“The East, Nationality and the West”
This phrase happened to be the title of a fruitful debate held in 1913. Short though it was, it represented one of the most acute problems in early avant-garde art. Painters, poets and art critics - those who created new Russian art and those who were against it - paid written attention to the subject in those days.
It was not the first time that the Russian innovators faced the problem of self-identification. It had been a concern for a few years already, but before it had been expressed in the stylistics and choice of themes of their pictures only, rather than in the theoretical conclusions or statements. The complexity of the situation stemmed from the fact that the young artists traced their artistic roots back both to the French painting tradition and to the national, popular folk culture which they believed to have originated in the East. This combination allowed different trends to exist simultaneously in their painting: the primitive co-existed with Postimpressionism and Fauvism, “quotations” from Henri Matisse could be found next to the “lubok” (popular woodblock prints), while “quotations” from Paul Cezanne could be seen alongside the devices of shop-sign painting. Natalia Goncharova, one of the most notable figures of the movement, insisted that “it is necessary to blend the 'alien' art with the native one”.
But what was to be considered “alien” or pure Russian at that point? Some of the works of the members of the “Knave of Diamonds” group of the end of the 1900s and through the 1910s can be interpreted as part of their dialogue with the French painters, as well as their reflection on their own roots.
The image of the artist in the painting of the “Knave of Diamonds” group
It has always been typical of the Russian mentality to romanticise and idealise the image of the painter or poet: a creative personality had to be the embodiment of unusual and exalted qualities. The public could forgive the artist anything, from extravagant looks to strange behaviour Even madness was better than being plain, ordinary and down to earth! In 1910 the general public finally acclaimed Mikhail Vrubel who died the same year. But the exhibition of the "Knave of Diamonds" group of 1910 greeted its viewers with portraits that denied them their habitual beliefs and ideas. The main "scarecrow" of the show (as the participants of the exhibition termed such pictures) was the "Self-portrait and the Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky" by Ilya Mashkov. The artist had always stated that the main quality an artist should possess was not talent but good health. And his double portrait vividly demonstrated the advantages of being healthy: it seemed that after good exercise any creative achievement was possible.
The appearance of Mikhail Larionov in his self-portrait was even more shocking. He painted himself as a cheerful, life-loving hooligan with his hair cut so short that it was almost non-existent - he was serving in the army at the time. And the style was that of "fence-art" painting. The critics also discussed "The Portrait of the Poet" by Mashkov that struck them with its clumsiness and numbness. Maximilian Voloshin in his review of the exhibition managed to find the right word to describe the attitude of the "Knave of Diamonds" members to the human form: "still life-wise-ness". The word meant some "thing-like" quality, something material without a soul or heart, and thus the resulting absence of the traditional "poetic" qualities so dear to the public.
Less striking but as important for the history of the group were Konchalovsky's self-portraits that he displayed at the next exhibition of the "Knave of Diamonds" in 1912. He depicted himself as an impressive respectable man, dressed in ordinary clothes, appearing perfectly normal; his colleagues, critics and the public were at a loss again. Henri Matisse had experienced a similar reaction to his creations as well. One of the symbolist artists accused Matisse and his friends "that people call them savages, while they dress as all people do, so it is impossible to tell them from the heads of the departments of big shops. But could talent depend on such trifles?"
Henri Rousseau's picture "The Poet and his Muse", depicting Guillaume Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin, seems to be the closest in the characteristics of its imagery to the works of the "Knave of Diamonds" group mentioned. The picture was bought by Sergei Schukin and displayed at the exhibition of the group in 1913. The "douanier" painted a business-like, tidy man with a quill- feather in his hand, listening attentively to a stout lady telling him something in the middle of a meadow. But the depiction is made with an open-hearted seriousness that had never been the aim of the far-from- naive Russian avant-garde painters who actually flaunted their impertinence.
The gallery of the "Knave of Diamonds" self-portraits also includes fancy-dress portraits: Mashkov portrayed as a rich ship-owner, or Lentulov as a market street vendor. No matter what settings the painters chose for their self-portraits, they were challenging previous tradition and arguing with it in every way possible. The artist, as the members of the group imagined him, was neither "a pale starry-eyed youth" nor a dreamer marked with an unworldly inspiration, but, on the contrary, an energetic, self-confident person in middle age, healthy, loving life and very down-to-earth.
