Mikhail Larionv and the Russian Avant-Garde

Article excerpt


Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 254 pp.; 28 color ills., 216 b/w. $80.00; $29.95 paper

On a bitterly cold morning in Moscow in January 1927, Walter Benjamin visited the former residence of Sergei Shchukin, a textile merchant who had, before World War I, amassed an extraordinary collection of modern French painting. Still substantially intact at the time of Benjamin's visit, Shchukin's collection had served as a training ground for all would-be Russian avant-gardists, both before and after the October Revolution. "As one climbs the stairs, frozen through and through," Benjamin wrote in his Moscow Diary, "one glimpses at the top of the stairwell the famous Matisse murals, naked figures rhythmically arranged against a background of concentrated red as warm and as luminous as that of Russian icons."' In suggesting a certain coloristic confluence of the modern French tableau and the traditional Russian icon, Benjamin draws our attention to one of the fundamental problems in the study of Russian modernism, and one to which Anthony Parton addresses himself in his monograph devoted to Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov (1881-1964), namely, the complexity of the Russian avant-garde's debt to European modernism on the one hand and to indigenous Russian and Eastern traditions on the other.2

First published in 1993 and recently reissued in paper, Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde presents a convincing new chronology for the stylistic development of one of the key members of the first generation of the Russian avant-garde and documents the great range of "sources" that fueled his work. Despite being riven by factionalism, the Russian avant-garde-a loose conglomeration of artists active in the early decades of the 20th century-was united in its resistance to the ambitions and conventions of illusionistic representation. It rejected both the illusionism sanctified by academic tradition, in which the mimetic project was tempered by the doctrine of imitation, as well as the insurgent realism that had arisen in the 1860s within the Russian academy in protest against its doctrines. Parton's book discusses in detail Mikhail Larionov's invention of what we could call strategies of avant-garde resistance-in the form of stylistic innovation (his "pioneering" of Neoprimitivism and Rayism), the transgression of the traditional boundaries of media and professionalism (his involvement in not only painting but also sculpture, theater design, book illustration, performance, body painting, and manifesto writing), and the reconfiguration of the role of the artist (his entrepreneurialism in self-marketing and the organization of exhibitions of not only contemporary European and Russian art but also icons, lubki [popular prints], and the work of "naive" painters).

Having committed himself to the painstaking business of putting the Larionov house in order-as far as questions of dating and influence are concerned-Parton has carried out primary research in the Larionov Collection (a portion of the artist's own library and archive purchased by the National Art Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1961), in the early periodical and newspaper literature, and in several private archives in Paris and London. Surprisingly, however, given the rush to the (now former) Soviet archives that has characterized the field of Russian modernism ever since the publication of Christina Lodder's landmark Russian Constructivism in 1983, Parton seems not to have had the archives of the former Soviet Union on his research itinerary. Nor has he attempted a definition of the full corpus of Larionov's work, despite the fact that in the course of his research he appears to have gathered much of the material with which to do so (the book is based on the author's dissertation submitted to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1985). No doubt there were good reasons for deferring the production of a catalogue raisonne, not the least of which may have been the daunting task of dealing with what is rumored to be a veritable cottage industry in Larionov fakes. …