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The ‘Knave of Diamonds’

Where the Russian avant-garde comes from

The ‘Knave of Diamonds'! No prominent Russian avant-garde artist was able to give that society the go-by. Moreover, it was nothing else, but the ‘Knave of Diamonds' that gave rise to them all. Now they are recognised as the pioneers and the gold standard of avant-garde. All artists, now classical, once were rebels, and the Diamond-Knavers were not an exception. Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, David Burliuk, Aristarkh Lentulov and others — a galaxy of brightest stars, they, quite literally, changed the world of Russian painting for ever.

To love impossible to hate. Alexandre Benois and avant-garde

By the way, there were times when ‘avant-garde' was not an artistic term. In reference to art, it was first used some months prior to the ‘Knave of Diamonds' first exhibition in 1910. The society had not appeared then yet, but its core, the main body of it, had already gathered in Moscow. The future tradition-defiers, who wanted to ‘heave the classical authors overboard from the steamship of modernity,' found their enemy/friend in Alexandre Benois, whom David Burliuk scathingly acclaimed in the manifesto The Benois Brawlers and Modern Art of Russia. No other than Benois applied the term ‘avant-garde' to the gang of painters who had distanced themselves so far from the academic manner. Generally, Alexandre Benois was quite beneficent to the Diamond-Knavers. Not that he was so favourably disposed towards them — actually, he was not, — but sometimes, history can be ironic.

Alexandre Benois, an artist and art historian, was rather erratic and self-contradictory when it came to the Diamond-Knavers. Once, he dropped a sarcastic remark that Larionov could have become a real artist rather than keeping on painting primitive stuff — and this turned out to be a prophecy: some years later, Larionov would be declared the founder of neo-primitivism. Another catchphrase by Benois was ‘Russian Cézannists' as he referred to the Diamond-Knavers.

Why the ‘Knave of Diamonds’?

How on earth can it be a name for people of art? We are so used to art performances nowadays that can hardly be surprised at names of this sort. But if we go back to the time when academic painters and Peredvizhniki were succeeded by the Symbolists from the association ‘Blue Rose,' we will easily imagine how outrageous such a name must have sounded. Indeed, introducing a card term into the sublime spheres of art! Are they playing the buffoons? Well, the buffoonery was what the Diamond-Knavers were aiming at. By the way, according to fortune-tellers' interpretations, the knave implies youth, and the suit of diamonds represents seething blood. Moreover, an ace of diamonds was the symbol placed on prisoners' attire! So much room for indignant criticism, such a fine fat feeding for the public who were first facing avant-garde!

The Knave of Diamonds was the name of the avant-garde exhibition held in 1910 in Moscow. The next year, some young non-conformist artists formed an art group. It was peculiar about it that critics were not the first to start laughing at the ‘Knaves.' He laughs best who laughs last, does he? Yes, but laughing first is laughing best, too. Ilya Mashkov remembered that most painters represented in the exhibition liked the name as it aroused astonishment, shock, and disgust in the fat bourgeoisie of then Moscow, as well as in merchants and nobles.

Only two years later, Burliuk and his posse would write the manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. But the exhibition, too, came as a slap. Quite in accordance with the name, it totally denied the obscure loftiness of the symbolists and conservative academic traditions.
  • David Burliuk, an author of the sensational manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste and a founder of the ‘Knave of Diamonds’.
  • The exhibition ‘Knave of Diamonds’ — the birthplace of Russian avant-garde art.

The iconic authors, the steamship, and love

Calls for heaving Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy etc., overboard from the steamship of modernity found in the manifesto are quoted in all discussions of futurism and avant-garde. So often quoted that people tend to ignore the following phrase: ‘He who does not forget his first love will not recognize his last.' Denying the iconic authors meant: they remain iconic, but we want to get farther than they did. Not hating others, but presenting ourselves — that is the point. So, the exhibition was something far more than just a scandalous escapade. The Diamond-Knavers wished to bridge the gap between life and art because the latter was no longer life-related. So they did — boldly, insolently, and flamboyantly.

