PROPERTY FROM ISISUF (ISTITUTO INTERNAZIONALE DI STUDI SUL FUTURISMO), MILAN, SOLD TO BENEFIT THE COLLECTION
The collection of the artist until 1961
A gift from the artist to Carlo Belloli on 1 August 1961
Thence by descent to the present owner
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Larionov-Gontcharova, July - September 1961, no.6
Leeds, Bristol, London, The Arts Council of Great Britain, A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Designs for the Theatre, Larionov and Goncharova, 9 September - 16 December 1961, no.4
Widely travelled, continually alert to the latest trends of painting in Europe, and at the same time deeply sensitive to the popular art of their own country, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova changed the course of avant-garde art in Russia. The significance of their contribution and their mutually inspirational relationship can be compared to that of Gabriele Münter and Vassily Kandinsky, Marianne Werefkin and Alexei Jawlensky, their names synonymous with radical innovation and a pioneering artistic vision.
Larionov and Goncharova had grown up in distant provinces and met in Moscow at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In 1906 they were invited to participate in the Russian section of the Salon d'automne, and together went to Paris and on to London. On return to Russia, they generated a phase of phenomenal artistic productivity, directed in large part by Larionov who arranged exhibitions in Moscow which are now recognised as landmark events: The Donkey's Tail, Target, The Knave of Diamonds and The Golden Fleece.
Few significant paintings by either artist remain undiscovered or in private collections. To offer these two published and early works, both of which have impeccable provenance and exhibition history, is a unique privilege.
This early masterpiece by Larionov has been preserved in a private collection for over 50 years, known only to art historians from a black and white image. Larionov's early landscapes are as violent in colour as the Fauve paintings of Matisse and Marquet, so to publish this vivid work in colour for the first time is an exciting contribution to our understanding of this key period of Larionov's painting.
The Bathers was presented by Larionov to his friend, Carlo Belloli (1922-2003) in gratitude for his support of the Russian avant-garde in emigration. An Italian Futurist poet, theorist and art critic, Belloli developed strong links with the Russian artistic community in Paris. In the late 1950s Belloli set up temporary residence in the house of Sonia Delaunay, where he met Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Paul Mansouroff and Serge Charchoune. Their close friendship would lead him to publish an important Russian avant-garde publication in Italy in 1964, Il contributo russo alle avanguardie plastiche (Galleria del Levante, Milan / Rome). In his will Larionov left Belloli the silk-lined overcoat which had once belonged to Diaghilev.
In his booklet Rayonism published in April 1913, Larionov refers more than once to the 'electricity', 'luminosity' and 'radioactivity' of a painting – terms which make sense at once in the context of the present work, which radiates with the intensity of an infra-red image. 'Rayism does not investigate questions of space and movement at all' writes Larionov. 'It has in mind colour as a material principle in itself as well as every kind of irradiation (radio, infra-red rays, ultra-violet rays, etc).'
The Bathers belongs to an experimental stage of Larionov's journey towards Rayonism, together with The Spiderweb (Private Collection) or Glass (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). Although outlines are only vaguely indicated and shapes are generalised in these paintings, nature has not yet been completely abolished and 'form is still perceptible through the lacy lines and rays' (F.Dault, Acquavella Galleries catalogue, 1969). The acacia tree which recurs in his early landscapes is here reduced to a single bold stem; the rocks and the bathers are illusive images, but recognisable. The Rayonist canvases and pastels which Larionov began to paint after 1911 carry the same sense of energy and enthusiasm but are entirely abstract, making this transitional work an exceptionally rare example of Larionov's progression towards Russia's first entirely non-realist movement.
Larionov's bathers form a small series of innovative compositions, which are brilliant examples of his developing dialogue with contemporary French painting from around 1903 onwards. The lemon yellow, blues and greens in the present work directly parallel the evocative palette of the Nabis; the flatness of the picture plane shows an awareness of the modernist work of Maurice Denis, a guest editor of Zolotoe runo. The aggressive brushwork is a superb emulation of the Fauves, while the unusual postures of other bathing figures can be traced directly to Gauguin's Tahitian girls, whose carved panels for the Soyez mysterieuses series was illustrated in Zolotoe runo in 1909. The present lot even has traces of the impact of the semi-abstract vibrancy of Joseph Turner's late landscapes which Larionov had so admired on his visit to London in 1906.
Larionov combined this receptivity to foreign trends with a tremendous courage to experiment. The paintings of Matisse, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Derain and other great French Fauve painters attracted huge crowds to the Zolotoe runo exhibitions, but even so, the response of Russian critics to Larionov's work was hesitant: he had 'betrayed the directly perceived colours of nature. He chose instead the turbulent path of innovation which came to us from the West and became a 'Matisse' (M.F.Larionov, Protiv techeniya, 17 December 1911, no.48, p.3). This comparison is in fact critical to an understanding of Larionov's approach to both colour and composition. Matisse visited Russia in 1911 and his translated Notes of a Painter had previously made a great impact on the Russian avant garde, in which he advocates the power of a 'living harmony of colours' and expressive composition. 'The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share' (H.Matisse, Notes of a Painter, 1908).
As Camilla Gray noted in the 1961 Arts Council exhibition catalogue, the dating of Larionov's works presents a peculiar problem. Almost none of the works were dated at the time of execution and such dates as appear inscribed on his paintings are often more recent and do not bear substantiation with exhibition catalogues or other of the scant documents on which a chronology could be based. Similarly, since the title of the works are rarely inscribed on the canvas and sometimes varied from exhibition to exhibition, it is difficult to ascertain when particular works were exhibited. Paintings by Larionov on the theme of bathers recur in several exhibitions from 1906 to 1911, titled variously as Bathers, Village Bathers or A Sunny Bathe for example; at the 1908 Golden Fleece exhibition alone were three paintings Bathers. Morning, Bathers Midday and Evening Bathing.
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