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The first trace of Rayonism can be found in Mikhail Larionov's illustrations to Alexei Kruchenykh's pamphlet Old-Time Love, published in the middle of October 1912. After this, Larionov contributed Rayonist canvases to two exhibitions almost simultaneously. A World of Art exhibition opened in Moscow in November 1912 and Mikhail Larionov contributed two canvases – Glass (Method of Rayonism) and Rayonist Study. A third canvas, Rayonist Mackerel and Salami, was shown at the Union of Youth exhibition that opened on 4 December 1912. Prior to this, there is no mention of Rayonism in either the Russian press or in any exhibition catalogues.
July 1912 was when Larionov purportedly wrote his manifesto "Rayonist Painting", published in the Donkey's Tail and Target miscellany in July 1913. This manifesto can be regarded as a theoretical conclusion and a summing-up of his artistic practice. Larionov's first Rayonist canvases ought, therefore, to be dated 1911. Besides the aforementioned Rayonist works of 1912, the catalogue of the Target exhibition (1913) lists two canvases dated 1911 – Portrait of a Fool and Cockerel and Hen. These works were therefore probably Larionov's first Rayonist pictures.
In 1913, Mikhail Larionov published his brochure "Rayonism" and the article "Rayonist Painting" in Donkey's Tail and Target. He expressed the main tenets of his theory most laconically of all in the leaflet "Larionov's Rayonism", distributed to the public at the Target debate. Here is an excerpt from these theses:
"Rayonism is the doctrine of radiativeness. The radiation of reflected light (colour dust). Reflectiveness. Realistic Rayonism depicting existing forms. Negation of forms in painting as existing visually besides the representation. The nominal representation of a ray by a line. The erasure of the border between what is called a picture plane and nature. The rudiments of Rayonism in the preceding arts. The doctrine of the creativity of new forms. Spatial form, form arising from the intersection of the rays of various objects isolated by the artist's will. Conveying the sensations of the endless and the timeless. Paint construction according to the laws of painting (i.e. texture and colour). The natural downfall of all preceding art as merely the object of the artist's observation, and with it life, thanks to Rayonist forms."
Larionov intended Rayonism to draw painting away from objectivity and convert it into the original and independent art of colour. The picture thus ceases to be a reflection of the objective world. It itself becomes the "object", part of the true reality constructed aesthetically by the artist.
The very objects are invisible to us. They are like Kant's "thing in itself." Pencils of rays can, however, be perceived as emanating from them, depicted in the picture as lines of colour.
Larionov subdivides Rayonism into Realistic Rayonism, which retains traces of objectivity, and Unrepresentational Rayonism, in which all external links with the visible world are lost.
Larionov's doctrine of light and colour is particularly interesting. Light refracted in particles of matter evokes colour – "colour dust", in the artist's own words. Here he anticipates the point of view of the philosopher Pavel Florensky, who wrote in 1919: "Light is therefore continuous. Not those optical environments which fill with light and convey light; they are not continuous, they are granular, they represent a highly delicate dust, which contains another dust, a dust too delicate for any microscope but nevertheless consisting of separate small grains, of separate bits of matter. The sumptuous colours that adorn the heavens, are none other than a means of correlating the indivisible light and the fragmentary nature of matter. We can therefore say that the colour of the sunlight is that altered tone that gives the sunlight the dust of the earth, the very fine dust of the earth, and perhaps, the even finer dust of heaven."
The critics regarded Larionov's Rayonism as one of the various strands of abstract art. The true state of affairs was, however, slightly more complicated than that. Impressionism was occupied with the life of colour and moved plastic construction back into second place. Cubism did the opposite, developing the structural to the detriment of the painterly. Referring to this in connection with the Russian avant-garde, Velimir Khlebnikov made the very succinct comment that "just as a chemist can reduce water to oxygen, so these artists have reduced painting down to its constituent elements, removing either the paint component or the outline component."
Larionov did not want to sacrifice either the one or the other. His Rayonism was a daring attempt to unite the seemingly incompatible – the painterly vibration of Impressionism and the constructive clarity of Cubism. Despite their external non-objectivity, Larionov's Rayonist works – with their movement towards nature and their light, complex-vibrating paintwork – nevertheless evoke natural sensations and associations with nature. An excellent example is his Rayonist Landscape (1915, Russian Museum).
The painterly-spiritual mystical propensities of Wassily Kandinsky and the fanatical non-objectivity of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism were both alien to Larionov. Larionov always drew his creative impulses from the visible world; it was therefore impossible for him to severe all links with nature. This difference between Rayonism and Abstractionism or Suprematism was noted by Nikolai Punin, who believed that Larionov advocated his theory of Rayonism "as a barrier against the rationalistic tendencies of Cubism" and that it was in practice "the fruit of very fine realistic collations."
The Rayonist canvases, especially those that can be grouped under the heading of Realistic Rayonism, disclosed the nature of Larionov's painterly talent and revealed the richness of textures bearing "colour dust". These pictures contain no subject and virtually or completely no object; in them, the viewer remains one to one with painterly values. Larionov notes this himself: "What is valuable to the lover of painting is, in a Rayonist painting, the highest image. The objects that we see in life do not play any role here. The very essence of the painting can thus be shown – the combinations of colour, their richness, the relations of the colour masses, depth and texture; he who is interested in painting can confine himself to this alone." While non-objectivity can immediately expose an artist's painterly poverty, it is also capable of starkly revealing his true painterly richness.
Modern critics correctly divide the movement towards non-figurativeness into two streams – Kandinsky's line of Abstract Expressionism and Malevich's line of Constructive Geometrism. In the words of Lev Yudin, a student of Malevich, some masters prefer to "experience" (Kandinsky), while others prefer to "build" (Malevich, Mondrian).
Yet there was a third path in non-objectivity, a middle road completely overlooked by the experts in the Russian art of those years. The artists of this movement attempted to unite two opposites; they aspired to both experience and build. Mikhail Larionov began this third path with his Rayonism.