Jack of Diamonds – Special display of Russian avant-garde art at The Courtauld Gallery

Natalia Goncharova, The Little Station c.1912. oil on canvas, Private Collection

18 September 2014 to 18 January 2015

This September a special display of early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde paintings will be shown at The Courtauld Gallery, generously loaned from a private collection. This project is led by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) and marks the importance of the Jack of Diamonds group, founded in Moscow in 1910. In Russia it became one of the most celebrated exhibition societies across the whole Russian avant-garde before 1914, but it remains less well known in the West. The display includes works by Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Aristarkh Lentulov, Vladimir Burliuk, Olga Rozanova, and Alexandra Exter, all of whom, both men and women, were equally active contributors to the Jack of Diamonds.

In December 1910, at the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition, works by the French Cubists Albert Gleizes and Henri Le Fauconnier as well as paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne Werefkine and Alexei von Jawlensky were exhibited, alongside portraits and still lives by the younger members of the group, who were strongly influenced by the French and German artists.

The combination of European innovation and Russian national traditions was a distinctive feature of the Jack of Diamonds group. These artists were united by their interest in folk art and shop signs. Even in the title of their first exhibition (and subsequently of the group), reflected their interest in the Russian popular prints, known as lubki. Playing cards and lubki were always similar. Larionov spoke of playing cards as a type of ‘people’s pictures’. The artist Kuprin remembered: “Once I was at Larionov and Goncharova’s house. We were sitting around the table, looking at the reproductions of French paintings. Larionov took a Jack of Diamonds playing card and said: ‘Why not call our exhibition and movement ‘Jack of Diamonds’?’” Whether this story is true or not, the combination of Russian art and Western-European influences made this group unique.

Visitors to the Jack of Diamonds display will be able to see the works in the context of The Courtauld Gallery’s permanent displays of French paintings by Matisse and the Fauves, German Expressionist artists from Die Brücke, and Russian painters based in Munich, including Kandinsky, Aleksei Jawlensky (Yavlensky) and Werefkin (Verefkina).

In 1913-1914 the Jack of Diamonds held two evening events at the Moscow Polytechnic Institute billed as Disputes. During the course of our exhibition we intend to debate the same subjects afresh to celebrate a centenary of the Jack of Diamonds debates.

Postgraduate students from The Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Cambridge have worked closely together on this project with curators John Milner and Natalia Murray.

This project also marks the Galleries’ contribution to the UK-Russia Year of cultural exchange and collaboration. It is supported by the British Council and by Elena Sudakova of GRAD, the Gallery of Russian Art and Design, London. For more information, please see: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2014/jack-of-diamonds/index.shtml