art. The Square is a living, royal infant” said Malevich:

“It is everything.”

The photograph of the exhibition shows there were other paintings too: the Black Square had given Malevich entry into the development of a new purely artistic alphabet: squares, crosses, circles and so on. Releasing us from the chains of Art History, this is Suprematism – painting founded on pure artistic forms.

Black Circle [1915; State Russian Museum]; White on White [1918; MoMA, New York]

So what does Malevich, and other artists inspired by his work, do with these new forms? The development is rapid. From the bold simple forms we soon move into formations of complex, dynamic planes, shapes and colours:

The painting at the Tate is a marvellous example: we can see a white on white triangular form around, over, under which other shapes are floating in various directions, some are coming forward, whilst others cross over (reminding us again of the impact of the costumes and backdrops in Victory Over the Sun).

Importantly too, colour is kept within the forms and very much part of the dynamic ‘non-gravity space’ within the picture frame.

We can turn to other artists who took up Malevich’s Suprematist ideas and created The Supremus Group, including Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) who I would call a Suprematist Colourist:

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Yekaterinburg]

Rozanova uses both bold and more subtle colours, from stark red to gentle peach and lilac; and note how at the bottom left she has ‘quoted’ Black Square.

Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Samara]

“Throughout Rozanova’s career, colour remained her chief concern. In sophisticated abstract paintings [those shown above], she reveals a ‘discordant concordance’ of interactive coloured planes to reveal her own variant of Suprematism based on the dominant role of colour.” [Nina Gurianova in “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, Royal Academy, 1999].

For Rozanova, it is colour that has the dynamism Malevich attributes to shape; her work blazes with colour, contrasts that create movement and rhythm. Her aim was “to convey the immaterial essence of colour, its inner energy and luminosity…”

For Liubov Popova (1889-1924), shape and colour were certainly central, but it is perhaps a combination of texture and structure that stands out in many of her Suprematist paintings, which she called ‘architectonic’

This “Painterly Architectonic” at the National Gallery of Scotland is described as: “characterized by dynamic, overlapping planes which seem to float in space. The coloured diagonal shapes in this painting suggest movement but also a sense of balance. The modelling of the shapes suggests a light source from outside the frame.”

That latter statement suggest something quite different to anything found in Malevich’s Suprematism; the Gallery seems to be suggesting that Popova imaging her abstractions as physical architecture out in the ‘real world’. And that, perhaps, is why she is so interested in texture – faktura – the actual material of the painting, which would lead her towards Constructivism, yet another aspect of the radical avant-garde in Russia, as we will see next time.

Describing the art of Liubov Popova in “The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922”, Camilla Gray notes how difficult it is to categorise the works such as the Architectonic Paintings from 1918 below, yet how exciting they are:

“They are often executed on a rough board, and the angular forms in strong blues, green and reds are brushed in on this crude, raw surface, leaving the impression of a lightning-swift movement, a darting, breathless meeting of forces…”

Russian Art & Artists 15 – Suprematism

Thank you for reading this episode of our ‘gentle’ research into Russian Art & Artists! If you are able to ‘donate’ that would be marvellous – many thanks and all best wishes.


Our next episode:

Russian Art & Artists (16): Constructivism and Tatlin’s Tower

will be published by Sunday 25th July 2021

Let’s finish, though, with two gorgeous colour sketches by Olga Rozanova [1917; private c/o Wikimedia]:


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (14): The Cubo-Futurists

By 1912, Moscow was one of the key nodal points in the networks of European modernism, with Russian artists working across Europe and European artists visiting Russia, and exhibitions, catalogues and magazines all part of the circulation of visual ideas and experiments – including Cubism and Futurism which, combined, became a significant movement in Russia known as Cubo-Futurism, or Russian Futurism and would lead to the developments of Rayonism, Suprematism and Constructivism as we shall see.

Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), was based primarily in Kyiv, Ukraine (where, the Tretyakov notes, she was “a magnetic figure…the toast of the town”), exemplified the extent of the ‘travelling artist’ as from 1907 – 1914 she working in St Petersburg, Moscow, Venice and Paris, becoming close to many of the leading artists and taking part in a variety of key modernist exhibitions (see Daily Art Magazine). She learnt of Cubism directly from Braque and Picasso, intrigued by its revolutionary approach to exploring the dynamics of vision and modern life.

Left: Cubist Nude [1912; MoMA, New York]. Right: Still Life [1913; Thyssen, Madrid]

Importantly, and interestingly, however, whilst the early Cubists played it down in their often sombre paintings, Exter’s work is full of colour, one of the significant aspects of Russian avant-garde art both, say, in the paintings of Goncharova and, looking ahead a little, that of Malevich. As the Thyseen Museum notes with regard to “Still Life”: …whereas the spatial fragmentation and use of collage evidence her experimental zeal, the vivid colours are drawn from Russian traditions. Colour, for the Russian avant garde was very much part of its ‘revolution’ against bourgeois and academic traditions.

Nadezhda Udaltsova (1886-1961) also studied and worked in Paris, taking on the ideas of Cubism. Though much of her work from this period has been lost, what remains is glorious, especially (to my mind):

At The Piano [1915; Yale University Collection]

As the fragmentation emanates from the woman’s hands playing the piano keys and the ruffling of the score so it feels as if we can see / experience the vibrations and rhythms of the music itself, the gradations of the colour segments create a sense of the fleeting notes as they concentrate then dissolve into the air. And I love the look of concentration on her face, the word BACH by her forehead gives the idea that woman and composer interweave: they come together, unite at the meeting point of the music.

Alongside Udaltsova in Paris was another remarkable artist central to the development of Russian art: Liubov Popova (1889-1924) whose study of the European Renaissance paintings along with Russian art history, especially icon paintings, underpinned her experimental ‘laboratory’ of art-making.

The Traveller [1915; Norton Simon Foundation]

This abstracted composition suggests the speed and sense of dislocation associated with modern transport, and seems to include an oblique self-portrait in the central figure: a woman wearing a yellow necklace and high-collared cape who reads a magazine or newspaper in her seat on a train, grasping a green umbrella in one gloved hand. Snatches of words (including the Russian terms for “gazette,” “hat,” “2nd class,” and the roar of the train) vividly convey the sights and sounds of locomotive travel. With her use of found text, fragmented forms, and shapes rhythmically repeated to create a sense of acceleration, Popova assimilated both French Cubism and Italian Futurism in a uniquely Russian hybrid known as Cubo-Futurism. [Norton Simon]

Untitled [1915; Guggenheim, New York]

There is a marvellous overview of Popova’s career by Joyce Kozloff in Hyperallergic; one paragraph of which reads:

There was much discussion of faktura (the physicality of surface) as content. Popova’s mixed media, non-objective paintings on wood met these conditions gracefully. Lines zigzag across their surfaces, weaving in and out of patches of colour, breaking up and crossing, some in concentric circles, others zooming upwards in parallel formation toward a cosmic unknown, and still others ripping diagonally through hovering shapes and shadows.