The Spanish senes by Konchalovsky
On the far end of Europe and bordering Africa, Spain had attracted the attention of both the French and the Russians since the days of Pushkin and Merimee. At the end of the 19th century interest in the country was renewed; something truly alive and vital, resisting any stylistic innovations and not secluded in the “world of art”, drew the artists of both countries to the Spanish character and Spanish understanding of the world. Manet's infatuation for the paintings of Velazquez and Goya gave birth to Impressionism. The black colour of Velazquez fertilised the new French painting, and the same happened with the Russian artists. The works of the great Spaniard were synonymous with unsurpassed artistic mastery for Serov. Korovin believed the Spanish character and its inhabitants to be very similar to those of Russia.
No wonder, then, that the wild beauty of that country fascinated the “wild” French Fauvists. Henri Matisse painted his “Spanish Woman with a Tambourine”, enchanted with the colour combinations of the national costume (in fact, an Italian model posed for the “Spanish Woman”). The “irregular” features and sharp charm of the Spanish models attracted Kees van Dongen. Nevertheless, it is not the picturesque model nor the decorativeness of colour that play the main role in the Fauvists' pictures. It is the “intensity of feelings and sensations”, as Matisse put it. It is not by chance that having returned from a trip to that country he admitted that he needed “to recover his breath”.
Pyotr Konchalovsky's visit to Spain in 1910 turned out to be one of the most significant events of his life. In his letters he describes how “from the Catholic cathedrals after listening to divine music” he “got to the corrida”, watched the "fanatical religious faces of the Catholics” "thirsty for blood”, and after that "went to listen to some ferocious, passionate and at the same time painfully tender music”. The stunning beauty of Spain originated in its special colour scheme. "Spain for me is a poem of black and white,” he recalled later "That is how I felt it and that is exactly how I had to paint it. All the time while I lived there, I was obsessed with the idea of mastering the simplified synthetic colour”.
The impressions he received in that trip changed his artistic style: the pictures from his Spanish period are full of an inner excitement. The laconic and expressive artistic language corresponds to their unusual and powerful images; there are no ready-made stylistic devices or cliches in them. The hot and "smoky” (according to Muratov) black of the matadors; the strange and childish immobility of the "Corrida” (those who have watched it know that it consists of a series of static positions - pauses, almost "snap shots”, that are followed by fast and sudden movements); the drama of the contrasts of light and dark, noticeable even in the tiniest details - the way a white shirt-front or a bright bow in the hair flashes. The curves of the form corresponding to the captivating rhythms of Spanish dance; the wide black contours washing the objects as if they were lava - all appeared not only because the artist was searching for new forms and ways, but because it simply came out of his inner experience as a true expression of the essence of Spain.
At the end of 1910 Konchalovsky showed his series of Spanish pictures at the "Knave of Diamonds” exhibition. Voloshin was rather sceptical in his review about the "changeable” artist. He wrote: "looking at his canvases it becomes clear at once that after Van Gogh he favoured Cezanne, then became interested in Matisse and then worked with Mashkov. In his 'Spain' Konchalovsky is more on his own, he is more interested in what he paints, rather that how he does it, but still he had seen too many pictures in his life.” But soon Voloshin took his words back - and the reason for that was again the Spanish series, only this time painted on a big scale as a decoration for a ballroom. The poet admits "the decorations of the 'Night in Spain' convinced me of the artistic truth of Konchalovsky's manner He proved himself to be a very interesting decorator, and proved on the wide surfaces that he has the right to be what he actually is. He managed to achieve true decorativeness without altering his technique and without the slightest trace of sweetness or the commonplace."
Natalya Goncharova - Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse's painting became a part of the early style of the “Knave of Diamonds” group. He was well-known in Russia, and his works were displayed at “The Golden Fleece” exhibitions, while his opinions about art were published in the magazine of the same name. In 1911 the young artists had the opportunity to meet the French master during his visit to Moscow. But the influence of the founder of Fauvism was at its peak between 1908 and 1910, during the period just before the aesthetic principles of the “Knave of Diamonds” group were formed.
