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Russian Painting of the 20th Century


Constructivism may be considered the natural development of the tendency towards abstraction and the quest for new methods of artistic representation characteristic of the early 20th century in Russia. First introduced by Tatlin in 1915 (see his Relief of 1914-1917), it began with a focus on abstraction through "real materials" in "real space." Tatlin expressed his ideas through unique three-dimensional constructions, Counterreliefs and Corner Counterreliefs, made of paper, glass, metal, or wood. For Tatlin, the material reality (faktura - texture) of wood, metal, glass, paper, cloth, paint, etc., dictated the very form of the construction. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Constructivism was embraced by most of the avant-garde artists. They tried to apply the laws of "pure" art to objects of utilitarian purpose and mass consumption, and to "build a bridge" between art and the new "savior" of the people - industry. In this connection, the Constructivists heralded the death of easel painting and asserted that the artist was a researcher, an engineer, and an "art constructor." Thus, Constructivism was essentially re-adapted to fit utilitarian purposes and to fulfill (if only unconventionally) the material needs of the people. The Constructivist artists and their works affected many facets of Russian life, including architecture, applied arts (particularly furniture, china, textile and clothing design, book illustration), theatre (stage and costume design), and film.


Cubism (a name suggested by Henri Matisse in 1909) is a non-objective approach to painting developed originally in France by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1906. The early, "pre-Cubist" period (to 1906) is characterized by emphasizing the process of construction, of creating a pictorial rhythm, and converting the represented forms into the essential geometric shapes: the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, and the cone. Between 1909 and 1911, the analysis of human forms and still lifes (hence the name - Analytical Cubism) led to the creation of a new stylistic system which allowed the artists to transpose the three-dimensional subjects into the flat images on the surface of the canvas. An object, seen from various points of view, could be reconstructed using particular separate "views" which overlapped and intersected. The result of such a reconstruction was a summation of separate temporal moments on the canvas. Picasso called this reorganized form the "sum of destructions," that is, the sum of the fragmentations. Since color supposedly interferred in purely intellectual perception of the form, the Cubist palette was restricted to a narrow, almost monochromatic scale, dominated by grays and browns. A new phase in the development of the style, called Synthetic Cubism, began around 1912. In the center of the painters' attention was now the construction, not the analysis of the represented object - in other words, creation instead of recreation. Color regained its decorative function and was no longer restricted to the naturalistic description of the form. Compositions were still static and centered, but they lost their depth and became almost abstract, although the subject was still visible in synthetic, simplified forms. The construction requirements brought about the introduction of new textures and new materials. Cubism lasted till 1920s and had a profound effect on the art of the avant-garde. Russian painters were introduced to Cubism through the works bought and displayed by wealthy patrons like Shchukin and Morozov. As they did with many other movements, the Russians interpreted and transformed Cubism in their own unique way. In particular, the Russian Cubists carried even further the abstract potential of the style. Some of the most outstanding Cubist works came from the brush of Malevich, Popova, and Udaltsova. In Two Figures (1913-1914), Liubov' Popova beautifully demonstrates the artistic possibilities of a Cubist reconstruction and, at the same time, her talent to transcend simple imitation. The painting might have been influenced by Umberto Boccioni's 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (published in Moscow in 1914), in which he suggested "a translation in plaster, bronze, glass, wood, or any other material of those atmospheric planes which bind and intersect things".


Cubo-futurism developed in Russia around 1910. It was essentially a synthetic style, a reinterpretation of the French Cubism (Picasso and Braque) and Italian Futurism (Marinetti, Boccioni) popular at that time in Europe, combined with a strong Neo-primitivist belief in the dynamic possibilities of color and line. The Cubo-futurist movement attracted such talented artists as Goncharova, Larionov, Popova, Malevich, Tatlin, and many others. In Russian interpretation, sometimes there is no significant difference between a Cubist and Cubo-futurist painting. Both feature bold colors, and the fragmentation of the objects on the canvas' surface. Perhaps Cubo-futurism places more emphasis on movement and action; it is also often characterized by the inclusion of various letters, even complete words, in the composition. Goncharova's The Cyclist (1912-1913), Popova's Italian Still-Life (1914) and Seated Figure (ca. 1915), as well as Malevich's An Englishman in Moscow (1914) and The Knife Grinder (1912) are not only good examples of the painterly possibilities opened up by the Cubo-futurist style but also excellent illustrations of various artistic approaches to it. The Knife-Grinder shows some of Cubo-futurism's most characteristic features, including:

