Andrei Nakov
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Mikhaïl Larionov

The exhibition “ Mikhail Larionov : the Path to Abstraction”

Larionov - Femme sur fond d'arbre

In the mid-1980s A. Nakov was asked to examine a large number of works on paper by Mikhail Larionov which had hitherto been unknown to him. In common with the fate of Russian artists as a whole in the early twentieth century, the work of this major figure had for many long decades suffered from a lack of interest and even more so of real studies. The ensemble of works which appeared at that moment suddenly gave greater breadth to the currently-held vision of Larionov's creation, which had been jolted by a number of dramatic events. The first of these occurred in 1915, when he was seriously wounded at the front. At the end of a long and difficult convalescence his health remained very delicate; his pictorial work was also very adversely affected by this, and for long periods of time throughout his life the artist was quite simply unable to work. It can therefore be said that there were two Larionovs : before and after 1915.

The ensemble of works that appeared in Western Europe in the early eighties suddenly made it possible to grasp in a far more subtle and varied way the richness and extraordinary lyrical quality of the work of this artist, whom Kandinsky described in 1910 as the most important painter in Moscow. An initial selection made by A. Nakov from this body of work was shown in 1987 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, for which he also wrote the exhibition catalogue.

Unanimously acclaimed by the German and wider European press as a major event in the turbulent history of the rediscoveries of modern art, it was presented at the Pinacoteca in Bologna and at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva. At the end of this circuit, the entire exhibition was suddenly attacked in the Tribune de Genève. On the grounds of purported chemical analyses that were eventually found to be non-existent, and completely ignoring all stylistic and historical considerations (style, reference to other works or artists from the same period), a journalist with no competence whatsoever in the field of art challenged the authenticity of the ensemble of works in extraordinarily violent terms. The newspaper was later twice convicted of defamation and obliged to pay damages to A. Nakov.

Because of his defence of the works, A. Nakov found himself under personal accusation by the city judicial authorities. After many long years of legal proceedings he was entirely cleared, and all charges against him were dismissed on 10 November 1995 (Court decision reads « non lieu »).

Given the historical importance of the incriminated works, the same penal chamber of the Geneva Court of Justice had them released and restored to their owners on 27 April 2001, even though it considered the pastels non-authentic and declined to resolve on the ink drawings; all of these accounted for seventy out of an ensemble of one hundred and ninety-three works.
By bringing a civil action, A. Nakov fought all those years to defend the ensemble of works which at one point the City of Geneva simply wanted to have destroyed.

Andrei Nakov's attribution of these works to Larionov was initially based solely on a stylistic and material analysis, because at that time — shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall — not only the the artist's work not studied in Russia (then the Soviet Union), but the documentation relating to Larionov as well as to Russian art of this period in general was inaccessible. The challenge to the works led A. Nakov to undertake in-depth investigations as to the fate of Larionov's studio, historical and stylistic studies relating to the artist's creation at that time and, equally importantly, specific research concerning the pigments used by Larionov, which the art historian was later able to document up to the winter of 1911-1912 — a crucial date with regard to the pastels under accusation. The results of this huge work are to be published in the very near future, but A. Nakov is in a position to confirm the authenticity he always upheld of the works shown in Frankfurt, Bologna and Geneva (1987-1988), as well as to trace the provenance of this ensemble back to the artist's Moscow studio in 1919.

Its provenance has been confirmed by numerous archive documents, reconfirmed during the nineties by Rudolf Duganov — the world-renowned specialist in Khlebnikov and Russian Futurism in general, and assistant to N. Khardziev at the Maïakovski Museum in Moscow — and again recently by the posthumous publication of A.V. Kovalev's work Mikhail Larionov en Russie 1881-1915 (Mikhail Larionov v Rossii, 1881-1915 g.), Moscow, 2005.

See below for the article « Larionov » written by A. Nakov for the Dictionnaire d'art moderne et contemporain, Paris 1992.