We discussed the term faktura in connection with Goncharova’s art – it is an element that would come increasingly to the fore amongst the Russian experimentalists – the texture of the surface whether in paint, collage or sculpture. Popova would be a leading light here, her work with figures such as Tatlin and Malevich signalled by abstracts such as her Painterly Architectronics series from 1916, one of which is in the National Galleries of Scotland:

Whilst Natalia Goncharova’s paintings rarely become absolutely abstract, another painting at the National Galleries of Scotland reveals her interest in the experiments Popova pioneers:

Goncharova, Natalia; La foret (The Forest) [1913]; National Galleries of Scotland;

Goncharova had long been interested in Cubism and Futurism, each working in synthesis with her explorations of colour and subject matter all of which often brought her increasing public venom as much as acclaim. we can see the principles of Cubism here in The Forest as the picture space is fragmented and distinct planes of colour then bleed into each other (‘passage’). Yet notice how rich her colour remains; the decorative brilliance of the painting even as we – even in reproduction – can see the roughness of the paint (‘faktura’).

The natural world of the forest seems in contrast to some of Goncharova’s more apparently Futurist works that express the speed of the modern city and the industrial world:

The Weaver [1910; National Museum of Wales]

The Weaver – also known as Woman and Loom – gives us the speed and frenetic activity of the working world; the Cubo-Futurism fragmenting any placid visual experience for the viewer. However, whilst we might recognise the dynamic element of the Futurist aesthetic, it is also increasingly apparent that the woman seems to be dissolving/fragmenting/metamorphosing into the loom: she is disappearing as the machine remains fairly solid. As Anthony Parton recognises, Goncharova’s did not take Italian Futurism at its word, but used it to question the social politics and ethics of ‘the machine age’.

Cyclist [1913; State Russian Museum]

Cyclist is often regarded as one of the archetypal works of Futurist painting, both in Natalia Goncharova’s oeuvre as a whole and the Russian art of the early 1910s in general. It embodies such typical features of Futurism as constant repetition, dislocation of the contours of the figure, which seems to be recorded in temporal and spatial sequence, and the interspersion of fragments of street signs, in order to convey the bustle, noise and movement of the city

so notes the State Russian Museum website. However… a bicycle hardly expresses the dynamic of modernity does it? And note the cobbles he’s riding over. Then, in the background to the left, there is a finger (the hand of God?) pointing him in the opposite direction. Goncharova seems to be deploying all sorts of Cubist / Futurist elements in order to usurp the very aesthetic of modernism it would usually express and applaud.

What Goncharova – along with her partner Larionov – does seem to be very interested in is how Cubist fragmentation and Futurist dynamism relate to light and how it can be refracted into shape, colour and texture. This became known as Rayonism, or Rayism and first came to public attention at The Target exhibition in Moscow, 1913.

Rayonists aimed to create an art that represented the immaterial world beyond the human eye, or the ‘fourth dimension’, by capturing the rays of light reflected off objects in the material world. Dynamic lines were added to their paintings, to suggest the movement of light and energy. Recent scientific discoveries on the discovery of x-rays and radioactive rays may have influenced their depictions of time and space and a further reality beyond the naked eye. 

National Galleries of Scotland

Rayonist Lilies [1913; Perm Art Gallery];

Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow [1913; Guggenheim, New York]

In their “Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto” (1913), Goncharova and Larionov declared:

Long live the beautiful East! We are joining forces with contemporary Eastern artists to work together.

Long live nationality! We march hand-in-hand with ordinary house-painters.

Long live the style of Rayonist painting we have created – free from concrete forms, existing and developing according to painterly laws!

That which is valuable for the lover of painting finds its maximum expression in a Rayonist picture. The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, its saturation, the relation of colour masses, depth, texture; anyone who is interested in painting can give [their] full attention to these things.


Unlike Gonchariva’s paintings in which there is usually an identifiable source or subject, for Larionov, Rayonism would lead to absolutely abstract pictures, this ‘second phase’ was called Pneumo-Rayonism in which the object has been completely removed giving the viewer an extraordinary experience of rhythmic patterns as the picture dissolves, reforms,, twists and shifts in criss-crossing lines and fireworks of colour:

Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red [1913; MoMA, New York]

This all leads us back to that concept “faktura”, the surface texture of the picture and the open recognition of the material elements of a painting, and will lead to almost scientific analyses in artists studios by the time of the 1917 Revolution and, in the short term, a turn to Russian abstract art:

Olga Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Samara Art Museum]


So, next time, we will turn to: Malevich and the Art of Suprematism which will appear here on The Common Viewer by Monday 12th July.


Russian Art and Artists (14): Russian Futurism

Thank you so much for joining me on this research journey. If you are able, please do ‘donate’ to help me keep it going!


The Russian Futurists’ paintings were just a part of the controversial culture they created in Moscow and St Petersburg:

Aiming to subvert the dominance of Western culture, the Moscow artists adopted a strategy of the provocatively absurd. Beginning in 1912, Goncharova would stroll down Moscow’s luxurious Arbat Street painted in gaudy colours. In the evenings, she performed with her partner Mikhail Larionov at Cabaret No. 13 – Frieze magazine.

In fact, with other Futurists, Goncharova – and Larionov – would paint strange symbols on their faces; it was extremely provocative, a ‘slap in the face’ of bourgeois culture:
faces are like the screech of the
warning the hurrying passers-by,
the drunken sounds of the great

(from “Why We Paint Ourselves” 1913; see: History Transformation of Design)

To the left here is a photograph of Goncharova with her painted face. To the right is a still from a film called “Drama in Cabaret No.13” made in 1914. Goncharova and Larionov had set up two theatrical cabarets, one was called the Pink Lantern the other Cabaret No.13; there were wild exhortations of poetry, performance art and much heckling from (and towards) the audience.

The Futurists abused the “crowd” with all the words at their disposal, and the audience tormented these “clowns of art” mercilessly … as a result the artist Goncharova slapped a certain barrister. A disgraceful, brazen, and talentless can-can reigns dissolutely in the temples of art, and grimacing and wriggling on its altars are these shaggy young characters in
their orange shirts and painted physiognomies
wrote one reviewer (who clearly didn’t appreciate the evening!)

The Drama in Cabaret No.13 film told a Futurist drama: on a typical evening, the Futurist artists gather to perform in honour of Goncharova. There are dances, poetry recitals and Goncharova herself performs a Futurist tap-dance. The evening concludes with Larionov dancing a tango, during which he kills his partner – Goncharova. He goes to bury her in a snowdrift, but is witnessed by the other artists and so finds himself excommunicated from Futurism. Unable to bear the pain of such a sentence, he himself dies.