“Still Life with a Pineapple” by Natalya Goncharova was painted at the same time as Henri Matisse's masterpiece “Statuette and Vases on an Oriental Carpet”. Both pictures are connected to an Oriental theme, and the objects of their settings are also similar. But there the similarity ends.
As usual, the French painting is more daring than its Russian counterpart. It is very different as far as atmosphere is concerned - it is blissfully serene. In “Statuette and Vases” the flat image has a hint of space and volumes, while its symbolism does not kill the impression of being true to life. As far as the Orient is concerned, Matisse has tamed it and made it something domestic. The carpet with its laconic pattern shining with pure colour, the vessels contrasting each other in form and colour scheme, and the statuette made by Matisse form a harmonious unity; those rare things decorating the interior of the connoisseur of beauty do not interfere with each other but, on the contrary, complement each other. Moreover, one cannot see the interior itself, since the image of the carpet skilfully stops the eye from penetrating the depths of the picture, making it concentrate on the expressiveness of the objects “posing” for it.
Goncharova's still life produces a different impression. The shallow space is open to the eye, but the figure of a stone idol is surrounded by a somewhat gloomy and mysterious atmosphere that seems more suitable for a superstitious Gauguin's indigenous subject. The everyday objects, chairs and bottles, and the exotic pineapple with prickly leaves resembling a small agave seem to belong to different worlds. The pattern in Goncharova's picture plays an expressive role rather than a decorative one: the awkward angular pattern stands out on the table-cloth instead of blending with it, as if the cloth is on fire. Still objects here lead a self-contained life full of its own meaning, demonstrating how close the artist's understanding of world is to that of archaic beliefs.
Ilya Mashkov - Henri Matisse, Henri Manguin
Ilya Mashkov repeatedly turned to painting nude models. He was interested in the genre not only for the purposes of study - at the end of the 1910s he studied in Serov's workshop and began his own teaching career It interested him more for its possibilities of experiments with colour Fond of Fauvism, Mashkov tried to surpass usual ways of seeing objects, though he did not always manage to reach harmonious and natural decisions. Once Serov commented on his student's attempts: “It's not painting, it is a lamp”. Sometimes his models look as if they are covered by a colour glaze. Comparing them to the “Bathing Woman” of Henri Manguin, the unique method Mashkov used becomes apparent.
Henri Manguin was associated with the Fauvist group. His works were well- known in Russia, shown at “The Golden Fleece” as well as at the exhibitions of the “Knave of Diamonds” group. The artist and critic, G. Lukomsky, noted in 1910 that the young Muscovites were under his influence and he called them “under Matisse-men” and “under Manguin-men”. It is not difficult to notice that the intense colourful shadows on his paintings stem from direct observation of nature, while the Russian artist transfers the colour correlations from the open air to the studio, turning them into a symbolic colour language of the new art.
Another source of Mashkov's early models was definitely Henri Matisse and his series of nudes from 1908. The Fauvists did not always aim at open intensive colour; according to Matisse, “there existed the glowing and shimmering of light as well”. In the famous “Nude” the French master achieved such a sense of shining with the help of the colour combinations stated in the title of the picture, “Black with Gold”. Matisse used to explain: “Fauvism came to being because we tried to avoid the imitation of colour as much as possible, and because with the help of colour we managed to achieve more obvious and stronger results”.
From Gauguin to Cezanne
Russian artists came to know Paul Gauguin at the beginning of the 1910s; a few years later “the strong Eastern wind was already blowing in the studios of the young artists; the word 'orientalism' sounded like a roll of a drum at all the artistic crossroads, ... and in his mansion on Znamenka Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin had already guided small groups of viewers dumb with surprise ... He was slyly smiling, seeing the reaction of his guests to the canvases burnt with an exotic sun, and the so 'sweet' and obscure words 'Rove te hiti aamu', 'Ei aho Ohipu', 'Vairaoumati tei oa”’ (Abram Efros). Russians were captivated by Gauguin's perception of beauty and his extraordinary originality, his charming images of far away Oceania and romantic dream of the Promised Land, populated with a natural, happy people unspoiled by civilization.
