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The Rayonist Art of Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova

“Painting is self-sufficient; it has its own forms, color and timbre. Rayonism is concerned with spatial forms that can arise from the intersection of the reflected rays of different objects, forms chosen by the artist’s will.” (Bowlt, 2012, p. 110).

In spite of the complexity of the Rayonist art, it is defined as the synthesized product of multiple artistic movements, such as Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism in parallel with a deep influence in Impressionism and Neo-Primitivism. Thus, the birth of the Russian avant-garde movement known as Rayonism (1912-1914) is explored in this article by studying the social and artistic conditions of its emergence and its influence.

Goncharova, N. (1913). Cats (rayist percep.[tion] in rose, black, and yellow)

(Koshki [luchistoe vospr.{iiatie} rozovoe, chernoe i zheltoe]) [Painting].

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.

The Russian Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Natalya Goncharova (1881- 1962) were among the avant-garde Russian artists of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. From 1898 until 1902, both Larionov and Goncharova were art students at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Larionov, a former student of the Russian painter Konstantin Korovin, specialized in Painting. Goncharova, however, studied Sculpture under Paolo Trubetskoi before turning to painting shortly after meeting Larionov. In 1906, after accepting the invitation of Sergei Diaghilev to participate in a prestigious Parisian art exhibition, Larionov and Goncharova were extolled for their artistic works at the Salon d’Automne. Moreover, former members of the Jack of Diamonds, they celebrated the Russian culture in their works by highlighting the nationalistic and neo-primitive aspect of the Asian origins of the Russian identity in their art. Notwithstanding the orientalist feature in the avant-garde Russian art, they were deeply influenced by Western European post-impressionist painters like Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.

In 1910, many Russian artists, including Larionov and Goncharova, participated in the one-man exhibition at the Society of Free Aesthetics in Moscow, states Sharp (2012). In the exhibition, various artistic works were displayed, presenting paintings of portraits and still life influenced by, respectively the post-impressionist and fauvist artists, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, but above all by Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Goncharova’s paintings were principally religious representations of women aesthetically related to the icon, fresco, and lubok. Nonetheless, the exhibition was not successful, for many art critics complained about Goncharova’s religious paintings for their scandalous, unethical, and relatively “pornographic” content. This led to, first, “the arrest of several of Goncharova’s paintings after her 24 March 1910, one-day exhibition”, and second, “her trial for pornography on 22 December 1910, in which members of the group served as witnesses (for the defense)” (Sharp, 2012, p.178).

In 1911, Larionov, Goncharova and other Russian avant-garde artists decided to withdraw themselves from the Jack of Diamonds for ideological reasons. In these terms, the artistic works of the Jack of Diamonds were thought to be too much influenced by European and derivative styles used in other European artists’ art. Hence, its Russian members were in favor of westernization and epigonism in the representation of art, in lieu of conserving and emphasizing the Russian cultural heritage. As a matter of fact, “the Jack of Diamonds artists” were accused of being “poor copyists of Cézanne, Matisse, and Gauguin”, argues Sharp (2012).

Larionov, M. (1909–1912). Glass (Steklo) [Painting].

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.

The Donkey’s Tail—another Russian artistic group—emerged in Moscow in early 1910s yet soon after a short period of time vanished. It gathered several painters such as Larionov, Goncharova and other painters who were opposed to the philosophy of the Jack of Diamonds’ members. In 1912, during the Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow, Larionov presented a series of works, including one of his first rayonist paintings, Glass (1912). The avant-garde painter claimed that his technique of broken texture is borrowed from the Russian artist Mikhail Vrubel’s paintings during the 1890s and 1900s. It was not only Larionov who was under the influence of Vrubel’s technique, Goncharova also followed her partner and started to experiment such technique based on “radiation” and “emanation”, states Bowlt (2012).

“The contours with which artists normally delineate the confines of a form in actual fact do not exist—they are merely an optical illusion that occurs from the interaction of rays falling onto the object and reflected from its surface at different angles.” (Bowlt, 2012, p. 110).