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (13) – Icons, and Wassily Kandinsky

The Mother of God of Vladimir [Constantinople; 12th century; Tretyakov Gallery]

The art of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) especially, to my mind, the paintings made from around 1910 to 1916 on the cusp of full abstraction, is among the most experimental, fascinating and exciting work of the 20th century. Before we get there, however, I’d like to explore Russian Icons a little – primarily because of their connections to Kandinsky’s art and thinking as we will see, but also because it was only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that Icons began to be viewed as works of art; much more than that, however, as a genre, they represent, symbolise, Russia’s understanding of itself.

The Mother of God of Vladimir, or the Theotokus of Vladimir (detail top of page) is one of the most beautiful and most revered icons in Russia:

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.” In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus to holy Prince Mstislav (April 15th) and was installed in the Devichi monastery in Vyshgorod

[Orthodox Wikipedia]

Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya icon of Our Lady [16th century, Russian Museum]

With the attempted invasion of Kievan Russia by the Mongol Empire led by Tamerlaine (aka Timur), the icon was removed – translated – to Moscow:

Orthodox tradition states that later, in 1395 Timur, having reached the frontier of Principality of Ryazan, had taken Elets and started advancing towards Moscow. Great Prince Vasily I of Moscow went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the Oka River. The clergy brought the famed Theotokos of Vladimir icon from Vladimir to Moscow. Along the way people prayed kneeling: “O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!” Suddenly, Timur’s armies retreated.

Since then:

The histories of Moscow and of the icon of Vladimir Mother of God are eternally inseparable. How many times did the Mother of God save the capital city from enemies through the grace of her holy icon? This icon has linked Apostolic times to Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ to Vladimir Rus’, and later to Muscovy, the Third Rome; as it is said, “there will be no Fourth.” The kingdom of Moscow was formed by divine providence and embraced the mystical ties of ancient empires, historical experience and traditions of other Orthodox peoples. The miracle working Vladimir icon became a symbol of unity and succession.

[The Catalogue of Good Deeds]

That the Icon is said to be painted by St Luke directly from the Virgin Mary, and to have passed from Byzantium to Moscow carrying all the symbolic weight of Orthodox belief, is the pivot of Russia’s sense of itself in the world.

A 15th-century depiction of Princess Olga being baptised in Constantinople

(from the Radzivill Chronicle: part of UNESCO’s amazing Memory of the World project).

Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ who became a Christian. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus’ officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus’ is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.

These were times often depicted by the Wanderers artists in the late 19th century as they revived the sense of Russian history and tradition. In 1880, Vassily Perov for example portrays early Christians praying in secret during pre-Christian pagan times, in 1892 Mikhail Nesterov recalled Princess Olga and in 1890, Viktor Vasnetsov depicted the baptism of Vladimir [all Kiev Museum of Russian Art].

When Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christinaity, artists from Byzantium came over to Kievan Rus to decorate the newly built churches and to teach local painters the skills of their work; and it was in Russia that icon painting really took hold, especially in the cities of Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow. One especially important master of Moscow was Andrei Rublev (1360s-1420s):

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) [see Tretyakov Magazine and there’s Tarkovsky’s mesmerising loosely biographical film Andrei Rublev.]

The ‘School of Novgorod’ is also particularly fascinating as it was the only Russian city spared the Mongol invasion in the 13th century due to being surrounded by marshes making it inaccessible, and so although the painting of icons is a very strict, inherited, hardly-ever-changing tradition, there is a distinctly Novgorodian style.

Saints Boris and Gleb

The Novgorod Icons Gallery notes:

The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to “Sts. Boris and Gleb” from the Church of same name in Plotniki – heroic in spirit and superb in its colour – scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father’s throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.

In terms of the painting:

Softness is the distinctive feature of the Russian Orthodox icons of Boris and Gleb. Usually, they represent frontal, full-length images of the princes, which seem to float in the air. The faces of the saints are somewhat sad but display concentration and kindness. In their hands, they hold the attributes of martyrdom and princely authority: crosses and swords. Boris and Gleb are dressed as princes with fur hats on their heads. The colour palette… is distinguished by richness and consistency. [Russian Icon Collection]

Add to that, ochre, green and red are dominant colours in Novgorod icons.

Another very famous icon image is that of St George (Patron Saint of Novgorod/ Moscow):

St George and the Dragon (Novgorod School; early 16th Century; c/o Ruzhnikov Gallery, London):

The icon is painted in rich colour typical for the Novgorod school. St.George on a rearing white charger, shown against a rocky landscape, slays the winged monster as it appears from the lake; the hand of God emerges from a segment of heaven on the top right of the composition and blesses the saint. An angel crowns St.George with a martyr’s crown, symbolising the victory of good over evil. The tower on the right represents the city, the king and inhabitants witness the battle.

Icons such as these – singular paintings, as it were – would be in churches and also people’s homes where they would reside in the Icon or Red Corner; small versions could be carried around and, in large churches and cathedrals the images would be built up such as on the iconostases which separate the sanctuary from the nave: here, for example, is the glorious interior of the Dormition Cathedral, Moscow [see Russian Art & Culture for full article].

One of the strangest, perhaps, icon images – especially for west European viewers – is that of Saints Stephen and in particular Christopher:

Saints Stephen and Christopher

That Christopher is represented with a dog’s head may stem from his being an outsider from an Eastern tribe. His faith in God conquered temptation, only to lead to his beheading. Rarely portrayed, even in Russian Orthodoxy, he is nevertheless the renowned patron saint of travellers Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher – Orthodox Arts Journal. And one more extraordinary icon:

Elijah ascending to Heaven [Novgorod]

Here the prophet and miracle worker Elijah ascends alive to Heaven on his chariot in a ball of fire; and it is believed, echoing Christ’s Resurrection, that Elijah will return to earth “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (The Book of Malachi), ie. at the end of the world, the end of history, when St Michael sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead and signal all souls to the weighing scales for the Day of Judgement.

Looking at all of these, what is so important to remember is that:

a religious icon in Russian Orthodoxy is considered a window to the Heavenly World. One should not look at an icon as a work of art bearing certain aesthetic features and merits but as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is a special devout attitude to the icon, which sets Orthodox traditions apart from others.

Russian Icon

It is in light of this Orthodox way of seeing icons that we might understand Kandinsky’s thesis for paintings that bypasses naturalistic representation and turns instead to an orchestration of lines, a chorus of colours and juxtaposition of forms that reach straight into the viewer’s soul. This would lead him, ultimately, to pure abstraction. My interest here, though, is in the pathway towards that abstraction and particularly Kandinsky’s ongoing references – even whilst he was painting in France, then Munich – to Russian history, folktale and Orthodox icons.