But it was the stylistic system of the French master that was the focus of particular attention from artists belonging to the “Knave of Diamonds” group: one-dimensional representation, decorativeness, and the value of the canvas in itself, with the peculiar role of the rhythms of spots of colour and linearity. Thus Gauguin's visual art experience became a stimulating impulse in the formation of the style of the “Knave of Diamonds” group, one to be vividly revealed in the works of Larionov, Goncharova, Mashkov, Kuprin, Falk and Lentulov.
Recently the attention of art critics has been focused on Kuprin's “Portrait of a Negress” from 1908-09: the characteristic features of a realistic portrait were combined with the new one-dimensional decorative approach which was developed by the artist in the 1910s. “Portrait of a Negress” was painted under considerable impact from Gauguin. It is rather close to the picture “Are You Jealous?”, which was acquired by Shchukin in 1908: the colour of the wall resembles Gauguin's pink-colour earth; the decorative ornamentation of the branches and leaves “retells” a detail of the Tahiti landscape with one-dimensional colour stains in the left upper part of the painting; aloud red flower on the face of the portrait repeats Gauguin's red draperies on the brown womens' bodies.
It might be that the subject is the same negress who posed for Falk. The portraits of the negress by Falk and Kuprin were exceptional, if not unique, in Russian art of their time. Evidently, Konstantin Korovin, the teacher of both artists, meant these paintings when (in an interview with the newspaper “Ran- nee Utro” (Early Morning)) he rhetorically questioned: “And what about our Gauguins and Matisses? Where have they found black women in our country? Where have they seen such blue reflexes?” (Korovin was interviewed after an incident in the School of Visual Art, Sculpture and Architecture. Some students - Kuprin and Falk among them - were subsequently expelled). To sum up, the “Moscow Gauguins” were lucky to find one black woman to be able to fulfill their stylistic aims.
The “Knave of Diamonds” group's interest in Gauguin in their early period coincided with their keenness on exotic Eastern motifs and primitive art. Their serious interest in Cezanne was formed slightly later, but proved much deeper.
In the Cezannist still-lifes, landscapes and human images the viewer is impressed by the powerful “baroque” operation with form and space, built on a strict construction. The brush stroke creates not the form in particular, but rather the very special-material matter of the painting.
The “Cezanne” still lifes of the “Knaves” are not so strictly modeled. When compared to the works of their master their compositions are “mobile”; the foreshortenings are not ordinary, or they are taken from above, while the painting is not dense and the strokes are bold, with the pictorial prevailing over form. One of those who criticized the “Knave of Diamonds” group was Malevich's disciple Rozhdestvensky. He wrote that the “Knaves” “have taken the covering property of oils in Cezanne as boldness, Russian temperament and daub.”
Both the “Knaves” and Cezanne regard the depicted as “still” and immobile. That explains their attitude to still life as a genre, and further to their “still- life” interpretation of live nature and humans. As in Cezanne, the surface of the paintings is created with free bold strokes, but the character of their pictorial dynamics is different: in the paintings of the French master one feels some definite movement of his brush, each time gained anew as the result of an endless “multi-s_ance” visual perception of nature. The Russian artists are much more impulsive and spontaneous.
The “Knaves” appeared particularly open to the “explosion of a biological feeling of painting” in Cezanne, who completely transformed European art. “They opened a fortochka [small window] in the room of Russian art, and immediately fresh air, spirits and joy entered the room. <...> The artist started to live in the present, and let the smell of the past out. <...> This is the primary achievement of the 'Knave of Diamonds'. And the second: 'Knave of Diamonds' is the window to Europe” (Rozhdestvensky).
Mikhail Larionov - Othon Friesz
Neo-primitivism which was created by Larionov is often associated both with French Fauvism and German Expressionism as artistic phenomena close in stage and style. Nevertheless it is hard to find any direct analogues for Larionov's artistic manner in European painting - of his colour harmony and teasing, exciting sharp linearly drawing, and of his rough-loving attitude to the depicted objects.
One can see some connection between them in Friesz's “Snow in Munich”. Friesz belonged to the group of the Fauvists, but at the end of the 1 900s - the time this landscape was painted - he had left Matisse's circle. In 1912 he exhibited some of his paintings in the "Knave of Diamonds” exhibition.
