Michel Larionov 1881-1964
T00767 Soldier on a Horse
Oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 39 (87 x 99)
Presented by the artist's widow Mme Alexandra Larionov 1965
Exh: Larionov-Gontcharova, Galerie Beyeler, Basle, July-September 1961 (7, repr.) as 'Chevalier' 1904; Larionov and Goncharova: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings for the Theatre, Arts Council Gallery, London, November-December 1961 (17, repr.) dated c.1908; Gontcharova-Larionov, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, September- November 1963 (98)
Lit: Eli Eganbury, Natalie Gontcharova - Michael Larionov (Moscow 1913), pp.32-3; Peter Vergo, 'A Note on the Chronology of Larionov's Early Work' in Burlington Magazine, CXIV, 1972, p.476
Repr: Waldemar George, Larionov (Paris 1966), p.73 in colour (dated 1908); The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.112; Studio International, CLXXXVI, 1973, p.81
This picture was among a number of works discovered in the artist's flat in a locked attic about 1960-1, which were devoid of any signature, title, date or inscription of any kind on back or front (see the catalogue of the Arts Council's exhibition, note on no.21). It seems to have been rolled for some years and was first exhibited at the Galerie Beyeler in 1961 on a stretcher which was too small for it, with a strip folded round the stretcher at the bottom. It was relined at the Tate in 1966, shortly after its acquisition, and placed on a new stretcher designed to show the whole of the painted surface.
Although exhibited at Basle in 1961 with the date 1904 and in London later the same year with the date c.1908, there is every reason to believe that it must have been done somewhat later. Larionov's interest in scenes of military life is said by Eganbury to have developed as a result of his period of military service which apparently took place either from the autumn of 1909 to the late summer of 1910 or from the late autumn of 1910 until about October or November 1911 (see Vergo, loc. cit., for a discussion of the dating). His paintings of soldier themes first began to appear in the Salon 2: International Art Exhibition
at Odessa in December 1910 ('Soldiers in a Café') and the Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow in December 1910-January 1911 ('Soldiers' and possibly 'Salvo'), followed by five, all said to have been painted in 1911, in his one-man exhibition in Moscow in December 1911 and at least eleven in the Donkey's Tail in March-April 1912. This particular picture, which is exceptionally stylised, seems to have been inspired by Russian painted wooden toys or folk pottery and belongs to Larionov's neo-primitivist phase which received its first public manifestation at the third Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow in January-February 1910, when examples of folk art, such as lace, popular lithographs ('lubok'), icons and even ornamented biscuits were shown alongside the paintings. Larionov became closely associated at this period with the Russian Futurist poets, who owed much to his example; the introduction of letters in the background of this picture is related to their practice of breaking up words.
As this is a painting of some importance and was even chosen later for reproduction on the dust jacket of the monograph on Larionov by Waldemar George, it seems likely that it would have figured in exhibitions of the period and have been included in Eganbury's list of Larionov's works up to the summer of 1913. Camilla Gray suggested (letter of 8 September 1965) that it may have been no.98 'Morning (motif from army life)' in the Donkey's Tail, Moscow, March-April 1912, but this title is so vague that it could apply to a completely different kind of picture. Another possibility is that it may have been 'Cossack' exhibited among works of 1911 in Larionov's one-man show in Moscow in December 1911 (91), at the Donkey's Tail in March-April 1912 (14) and in the Gontcharova-Larionov exhibition at the Galerie Paul Guillaume, Paris, in June 1914 (Larionov 12), though the soldier does not appear to be a cossack but a hussar. A dating as late as 1911 or even 1912 is confirmed by the picture's stylistic affinity with the two paintings of 'Summer' and 'Autumn' listed by Eganbury as works of 1912, which have rather similar stylized figures and animals silhouetted against a vivid blue background, and similar lettering.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.406-7, reproduced p.406