Lentulov was a fearless innovator and one of the greatest colourists of his time. His unique ability to see and convey on to canvas the vivid colours that distinguish his works was evident from an early age. After studying at art schools in Penza (1897-1903) and Kiev (1903-1905), the young artist set off in the direction of Russia’s then capital, St Petersburg. Here Lentulov discovered his vocation; he was destined to develop new tendencies in Russian Art; a task set in motion by prominent Russian Symbolists such as Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) and Victor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905). When Lentulov arrived in St Petersburg in the autumn of 1906 to sit the entrance exams to the Imperial Academy of Arts, he did so with great self-assurance, confident of his colouristic talent. As his daughter later recalled (M. Lentulova, Khudozhnik Aristarkh Lentulov [The Artist Aristarkh Lentulov], 1969, p. ), Lentulov was engrossed in a life-drawing exam when he was suddenly interrupted by the professor, who had been wordlessly observing the artist. The professor’s voice broke the silence as he asked loudly and derisively: ‘Young gentleman, where exactly can you see green on the sitter’s nose?’ The room froze before Lentulov daringly replied at equal volume: ‘Can you not see it?! If that’s the case, I feel most sorry for you!’. Roars of laughter ensued, the professor’s reputation was much undermined and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lentulov ceased his efforts to enter the Academy and confine his talent to its rigidly academic approach. Fortunately, it was not long before he caught the attention of another professor of the Academy, Dmitry Kardovsky (1866-1943), in whose studio Lentulov would continue his artistic training.
Life in the capital presented new acquaintances, including those of the Burliuk brothers. David Burliuk (1882-1967), often described as the father of Russian Futurism, introduced Lentulov to a circle of young, ambitious and forward-thinking artists and writers, whose enthusiasm and desire to shake up the old-fashioned foundations of artistic society were akin to Lentulov’s own. He began to exhibit his works alongside artists from Larionov’s circle and that of the Blue Rose group. The first public appearance of Lentulov’s work at the Venok [The wreath] exhibition was highly praised by the eminent art critic of the time, Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), who declared: ‘Lentulov is a bright and wonderful gift. We should appreciate and cherish his clear and joyful talent, his cheerful attitude to work. His paintings sing and enrich the soul’ [Rech' [The speech], 22 March 1909].
After a year in St Petersburg Lentulov moved to Moscow, the city which was to become his home. This is where he discovered the magnificent collections of Western Art belonging to Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) and Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) and became friends with ‘leftist’ poets and writers such as Igor Severyanin (1887-1941) and Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932), as well as artists with whom he would later found the Jack of Diamonds society. As Marianna Lentulova recollects, her father particularly valued his friendship with Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), one of the greatest revolutionary poets of the 20th century [Ibid., p. ].
After moving to Moscow, Lentulov became preoccupied with the idea of founding a new society intended to express the ideas of the artistic youth. From September 1910, together with David Burliuk, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944), Lentulov committed himself to the creation of such a group. In addition to the aforementioned members, a leading role was played by Petr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), who had just returned from his sojourn in Paris and was abreast of the latest trends in Western Art. After a brief discussion, the name of the first exhibition, and, consequently of the group, was chosen: Jack of Diamonds. Deliberately simple and meaningless, the name was a comical form of protest against the fashionable tendency of giving sophisticated and pretentious names to artists’ groups such as The Golden Fleece or Blue Rose.
The Jack of Diamonds embodied the first incarnation of the Russian Avant-Garde. It was an organisation that, for a short time, united the leading exponents of the movement and provided them with the platform to demonstrate their artistic principles and ideas. For Lentulov, whose work has always been closely associated with the group, the Jack of Diamonds exhibition was a turning point in his artistic development.
Enthused by the success of the first exhibition and inspired by the work of the foreign participants: Henri Le Fauconnier (1881-1946) and Albert Gleizes (1881-1953); Lentulov decided to continue his artistic education in Paris. In 1910 he enrolled in the Académie de la Palette, a renowned progressive art school, led by the distinguished Cubists Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) and Le Fauconnier. During his three months in Paris, Lentulov became acquainted with the international, wide-ranging group of Avant-Garde artists, living and working there. He greatly admired the work of Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and discovered the Orphism of Robert Delaunay (1855-1941) and the dynamism of Italian Futurism.