- the fragmentation of forms (derived from Cubism);

- the focus on movement (from Futurism);

- the bold colors and lines (from Neo-primitivism);

- a general departure from objectivity.

The painting is composed to render a "dynamic rhythm" that gives it a peculiar kind of unity. Cubo-futurism was the last major art movement in Russia before the artists surrendered to non-objective art so forcefully introduced by Suprematism.


In the West, Neo-primitivism was an aftermath of the exhibition of the folk arts of Africa, Australia, and Oceania in Paris. The world of art was surprised by the boldness of colors, originality of designs, and the expressiveness of these "unschooled," spontaneous creations of the "primitives." In Russia, flourishing between 1907-1912 and officially launched at the 3rd Golden Fleece Exhibition in 1909, Neo-primitivism was championed by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, although many other artists went through a Neo-primitivist stage. The genesis of the style can be found in the folk art of Russia - such as the lubok (popular print) and peasant applied art (distaffs, spoons, embroideries), but even more in icon painting. Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, Tatlin, even Chagall and Kandinskii incorporated into their works ideas and compositions common in icon painting. Neo-primitivist canvasses share with icons a pronounced one-dimensionality (flatness), lack of depth and perspective, distortions of "reality," as well as a bold, striking colors. Although the forms are intentionally distorted and resemble children's pictures, the paintings' rhythm and harmony come from "the music of color and line". Larionov's Soldier in the Woods (1908-1909), an early example from the Soldiers series, deliberately violates the laws of perspective by making the surface of the canvas flat and decorative. The proportions of the composition are distorted - the horse is small and the head and hands of the soldier are unusually large. Moreover, Larionov employs a limited number of primary colors, applied without shading and blending. All these artistic devices find parallels in the art of the Russian folk, particularly in icons, street signs, wooden toys, decorated distaffs, and lubok (usually hand colored in red, green, purple, and yellow).


Rayonism, an ephemeral style which lasted only about a year, was not only unique to Russia, but to the entire world. It was invented by Mikhail Larionov and practiced mostly by him and his companion Natalia Goncharova. Introduced to the public in 1913 at the Target exhibition, Rayonism was described as naturally encompassing all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture. The central feature of Rayonism is the crossing of reflected rays from various objects; to this end, its most powerful tools are color and line. Athough short-lived, Rayonism proved to be a crucial step in the development of Russian abstract art. As Larionov said, it represented the "true freeing of art" from the former "realistic" conventions that had so "oppressed" the artistic community.

John E. Bowlt suggests that Larionov's Rayonist theory might have been influenced by the developments in photography and cinematography: "In 1912-1913 the Moscow photographer A. Trapani invented the photographic technique of "ray gum" - a version of the gum-arabic process - which enabled the photographer to create the illusion of a radial, fragmented texture of possible relevance to Larionov's derivation of Rayonism was the peculiarly "broken" texture that Mikhail Vrubel favored in so many of his works in the 1890s and 1900s - a technique admired by a number of young Russian artists. Moreover, Vrubel's theory of visual reality came very close to Larionov's formulation, as the following statement by Vrubel would indicate: "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. In fact, at this point you get a 'complementary color' - complementary to the basic, local color.""

In 1913, in the miscellany Donkey's Tail and Target, Larionov published a pamphlet entitled "Rayonist Painting," which contained an extensive description of the theory and practice of Rayonist art. Below are the most important excerpts:

"We do not sense the object with our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures and as a result of following this or that device; in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision.

