I do feel for Michail Larionov. He does not quite fit into the Vasarian narrative of the artist-genius. At the same time, he is avidly collected and faked. The crowds likes him, the critics consider him inferior to his wife Natalia Goncharova. His Nocturne is housed at the Tate Modern, but is not currently on display. There is a lot of wonderful art at the Tate and the curatorial team must have its reasons, but it is a bit of an omission nevertheless.
Watching generations of my students walking from room to room at the Tate glazing over the endless installations (and I cannot blame them), this one would certainly win a pause. Its pictorial language of distortion can be emulated and translated easily into many other media. Its message and source of inspiration are concrete and youthfully enthusiastic. Larionov fits exceptionally well into the historical period of artistic experimentation and freedom that marked Soviet history between 1917 and 1932. Pilgrimage of the young who study Russian art and history to this painting would constitute a few. After all, being appealing and useful to many, and the young in particular, is any gallery’s priority nowadays.
The two diagonal forces that start in the top corners of theNocturne collide violently in the middle of the composition with a flesh of bright light. Silhouettes of more traditional houses can be seen through the piercing rays of light. I find the painting exceptionally representative of the new start Russia experienced in art, society and its industry at the time. Leaving alone connoisseurship, from the point of view of art history, with an emphasis on history, this painting is a very interesting historical document. Larionov wrote in 1954 that this painting was inspired by Odessa. It is an exciting city that many love or love to hate. I see the rush of the Potemkin’s steps in the dizzy diagonals of Larionov’s rays of light.
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camerawas also mostly filmed in Odessa later in 1920’s. The city seems to have brought up a lot of artistic enthusiasm about abstraction, movement, technology and vision at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a sceptic about Odessa’s appeal, I find it intriguing to find the reason for it and put the Nocturnein the cultural and visual contexts.
Rayonism is considered to be Larionov’s most successful phase in which he came very close to pure abstraction of Kandisnky and Malevich. It is based on the distortion of form derived from rays of light. Larionov developed the style in 1911 after hearing a series of lecture about Futurism by Marinetti in Moscow. The rush of the recently electrified cities and the growing transport with the promise of progress that they may bring, artistic and social, is captured by Larionov in this painting.
Goncharova’s work Linenfrom 1913, on the other hand, is currently on display at the Tate. It is wonderfully Cubist, but placed in a public setting of a launderette, rather than an art studio.
The scope of this comment does not allow to argue that Goncharova is more daring and successful in many cases. It is, admittedly, more desirable nowadays to put the female artist at the forefront over the white middle class male artist, and rightly so, given centuries of gender ostracism. Yet, the story they can tell, if viewed alongside each other, is progressive: a fruitful and mutually supportive partnership. Not quite the artistic and sexual battles of Kahlo and Rivera or Krasner and Pollock. Goncharova said that “I know that I am your artwork and would not have existed without you” – hardly a quote which would fit into the current gender rhetoric in art history. Equally, the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by the Soviet women at the turn of the twentieth century do not fit into the western-centrist feminist narrative of art history. Perhaps, through a bit more of Larionov at the Tate one could establish the exception to the rule in gender history (a hot topic nowadays!) as well as learning about Rayonism and Odessa.
It would be nice to see Goncharova and Larionov’s works alongside each other. They present an interesting historical case of artistic partnership. Until then, one can have Larionov’s Nocturneon their screen, easily accessible form the Tate website, whilst perusing Goncharova’s still life. Somehow, I think Larionov would have embraced this use of technology and display collaboration.