New York


The announcement that Acquavella plans a series of Larionov exhibitions will lead to a spate of articles on this artist who played so central a role in Russian vanguardism in the early part of the century. This in turn will mean going back to Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment, Russian Art 1863–1922 (1962), staring jealously at her pages of Russian bibliography, growing irked with the Public Library for separating art serials (Main Reading Room) from art books (Art and Architecture), turning to Waldemar George’s study of the painter and reading the Acquavella catalog by Françoise Daulte, which is duller and more ambiguous than the resumé given in Gray. I predict that the upshot, in brief, of all the forthcoming observations will be as follows: Larionov ought to be considered a great painter because he arrived at full abstraction (so-called Rayonnism) around 1909—that is, some two years prior to the abstraction of Kandinsky. Moreover, his Russo-ethnic expressionism of about 1907–1909 must also therefore be accounted as a major contribution contemporaneous with Fauvism in France and Der Brücke in Germany.

While all this certainly identifies Larionov as a catalytic figure of consequence, the work as it is presented at Acquavella hardly entitles him to the rank of great painter. The issue, as I see it, is not so much that Larionov may have set still an earlier date for the inception of abstract painting than the one we are accustomed to acknowledging. If that were the sole criterion we could go back to the 1890s and point to the pictures of the Italo-Swiss Giacometti and claim greatness for him too. The question, it seems to me, concerns the “quality” of Larionov’s abstract realization. In this respect, Larionov appears deficient, for to be concerned with issues of quality implies a consciousness of what already has been achieved in one’s own previous work so that subsequent purifications may more sharply define those issues which appeared most critically novel. It is, of course, possible that what seems so important to us—first abstraction—was of little “qualitative” consequence to Larionov, so little, that he could, for example, relapse into Russian primitivism in 1912 and also claim as “Rayonnist” not only his own autonomous art but all art which was anti-establishment in character. This is merely to confuse the tradition of the Indépendants with dogmatic irresilience, which is the chief feature of all self-realizing abstraction. Instead of intellectual stringency, Larionov’s paintings appear to satisfy sensuous needs. There are many abrupt switches from style to style, a distinctly student-like clue. At one point apparently, Larionov’s production grew so prolific that his teachers of Mir Isskustva persuasion (that is, francophilic nostalgists) at last expelled him from art school, so jammed with his paintings had their monthly critiques become. In none of his stylistic shifts from tentative Post-Impressionism to folkloristic Expressionism, to Rayonnism back to Expressionism, does Larionov present even a single canvas which is an entirely conclusive example of the style. What I am saying is that each style has its constituent features and while Larionov touches them all and may even adumbrate new ones, I am hard put to see that he alone is the style’s best exponent. In many respects—vanguardism avant la lettre, insufficient self-criticism—I view Larionov’s work as I do Barnett Newman’s. The Rayonnism on which Larionov’s international reputation rests—although I prefer the muted post-Impressionist still lifes of 1904–05—is again revived for a large body of scenic work in a Cubistic and Futuristic mode commissioned by Diaghilev following the First World War. Oddly enough it may be this theatrical legacy, although now almost entirely forgotten, which may prove to be Larionov’s most enduring contribution to the 20th century. Certainly, Busby Berkeley’s “production numbers” are easily recognizable as Cubist and Futurist collages and, even in these inflated times, Leon Leonidoff’s entr’actes at the Radio City Music Hall still relive the myth of Larionov’s Rayonnism.

Robert Pincus-Witten