Kazimir Malevich was not an active member of the ‘Knave of Diamonds', but took part in collective exhibitions. He remarked, the paintings shown to the public in 1910, were like colourful flames. Indeed, the Diamond-Knavers never lacked colours, nor passion, nor flame.
Mikhail Larionov. Peacocks
1904, 69×131 cm
Most ‘Knave of Diamonds' artists, when starting their careers, were into Fauvism
Fauvism is considered the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th century. It got its name in 1905, and it lived for only a couple of years, then each of the artists who called themselves the Fauves went deep into own creative search. The brightest representatives of the Fauvism are Henri MatisseAndré Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Read more
(‘Fauvism is when there’s red' — that is how Matisse rendered a general opinion).
The oldest of the Knavers, Pyotr Konchalovsky recalled that they all ‘were united by a strong desire to attack the old school traditions.' Other members of the group thought the same. But the way of mere rejection is a short one. And, as Konchalovsky added, the Diamond-Knavers did not just aimed to shock and scandalise, but, primarily, wanted to express themselves, their vision, in a language that was easy to understand — the language of painting liberated from literary effects, from academic elegance, from symbolistic obscurity. The very idea of the exhibition was formulated by Malevich, ‘A painter’s only subject is painting.'


No one else but the ‘Knave of Diamonds' introduced a riot of colour, emphasis on the texture, canvas, stroke into Russian painting. The most appropriate word to describe the Diamond-Knavers' first exhibition is ‘intensity.' It was a real fusion, nay explosion of shine, luminosity, colour, wonder, it was a loud trumpeting that they, the avant-garde artists, had appeared, their time had come. Certainly, the point was not in ‘heaving' anybody overboard, but in their being — being themselves. And it is a good occasion to quote another great rebel. About that time, Pablo Picasso said, ‘When we invented Cubism, we had no intention whatever of inventing Cubism. We simply wanted to express what was in us. Not one of us drew up a plan of campaign.'

The Diamond-Knavers idolised all corporeal and material, they returned painting to the firm earth, drove away the mystical mist, and instead, filled it with colour and substance. The ideological focus of the first exhibition was Ilya Mashkov’s Self-portrait and Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky. The muscle-bound artists, almost naked, with kettlebells, wine, a piano, and books on art — the world had never seen anything like that before!
The two body-builders were completely and utterly different from how an artist had been traditionally believed to look. Substantiality and bluff-mannered simplicity bounced in the lethargy of academic painters, Peredvizhniki, the ‘World-of-Arters,' the ‘Blue-Rosers' — all those whose time had gone. Bounced in — and revitalised their existence, filled it with life, vigour, robustness. It was as if fresh blood of healthy countrymen had been injected into the veins of a family of noble cousins degenerating after centuries of marrying each other. No, the revolution did not start in Smolny — it must have happened some years earlier.

Ilya Mashkov had the biggest share of criticism at that exhibition, which he took as a reason to say laughingly, ‘I'm the best-known when it comes to being blamed.' His models were termed battered and tarted-up, and he himself was called a savage who was able to convey his joy of seeing bread and fruit for the first time. However, this bordered on approval — able he was, indeed!

Novel, very novel image of an artist…

The Diamond-Knavers' portraits are a story of its own. A key feature of them is their being non-pathetic. The authors deliberately simplify the images portrayed, even reduce them to primitive. In this aspect, the very first exhibition, as well as the following ones, amazed the public.

Lentulov portrayed himself as a typical merchant of immense obesity and named his work Le Grand Peintre (The Great Artist). Larionov showed himself as a shaven-headed peasant. Natalia Goncharova wilfully missed a chance of creating another La Belle Dame and, instead, painted a self-portrait with large hands, strong broad shoulders, and laughing eyes.

Aristarkh Vasilyevich Lentulov. Self portrait "a Great artist" (Le Grand Peintre)
Mikhail Larionov. Self-portrait
  • Aristarkh Lentulov. Self-Portrait (Le Grand Peintre)
  • Mikhail Larionov. Self-Portrait
Natalia Goncharova. Self-portrait with yellow lilies
Petr Petrovich Konchalovsky. Self-portrait in grey
  • Natalia Goncharova. Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies
  • Pyotr Konchalovsky. Self-Portrait in Grey
And how Konchalovsky was monkeying around! Of course, painters flexing their muscles and wearing nothing but a pair of underpants were something appalling. Definitely, the poet Kamensky, stripped to the waist, muscular, and with a voluptuous lady drifting over his head as (oh, the horror!) his muse, was something never possible. But Konchalovsky, in a sense, beat them all — he presented an artist as a sort of salesclerk!

