Click photos to enlarge.
I’m struggling through a bit of confusion again today. It’s in the air. Believe me. At a certain point you really begin to sympathize with John Lennon, who famously sang, “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.” I am currently swimming in what isn’t known. And as a result I’ve been having a hell of a time getting this post up, although I will finish today come hell or high water. But it is a fact of my life that the internet simply does not want to give me reliable information about the Russian group of artists known as the Knave of Diamonds, or the Jack of Diamonds. The art encyclopedias I own do not provide convincing information either. So I’m letting this one fly half-baked. (WordPress insists on labeling the publish date of this post as April 18, which is the day I started writing it. All my attempts to change it to April 21, when I actually completed it, are in vain. So I’m really not friends with the internet today.)
One thing that is known is that the building I present today is, in some way, connected with the Knave of Diamonds. Whether this is the site of the group’s first exhibit or a later exhibit, I simply have not determined. However, let me first present a bit of background.
The first Knave of Diamonds exhibit, wherever it was located, took place from December 1910 to January 1911 and it was a huge event, an explosive cultural statement. It presented to the world the then-strange, neo-primitivist, geometrical, color-saturated works of 53 artists, some of whom went on to become major names in history. They included Natalya Goncharova, Vasily Kandinsky, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Mikhail Larionov, Aristarkh Lentulov, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Falk, Alexandra Ekster, Natan Altman, and the Burlyuk brothers David and Vladimir. For those of you who think we need mass movements or popular support to change the world, consider this: One source tells me that the first exhibit, which had such an effect on Russian art, was visited by approximately 200 people. That’s 100 folks plus the moms and dads of each artist. (Although, in the unknowing spirit of the day, I have also seen claims that there were many visitors at the exhibit. Is 200 “many”? Are these sources talking about the same thing, or is this another case of warring information?)
In any case, one of those visitors was the great poet Maximilian Voloshin, who left behind a detailed review of the exhibit in the April 1911 issue of Russian Artistic Chronicle. Here is a bit of what he wrote:
“… They did their best to infuriate the visitor’s eye. In the first room they hung the extremely thorny and geometrically angular compositions of Takke and Falk. In the central hall we came upon Mashkov’s huge canvas, as if a statement, depicting himself nude with magnificent muscles and Pyotr Konchalovsky in a warrior’s costume….
The Knave of Diamonds’ method of hanging the paintings (canvases are almost exclusively large format and in a very narrow frames) is governed by the rule of hanging them as closely together as possible, in four rows – one above the other, at different levels, and mixing paintings that do not mix well, and positioning them in a way that each picture negates the next.
The human eye is the most conservative and intolerant of all the creatures that inhabit the human body. It is naturally inclined to resent anything new, anything dissimilar. Great care is required in order for the eye to catch new impressions, in order to enrich it with new experience. For a human being is intelligent, though slow to perceive . The Knaves neglected all these methods, demonstrating their extreme youth, levity and carelessness.”
Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of this stately structure erected by architect Adolf Erikhson just around the corner from Pushkin Square at 32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. I went out and photographed it because I ran across an interesting website devoted to the work of Pyotr Konchalovsky that stated in a timeline that the first Knave of Diamonds exhibit took place right here. Here is the line directly from the site: “10 December 1910 – 16 January 1911 – participates in the Knave of Diamonds exhibit, organized by M.F. Larionov in the Levisson [sic! it’s actually Levinson] House (32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka) in Moscow.” As I worked on this, I found another source also claiming this as the site of the first exhibit. But there’s a catch. This other site repeats the Konchalovsky site’s typographical error in the spelling of the name of the building’s owner as Levisson rather than Levinson. That’s a good indication that these guys just grabbed info from the Konchalovsky site without checking it. The fact is that more sites claim that the first exhibit took place at 11 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. Here is one of them here. (But then these are also the guys who claim there were a lot of visitors at the exhibit, whereas Russian Wikipedia puts the number at 200… Who and what are you going to believe?) Furthermore, I came upon a site that names the building pictured in this post as the site of the second exhibit which took place in 1914. I finally began to realize why many sites simply write that the first exhibit took place “on Bolshaya Dmitrovka,” but don’t provide the actual number of the building. Because nobody is entirely sure what happened where when.
As a skit on my family’s old comedy record spoofing John Kennedy used to say, Let me say this about that: Having done some armchair research I feel safe in making the claim that this building is bound up in the history of the Knave of Diamonds group. It was, at one point or another, the site of at least one of the association’s public showings. Which one, I don’t know. If anybody out there does know, I would love to hear from you.