The painting corresponds to Larionov's canvases, to his spatial composition, colour restraint and even to his manner of painting: light movements of the brush outline the figures of citizens, slipping or cheerfully gliding along the ice-covered street. Such interest in genre, story-telling, and funny everyday details is not typical of the Fauvists. Just like Larionov, Friesz managed to find in his painting a certain balance between his vision of nature and a primitive tendency in its interpretation.
Mikhail Larionov - Kees van Dongen
Kees van Dongen was the only artist among the Fauvists inclined to depict so- called “worldly subjects”. He frequently took part in the “Knave of Diamonds” group exhibitions; his painting “Woman with Black Gloves” was shown at the group exhibition of 1913. The Russian artists studied his technique, looked closely at his textural means, but this Dutch Fauvist's mentality was alien to them. It is very clear with any comparison between that work with Larionov's “provincial couple” - his “Dandy” and “Dandyish Woman”.
The model for van Dongen was an object of admiration, for Larionov - of humour: his “worldly subjects” are showing off, while van Dongen's Parisian is graciously free, thus opposing each other quite naturally. The full-length figures and imposing postures of Larionov's subjects might be regarded as parodies of the portraits of his teacher Valentin Serov. Everything seems to be exaggerated - silhouettes, free brush strokes, angular linearity. All these means and techniques of Larionov make him different. In van Dongen's painting the colour spots are swaying, diffusing in the canvas medium, while the silhouettes are surging, dissolving in the airy foam of the elegant woman's dress.
From the East to the West
In March 1913 Larionov and those who belonged to his group launched the dispute “The East, Nationality and the West” in connection with the opening of the exhibition “The Target”. By that time the “Knave of Diamonds” and Larionov's group had become uncompromising opponents. The theme of the dispute reflected the reasons and sources of their alienation: the “Larionovs” stated that the East was the fundamental principle of contemporary art and accused the “Knaves” of a servile initative following the lead of the West.
As for the “Eastern” ideologist, he rarely used oriental motifs or citations from Eastern art. But over 1908-11 such artists as Goncharova, Konchalovsky and Mashkov appreciated them, very often using them as a detail of the background - either a Chinese woodcut, or a Persian or Indian “lubok” (Mashkov, for example, used one and the same sample in some of his pictures, in both still-lifes and portraits). The colourful background behind the depicted object served as a stylistic tuning device: the linear ornament, and bright spots of colour added a great element of decorativeness to the painting.
Soon after their first joint action the “Knaves” gradually abandoned the Eastern motifs and followed the path of Cezanne. The two Konchalovsky “Family Portraits” of 1911 and 1912 serve as a vivid example of these changes: though the artist's interpretation of his subjects did not change - they remained symmetrically seated, static and staring at the viewer and thus resembling those set in front of a camera, but the background was principally different. Instead of a Chinese woodcut that gave a certain decorative accent Konchalovsky built an architectural decoration with a clear division of space: all these made created a clearcut image with new shades of meaning. The vertical pink spaces formed the image of Siena.
Similar changes can be noted in Mashkov's work. In 1909-11 the colourful background of his portraits often produced the effect of “trompe- l'oeil” and the viewer seemed to be involved in a kind of a game: live natura or natura morte, a model or a picture were likely to change places. But in his “Portrait of the Samoilov Sisters” the background became “quiet” and gained some classic if not retrospective features. The investigator of Mashkov's artistic creative activity I. Bolotina called this portrait “a monumental composition, <...> characterized by architectonic strict rhythms. Here Mashkov could - like the early Konchalovsky in his group family portraits - recall Italian frescos.”
The Eastern colour was gradually disappearing from his still-lifes. Simultaneously the artist's attitude to colour and form was changing, too: thus if Mashkov and Konchalovsky had before used highly unnatural intensive shades of colours to make the faces, arms and bodies of their models, now the colour became less intensive, sometimes almost monochrome. And the black colour so characteristic of the early Fau- vist-primitive period of the “Knaves” - recalling the contour shapes of Matisse, or the lacquered background of Russian hand-made trays - almost disappeared.
In their searches for a new “classic” form the “Knaves” followed different paths. Mashkov was inclined to the naturalistic copy of the illusionary, while Konchalovsky took the path of Cezanne and his followers. Acquaintance with Cubism stimulated their interest in new means and techniques in painting (mostly in the genre of still life), namely, to the imitation of real natural materials, such as wood, collage, and shifts in the form itself.