Expressly ordinary. How absurd! By the way, about that time, Joséphin Péladan, a symbolist, reproached some painters for calling themselves ‘fauves' and ‘yet dressing like everyone else so that they are no more noticeable than the floorwalkers in a department store.' Just you imagine: no admiration and praise for those who are sublime enough to converse with the muses! And avant-garde painters laugh and agree: that is the right thing!

Perhaps, this is the main point determining the ‘Knave of Diamonds' as a springboard for a lot of avant-garde movements that appeared and developed later: they just were having fun! Were they laughing at us? At conventionalists? At narrow-mindedness and vulgarity? At themselves? All is true, but first and foremost, their laughter was due to the excess of youthful energy, they rejoiced like children, no longer controlled, who could now do what they wanted.

The ‘Knave of Diamonds’ and others

The ‘Knave of Diamonds' exhibitions included works by the western colleagues who influenced the members of the art group — Picasso, Matisse, Le Fauconnier, Léger, Delaunay, Braque, Derain (see the catalogue of the ‘Knave of Diamonds' exhibition, 1914).
In a way, it played into the hands of critics. Now, they were ready to declare that only the western artists were the ‘real' ones, and the Russian painters were but their imitators. Again, Alexandre Benois could not help being involved. He called ‘Burliuks, Larionovs, Lentulovs, Goncharovas' poor imitators who only copied their French teachers and went to a ridiculous length in simplifying their theses and techniques. However, some years later, Benois would acknowledge that Goncharova should not be taught, but learned from.

The first avant-garde paintress Natalia Goncharova. In her own lifetime, she managed to outdistance quite a number of her male colleagues. And in 2008, she became the world’s most expensive female painter (at the time), after her still-life with flowers had been sold for $ 10.9 million.

A lot of the ‘Knave of Diamonds' members excelled in more than one artistic styles. For example, Larionov, Goncharova, and Burliuk seem to have worked in every style then existing — impressionism
No doubt, you know about Impressionism a lot: you could mention the names of the famous artists and find with ease the exhibition at museums with gleaming water surface and the same image painted in different time of the day and of course you know the scandalous history of the First Impressionist Exhibition and could distinguish Monet and Manet. So, it is high time to switch to the next level: some additional details you would like to know about Impressionism. Read more
, primitivism, cubism, futurism, fauvism
Fauvism is considered the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th century. It got its name in 1905, and it lived for only a couple of years, then each of the artists who called themselves the Fauves went deep into own creative search. The brightest representatives of the Fauvism are Henri MatisseAndré Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Read more
. Larionov invented his style, rayonism, he and Goncharova were quite successful at. Lentulov took a keen interest in orphism.
Mikhail Larionov. Street noise (Cityscape). Illustration for the book “Mirskonets” by A. Kruchenykh and V. Khlebnikov
Aristarkh Vasilyevich Lentulov. Mosque
  • Mikhail Larionov. Rayonnist Landscape
    The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
  • Aristarkh Lentulov. The Mosque
The ‘Knave of Diamonds' did not go as far as producing non-figurative art (its real era would start in Russia a little bit later with Mikhail Larionov’s rayonism), but became a foundation for its appearance. The Diamond-Knavers shoved the rational, narrative aspects far into the background, and instead, laid emphasis on the technique, colour, light, bold brushstrokes.

