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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

History of Art

The Jack of Diamonds
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Jack of Diamonds was the name of an exhibition of artists that took place from December 1910 to January 1911, exactly a hundred years ago. The exhibition enjoyed scandalous success: many things in its organization and in the works themselves shocked and revolted the public. That kind of reaction was provoked by the artists themselves. In the opinion of the Jack of Diamonds members, their works ought to be perceived as a street show.

Ilya Mashkov, Winter Landscape (1914)

Aristarkh Lentulov: St. Basil’s Cathedral (1913)

In 1911, the artists formed an eponymous art group, The Jack of Diamonds group. At first the group included mostly Moscow painters. Later on artists from St. Petersburg and other towns joined. Many artists from western Europe also participated in the exhibitions, for example Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen, Robert Delaunay, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Paul Signac and others.

The name of the first exhibition and the group itself is the result of two associations and is based on a pun: up until 1917, Jacks of Diamonds was a euphemism for state convicts, because they were wore grey robes with a black diamond sewn on their backs, being their mark. The second association was semiotic as well: in old French card jargon, a valet (servant) combined with the diamonds (Carreau: squares in French) means “a swindler, a trickster”. So such a name must have evinced a certain reaction from an ordinary philistine person, either humour, vexation or sanctimonious indignation. Aristarkh Lentulov recollected: “Artists created too many sophisticated, affected names at that time. So we thought: the worse, the better. Indeed, what can be more ridiculous than The Jack of Diamonds?”

The members of The Jack of Diamonds denied both the traditions of academism and realism of the 19th century. Their creativity inclined towards post-impressionism (like Cezanne’s style), fauvism, cubism as well as some Russian folk arts: lubok. Deformation and a generalization of form were characteristics of the group. Their artistic image was determined by the artists who considered themselves to be the followers of Cezanne. In the paintings of the great master they were mostly attracted by the deep inner energy of both the color and space, which can be felt in every object portrayed by him. The Jack of Diamonds members were also interested in the creative search of Henri Matisse and his cubist friends.

The nuclei of the group were Robert Falk, Aristarkh Lentulov, Ilya Mashkov, Alexander Kuprin and Pyotr Konchalovsky. Other members included Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich. It was Mikhail Larionov who invented the name for the group to counter-balance the pretentious and refined names of contemporary art groups which were characteristic of the world of art of that time.

The outlook of the group, which was close to futurism, was also a reaction to the lofty aesthetics of Art Nouveau and Symbolism, the major art trends of the first decade of the 20th century in Russia. The members of The Jack of Diamonds group thought that works of art were not only for sophisticated art connoisseurs and critics, but for everyone.

Mikhail Larionov, Soldier at Rest (1911)

Kazimir Malevich, Bureau and Room (1913)

That’s why their main genres were still-lifes that seemed as simple as the sign-boards in food stores, as well as landscapes, portraits and folk pictures. Everything was designed to oppose the academic genres: historical canvases, various allegorical and literary plots, as well as art works on social subjects.

The members of The Jack of Diamonds were in the news for a long time. When disputes broke out at the Polytechnic Museum about the new art and the group’s members, so many people wanted to participate, that mounted police had to be brought in to keep order.

In the creativity of Petr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), the influence of Cezanne was combined with primitivism, which was seen in the most vivid manner in his portraits. In portraying a child (Natasha on a Chair, 1910) the deliberate simplification of the drawing and a somewhat rough combination of color spots makes the girl look like a doll.

The art works of Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944) brightly demonstrates the peculiarities of “Russian Cezannism”. In his still life, The Blue Plums (1910), the artist tried to reveal the sappy blue tint of the fruits and their elastic form. In another work, Moscow Food (1924), the master portrayed the delicious buns and loaves using a profusion of colours, dense and very bright. Their saturation draws the viewer in, and creates the impression of the fullness of life making this work close to the Flemish still-lifes of the 17th century.

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) wanted to solve totally different problems in his works. He tried to imagine all the objects of the real world as constantly moving abstract forms. That’s how he depicted the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square in his works St. Basil’s Cathedral (1913) and The Ringing of the Bells (1915). It looks as if all the parts of the buildings have moved from their places and are circling in a swift dance. The paints are put onto the canvasses in tiny brush strokes or spots, like a mosaic.

Lentulov tried to decorate his paintings in whatever way he could—he glued gilded paper on them, and gold and silver stars. Notwithstanding the fact that the famous buildings are easily recognizable, the paintings are perceived not like architectural landscapes, but like kaleidoscopes of glittering and iridescent spots.

Very interesting are the landscapes of Robert Falk (1886—1958), which are close to Cezanne. In his composition, The Old Ruza (1913), the artist tried to make all the elements in the paintings — the houses, the Earth, the sky — as close to each other in texture as if they were made of the same matter. Like Mashkov, Falk was inclined to use dense colors. However the general tone of the canvas is somewhat hushed, and has deep shadows. This gives the whole landscape an intimacy and a deep inner lyricism.

Robert Falk, Red Furniture (1920)

The creative potential of the group was enormous. It gave birth to quite a number of art movements. For example, the “luchism” (the “rayism”) of Larionov, the abstractionism of Kandinsky and the suprematism of Malevich.

In 1912, a number of artists strong in primitivism, cubofuturism and abstractionism left The Jack of Diamonds and staged an exhibition called The Donkey’s Tail. Amongst them were the Burlyuks, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and some others. In 1916-1917 Pyotr Konchalovsky, Ilya Mashkov, Lentulov, Falk and some others also left the Jack of Diamonds and formed The World of Art group.

In December 1917, the Jack of Diamonds group ceased to exist. In 1925 its ex-members formed a group called The Moscow Painters, which later became The Society of Moscow Artists. In March 1927 the Tretyakov gallery staged a retrospective exhibition of the Jack of Diamonds art works.

The Jack of Diamonds left a remarkable trace not only in the history of the Russian avant garde, but in the world art as a whole.

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