On his return to Russia, Lentulov employed a full range of Cubist innovations: he fearlessly experimented with distortion and the shifting of forms and perspective; he used the bold colours of Fauvists and, in 1913 reached the critical point of his artistic career, creating a synthesis of Western Cubo-Futurist technique with a native Russian theme. No longer a follower or imitator of French maîtres, he created his own distinctive style, immediately discernible in Lentulov’s most iconic works, also painted in 1913: Moscow and St Basil's Cathedral (both State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).
Landscape with bridge, Kislovodsk depicts the resort city that appealed greatly to Russia’s pre-revolutionary aristocracy and subsequent Soviet citizens. Set at the foothill of the Caucasian mountains, Kislovodsk was named for the mineral springs which made the city such a desired destination for those in search of improved health or simple pleasure. It was Alexander I who first noticed the city’s natural riches and ordered a fortress to be built in 1803. Initially inhabited by soldiers, the popularity of the area grew as the number of mineral baths increased. Alexander Pushkin was one of the first famous guests of the resort, which he visited in 1820 and 1829. On 25 of June 1903 Nicholas II granted city status to the Kislovodsk sloboda [village]. A number of sanatoriums were built and the city rapidly turned into a fashionable spa resort frequently visited by the Russian cultural milieu.
A keen traveller, Lentulov was also attracted by the city’s offerings and spent the summer of 1913 there. During his sojourn in Kislovodsk the artist created a series of works depicting the city, which were exhibited a year after at the Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow. Landscape with bridge, Kislovodsk, painted via the prism of Cubo-Futurist perception, offers a multifaceted view of a bridge viewed from underneath and flanked by the conglomeration of the city’s buildings set against the backdrop of the twilight sky. By cubistically shifting and distorting the forms of the buildings, Lentulov almost reaches the point of abstraction, but does not deprive himself of the pleasure of depicting his most loved subject; that of Old Russian architecture, allowing the viewer to distinguish the cupola of a church rising on the left. In order to intensify the colours and sharpen the contrasts of neighbouring planes, Lentulov employs his favoured method of confining blocks of bold colour with strong black contours. To further emphasise the saturated colours of the foreground, he juxtaposes them against the dark sky in which he utilises his signature colours of alizarin crimson and orange, which dramatically darken into umber towards the upper edge of the canvas. Depicted as if seen from different points of view in a single moment, Landscape with bridge, Kislovodsk presents a kaleidoscope of colourful fractured planes, resulting in a seamlessly dynamic and vibrant image.
The subject matter and its Cubist handling recall a painting entitled Brücke II by a leading German expressionist painter, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956). Feininger was a member of a Dresden-based expressionist group Die Brücke. Painted almost two years later, Feininger’s depiction of a bridge is rendered in a manner close to Lentulov’s cubist fragmentation, although it is notably more conservative in its palette. Lentulov was familiar with the artistic language of Die Brücke group, members of which were invited to participate in the 1912 Jack of Diamonds exhibition. A unique fusion of various Avant-Garde sub-movements with distinctively Russian subjects and the use of bright bold colours secured Lentulov a key role in the history of early 20th century Russian Art.
Perhaps symbolically, the last Jack of Diamonds exhibition in its first and purest incarnation in 1916 marked the beginning of the decline of Lentulov’s artistic career. He decided to abandon cubo-futurism and in a few years, would fully convert his pictorial language to fall in line with the dogma of realist art. In a letter from 29 March 1921 written to Alexander Kuprin (1880-1960), a friend and fellow former member of the Jack of Diamonds, Lentulov provided a destructive analysis of his early artistic oeuvre. The appearance on the art market of a significant oil from the acclaimed 1913 Kislovodsk series provides collectors with a rare opportunity to acquire a unique piece from the most significant period of this Russian master.