What did the Diamond-Knavers rest upon? Well, on the one hand, they were definitely influenced by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse — to them they owed the sensuality of the stroke, the luminosity and brightness of colours. And alongside with it, they were inspired by Russian popular prints, the art of marketplaces and fairgrounds, oriental motifs. Actually, it was the reason for the disunion that took place a couple of years later. The artists that remained in the ‘Knave of Diamonds' — Konchalovsky, Mashkov, Lentulov — kept on following the guidelines set by the French: orphism, Cézannism, cubism. Others — Larionov, Goncharova, Malevich, Tatlin — utterly rejected the influences from the West and proclaimed that the Orient had been the cradle of culture, while Europe they called ‘a persistent thief.' (And what a brilliant leg-pull on the topic was arranged at Natalia Goncharova’s first solo exhibition!
The most raffish couple of Russian avant-garde art — Larionov and Goncharova.
In 1912, Larionov and Goncharova left the ‘Knave of Diamonds' and organise their own art group with an even more scandalising name ‘Donkey's Tail.' There was the point of fundamental difference of Gauguin’s artistic quest in Polynesia and Matisse’s in Algeria from the way of Mikhail Larionov and his company. The latter were looking for the source of national about them and did not need to go on exotic trips in pursuit of it. That is how the researcher Irina Vakar puts this difference, ‘… craving for something far-off and exotic is not the same as a discovery of something domestic, ordinary and scorned.'
Mikhail Larionov. Gypsy in Tiraspol
Paul Gauguin. Where are you going?
  • Mikhail Larionov. A Gypsy Woman in Tiraspol
  • Paul Gauguin. Where are you going?
Pyotr Konchalovsky believed that the reason for the split was that he, Mashkov, Kuprin, and Lentulov treated painting with youthful spirit and carelessness, without a trace of material interest, while the ‘Donkey's Tail' members wanted profit, fame, and sensation. Indeed, the atmosphere of the Donkey’s-Tailers' exhibitions was provoking and scandalising, skilfully generated by Larionov’s gang. However, we should not forget that Konchalovsky cannot have been quite unbiased about it, as he was inside the situation and saw it from within.

The ‘Knave of Diamonds.’ Postscript

Officially, the group ‘Knave of Diamonds' was formed in 1911, but it will be nearer to the truth if we take as its birth the exhibition of the same name held in 1910. The second and the third exhibitions took place in 1912 and 1913 in Moscow. Besides, in 1913, the painters held an exhibition in Petersburg, and a year later, it was Moscow again. The official end of the ‘Knave of Diamonds' is considered the year 1917 — that is the year of the last exhibition with this name. Some researchers believe that all had been over earlier, in 1916. In that year, Konchalovsky and Mashkov left the group, it was then headed by Malevich, and the ‘Knave' ceased to be what it had been before. The artists, though, kept on uniting in new art groups.

The further lives of those who formed the core of the ‘Knave of Diamonds' followed quite different courses. Larionov and Goncharova left the country right before the revolution to never come back again. David Burliuk, the father of Russian futurism, first emigrated to Japan, and later found himself in the United States where he declared himself the American Van Gogh. The fabulous, ethereal, almost dancing architecture in Lentulov’s landscapes, and his trademark sunshine faded and gave way to granite. The festive flesh of material things depicted by Mashkov turned into socialist realism. Konchalovsky devoted himself to landscapes, although he kept portraying his grandchildren and friends. But even today, when looking at the pictures by those artists so different from each other, created in their common ‘Knave' period, we cannot help stopping, transfixed, sensing the irrepressible joy of existence, of colour, the shine and music of light.

Fish at Sunset does not belong to Larionov’s most celebrated works, but it is worth our attention as it gives a perfectly clear idea of the very essence of the ‘Knave of Diamonds' (organised some years after it was painted). Boldness, bright colours, close-up, no romanticising. Indeed, can a painter in his right senses do without certain attributes of a waterscape? Where is the sunset? Where are the glistening waves, and, ideally, a romantic girl by the water? No such things. Larionov just takes the very essence of the things depicted. Fish? Have the fish. Sunset? He gives the idea of it with glints on the fish-scales, with colour and texture. But the mass of the fish seems a hymn of life — of ordinary life, unromantic, glistening, shining, thickly inhabited by fish and — why not? — by people, too. And one wishes to gasp, gasp for breath, like the fish do. Yes, a hymn of evergreen life, painted without any pathos, but with a smile, a laughing hymn yet catching you on a hook. All the above holds true for the ‘Knave of Diamonds' in general, a group that once, quite unceremoniously, burst into Russian painting and changed it.
Title illustration: Natalia Goncharova. Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style), 1911

Text by: Alyona Esaulova
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