By the middle of the 1910s the impact of the “Eastern idea” on the early Russian avant-garde had practically lost its strength. “This impact was strong. But it came abruptly to an end. The West has won.” (Kazimir Malevich.) The young generation, brought up on French Cubism, like Lubov Popova and Nadezhda Udaltsova who made their debut at the “Knave of Diamonds” exhibition in 1914, did not yet share their elder colleagues' enthusiasm for the Oriental. Thus, Udaltsova during her stay in Paris wrote in her diary: “Oriental art - gloomy perverted mystics, disgusting to look at. I am disgusted by the Japanese drawings with their curly lines and roundish muscles. Those fat plump legs with the carefully-drawn toes, - disgusting. <...> From a formal point of view there are some beautiful things, of course, but the content is loathsome, perverted.”
During these years the genre- scene trend in the art of the “Knave of Diamonds” group was being formed - and in it landscape alongside portraiture started to play its significant role.
Ilya Mashkov - Maurice de Vlaminck
When the "Knaves” were traveling around Southern Italy they made instinctive attempts to work a-la Cezanne, though it should be mentioned that Mashkov was very careful of the temptation, realizing the original power of the French master's painting. One cannot but notice that Maurice de Vlaminck confronted the same problems. Both the artists, having chosen a Cezanne motif and his favourite relationship of colours, tried to do their best to establish a “borderline” and escape feeble imitation. Thus de Vlaminck built whole compositions on symmetry and mild colours that gave the image some special delicacy and even gentle tenderness - elements that were absent in the works of the "anchorite from Aix”. Mashkov's compositions were filled with roundish forms of trees and mountains, painted with wide, free and "plump” brush strokes.
Both the artists deprived the form of Cezanne's solidity and firmness. In their works reflections were dissolved in water, while objects were slightly diffused - as if seen from behind misty glass. Mashkov and de Vlaminck paid tribute to the great French master, embroidering on the canvas of his works their own light ornaments, and thus avoding any claim for comparison with the originals.
Pyotr Konchalovsky - Andre Derain - Pierre Girieud
Konchalovsky was often criticized for being under the influence of the French masters: in 1912 an art critic remarked on the influence of Derain on Konchalovsky's work. Derain, an active contributor to the “Knave of Diamonds” exhibitions, was an authority among the leaders of the group; a number of his works were also in the Shchukin collection.
His picture “Old Castle at Cagnes” was created during a period of intensive work in the open air together with Picasso and Braque. Derain came very close to Cubist principles, balancing his work between Cubism and Cezannism.
As for the “southern” landscapes of Konchalovsky visualizing Siena and San Gimigniano, in them he used Derain's motif of sheer stone walls, closing the horizon and thus adding an element of monumental character to the composition. The pictures of the Russian artist lack the strict structural- ization of the “Castle” with its severe beauty, geometrical form and specific colours burning through the Cubist gloom. In Konchalovsky's landscapes architecture seemed to try to reach strictly-organized shapes, but failed. The very “organism” of his paintings seemed to reject any constructive pattern, to destroy the volumes and turn them into some soft clay...
Konchalovsky's canvas “Piazza Signoria in Siena” looks close to the second-rank French painter Pierre-Paul Girieud, who, although labelled a Fauve, did not share their ideas. His picture with the view of Siena was exhibited at the “Golden Fleece” exhibition in 1908. Konchalovsky had made three variations of the same composition (in some cases the picture was titled “Piazza del Campo”.) The direct citation is evidence that the “Knaves” had strong ties with the masters of the “mature” avant-garde, who widely used the citation principle and gave it a theoretical background.
Ilya Mashkov - Andre Derain
Bridges, aqueducts - eye-catching architectural details of a landscape - were strong attractions for the French artists, who were inclined to work out a constructive language of art. Cezanne and later Georges Braque would paint them readily; Derain too gave his own version of this motif. Mashkov used it in his landscape “Italy. Nervi”, which he painted during his trip to Europe in 1913. It seemed the motif itself dominated over the artist, making Mashkov change his usual subtle forms to solid ones, reproducing the plastic peculiarities of architecture. The space was limited, narrowed as if the “artist-Hercules” physically felt the lack of space in the mountain gorge where the small Italian town was located. If in the case of Derain some colour restraint created a “museum” academic effect, Maskov made the golden-pink colour of the walls shine joyfully, resembling the architectural background in his favourite frescos of Giotto.