The Russian artistic movement Rayonism, also known as Russian Luchism (Rayism), came to light at the Target exhibition held in Moscow in 1913. The Rayonists presented their Manifesto written by the two leaders of the movement Larionov and Goncharova and also signed by other fellow artists, including Mikhail Larionov’s brother Ivan Larionov, Morits Fabri, Mikhail Le-Dantiyu, Vyacheslav Levkievsky, Vladimir Obolensky, Sergei Romanovich, Aleksandr Shevchenko and Kirill Zdanevich. The rayonist art whose major colors are red, blue and yellow, is a depiction of the “immaterial world beyond the human eye” or what is referred to as “the fourth dimension” in works of art. The interest in the “fourth dimension” is not accidental but rather purposeful as it is driven from the Russian mathematician Peter D. Ouspensky’s works The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1912). Therefore, the representation of “rays of light” in art are illustrated and interpreted in a rather “extratemporal” and “spatial” perspective, explains Bowlt (2012). Accordingly, it provides the painting with more “length, breadth, and density of the layer of paint” in order to feature the imaginary, mystical, and even “slippery” aspect of the painted subjects on canvas.

Goncharova, N. (1911–1913). Blue-Green Forest [Painting].

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, US.

Luminosity owes its existence to reflected light (between objects in space this forms a kind of colored dust). The doctrine of luminosity. Radioactive rays. Ultraviolet rays. Reflectivity.” (Bowlt, 2012, pp.115-16).

Rayonism is a synthesis of three major artistic styles: that of Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism. In the rayonist painting, the “third dimension by means of form” is highlighted from a Cubist perspective, focusing on the fragmented aspect of the subject being drawn; the dynamic and illusionary effect of the moving object is borrowed from Futurism, allowing the object to appear translucent on a rayonist canvas; at last, the Orphist feature bringing a “musical sonority of colors” or a “color orchestration” by interrelating a “literal correspondence of musical to light waves”, argues Bowlt (2012). In other words, the rayonist painter gives colors “a timbre” that alters according to “the quality of their vibrations”, more precisely “their density” and “loudness”. For instance, the shades of blue have not the same visual effect as they depend on the thickness of the shade used on canvas. Hence, each shade has a particular visual effect.

Colored line and texture. Any picture consists of a colored surface and texture (the state of this colored surface is its timbre) and of the sensation that arises from these two things.” (Bowlt, 2012, p. 114).

Larionov, M. (1913–1914). Solnechnyi Den’ (pnevmo luchistaia krasochnaia struktura) (Sunny Day [pneumo rayist colored structure]) [Painting].

Musée national d’art moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.

A year after serving in the Russian Army during the First World War (1914-1918), Larionov was discharged from his military duty in 1915. Shorty after, both Larionov and Goncharova left Russia for Switzerland before moving to France. Due to the sudden departure of its leaders, Rayonism came to an end in Russia. Once in Paris, they collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev in his Ballets Russes and contributed in popularizing the Russian folk art in the French society. Correspondingly, other projects like painting “theatrical sets and costumes” became the main concern of the two rayonist painters.

All things considered, in spite of the short-term existence of Rayonism in Russia, it impacted art in the way of perceiving reality from a three-dimensional perspective. The Cubist aspect brings a fragmented yet mystical representation of the objects on canvas. The Futurist aspect emphasizes dynamism through the illusionary and radiant effect of the moving object. Last but not least, the Orphist aspect highlights the color shade, underling its “timbre”. For some, Rayonism stands for mysticism while for others it deals only with plasticity of shapes. Thanks to Larionov's and Goncharova’s avant-garde contributions to Russian art, their artistic movement revolutionizes the essence of visual art, invoking a certain kind of spiritualism.

Image Sources

Goncharova, N. (1911–1913). Blue-Green Forest [Painting]. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, U.S.

——————. (1913). Cats (rayist percep.[tion] in rose, black, and yellow) (Koshki [luchistoe vospr.{iiatie} rozovoe, chernoe i zheltoe]) [Painting]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.

Larionov, M. (1909–1912). Glass (Steklo) [Painting]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.

—————. (1913–1914). Solnechnyi Den’ (pnevmo luchistaia krasochnaia struktura) (Sunny Day [pneumo rayist colored structure]) [Painting]. Musée national d’art moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.


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Ioana Bogdan
Ioana Bogdan
Feb 11, 2022

This is a very well-researched article and the hard work that got put into it is obvious. The information it provides as well as the comprehensive list of sources will definitely be useful for both uninitiated readers and those who are familiar with the subject.

Neyra Behi
Neyra Behi
Feb 11, 2022
Replying to

Thanks a lot, Ioana. That's thoughtful of you 😊

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Neyra Behi

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