A ‘gallery’ of early paintings is one of medieval Moscow and fairy-tale romance:

Kandinsky: Sunday (Old Russia) [1904; Netherlands]

Kandinsky: Couple Riding [1906; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

The Gallery notes:

The “Riding Couple” belongs to the large group of Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, in which he conjures up a poetic world of images full of enigmatic diversity with fairy-tale- like, freely conceived sceneries. The magic of distant, long-gone times, into which such scenes are always transported, increases the impression of mysterious unreality. From jewel bright particles of colour, the image of a young, tightly entwined couple in Russian costume is created, riding along between stylized birch trunks and under the golden net of their leaves in the dark foreground. Behind them, the arch of a silent, sparkling river is visible, on which the white sails of two Viking ships, messengers of an indeterminably prehistoric time, appear in the mosaic of colour spots. Across the river, the silhouette of an old Russian Kremlin city with colourful domes and towers appears like an apparition over the water.

Kandinsky combines the romantic nostalgia of Symbolism with Post-Impressionist colour; the mosaic, or stained-glass window effect liberates the colours from ‘realistic’ representation, allowing them to shine in their own right. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, he would write:

“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, they eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

That liberation of colours is further enabled by ‘reaching back’ into an imaginary Russia; and perhaps one of his most extraordinary early pictures is:

Kandinsky: This Colourful Life [1907; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

We see a variety of characters from Old Russia, some of whom we’ve met before; in the foreground, just to the left, is the Madonna and Child, just behind them stand Boris and Gleb; to the right of the tree we see St George on horseback and, far right, our romantic couple are about to kiss. In the background there are sword fights and children’s games, a boat is rowed along the river (Volga) and we see a church and cemetery: stories, imagination and death being all part of this colourful life. Just up, to the left of the church steeple/cupola is fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga’s house and, looking up further, at the top of the hill, is Moscow.

It’s an extraordinary accumulation of Kandinsky’s ideas, heritage and inspiration. Art historian Hajo Duchting writes:

The painting is meant to depict all the worldly and spiritual aspects of Russian life past and present, aspects that touch upon death and the belief in resurrection, as well as strife and the small joys in life.

Whilst ‘Colourful Life’ is understood as a turning point, these Russian aspects will continue to influence the development of Kandinsky’s paintings over the next few years as explores colour even further in his painting and we the colour saturation intensifies in, for example “Picture with Archer” [1909; MoMA] in which we see the figure on the horse at the forefront to the right, some men in medieval costume to the left and, in the middle of sky and landscape a city with cupolas that could, again, by Moscow:

and becomes brighter, clearer…

The Blue Mountain [1909; Guggenheim, New York]

Vasily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art. 

That colour saturation now begins to change and the forms become less substantial; there’s increasing light, movement and fluidity to the picture:

Composition IV [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

And yet…

can you see Boris and Gleb, the two figures on the lower right?

the three central figures holding sabres (?) who seem to be guarding the blue mountain (blue, the colour of Heaven), well these are members of the celestial army which, according to legend, resides in the mountain and will emerge ready to save Russia and the Sainsts in time of need.?

and to the left in the foreground, under the rainbow, is the River Volga, with the oars of the rowing boat.

Above the rainbow, you might even see a calligraphic line suggesting a horse (the horse of St George), and in the top left? Those two ‘figures’? Well, look at the sky just above them – the red and orange seem to be the shape of a dog’s head. Those two figures are Saints Stephen and Christopher.

For Kandinsky, all this symbolism and this new art implies a turning point, a new dawn: spiritual and social renewal; apocalypse and resurrection.

Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.”

Art Forum

Most pertinent, then, is perhaps this glorious glass painting:

All Saints I [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

In simple outlines and bright colors, regardless of proportions and spatial logic, the artist assembles the figures of All Saints’ Day under the yellow trumpet of a monumental angel. Among them are St. George with shield and lance, a female saint with a burning candle and the large couple holding each other wrapped around each other, perhaps the two princely martyrs of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb… The holy society stands under the clear antagonism of brightness and darkness, salvation and destruction… [and] on the left above the trumpet of the angel [St Michael, from the Book of Revelation, sounding the last trump], the Kremlin city on the hill shines…

Moscow being, of course, the Third – and final – Rome.

And when, due to World War I, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914, he began working towards this extraordinary vision of the city:

Kandinsky: Moscow I [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

We seem to be standing in Red Square, whirling around looking at everything at once, cupolas and factory chimneys; there is a joy of life in the city under the rainbow; and, very probably, that is Boris and Gleb standing at the centre of it all: a triumphant vision.

And if, as Kandinsky believed, spiritual renewal would come with artistic renewal, then Moscow was the place to be, for the avant-garde artists were continuing to experiment fervently…


Russian Art & Artists (13) – Russian Icons and Kandinsky

If you are enjoying this series and able to contribute I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes!


Next time (Saturday 26th June) we’ll catch up with Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Futurists!


Russian Art Week: London, June 2021

It’s that time of the summer when the auction houses of London focus the Art of Russia (see Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture ( which is always a delicious nosegay of paintings from across Russia and Russian history. Anyone following my little Russian Art & Artists research course will, hopefully, enjoy browsing the online galleries, especially as there are pictures, even by the most celebrated artists, that are rarely seen in public (especially in Britain) because they’re in private collections.

It means too that, for the common viewer, one begins imagining which paintings to buy in the creation of a personal collection (imaginary cheque books at the ready!) – I have chosen three:

I would have to start with this glorious painting by Ivan Shishkin: “Forest Road” (1896) at MacDougall‘s. I love the way (as with many artists of the 19th century Wanderers movement) the path comes right up to the lower frame, as a viewer one feels invited in, as if already walking along, enjoying the light, the air and the colours of the forest.

MacDougall‘s notes:

Here, as in many of Shishkin’s best works, there is no pursuit of a beautiful motif or exalted tone yet, for all its apparent simplicity, Forest Road enchantingly evokes the mysterious depths of the Central Russian forest landscape so familiar to everyone, as well as the natural progression of the muted light, and the emotional and expressive quality of the artistic language.

That suggestion of ‘mysterious depths’ calls to the ancient history of Russia, the wildness of its interior lands, even evoking the traditions of story-telling, the grand legends and folk-tales.

My second ‘imaginary acquisition’ is – and this will surprise no-one! – a painting by Natalia Goncharova: The Life of the Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus from 1913 and on sale at Sotheby‘s. For all the radical difference of Goncharova’s art from that of Shishkin, they share the same catalyst for their work: the traditions of Russia. Here, Goncharova explores the story of two Orthodox saints from the Russian Icon tradition.

