MIKHAIL FEDOROVICH LARIONOV
STILL LIFE WITH JUG AND ICON
inscribed in Tomilina's hand in Latin on the reverse
oil on canvas
98.5 by 131.5cm, 38¾ by 51¾in.
Alexandra Tomilina, the artist's widow, France
François Daulte, the Executor of the Tomilina-Larionov Estate, France
Wildenstein Collection, United States, acquired from the above
Private collection, Europe
Sotheby's London, Russian Paintings, 12 June 2007, lot 124
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
In common with many Russian intellectuals in Moscow in the early years of the last century, one of the chief preoccupations of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova was redefining national identity and the creation of an autonomous Russian artistic and intellectual culture in opposition to the West. One of their principle sources was traditional folk art.
It is telling therefore that in this neo-primitivist still life, Larionov incorporates objects from Russian folk and popular culture, looking back to his own heritage to advance the development of modernism. Not only is there a primitive quality to the execution of the still life but also to its attributes. These objects depicted defiantly belong to the realm of craft rather than high art: the traditional clay jug and stopper, the icon, the highly decorated tablecloth and, as if the message of these objects weren’t clear enough, a map of the world with Russia at the centre.
This excavation of a latent national identity, that had somehow been lost after Peter the Great’s reforms, perhaps inevitably coincided with a renaissance of Old-Believer culture. It was largely thanks to the rigorous upholding of traditions by this persecuted group that vestiges of mediaeval Russian culture, arts and crafts survived the post-Petrine campaigns of modernisation and westernisation.
Tellingly, the icon in the composition appears to be an Old Believer's one, depicting the Archangel Michael holding the Mandylion surrounded by saints. The Old-Believers continued the traditional Russian style of icon-painting, rejecting perspective and Western naturalism with their flattened forms, highly stylised figures, decorative schemes and harmony of colour. This aesthetic had a profound influence on the art of Larionov. The artist, who himself hailed from a family of Old Believers, was a compulsive collector of icons and lubki and in 1913 he, Goncharova and their friend Nikolai Vinogradov (who was later to establish the Moscow Respository for Contemporary Art) held an Exhibition of Original Icons and Lubki on Bolshaya Dmitrovka. According to the catalogue, a staggering 129 of the icons exhibited were from Larionov’s own personal collection.
In his essay ‘O zhivopisi’ published in Pereval in May 1907, the critic and art historian Pavel Muratov wrote in defence of Russian neo-primitivist painting: ‘Our painting is already part of the general European current. […] But there one finds cold analysis and the work of an inquisitive, observant mind, whereas here there is delicate lyricism, the confessional song of the soul. […] It is difficult, almost impossible, for us to compare ourselves with the highly cultivated Denises, Guerins, and Vuillards. And why should we have to?’
In October 1911 Matisse came to Russia at the invitation of the great collector Sergei Shchukin. Already familiar with Russian icons from the 1906 Paris exhibition of Russian art organised by Serge Diaghilev he was nonetheless bowled over by what he saw in private collections and churches in Moscow that he could not sleep afterwards and declared them ‘dearer to me than Fra Angelico’. ‘The icons are a supremely interesting example of primitive painting. Such a wealth of pure colour, such spontaneity of expression I have never seen anywhere else. This is Moscow's finest heritage. People should come here to study, for one should seek inspiration from the primitives. An understanding of colour, simplicity – it's all in the primitives.’ (‘Matiss v Rossii osenju 1911 goda’, Trudy Gosudarstvennogo Ermitaza, vol.14, 1973.)
Larionov and Goncharova’s early neo-primitivist works so informed the other’s that it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. On the reverse of the present lot are several inscriptions in the hand of Alexandra Tomilina-Larionova, Larionov’s second wife and inheritor of their estate. The artists often left their early canvases unsigned and when the job was left to Tomilina-Larionova to attribute them to one or other artist after their deaths she evidently struggled and made several revisions, scribbling out and striking through her own inscriptions, as on the reverse of the present lot.