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

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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.


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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