Consequently, if we wish to paint literally what we see, then we must paint the sum of rays reflected from the object. But in order to receive the total sum of rays from the desired object, we must select them deliberately - because together with the rays of the object being perceived, there also fall into our range of vision reflected reflex rays belonging to other nearby objects. Now, if we wish to depict an object exactly as we see it, then we must depict also these reflex rays belonging to other objects - and then we will depict literally what we see.

Now, if we concern ourselves not with the objects themselves but with the sums of rays from them, we can build a picture in the following way:

The sum of rays from object A intersects the sum of rays from object B; in the space between them a certain form appears, and this is isolated by the artist's will.

Perception, not of the object itself, but of the sum of rays from it, is, by its very nature, much closer to the symbolic surface of the picture than is the object itself. This is almost the same as the mirage which appears in the scorching air of the desert and depicts distant towns, lakes, and oases in the sky (in concrete instances). Rayonism erases the barriers that exist between the picture's surface and nature.

A ray is depicted provisionally on the surface by a colored line."


Suprematism, considered the first systematic school of abstract painting in the modern movement, was developed by Kazimir Malevich in 1913 and introduced at the 1915 0-10  exhibition in St. Petersburg. Among other works, Malevich exhibited the famous Black Square on White, conceived during his work on the opera Victory Over the Sun 3 years earlier. He wrote about the painting and about Suprematism in his treatise The Non-Objective World:

"When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, "Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert. Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!" Even I was gripped by a kind of timidity bordering on fear when it came to leaving "the world of will and idea," in which I had lived and worked and in the reality of which I had believed. But a blissful sense of liberating nonobjectivity drew me forth into the "desert," where nothing is real except feeling and so feeling became the substance of my life. This was no "empty square" which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of nonobjectivity Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art that, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of "things". The black square on the white field was the first form in which nonobjective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling. Yet the general public saw in the nonobjectivity of the representation the demise of art and failed to grasp the evident fact that feeling had here assumed external form. The Suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm. Suprematism did not bring into being a new world of feeling but, rather, an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling. The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space. Suprematism has opened up new possibilities to creative art, since by virtue of the abandonment of so-called "practical consideration," a plastic feeling rendered on canvas can be carried over into space. The artist (the painter) is no longer bound to the canvas (the picture plane) and can transfer his compositions from canvas to space."

As we can see, Malevich stresses almost endlessly that the name of the new style refers to the supremacy of pure feeling in art over art's objectivity. The simplest geometric forms - a square, a triangle, a circle, and intersecting lines - composed into dynamic arrangements on the flat surface of the canvas or into spatial constructions (sometimes called architectons) - are to express the sensation of speed, flight, and rhythm. In his 1918 Suprematist Composition, White on White, a step forward from Yellow Quadrilateral on White painted a year earlier, Malevich attempted to eliminate all superfluous elements, including the color; since in 1918 he virtually gave up painting, perhaps these experiments convinced him that he had reached his goal and could not develop his Suprematist ideas any farther.

Nevertheless, Malevich's ideas were so bold and innovative that despite the initial shock and fear, Suprematism quickly became a dominant style espoused by both the public and the other artists, especially Rozanova, Rodchenko, Kliun, and Puni. And even though in 1919 the father of Suprematism announced the movement's demise, the reality-transcending and non-objective nature of Suprematism has had a great impact on the course of modern art.

Order the copy of any particular painting on this page accomplished by one of the professional Russian painters presented in our gallery.

Tatlin: Relief

L.Popova: Two Figures N.Goncharova: The Cyclist K.Malevich: An Englishman in Moscow K.Malevich: In Clear Forest M.Larionov: Soldier in the Woods M.Larionov: Blue Rayonizm K.Malevich: Black Square K.Malevich: Suprematist Composition, White on White K.Malevich: Aviator K.Malevich: Supremus No.58 K.Malevic: Complex Presentiment: Half-Figure in a Yellow Shirt K.Malevich: Self Portrait

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