Ilya Mashkov's dynamic Still life with fruit exemplifies the artist's mature aesthetic in which pure colour and ornamental appeal take precedence over narrative. Immediately identifiable as an archetypal 'Mashkov', the painting simultaneously embodies the pioneering character of the Russian, primarily Moscow-based, school of painting in the first third of the 20th century. It was courtesy to this innovation that Russian art ceased to be derivative and transcended the national, placing the country's artistic output on a global stage. This inimitable energy and thirst for exploration gave birth to artists such as Natalia Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich and - quite apart from their rarity - is precisely what renders paintings grouped under the broad term of the 'Russian Avant-Garde' so desirable. Painted in 1910 at the naissance of the Golden Age of the Jack of Diamonds, in whose inaugural exhibition this work was included, Still life with fruit is the most important example of Russian Neo-Primitivism to appear on the market in recent history.
Mashkov received minimal formal artistic training until 1900 when he entered the Moscow School of Painting where Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov were among his teachers. In 1908, strongly encouraged by his great friend Petr Konchalovsky, Mashkov set off on a European tour taking in Germany, Austria, France, England, Spain and Italy. As I. S. Bolotina, author of the authoritative monograph on the artist, suggests, Mashkov returned from abroad with an enhanced sense of creative confidence, no longer a 'student or a dilettante but an artist' (Il'ia Mashkov, Moscow, 1977, p. 18). Works executed in the immediate period after his return are, however, overly indebted to Western artists with whose work Mashkov was now intimately acquainted. Consider Apples and pears on white, (fig. 1) a still life he painted in the autumn of 1908 shortly after returning to Russia: a quick glance at one of the Cézannes held in the collection of Ivan Morozov from 1907, Still life with drapery (fig. 2) reveals the extent of the Frenchman's influence on Mashkov's palette, composition and treatment of form. Later portraits such as that of Varvara Petrovna Vinogradova (1909, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) showcase the manner in which Mashkov employs Matisse's technique of including vibrant drapery and background pattern to inject his desired riot of colour. By 1910 however, Mashkov's bolstered artistic confidence allowed him to abandon the last vestiges of realism and attain the glorious saturation of colour characterising Still life with fruit; his thickly applied brushstrokes sufficiently bold for Dr Gleb Pospelov to brand them 'cyclopean' (Exhibition catalogue, The Knave of Diamonds in the Russian Avant-Garde, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 2004, p. 11): aforementioned experimentations with the still life pale in comparison to the present work.
Executed in Mashkov's favoured large-scale format, Still life with fruit is a powerful example of Russian Neo-Primitivism. One of the earliest manifestations of that overarching signifier of the 'Russian Avant-Garde', Neo-Primitivism encompasses works which are executed in a naive style and frequently make reference to children's drawings, icons, embroidery, hand-painted trays, provincial signboards and lubki (Russian woodprints). Works painted in this vein signify their direct opposition to the alternatives of the finished 'salon-style', the rigid academicism of the realist school, and the literary subtext of Russian symbolism.
Still life with fruit was one of 20 canvasses by Mashkov included in the inaugural exhibition of the Bubnovyi Valet [Jack of Diamonds]. The exhibition was held at the Levisson house on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street from 10 December 1910-16 January 1911 and organised on the impetus of Goncharova, Konchalovsky, Mikhail Larionov and Aristarkh Lentulov. Echoing the 'Revolt of the 14' at the St Petersburg Academy in 1863, subsequent to which some of the expelled students founded an Artists' Artel, the objective of the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition was 'to offer young Russian artists who find it extremely difficult to get accepted for exhibitions under the existing indolence and cliquishness of our artistic spheres, the chance to get onto the main road' ('V mire iskusstva i literatury [In the world of art and literature]', Donkey's Tail, 8 October 1910, p. 4). The selection of works chosen for the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition were hung closely together in four uneven rows, showcasing works by the French Fauves, German Expressionists and Cézannistes, alongside their Russian counterparts. A natural successor to Larionov's third and final Golden Fleece exhibition in 1909 - which sought to emphasise and encourage creative exchange between Russian and Western artists - in addition to the Russian works, the exhibition included French cubist paintings by Henri Le Fauconnier, Andr Lhote, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger and works by the 'Munich School' (Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Marianne von Werefkin).
The exhibition's title, intended to convey a sense of energy and fervour, 'for the knave implies youth and the suit of diamonds represents seething blood' (ibid), was subsequently adapted as the moniker for an exhibiting society. The society's existence was formalised in October 1911 by Konchalovsky, Mashkov, Vasily Rozhdestvensky, and Alexander Kuprin; all of whom had been expelled from the Moscow Art School due to their 'leftist' tendencies. Mashkov and Konchalovsky's shared studio was provided as the registered address. Their stated objective: 'to spread modern concepts on questions of the fine arts. The area of activities is the city of Moscow' (Statute of the Jack of Diamonds Society of Artists, Moscow, 1911).