Florus and Laurus are known as protectors of horses and have been important for the Russian peasantry. In both its form and subject matter, the work therefore continues Goncharova’s exploration of peasant traditions

say Sotheby‘s in their Catalogue Note. With its simplified forms, bright colours and decorative elements (the flowers top right) Goncharova connects folk art and visual culture with avant-garde modernism.

Now this might come as a surprise! Ivan Andreev’s “Pig Farm” is undated and, on sale at Sotheby‘s, sadly there are no additional notes. But surely it is from the ‘heroic’ / ‘working class impressionism’ period of 1950s Socialist Realism? Everyday life is recognised as worthy of monumental representation, the lives of the happy, healthy worker-citizens gloried in sunlight and even pig farming is an honoured part of Soviet collective productivity. Of course we can see it is ‘propaganda’: Socialist Realist artists were closely circumscribed in their art even after the demise of Stalin, both in the subject matter and style; and yet, I find there is something immensely satisfying in Andreev’s painting.


If you want to explore further, the websites are:

Sotheby’s: Russian Pictures (

Christie’s: Browse Lots (

MacDougall’s: MacDougall’s Auction | Home (

and Bonhams: Bonhams : The Russian Sale


And if you are following the Russian Art & Artists research series here on The Common Viewer, our next ‘episode’ (to be published 12th June) will be on Russian Icons and the Art of Kandinsky.


Words and Pictures (A Russian Aside): Rasputin and Anna Krarup

The Moscow Times has reported that – yesterday in Copenhagen – two portraits of the notorious/infamous Rasputin painted by Danish artist Anna Theodora Krarup went to auction, see: Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers of Fine Art (

I’m not sure if I’m more intrigued by the paintings – done from life, incredibly rare – or the artist!

Christie’s writes of Krarup:

Theodora Krarup was born in Scheelborg in 1862 and studied in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris and Helsinki, before fulfilling a lifelong ambition to visit Russia, at the age of 34, where she remained for forty two years. Krarup lived in St. Petersburg, where she was asked by the, dowager Maria Feodorovna to paint the late Alexander III from pictures. She was then commissioned to paint further Imperial portraits from life.

Krarup became a friend of Rasputin and painted a total of twelve portraits of him, the last of which was completed five days before his death. According to her memoires, Rasputin entrusted his own memoires, photograph album and letters to her, but these along with her own remaining works, she had to destroy the day before her deportation in 1938. However, she attempted to refute the scandalous reputation of Rasputin in her own memoires, dictated to and published by : Henning Kehler and William Haste.

What a fascinating story this must be – living in St Petersburg through the Revolution and deep into Stalinist times – but apparently it’s only published in Danish.

The Moscow Times adds:

She had a studio on Nevsky Prospekt and painted portraits of not only Russian royalty, but also other prominent cultural and scientific figures. She was acquainted with Grigory Rasputin and strongly refuted the depiction of him as a womanizer and fraud. She wrote that he was a kind person without ambition.

Concidentally, I’ve just been reading Teffi’s short story/memoirs Rasputin and Other Ironies [Pushkin Press] in which she describes meeting Rasputin:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to be gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes.

It’s a description that approximates Krarup’s portrait so closely it’s astonishing.

Teffi meets Rasputin a couple of times, he’s clearly a very peculiar man sometimes posturing and high-handed, sometimes dancing madly, sometimes a womaniser; but then Teffi also sees the security around him, the journalists exploiting his story, and the powerful interest all sorts of people had in him, and for all sorts of motives. Teffi, however, doesn’t fall for his magic act:

Here he was, Rasputin in his element. The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words – all this was a tried and tested method. But if so, then it was all rather naive and straightforward. Or, perhaps, his fame as a sorcerer, soothsayer and favourite of the Tsar really did kindle within people a particular blend of curiosity and fear, a keen desire to participate in this weird mystery.

I think I’m with Teffi here; it would be much more interesting to find out about Anna Krarup’s time in Russia/USSR!


Words and Pictures: Arty Books for June 2021

The first book to mention is Sarah Winman’s new novel “Still Life” which is published by HarperCollins next week, 10th June and looks fascinating. Anyone who had read her glorious “Tin Man” [Tinder Press] will know her extraordinarily succinct use of language to conjure atmosphere, a strong sense of place and time and always a dramatic, unexpected and often emotional plot. Throughout that novel the presence of Vincent Van Gogh – both his paintings (the Sunflower series) and his biography – haunted, sometimes even drove, the narrative, in surprising ways.

Reading “Tin Man” then took me back to re-reading A. S. Byatt’s novel (also called) “Still Life” [Vintage] which is similarly infused with the spirit of Van Gogh as well as other painters. The Prologue is set at an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and one of the main characters, a writer, looking at Van Gogh paintings reflects how difficult he had found it to find “an appropriate language for the painter’s obsession with the illuminated material world.” Perhaps Byatt, too, found it difficult, but her success throughout the novel – as Sarah Winman achieved in “Tin Man” also – is the creation of story, characters, fictional events that enable one to look again at the paintings and their effect/s upon the viewer.

Vincent van Gogh, Vincent; Sunflowers; 1888
The National Gallery, London;

In Winman’s novel the propelling catalyst is a reproduction of “Sunflowers” won at a raffle – Dora hangs it on the wall of her otherwise drab and depressing back room, and against her husband’s wishes.

“She stood back. The painting was as conspicuous as a newly installed window, but one that looked out on to a life of colour and imagination, far away from the grey factory dawn and in stark contrast to the brown curtains and brown carpet, both chosen by a man to hide the dirt. It would be as if the sun rose every morning on that wall, showering the silence of their mealtimes with the shifting emotion of light.”

The painting now on the wall leads immediately to a near murder Dora’s her husband returns and goes to pull it down: “Do it and I’ll kill you. If not now then when you sleep. This painting is me. You don’t touch it, you respect it.”

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” changes lives throughout the story in, as I say, surprising and powerfully emotional ways.

The publisher’s copy for Sarah Winman’s “Still Life” reads:

Still Life is a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster. 1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

In other words: it will be amazing!

A book more directly linked to an artist is Franny Moyle’s The King’s Painter [Head of Zeus] which, I have to say, is one of the most beautifully illustrated and produced art/biographies that I’ve seen in a long time. What is particularly interesting is that each chapter is dedicated to a particular portrait that then illuminates the context of the working artist. Moyle notes in the Introduction that there is very little by way of written records from the artist’s life, which means that the the paintings themselves, their subjects and their cultural-political receptions, are superbly foregrounded. And of course the paintings have been so historically affective: we could not ‘see’ or perhaps even understand Henry VIII and his court except through the eyes of Holbein.

