- Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde
When the gradual rediscovery of the early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde began in Paris after the Second World War, Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964) was acknowledged as an important pioneer in the artistic revolution initiated in the years before 1914, both for his aggressive neo-primitivist canvasses and for his promulgation and implementation of one of the earliest theories of abstract art, his so-called Rayism (very broadly speaking, based on the idea that art should depict the intersections of rays of light reflected from real objects). Larionov’s standing, however, has in recent years begun to wane, for reasons as diverse as his now fully exposed habit of antedating many of his experimental works so as to claim primacy of formal invention, and the Western intelligentsia’s growing preference for artists who seem more immediately Russian and/or Soviet than Larionov, who (for all his protestations to the contrary) was very indebted to Western art movements (especially Italian Futurism), and made no substantive commitment to Marxist ideology, the new Communist government, or any of the Productivist or Constructivist art tendencies associated therewith.
Anthony Parton’s sober and sensible assessment of the artist’s career encourages us to reexamine many of these issues. Importantly, the author does not shy away from a level-headed survey of Larionov’s career after 1915, the year in which he suffered a war wound and moved permanently to the West (primarily Paris) at the age of thirty-five. From then until his death some five decades later, his artistic production (primarily stage and costume designs for [End Page 196] Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1920s, and book illustrations) showed little of the urgency, or, it must be said, the quality, of the work around 1912, though Parton is generous and understanding in his judgments. (Equally, the reader can find in these pages a useful account of the quasi-impressionist work up to 1908/1909.)
However, the core of Parton’s book is devoted to the period of Larionov’s most challenging achievements, 1910–1914. In chapters sometimes burdened by overly careful exposition and cumulative evidence-gathering (characteristic of the doctoral dissertation on which the book is based), Parton elucidates the disputed chronology of the artist’s work; the interaction with the Italian Futurists; the sources of Rayism (including modern science and pseudo-science); the artist’s manifold interests in shamanic symbolism, classical mythology, and tribal and folk art sources. His attention to the powerful neo-primitivist work is particularly enlightening, confirming the notion that this is Larionov’s most significant achievement. Certainly, its crude, socially provocative sexual thematics reinforce one’s sense that this and other Russian avant-garde work (notably that by Larionov’s lifelong companion and creative peer, Natalya Goncharova, who rightly plays a recurring role in Parton’s pages) could profitably sustain a sophisticated, gender-based critique. For all the author’s well-informed advocacy, by contrast, Rayism implicitly emerges as a somewhat confused, perhaps opportunistic theory that led to only a few works of sufficient visual complexity to merit sustained attention.
At least twice, Parton draws attention to the fact that the schematically representational neo-primitive work and the apparently advanced and abstract Rayist work were undertaken by Larionov simultaneously. For students of modernity, this conjunction is most provocative, and they must be disappointed that the author hardly explores its implications at all. It is on points like this that Parton’s introductory appraisal will, one hopes, stimulate further research and speculation. Larionov’s importance in the Russian avant-garde is still very much open to debate, a debate that will now be much better informed.