Mikhaïl Larionov

A highly talented painter with an outstanding imagination, in 1906 Larionov appeared like a meteor in the history of Russian painting. His talent was immediately recognised by the rare Russian connoisseurs of modern art, Diaghilev foremost among them. The latter invited Larionov to the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1906. From this stay in Paris the artist, who was already engaged in Impressionist experiment, gained a broader knowledge of French modern painting. On his return to Russia he rapidly launched into Fauvism, which was to lead him to the sublimation of pure colour. As early as 1908, his personality dominated the current scene in Russian painting. This creative genius, whose colourist temperament was quite exceptional, simultaneously appeared as an indefatigable organiser of avant-garde exhibitions and as a talent scout (Tatlin, Malewicz). He remained in this position until 1913, when the Russian Futurist movement acquired a creative dimension that far exceeded that of a single person. Larionov's exhibitions were entitled « Golden Fleece Nº2 » (1908-1909), « Knave of Diamonds » (1910), « The Donkey's Tail » (1912), « The Target » (1913) - at which he appeared at the head of a « Rayonist » group - and « The (Futurist ) Exhibition Nº4 » (1914).

His Fauvist painting quickly produced unusually violent colour, though with an extraordinary underlying lyricism. The intensity of his « anti-cultural » reaction led him as early as 1911 to an anti-academic reaction which he himself denoted as «primitivism ». To Larionov, « primitivism » meant the negation of academic canons of representation, recourse to « free drawing », and the glorification of what had formerly been considered « a-cultural » : Expressionist « ugliness » and popular imagery. At this point his talent as a colourist took him to a first apex, as shown by certain virtually monochrome paintings made in 1912 and a remarkable series of « black » portraits done in ink.

Larionov was an enthusiast of the Futurist aesthetic and lauded the vitalist energy of form; in late 1911 he began exploring the vitalist projection of colour, which he defined a few months later as « Rayonism ». He refused to paint the outside world and set himself to representing the potential charge of colours and their virtual interaction with space: their emanating rays. In parallel with Kandisky, with whom he maintained a friendly relationship, he produced abstract painting situated in the same « emphatic » line as the spiritual abstraction of the Russian master in Munich. A particular characteristic of Larionov's painting was that it took account of the specifically physical properties of the pictorial matter: the texture and dynamic charge of colour. In this, Larionov appears as the precursor of the future Russian Constructivist painting, whose issues were enunciated by him in 1912. His booklet « Rayonism » was dated June 1912, but was in fact only published in the spring of 1913 on the occasion of the first massive show of his Rayonist works. These Rayonist paintings, which were at first derived from figurative themes, rapidly turned towards pure, abstract structures. The « Pneumatic Rayonism » to which he came during the winter of 1913-1914 was of a purely abstract nature. At the end of 1913, he and the Futurist Zdanevic together published a « corporeal painting » manifesto. His social action was then at the height of its popularity, while his painting had also attained the culmination of its path: pure abstraction. At that moment, Larionov appeared as the master of a true Rayonist school.

At the highest point of development of his science of colour, he presented a show of his Rayonist painting jointly with Goncharova in Paris in June 1914. This was the inaugural exhibition of the Paul Guillaume gallery, for which the poet Apollinaire wrote the catalogue text. Larionov's work was also known at that time in Germany, where Herwart Walden had presented it in Berlin as early as the autumn of 1913.

Larionov's momentum was shattered by the 1914 war. Wounded at the front, he returned to Moscow in 1915 and attempted to re-engage in Futurist action. But his art was by then being overtaken by the « Trans-rational » Cubo-Futurism and by the burgeoning « Constructivism ». On the invitation of Diaghilev, he undertook a journey of convalescence to Switzerland, but was never to return to Russia. Closely involved with Diaghilev's ballets, he began a new life in the West. Sickly and deprived of his Russian environment, for the remaining five decades of his life he took refuge in intimist painting in a late Impressionist style. His art, which fell into oblivion after the mid thirties, was rediscovered in the early sixties thanks to an exhibition organised in London by Camilla Gray. Since then, several exhibitions have attempted to do justice to a body of painting that marked one of the high points of twentieth-century pictorial art.

(Article written by Andrei Nakov in 1992 for the

Dictionnaire d'art moderne et contemporain Hazan, Paris)