Still-life Series: Bread and Trays
The masters of the "Knave of Diamonds” group preferred to create series of works on a certain theme, demonstrating their taste for the traditional. And, like Matisse, they remembered that “the classics were always painting one and the same subject, though differently”. The still lifes of the “Knaves” were unlike everything done in this genre by the masters of the past, first and foremost in their very choice of the objects depicted and their organization. Their still lifes were not the views of an untidy table, or flowers against an open window. Instead they pictured conglomerations of the same types of things - loaves of bread, apples, plums, bananas organized symmetrically or sometimes with a slight deviation from the symmetrical order in the form of a circle or pyramid, making the pictures resemble sign-boards. The artist did not seem to be interested in everyday life or the interaction of objects, and no presence of a human being could be observed. The unity of the objects or space was not the focus of the creative attention of the artist: peculiar attention was given to the very “flesh” of the object and the resulting materiality, with its form and texture. According to Ilya Ehrenburg, Konchalovsky “remembered that when the connoisseurs came to buy the still life 'Loaves of Bread' - it was in 1912 - 'I hanged - just for a joke - a real kalatch [an elaborate kind of bread loaf] on a thread the colour of which matched the colour of the background, and everybody was looking at it and taking it for the painted one, until I pushed it and it started to swing on the thread.”
The so-called “Bread” series of still lifes was a favourite pictorial theme of the “Knaves”. Larionov could be called its originator; at least it was he who contributed the picture “Loaves of Bread” at the first exhibition of the “Knave of Diamonds” group, the picture that stimulated the creation of later works by Konchalovsky and Mashkov. In all the variations on the theme one cannot but feel a element of parody of the “merchant” sign-board with its heavy ponderous loaves of bread and kalatches placed in the solemn still compositions. Such sign-like entourage was ironically interpreted, achieving the spirit of a kind of a play or a fair, though the pictorial decision did not resemble in any way the original signs of the beginning of the 20th century: the colour making the form, dense and really beautiful painting was evidence of their following the tradition of Cezanne.
Nevertheless, the favourite still life theme of the “Knaves” was undoubtedly the tray. The artists did not seem to be interested in making something plausible, true to life - an eye-catching hand- painted tray did not serve that function; it served like a background, a setting for a random choice of objects - a hat box or a vase with fruit, some berries or a garden radish. The tray became a stylistic dominant factor: the artists used it not only in still lifes, but also in portraits (Konchalovsky's “Self-portrait” (1912); Mashkov's “Portrait of Anton Borisovich Shimanovsky”) and in nude compositions (Mashkov's “Models” and “Russian Venus”, and some others). Thus trays served the example of primitive painting with some special emotional colouring, and played the role of folklore elements along with Eastern textiles, the “lubok”, and the decorations of the fair-ground show-booth.
The artists were fascinated with folk art, so that Kuprin, for example, once painted a tray trying to imitate the manner of a folk artist, using purely traditional techniques and interpreting them in his own way. Kuprin imitated the warm-hearted approach to the object typical for folk artists: the fruits, the fairy bird and other elements were painted with particular care, though one can feel some ironical attitude that is very close to Mashkov's manner of painting, the way the latter visualized conglomerations and “mountains” of fruits in his still lifes of the 1910s. Kuprin's own pictorial brush-writing can be traced in the details: in the shape of the leaves and the curly vines. Later in 1930 Kuprin set his tray in the work “Still Life with Red Tray and Earthenware Jug against Blue Drapery”. Though the colours are less bright and loud, and the manner is really bold one cannot mistake Kuprin for any other artist.
The genre of the still life is considered to reveal most particularly the aesthetic principles of the “Knave of Diamonds” group. One thing is absolutely clear: this genre expressed national originality and at the same time demonstrated a certain affiliation of the Russian artists with European pictorial culture. A Russian literary hero from the work of 19th century writer Alexander Griboyedov mocked the mixture of French and the Nizhny-Novgorod provincial variant in the then-spoken Russian language. In our case this fantastic mixture brought really unexpected and brilliant artistic results.