Mikhail Larionov’s Still Life with Crayfish (circa 1910–1912) is a spectacle of simple, severe, bold form and color, a result of the artist’s intense engagement with Russian folk art traditions. A single loaf of half-eaten bread; one succulent, bright red crayfish; an evocative painted wooden tray; three flasks of different colors, shapes, and sizes—all are carefully placed on a wooden table against the backdrop of screaming green and pink wallpaper. These ingredients represent the melding of Eastern and Western influences and the birth of a new style of painting. “We have no modesty,” claimed Larionov and his partner, Natalya Goncharova, in their 1913 Rayonist and Futurist manifesto. “We declare this bluntly and frankly—we consider ourselves to be the creators of modern art.”1
Even among the abundance of clamorous voices in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Michael Larionov’s voice thundered. An ambitious and explosive leader, he made his way through the many European theories of art invading Russia at the time to fight convention with his own manifestoes, exhibiting societies, and art exhibitions. Over and over he forged new and unique styles, changing his art rapidly, dramatically, and fluidly. Such endless experimentation makes his artistic development difficult to categorize.
In the 1913 manifesto “Neoprimitivism: Its Theory, Its Potentials, Its Achievement,” artist Aleksandr Shevchenko claimed that “Neoprimitivism was formed from the fusion of Eastern and Western forms.2 As one of the spokesmen of the Russian avant-garde, Shevchenko lauded artists like Cézanne, Gauguin, and Rousseau, with whom he identified, as they, too, looked to the East for inspiration and rebelled against the decadence of European art. In many ways, Larionov’s Still Life with Crayfish exemplifies this Neoprimitivist reconciliation; the painting is an attempt to achieve what Larionov called “the Russification of Western forms.”3 His composition echoes the edgy still lifes of Cézanne, whose work Larionov greatly admired. He had seen it both in Moscow, in Sergei Shchukin’s collection, and in Paris, when he exhibited in the Russian section of Serge Diaghilev’s famous 1906 Salon d’Automne. During this seminal trip, Larionov imbibed the lessons of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Matisse and imitated the bold experiments of the Fauves.
Cézanne’s dynamic L’Amour en plâtre (in the National Museum, Stockholm) provides an apt context for Still Life with Crayfish. Cézanne’s plaster cast of Cupid, placed atop an unconventionally angled wooden table that juts forward into the viewer’s space, appears simultaneously stable and precarious, while the table serves as a dynamic device. In Still Life with Crayfish the table is similarly foreshortened. According to painter Louis Le Bail, Cézanne painstakingly composed all of his still lifes, arranging each piece of fruit with great care. “One guessed,” wrote Bail, that “it was a feast for the eye to him.”4 Through perspectival experimentation and a strident palette, Larionov crafted a similar tension in Still Life with Crayfish. However, if Larionov looked to Cézanne for certain aesthetic principles, he simultaneously attempted to “shake off the dust of the West,” as Goncharova phrased it,5 by creating an Eastern feast. Larionov discovered new formal languages by looking to his heritage and bringing into his painting images derived from Russian folk traditions, icons, and lubki (popular prints), as well as from painted shop signs and children’s art.
As early as the 1870s, when artistic colonies such as Abramtsevo and Talashkino were established, Russian artists and writers had championed native craft traditions. Although Larionov did not spearhead the crafts revival, his participation became critical for its dissemination. In 1909, at the third exhibition of the Golden Fleece society, alongside his own Neoprimitivist works he exhibited a melange of Siberian embroidery and textiles, lubki, and gingerbread molds. And in 1913 he organized a major exhibition of over one hundred and seventy lubki and icons. Larionov was among the first to recognize the significance of painted shop signs, and he included actual examples in many of the major exhibitions of the artistic groups “Donkey’s Tail,” “Target,” and “Jack of Diamonds.” Significantly, he was the first artist to integrate a painted shop sign prominently into his own art, which he did as early as 1904, with Fruit Shop.
Mikhail Larionov. Still Life with Crayfish, 1907. Courtesy of Museum Ludwig, Köln
What could convey the Russian folk character more than a loaf of bread?6 In 1910, under the spell of the shop sign, Larionov painted loaves of bread stacked architectonically. Poet, artist, and philosopher Maximilian Voloshin described them: “Larionov is the most naïve and artless of the Jacks [members of the “Jack of Diamonds” group]. His Bread is really just bread which, if it had been painted on a tin sign, would have made any bakery happy. The Jacks in general are very much tempted by the style of signs. Both Mashkov and Goncharova give in to it, but Larionov is the true master in this field.”7 Bread plays a central role in Russian daily life, holiday meals, and religious rituals; it has a powerful, symbolic significance in the culture. In Still Life with Crayfish, a loaf of bread, that staple of the Russian peasant diet, figures prominently.
In addition to the bread, Larionov’s painted tray would have been seen by advocates of Neoprimitivism as “a specimen of genuine value and painterly beauty,”8 as it evokes peasant craft traditions and metonymically represents the bedrock of peasant life—the village and the distinctive izba, or cottage. In Larionov’s composition, the conspicuously situated tray acts as a spiritual surrogate for a sacred object or icon, which figured prominently in the ubiquitous icon corner in village homes. The tray presents an idyllic view of a village, a romantic landscape of muted tones evoking simplicity and purity, wherein the essential activities of daily life involve raising and preparing food and caring for clothing.9 The wonderful and unusual red crayfish, placed on a white napkin in the foreground (another optical element trumpeted by Cézanne), may allude to Larionov’s childhood in Tiraspol, in Eastern Moldova, where crayfish abounded in the Dniester river.
Larionov’s chromatically vertiginous still life is anchored by the saturated pink and green of the wallpaper. The artist’s conception of line, depth, and color is a clear reference to the lubki, the popular prints that greatly influenced his execution of flat pictorial space. The repetitive motifs in the wallpaper bespeak the essence of the Russian folk art tradition, a continuity of form passed on from one generation to the next. A group of riders floats arbitrarily almost on top of the church-like building to their right; the objects are arranged haphazardly without consideration of perspective or proportion. The figures are distorted, their facial features crudely defined with simplified brushstrokes. The entire composition is united through these large masses of color and form.
Larionov’s passionate interest in creating new art forms inclined him to draw upon a diversity of sources. His admiration for the stability and timelessness of Russian peasant culture, life, and art played a critical role in developing his oeuvre and allowed him to create a distinctive style independent of the West, without wholly rejecting it. Despite all of his bluster, Larionov was an extraordinary pathfinder, who succeeded in leaving “deep footprints behind.”10
1. Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova, “Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto, 1913,” in Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, edited by John E. Bowlt (London: Thames & Hudson, 1976), 89.