Mikhail Larionov
Biography of Russian Painter, Inventor of Rayonism.

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Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964)


Early Life and Training
Avant-Garde Artist Groups
Russian Expressionism
Knave of Diamonds and Donkey's Tail
Moves to Paris
Final Period


Dancing Soldiers ( 1910)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Larionov's early primitivist style.

Red Rayonism (1913)
The Merzinger collection, Switzerland.
For other very colourful abstract works
similar to those by Larionov, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


An important historical figure in modern art, the Russian avant-garde painter and stage designer Mikhail Larionov was one of the earliest exponents of abstract art in pre-Revolutionary Russia. In addition, together with his lifelong partner Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Larionov was a tireless art theorist and exhibition organizer, being associated with various Moscow exhibitions including including The Golden Fleece (c.1905-9), The Knave of Diamonds (1910-17), The Donkey's Tail Group (1911-12), The Target Exhibition (1913) and No 4 - Futurists, Rayonists, Primitives (1914). A highly active figure in avant-garde Russian art (1906-14), as well as styles of painting inspired by Russian folk art, Larionov invented Rayonism (1912-14) - also known as Rayism or Luchism - a style of non-objective art which combined the colour of Orphism with the factured structure of Cubism and the movement of Futurism. In 1914, Larionov and Goncharova moved to Paris to do theatrical design work for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. They remained in Paris until their deaths in the early 1960s.

For top creative practitioners, see:
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For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.


Early Life and Training

Born at Tiraspol, Odessa, Larionov received his first serious art training under Isaac Levitan (1860–1900) and Valentin Serov (1865–1911), at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he enrolled in 1898. He proved to be an independent, head-strong student, and was suspended three times for his irregular behaviour (missing art classes) and radical outlook. He much preferred working in his own workshop without instruction or interference. In about 1900 he met an architecture student, Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), whom he fell in love with and persuaded to switch to painting. They would remain together for more than 60 years.

As a student, Larionov's preferred style of painting was Impressionism, combined with Symbolism; furthermore, he was an exceptionally hard worker. In 1902 he was briefly expelled from the school for submitting more than 150 paintings to his tutors. Reinstated in 1903, he began to explore other styles, such as Post-Impressionism, as well as various forms of primitive art, inspired by motifs from native Russian folk art as well as icon painting. This process accelerated after his visit to Paris in 1906. At the same time, he - like many other modern artists in Russia - was becoming acquainted with the latest modern art movements from Paris, Munich and elsewhere in the West. While open to the latest European trends, including abstract art movements, his modernism was primarily Russian-inspired.



Avant-Garde Artist Groups

He was also an active member of several avant-garde artist groups, including The World of Art (Mir iskusstva) (1898-1924) - a society established by a group of young Russian artists in St Petersburg, to promote Russian modernism to Europe and vice versa. In 1906 he was represented in the World of Art Show (St. Petersburg), and in the Union of Russian Artists exhibition (Moscow), as well as in a group show of Russian art organized by Diaghilev for the Salon d'Automne in Paris - it was at the same Salon d'Automne exhibition that Fauvism was unveiled to the world. Larionov attended the opening of the show in person, and his appreciation of rich, bold colour dates from this experience.

Larionov was also an active member of the Blue Rose group, whose mouthpiece was the influential monthly magazine known as The Golden Fleece (c.1905-9). In 1908 he helped to arrange The Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow, which showcased works by international avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), Georges Braque (1882-1963), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Van Gogh (1853-90).

Russian Expressionism

During the period 1908-9, Larionov was called up for military service, during which time he created his "soldier" series of naif paintings with broken, angular forms after the style of German Expressionism, notably the works of Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976).

Knave of Diamonds and Donkey's Tail

After leaving the army, Larionov became a founding member of two seminal Russian artists exhibition groups: the Knave of Diamonds (1910-17) and the more radical Donkey's Tail (1912–1913). The first Knave of Diamonds Exhibition, held in Moscow in 1910, included works by all the major Russian avant-garde painters, including Larionov and Goncharova, as well as expatriate Russians like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) from the Der Blaue Reiter group in Munich, and French Cubists like Le Fauconnier (1881-1946), and Jean Metzinger (1883-1956).

