Futurism and Rayism

In the December 1913 edition of the journal Argus, Mikhail Larionov and Ilya Zdanevich published Why We Paint Ourselves: A Futurist Manifesto.1 You can see its contents in the Russian typography of pre-Revolutionary times at the Lobgott Pipzam blog. In this piece appear photographs of the artists and their cohorts with strange signs and characters on their cheeks. Each design is meant to impart a particular idea to the viewer. For example, the squiggles and hash marks, the letters И Д Е А (misspelling ‘idea’) and the number 8 that appear on the right cheek of the one of the men is supposed to signify the connection between man and civil construction. The even more obscure sign that appears on the left cheek also connects man to urban construction.


For Larionov and Zdanovich, face and body painting represented a new way to keep up with the urban kaleidoscope of fleeting impressions. “Our faces are like the screech of the trolley warning the hurrying passersby, like the drunken sounds of the great tango.” 2

Part of this futurism involved the Larionov/Goncharova idea of ‘rayism’, that is, the use of lines and multiple intersections to give the impression of accelerated flashes of light. There were several followers of this idea – Alexander Shevchenko, Morits Fabri, and Viacheslav Levkievsky – offering colorful arrangements of clashing, diagonal rays to create on the static canvas the impression of bright light interpenetrating multiple spatial planes and rays emanating at an unprecedented pace from the ordinary objects and their environment. 3 These lines were similar to the Italian Futurists’ lines of force that elicited the impression of speed.

Natalia Goncharova. (Face painted by M. Larionov.)

Natalia Goncharova. (Face painted by M. Larionov.)

We know that there was much psychologising and philosophising in the Russian avant-garde (in which sphere, of course, they were no less than any of the other modernists in the rest of the world). But this one, to me at least, seriously takes the biscuit. There are photographs of Larionov and Goncharova (see above) and Zdanovich with various squiggles on their faces, and these are meant to signify some deep perspective into modern life. Well, strike me down with a feather.


  1. Ilya Zdanevich & Mikhail Larionov (1913), Why We Paint Ourselves.
  2. Tim Harle (2009), Fast Forward: The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in the Russian Avant-Garde Culture, 1910-1930, Univ. of Wisconsin Press. p. 101.
  3. ibid, p. 102.

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