Holbein the younger, Hans; Henry VIII and Henry VII; National Portrait Gallery, London;

The King’s Painter: The Art and Times of Hans Holbein is published now, and four episodes of it from Radio 4’s Book of the Week are still available (as of today): BBC Radio 4 – The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle – Available now and – fascinatingly – as she was going about her research, Franny Moyle also discovered a portrait of the artist as a child: The child hidden in plain sight: how one painting has upended the Holbein world (!

My third ‘recommended’ book is Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man” [Bloomsbury] which is absolutely brilliant. Wilson not only portrays D.H. Lawrence in a uniquely new light – especially by way of his usually-forgotten-about writing – she has also transformed the art of biography by mapping Lawrence’s life by way of Dante’s travels from the Inferno of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise. It is truly extraordinary and, when the ‘blurb’ says “a landmark biography” for once this rings true.

You might be thinking – why is he talking about this when it’s not about an artist or art? Well, the third part is especially interesting as, when Lawrence and his wife Frieda move to New Mexico, an artist who travels with them is Brett (1883-1977), the Hon. Dorothy Eugenie Brett to give her formal name. Brett had been a student at the Slade, a friend of Carrington and one of the Bloomsbury artists who, during World War I, stayed at Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor – thesae were the circles through which she met Lawrence. At a dinner party, Lawrence – drunk – suggested the guests should all move with him to create a writers/artists colony. One way or another they demurred, except Brett.

The website has only four of her paintings, including one of Ottoline and her Garsington guests and a portrait of Lawrence himself:

The other two are later paintings (both in the Tate) from New Mexico where, from 1924, Brett would live for the rest of her life.

The Tate website tells a little more about these astonishing pictures.

And, one other book to mention is Ian Collins biography of the artist John Craxton [Yale University Press]:

which I will be reading over the next few days before discussing it with the author himself (via @HatchardsPiccadilly on InstagramLive next Wednesday 9th, 6pm), when I’ll have much more to tell!

So, for now, happy book-reading and picture-viewing!


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

One of the paintings we discussed in the piece on Natalya Goncharova a couple of weeks ago, was her “Rabbi with Cat” [1912; National Galleries of Scotland] – a fascinating image, that links in closely to Goncharova’s radical desire to portray the peoples of Russia usually left out of art. More than that, the painting recognises the persecution of Jews – both on a community level and on the individual level. In the background of the picture we see two Jewish men carrying sacks on their backs: are they fleeing a pogrom, a violent displacement so regularly experienced by Russian Jews, a history of persecution went back centuries? And in the foreground the rabbi, with a look of sadness in his eyes, holds a cat. It’s a strange image, seemingly symbolic; yet it could be that Goncharova is presenting a singularly personal moment of reflection: the rabbi must flee his home, leaving the pet behind. It’s a moment of sympathy; the artist and the viewer connecting with this individual man having to deal with awful circumstances.

As we’ve seen, Natalya Goncharova found her vision of Russia and Russian people through her experiments in Post-Impressionism and it seems to me that the cross-over of Parisian modernism with the Russian social, political and cultural contexts of post-1905 engendered a remarkable fusion of expression and representation: a liberation for artists in terms both of what they could paint (the subject matter) and the ways in which they could paint (the brilliance of colour, the disregard of formal perspective, the texture of painterly faktura). On or around 1910 and the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, this would both shock the general viewer and provide the catalyst for ever more radical experiment among the avant garde artists.

When it came to representing Jews, however, Goncharova was – for all her sympathy and empathy – looking from the outside.

It was another artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who brought aspects of the Russian-Jewish experience to the canvas.

Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Brushes [1909; Dusseldorf]

Chagall was born Moische Segal in Vitebsk, a village in the Pale of Settlement (in today’s Belarus), a stronghold of Hassidic Judaism which encouraged “intuitive communion with God and universal love. The Hasidic Jews loved to dance and chant, their hearts fired with ecstasy” writes Jacob Baal-Teshuva, who suggests: “Chagall’s work undoubtedly sought to communicate this love, this joyfulness to the world.”

There is an extensive article on Wikipedia covering Chagall’s life.

My focus here is on the early years, especially ‘on or around 1910’ which is when Chagall left Russia for Paris and when the full impact of Post-Impressionism began influencing his art. It seems important to say though that whilst colour, texture and non-perspectival design had a dramatic impact, Chagall’s vision was never diluted or disrupted. He used these new ideas and techniques to find ways in which he could emphasise his own ideas ever further.

The Model [1910; private; c/o “Chagall” Walther & Metzger, Taschen]

The experience of journeying from Vitebsk to Paris – even by way of a few years studying in St Petersburg – must have been astonishing for the young artist. Despite his precarious day-to-day existence and poverty, he plunged into both modern art and the Old Master paintings on show at the Louvre. “The Model” was one of the first Parisian paintings. The Taschen authors invite us to look at: “the thick application of the paint and the frayed, fibrous juxtaposition of colourful brush-strokes [that] reflect contemporary colour theories. Chagall’s subject is a studio scene, and thus a meditation on his own work, but his model is holding a brush as well and painting a picture herself, which metaphorically creates an atmosphere of prevalent creativity… “

It’s as if Chagall is breathing the very air of art, living in art and painting every moment in every way – even the artist’s model is a painter! The colours are rich, the brush-strokes loaded; the whole scene is given a decorative flatness – one can almost feel Chagall’s excitement: in Paris, the very epicentre of the art world.

Another early Paris painting is at the Tate:

The Green Donkey 1911 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by Lady Clerk 1947

The Green Donkey [1910; Tate]

The Tate display caption reads:

While living in Paris between 1910 and 1914 Chagall made many works based on nostalgic memories of his Russian homeland. The naïve style and curious subject of this painting reflect the artist’s preoccupation with folk traditions, particularly those of his Jewish heritage. At one time known as ‘Village Scene’, the colouring and strange arrangement of figures evoke a fantastical scene. While this may relate to a folk tale, no specific narrative for the green donkey has been identified.

Whilst his head must have been a whirl of colour, form and modernist experiment, Chagall nevertheless recognised that for him the importance of his art lay in the subject matter that had been central to both his life experience and his painterly vision for years: the village and community, the heritage and cultural imagination of Vitebsk.

This pen and ink drawing was made in Paris [1911; Pompidou Centre]; the artist has his brush and palette – and his mind is full of pictures of Russia.

It’s worth exploring the Pompidou Collection – here – they have many of his sketches, as well as paintings; it’s quite an insight ‘beyond’ the famous pictures and gives us a much fuller record of his experiments.