Following the Knave of Diamonds show, a rift developed between the "westernized Russians" led by David Burlyuk (1882-1967), and those, led by Larionov and Goncharova, who were drawn to native Russian motifs. It culminated in 1911 with the couple's formation of a breakaway exhibition group known as The Donkey's Tail, dedicated to exclusively Russian-inspired avant-garde art. A few months later, Larionov had his first one-man show in Moscow. This was followed by The Donkey's Tail show in 1912, which was the first large all-Russian show of its kind, with exhibits by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), inventor of Suprematism; Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), the founder of Constructivism; Lyubov Popova (1889-1924), inventor of "painterly architectonics"; and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) the Jewish folk art painter. Goncharova's religious art caused a scandal on account of its blasphemous nature. The Donkey's Tail group disbanded later in 1912, after which Larionov and Goncharova went on to stage two more important shows: the Target Exhibition (1913) and the No 4 - Futurists, Rayonists, Primitives Exhibition (1914).


In between, Larionov found time to invent Rayonism (c.1912-14) - one of the earliest styles of concrete art in Russia - based on a fusion of Orphism (Robert Delaunay), Cubism (Picasso, Braque), Futurism (Balla, Carra), and the colour intensity of Fauvism. One of several non-objective forms of painting that were being explored in Russia at the time - the others being Suprematism and Constructivism - Rayonism focused on the rays of coloured light to the exclusion of all other aspects of perception (Manifesto of Rayonists and Futurists, 1913). The lack of a measurable pictorial space (see, for instance, Glass, 1912, private collection) and of representational content, was a radical departure from all previous types of painting. Even so, perhaps because Moscow was two thousand miles from Paris, Rayonism influenced a mere handful of artists, notably Franz Marc (1880-1916) and Goncharova.

Moves to Paris

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Larionov was conscripted into the Russian army, only to be discharged the following year. In 1915, he and Goncharova travelled to Lausanne in Switzerland, to work on stage design for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, before settling permanently in Paris in 1919. Here, they gave up easel-painting to concentrate on theatrical design for Diaghilev until 1929, after which they designed scenery and costumes for a number of other ballet troupes. He also tried his hand at choreography. However, after the death of Diaghilev he and Goncharova had little regular work and were extremely short of money. They survived on commissions for stage sets, awarded on the strength of their previous work with Diaghilev, as well as Goncharova's book illustration. In 1938 Larionov and Goncharova became French citizens, and lived out the war in Paris.

Final Period

During the post-war period, art patrons were even scarcer and Larionov was forced to sell paintings from his personal collection. In 1950, he suffered a serious stroke which prevented him from painting. In June 1955, he finally married Goncharova after living with her for more than half a century. She died in October 1962 and was interred at Ivry Cemetery, where she was joined two years later by Larionov himself.

Despite his 50-year exile from his native Russia, Larionov is now considered to be one of the most influential Russian abstract painters of the early 20th century. This was confirmed in November 2011 when his painting Still Life with Jug and Icon was sold at Sotheby's Russian Sale in London for a record £2.2 million.

More About Russian Art
For more information, see these resources:
- Russian Medieval Painting
- Novgorod School of icon painting (c.1100-1500)
- Moscow School of painting (1500-1700)
- Petrine Art (1686-1725)
- Russian Painting 18th Century
- Russian Painting 19th Century


Paintings by Mikhail Larionov can be found in some of the world's best art museums, of which the following is a short sample:

- Acacias in Spring (1904) Russian State Museum, St.Petersburg.
- The Soldiers (1909) Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- Self-Portrait (c.1910) A.K.Larionova-Tomilina collection, Paris.
- Portrait of a Woman (1911) Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris.
- Soldier in a Wood (The Smoker) (1911) Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.
- Glass (1912) Private Collection.
- Rayonist Composition: Heads (1913) MOMA, New York.
- Cats (1913) Guggenheim Museum, New York.
- Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red (1912-13) MOMA, New York.
- Red Rayonism (1913) The Merzinger collection, Switzerland.

• For biographies of other avant-garde Russian artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of set designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, see: Homepage.

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