One of the must-see shows of the season is the exhibition of works by Mikhail Larionov at the New Tretyakov Gallery. Born in Tiraspol in 1881, Larionov was one of the leaders of the Russian avant-garde. After a brief but significant career in Russia, he emigrated to France with his life-long companion and fellow artist Natalia Goncharova in 1915 and became one of the most celebrated 20th century painters, illustrators, costume and set designers.
Mikhail Larionov started his career at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, studying under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov. Expelled three times, Larionov had radical views from the very start of his career.
“All that has become established in art depresses me,” he said at the time. “I sense stagnation and it suffocates me… I want to escape from these walls to a boundless space, to find myself in constant motion…”
Breaking with the Russian academic tradition, his early paintings were impressionistic, but after a trip to France, he began to paint in a neo-primitivist style. This was derived, in part, from traditional Russian luboks (colorfully painted storyboards) and the esthetics of commercial signage in the Russian provinces.
In 1908 he was one of the organizers of the Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow, which exhibited works by avant-garde foreign and local artists such as Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Claude Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.
A few years later, in 1913, Larionov invented a new form of art that he called “Rayonism,” which sought to capture on canvas what Larionov said the eye saw: lines of reflected light in rays that were reflected from objects and crossed each other as the objects moved. Although Larionov had been influenced by the Italian Futurists and their representation of movement, Rayonism was Russia’s first home-grown non-representational art form.
Larionov was a founding member of two important Russian artistic groups: the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911) and the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913). Before emigrating to France, he had one solo show in Moscow, which was held for exactly one day in 1911.
In 1915 he and Goncharova left Russia for what turned out to be the rest of their lives. In Paris they worked with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev on the productions of the Ballets Russes. Larionov spent the rest of his life in France, became a French citizen and divided his time between the seaside in the south of France and the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses, where he died at the age of 82.