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
- recognise some of the key artists of the time
- suggest the ‘aesthetic context’ in which Goncharova’s paintings might be seen
- 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:
WE WANTED OUR ART TO BREAK THROUGH THE EXISTING, STAGNANT WORLD OF PAINTING, TO BE POWERFUL AND FULL OF RICH COLOURS. IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR US THAT OUR ARTISTIC LANGUAGE SOUNDED LIKE AN ORGAN, AN ORCHESTRA, A COMPLEX CHORUS, BRINGING SOCIETY TO A GENUINE UNDERSTANDING OF ART.
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 ; 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
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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]