Rayonism, The Early 20th Century Artistic Current Destroyed By Picasso And War

Back in the 1900s, Russia developed a very particular form of pictorial expression that was given the name of Rayonism.

After having a look at the cover photo, you might be thinking: “What? This is art? My baby brother can do a lot better than that!” You know, when I first saw a painting like this, my thoughts were a lot similar. But after doing some research, I got to understand this type of pictures a little better. They're not just lines in random directions, but there's an underlying meaning that can be found in lines and colors. These paintings are part of an art movement called Rayonism. It was actually very popular in the early twentieth century, but unfortunately became highly overlooked with the passing of time. Let me explain the basic facts about this linear form of expression.

Domination of Red by Mikhail Larionov (1912)

What is Rayonism?

It is an avant-garde movement from the early twentieth century that originally began in Russia (in Moscow and St. Petersburg). Most of the works belonging to this current are distinguished by colorful lines that go from one side of the painting to the other for apparently no logical reason. As an artistic current, Rayonism pioneered in the development of what would become abstract art in Russia. Unfortunately, due to World War I, this art movement got lost amid the conflict and eventually became somewhat forgotten.

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky (1913)

How did Rayonism begin?

It all began thanks to a couple of Russian artists (Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova) who decided to take their artwork to a whole new place after learning about a new current called Futurism, which took technology and modernity as inspiration. They thought it would be a good idea to deconstruct their paintings and apply a modern element to them. So, they removed all the elements from their pictures, except for the light reflections.

Sketch of the City Rises by Umberto Boccioni (1910)

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (1913)

The name Rayonism actually comes from the word ray (of light), their main source of inspiration. By portraying the multiple reflections of objects in colorful paintings, this art form took abstraction to a whole new level. In the words of Mikhail and Goncharova, the founders of Rayonism:


The style of Rayonist painting that we advance signifies spatial forms that are obtained arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects and forms chosen by the artist's will. The ray is depicted provisionally on the surface by a colored line. That which is valuable for the lover of painting finds its maximum expression in a rayonnist picture. The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all –the combination of color, its saturation, the relation of colored masses, depth, texture.
We do not sense the object with our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures and as a result of following this or that device; in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision.

Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

The Cockerel: A Rayonist Study by Mikhail Larionov (1914)

Where did Rayonism take inspiration from?

This art movement was mostly inspired by European Cubist and Futuristic ideologies. These forms of expression revolved around the deconstructional parts of an object, geometrical analysis of these parts, and the distortion of shapes and movement. Rayonism also attempted to incorporate elements of the traditional Russian culture during the 1910s. This entailed the scientific and philosophical developments of that time. Using light as their source of inspiration also required transparency while deconstructing an object. Fracturing objects in order to understand them better was also a very important part of their work, and weirdly enough, that helped discover x-rays.

Domination of Red by Mikhail Larionov (1911)

What does Rayonism state?

This particular form of expression approached art in a lot of ways. Rayonist artists believed in the spiritual transcendence of their work. They thought that through their work, they could send powerful messages, such as existential interrogations and the rupture of established intellectual stereotypes. They saw art and life as two parts of the same thing, being that both have the same purpose: transcendence.


Rayonism can seem like a very complex form of art, but it’s actually more of a way of perceiving our surroundings and transforming them into pictorial representations. It’s a state of mind, represented in a colorful and fractured way.


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