Sadly the majority of Chagall’s very early work, that painted in Russia before 1910, has been lost – actually stolen by a picture-framer in St Petersburg – but it’s fascinating to look see:

The Dead Man [1908; Pompidou Centre]

It’s not the best reproduction I’m afraid, but it seems to relate an extraordinary episode. A dead man lies in the street, candles have been placed all around him. A woman seems to be calling for help, or wailing; a man behind her looks on. There’s something almost nightmarish – certainly surreal – about it. Could it have happened – an awful event in Vitebsk? Meanwhile another man (Chagall’s uncle) is sitting on a roof playing the violin – an image to which Chagall often turned, indeed there’s a glorious early drawing, again in the Pompidou collection:

The Violinist [1908; Pompidou Centre]

Christie’s notes, with regard to another painting, that, [j]ust as The Fiddler on the Roof was…. derived from tales of life in Hasidic communities, so too Chagall revived that constant presence of the violin in town life. Even Chagall’s own uncle would play, as he himself remembered… ‘uncle is playing the violin… The man who spent the whole days leading the cows into the sheds, tying their legs, and dragging them around, is playing now, playing the rabbi’s song’.” The violinist then recalls both community and familial life for Chagall. And whilst in The Dead Man one might imagine the tune to be mournful, here one hopes it is rather jollier:

The Wedding [1909; Zurich]

A much livelier street scene certainly – the violin player leading the procession – and, again, one that Chagall could have witnessed in Vitebsk. Moreover, it might also reflect his meeting with and love for Bella Rosenfeld (they would marry in 1915).

The Birth [1910; Zurich]

These are all universal experiences, especially birth and death, but from a distinctly Vitebsk perspective, the heritage that gives Chagall his ways of seeing. Notice that even in The Birth the villagers are present – along with a young calf; even the birth of a child is a matter for the village community. Note too the man – presumably (hopefully) the father – hiding between the curtain and the bed!

In Paris:

“Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafes and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower. Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the work of French artists… Yet in the end Chagall remained true to his feelings, to his memories of Vitebsk, and to his Russian homeland” writes Baal-Teshuva, and in the end what we see in the first Paris paintings is a sort of exploration and balancing, a weighing up of new ways of painting with whether they extend and expand what it is that Chagall wishes to express and represent.

Finding himself a studio in La Ruche (which one can still visit) in Montparnasse, Chagall painted through the night, experimenting with Post-Impressionist ideas.

Father [1911] (left) and The Studio [1910] (right) [both Pompidou Centre]

One feels both Matisse and Van Gogh in these paintings, as Chagall explores. He is searching though not for ‘new images’ but to find ways in which he might give greater expression to his own vision – that unique ‘Chagall’ vision – which, in the short term also included experimenting with Cubism.

The Poet (Half Past Three0 [1911, Philadelphia]

As the Museum of Philadelphia notes:

This painting is a portrait of Mazin, a Russian poet who often stopped by Chagall’s studio to drink coffee while his friend painted late into the night. Diagonal shafts of color generate kaleidoscopic energy, and the transparency of forms creates a teasing, ambiguous effect; the portrait detaches from ordinary reality. Mazin’s topsy-turvy head may relate to an idiom Chagall would have known from his childhood spent in the Jewish community of Vitebsk in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. The Yiddish fardreiter kop (turned head) signifies a giddy mental state—an apt description for this image of poetic inspiration.

And for Chagall, an artist, like a poet, has a fardreiter kop – artists see things differently.

Moreover, Chagall was learning fast. There is, for example, a fabulous Parisian rendition of The Wedding:

The Wedding [1910, Pompidou]

The scene has been extended – it’s more like a stage set – into Cubist blocks, and the procession (still led by musicians, including the violinist) has become an extraordinarily colourful Fauvist affair, yet the painting retains its distinct Vitebsk, folk-ish, Jew-ish quality. The Pompidou quotes Chagall saying:

“I painted turning my back on what was in front of me.”

which recalls the poet with his upside down head: Chagall is not looking at the present, but back to the past, to Vitebsk and his experiential inheritance – even in the centre of Paris.

I and the Village [1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Chagall looks into the eyes of the animal – there is a thin white painted line connecting pupil to pupil; the milkmaid, the village houses, a man with a scythe and a woman come to mind; the painter-with-the-turned-head see some of the houses and the woman upside down, cast in a semi-cubist geometric scenario, all brilliant with colour. Memory, folktale and fantasy all play their part, illuminated by Post-Impressionism.

“I and the Village” is recognised as a key work from these Paris years, a sort of manifesto. Chagall was in Paris until 1914, the war and revolution then kept him in Russia until the early 1920s; but those four years working in the French capital engendered his unique vision – the combination of memory and homage, folk-tale and fantasy, his Jewish heritage and a Post-Impressionist liberation of colour, design and expression.

Feast of the Tabernacles [no date; Israel Museum, Jerusalem]



Russian Art & Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

If you are enjoying this research and are able to donate – even occasionally – I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes.


We will return to Chagall’s work again in the context of the 1917 Revolution. First though, on 12th June, we turn to another Russian artist working in Europe on or around 1910 – Wassily Kandinsky.


One last Chagall painting, for we should never forget the whimsy his art:

Rain [1911; Guggenheim, Venice]


Chagall’s “My Life” – In his colourful, dreamlike autobiography, written as he was about to leave his homeland for good in 1922, he vividly brings to life the memories and places that fed into his unique work, from his shtetl childhood to revolutionary Russia and Belle Epoque Paris. 

and the authoritative Jacob Baal-Tusheva: Chagall [Taschen; 1998]


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (11): On or Around 1910 – the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, Moscow

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) The Barber [1907; State Russian Museum]

It’s an exhilarating coincidence/ parallel that, as Roger Fry et al. showed the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London – shocking and horrifying the viewers, in Moscow at the same time, the Jack of Diamonds exhibition opened – shocking and horrifying the viewers there also.

The title was enough to cause distress: as Anthony Parton tells us, a Jack (or Knave) of Diamonds refers, in the parlance of the Russian vernacular to prisoners and social outcasts – “In this way the artists self-consciously put themselves beyond the pale of social acceptability.” And with Natalia Goncharova especially present at the exhibition – showing numerous paintings and, of course, being a woman – she was readily dubbed by the press the Queen of Diamonds, giving her an immediate notoriety.

