“I am and remain a painter”: this lapidary confession headed a brief statement that Mikhail Larionov sent to the art critic and writer Michel Seuphor in September 1948. To understand the emotional charge of these words, we need to recall the artist’s declaration in full and the socio-cultural context under which he felt obliged to make it. In autumn 1948 Seuphor was mounting the first major post-war exhibition on the beginnings of abstract art. The show was scheduled to open the following year at the Galerie Maeght in Paris and was to be accompanied by a substantial publication in lieu of a catalogue.
In the absence of the leading artists of the first wave of abstraction – Kandinsky, Malewicz, Mondrian, Delaunay – the history of abstract art was to be outlined by persons writing about it as well as by the words of the artists themselves. Seuphor had an uphill fight to include Larionov in this memorable Parisian exhibition, for the Russian artist’s works and life had fallen into such a state of neglect that some of the critic’s colleagues saw no reason to take him into consideration in the historical discourse being elaborated after the Second World War. To overcome this reluctance – notably that of Sonia Delaunay – Seuphor hurriedly put together a smaller exhibition at Paris’s Galerie des Deux-Iles. Given the evidence of the Rayonist works exhibited there in December 1948, Larionov’s place in the “L’art abstrait : ses origines, ses premiers maîtres” exhibition could no longer be questioned. The letter I have excerpted the artist’s statement from – “I was and remain a painter” – was addressed to Seuphor on this occasion. However, the strange thing is that the rest of the artist’s text is devoted entirely to his Futurist friends in Moscow, Tatlin and Malewicz in particular. One can only raise one’s hat to such generosity and delicacy ! This largesse of spirit and brush is an essential trait of Larionov’s personality. It defines his emotional tone and forms the lyrical basis of his art as a whole, above all the art of the heroic period of his Primitivist and Rayonist works. For, although fully situated in the violence of the Expressionist revolt, Larionov’s art never deviated from the warmth of a dreamy, intimist gaze.
Excepted from Andrei Nakov’s text in the exhibition catalogue Mikhail Larionov. La voie vers l’abstraction, Frankfurt (Germany), 1987.