Unpredictably, or perhaps predictably, this exhibition proved a unique moment in which a disparate group of artists was united by their interest in the Neo-Primitive. This unity was short-lived. Formerly its most fervent champions, Goncharova and Larionov formally seceded from the group in April 1911. Their decision and subsequent condemnation of the group's ethos was expressed at length, possibly by Larionov himself, in the article 'Ssora 'khvostov' s valetami [The Quarrel between the 'Tails' and the 'Jacks]' published in the newspaper Golos Moskvy [The Voice of Moscow] on the 11th December 1911. Their argument is worth examining in that the contradictions inherent to its stance are key to comprehending the strength of Mashkov's work, and specifically that of Still life with fruit.
Goncharova and Larionov's contempt resumes a battle waged regularly in Russia historically, which is neatly characterised by Goncharova's urging Russian artists to 'shake off the dust of the west'; distance themselves from western painting and solely seek inspiration in 'Russian' source material. Leaving aside the irony that both Goncharova and Larionov were fated to spend the majority of their life as émigrés, their ethos is fatally undermined by intrinsic contradictions. Rejecting the influence of the West in 1910 or indeed 1870 was not achievable rendering any attempt to do so artificial. By way of example, Goncharova and Larionov's promotion of traditional folk art is a clear continuation of Princess Maria Tenisheva's and Savva Mamontov's comparable agenda in the second half of the 19th century - an impetus in itself heavily indebted to the English Art and Crafts movement.
Much has been done to try and emphasise the existence of a two-way artistic exchange between Russian and Western artists (more recent examples of which include the 1979 exhibition Paris-Moscow 1900-1930 at the Centre Pompidou and 2008's From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 at London's Royal Academy). Certainly Russian artists such as Léon Bakst, Konstantin Somov and Victor Borisov-Musatov held successful solo exhibitions in Europe, Diaghilev's 'L'exhibition de L'Art Russe' at the Salon d'Automne in 1906 in Paris showcased Russian painting and indeed the contribution of émigré artists working in Paris post-revolution is significant in terms of their number alone. That said, the flow of inspiration remained predominantly one way: Picasso and von Dongen expressed a desire to visit Russia but it was never fulfilled, while Iu. Rusakov's highly enjoyable account of Matisse's 1911 journey to Moscow (reproduced in translation in The Burlington Magazine, 1975, vol. 117, no. 866, pp. 284-291) serves only to emphasise his indifference to Russian modernists (while revealing a feverish passion for Russian icons). As such, Western artists were deprived of the rich, distinctly national, source material which so heavily informs the work of the Russian Neo-Primitives. Still life with fruit's flattened perspective recalls hand-painted trays, the empty background references lubki while the simplified fruits are reminiscent of the blunt carvings of the ancient anthropomorphic stone obelisks of southern Russia. Simultaneously, the influence of the West and particularly that of Matisse is maintained, most evidently in subject matter, vibrant palette and heavy outline of the Fauves, and the plain yet textured rendering of the blue/green background which directly references Cézanne. Yet there is something distinctly classical in the composition. Unlike Cézanne, whose more dynamic approach can be seen to function solely on the picture surface, the arrangement of the fruits in Still life with fruit is reminiscent of Giotto or traditional Madonna and Child icons, the central anchoring area of interest flanked by symmetrical attendants. The artist retains a classical European structure of painting, the content supplied by that of the traditional still life expressed via the principles of Neo-Primitivism. Mashkov's great achievement therefore, is his unique synthesis of the indigenous and the exotic; in examining and absorbing the heights attained by European modernists while simultaneously inserting the characteristic and intrinsic roots that are crucial and unique to Russian art.
Still life with fruit was last exhibited in 1913, alongside works by Kandinsky, Derain, Mondrian and Konchalovsky among others, at the Stedelijk Museum at the third exhibition organised by the Contemporary Art Society. By circa 1920 the painting is recorded in the inventory book of Willem Beffie (1880-1950) (fig. 3). Personally acquainted with Marc, Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Le Fauconnier, Beffie was a passionate collector of German and Russian Expressionist art and assembled a world-class collection in Amsterdam in the early 20th century. Many paintings formerly in his collection now enrich the holdings of major museums globally including the Guggenheim, Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum and New York's Museum of Modern Art. While no known documentation exists with regards to where and when each work was acquired, it is likely that Beffie acquired Mashkov's Still life with fruit directly from the 1913 exhibition via one of his two advisors: Henri Le Fauconnier, who was a participant in the 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition and the 1913 Stedelijk Museum exhibition or Conrad Kickert, the Dutch artist and critic who served as the Contemporary Art Society's Secretary and Treasurer.
The appearance of this beautiful and important painting on the international art market for the first time provides a unique opportunity to acquire both an undoubted masterpiece by one of Russia's most significant artists and an important piece of Russian Art history simultaneously. Ilya Mashkov's Still life with fruit is a synthesis, crucial step, and culmination of two great traditions, inflected unmistakably through the lens of the Russian Avant-Garde at its impressive peak.