In looking at some of the artists showing at the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, I hope to

  1. recognise some of the key artists of the time
  2. suggest the ‘aesthetic context’ in which Goncharova’s paintings might be seen
  3. question what it was that made the paintings so shocking: a) subject matter, b) florid colour and c) exaggerated textures

“The key figures of the new movement became the young painters Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin, Robert Falk and Vasily Rozhdestvensky. The group included painters both from Moscow and from the Russian provinces who were established in Moscow, the unofficial metropolis of new Russian art. The “Knave of Diamonds” show shocked the public……the ‘bad-taste’ of the subjects…” [Tretyakov], such as those by Goncharova’s partner, Mikhail Larionov:

Mikhail Larionov: Soldier Resting [1910; Tretyakov Gallery]

Larionov’s art is regularly dismissed; it is often ‘brutal’ and ‘badly’ painted. London gallerist and Russian Art expert James Butterwick for example is very dismissive in his Russian Art & Culture article, which we might contrast to the exuberance of the Tretyakov’s Yevgenia Ilyukhina, curator of New Perspectives on Mikhail Larionov. What is important though, at this time in Russian Art, is that Larionov is very much part of the artistic generation who not only learnt from the Post-Impressionist movements of Paris but then deployed these radical modernist ideas to blast contemporary Russian art – the naturalism and social realism of the Wanderers, the dream-like atmosphere of the decadent Symbolists – out of its safety zone. Larionov’s work is deliberately harsh, his subject matter deliberately brutish – especially his soldiers who are not romantic and heroic in their military uniforms, but uncomfortable and uncomforting. Larionov was called up for military service himself at this time, he would have seen the ‘reality’ of soldiers’ lives, the hard training and squalid barracks: note the graffiti on the fence behind the resting soldier; there would be crude imagery and rough language, not ‘high’ academic art, in the soldier’s everyday world.

Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944): Self-portrait and Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky [1910; State Russian Museum]

Mashkov’s double portrait of himself with fellow artist Konchalovsky similarly questions the ‘refined’ arts and indeed the image of the ‘gentleman artist’. Both artists are represented in shorts, almost naked, like athletes; their poses and appearance inspired by portraits of boxers and wrestlers. It’s peculiar and controversial. But note that amongst the dumb-bells on the floor and their muscular torsos, they are musicians – one with a violin, the other with sheet music. There are books about art and artists (Cezanne and Matisse) on the shelf above them. Moreover, they are surrounded by ‘folk’ artefacts – the pictures of flowers on the wall are like tea-trays; there are flowers on the tablecloth; the music on the piano is a popular ditty. High art is mixing with low art. The wrestlers are scholars; creative visual art can be found in all sorts of places. As the State Russian Museum notes: “Mashkov’s portrait was perceived as a manifesto of a new movement in art, intending to make viewers pause, look and think”.

As we can see from these two paintings, Portrait of E. I. Kirkalda [1910; private] and Boy in an Embroidered Shirt [1909; State Russian Museum, c/o Bridgeman Images], Ilya Mashkov was inspired to experiment in a very Matisse-like spirit. The subjects are flattened and decorative, the patterning and colours are at the fore. As Christie’s notes, Mashkov later recalled:


Those powerful and rich colours certainly come through in much of the Jack of Diamond’s exhibition – they are unrelenting, inflammatory and provocative:

Natalia Goncharova: Spring [1910; private]; Spring in the Country [1910; private]

And then, there’s the faktura, the texture of the painting; the revelation of the painted surface as a painted surface. In many ways this is more important than the use of colour, and it was important, Anthony Parton writes, for two reasons: it contravened Academic expectations of ‘polished brushwork’, and it usurped the illusionism – the suspended disbelief – of a painting’s ‘realism’. Faktura meant that we can see that the painting is a ‘created object in its own right’, it is made of paint on canvas and pretends to be nothing else.

Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), the second artist in Mashkov’s painting of the two apparent wrestlers, was similarly enthralled by colour and faktura. He had seen the exhibition of Monet’s Haystacks series in Moscow in 1895 (which had similarly inspired Kandinsky), an influence that led to:

Belkino Garden [1907; c/o Christies]

“What had impressed [Konchalovsky] as a young boy in Monet’s painting, [he] recreated in his Belkino landscape: a vibrant sense of life, spontaneity and radiance of the image, free and light application of brushstrokes, and decisive renewal of a pictorial palette.” [Christies Lot Essay].

And, building on that Monet influence, as Russopedia notes:

In 1907 Pyotr Konchalovsky attended the exhibition of works by Van Gogh in Paris. It impressed him greatly and made a significant impact on his work. Later he would write: “Van Gogh gave me the understanding of painting as art. I shall not mark time any longer; I shall go forward, as now I know how an artist should paint nature. A real artist should not just copy it, he should underline its characteristic features.”

Van Gogh’s idea are certainly noticeable in Konchalovsky’s works of 1907-1910, from those painted on a trip to Spain to those of provincial Russia:

The Bull Fight [1910; c/o Wikimedia]; Tea Room in Khotkovo [1911; Konchalovsky Museum, Moscow]

Whilst Goncharova and Larionov would leave in 1911 to form The Donkey’s Tail, the artists of the Jack of Diamonds group continued to exhibit through until 1916. One particularly important member was Robert Falk – of whom there is a significant exhibition currently running at Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery.

Falk’s work shifts between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including Cubism:

Portrait of a Woman [1910]; Church in Lilac [1912; Treyakov]

But some of his most interesting work is that painted in Russia’s eastern republics.

Girls of Konotop [1912; Saratov State Museum of Fine Arts; see Tretyakov Gallery Magazine]

The simplification of form, the rhythm of line and dramatic colouring gives an ‘exoticism’ to the painting that will be replicated by many of the early Ballet Russes’ productions in Paris and London.

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) is also extremely interesting. His early work is particularly Fauvist in colour and form, but by the early 1910s he develops an intriguingly radical style as in this glorious representation of St Basil’s Cathedral [1913; Tretyakov]:

In many ways the 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition marks both a beginning and an end. It was the end of the Russian artists’ (perhaps too) close proximity to French Post-Impressionism – a period of intense absorption and experimentation from 1905-1910, say. And it was the beginning of an ever more expansive investigation into colour and faktura that would take the Russian avant garde through to the Revolution of 1917 and into the first radical years of the Soviet Union. Whilst other exhibiting groups would appear, the Jack of Diamonds series of shows would include many of the leading artists, as we’ll see over the next few weeks and months, and it continued in many ways to be a hub for Russian – European (French, German and Italian) artistic dialogue.

One of the artists who showed at that first 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition was Chagall, whose art we’ll look at next.

Russian Art & Artists (11): The Jack of Diamonds 1910

If you are enjoying this series and are able to donate, I am extremely grateful! All best wishes, and keep researching!


Do let me know how your own Russian Art research is going – anything you might be seeing or reading.

We’ll finish with a glorious Kandinsky, who also showed at the 1910 exhibition; it’s interesting to note too that some of his paintings would be shown at Fry’s Second Post-Impressionism Exhibition in London.

Here’s Landscape with Factory Chimney [1910; Guggenheim]