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United in Life & Art: Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova

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With the introduction of the "Feel Art Again" Facebook page, we held a contest to find our farthest fan. Reader Kelly Deaton from Russia easily beat the competition, winning a week of "Feel Art Again" posts on Russian artists.

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) were lifelong partners in romance and in art. The two were considered to be at the forefront of Russian art in the early 1900s. Although Larionov and Goncharova experimented with the same styles and were active in the same circles, Goncharova is generally accepted to be the better artist.

1. Their Education

Both Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1898, when they were 17, with Larionov on the painting track and Goncharova working on the 10-year sculpture curriculum. Larionov, who rarely attended classes, was kicked out of school at least three times, including once for refusing to remove some of his 150 paintings from critique after being told he had submitted too many. Natalia, on the other hand, seems to have been a good student, but she left the school after just three years, once Larionov convinced her to take up painting.

2. Their Romance

Soon after they met at school, Larionov and Goncharova became romantically involved. They lived together for several decades before they eventually married, emigrating to Switzerland and then to France together. Once they finally tied in the knot in 1955, it was only for estate-planning purposes: Larionov and Goncharova wanted to be able to inherit each other's artwork.

3. Their Exhibitionism

The two artists were known to push boundaries in art, even on their own skin. Larionov was apparently "very interested" in tattooing. Larionov, Goncharova, and some of their other friends would paint on their bodies and then exhibit themselves in public and wealthy parts of Moscow. Goncharova once "painted her face then paraded topless through the streets of Moscow." In 1910, Goncharova was put on trial for pornography for some nude life studies in one of her exhibitions, but was acquitted.

4. The Ballet

In 1915, Larionov and Goncharova left Russia for Switzerland to work with Sergei Diaghilev on Ballets Russes productions. They later moved to France and permanently settled there, where they continued to work with Diaghilev and, after his death, with other ballet troupes. Both artists designed scenery and costumes, but Larionov even ventured into choreography. Goncharova is considered "one of the best stage designers the 20th century ever knew." Her illustrations for Diaghilev's productions can fetch from about $150,000 for costume sketches to about $299,000 for décor sketches.

5. Their Contributions to Art

Larionov and Goncharova were founding members of the Russian groups the Jack of Diamonds and Donkey's Tail; Larionov actually coined both groups' names. In 1913, Larionov created Rayonism, which concentrates on the rays of colored light over all else, and Goncharova became one of movement's most active practitioners. She was already considered by her contemporaries to be "the artist with the richest paints." They published the Rayonist manifesto that same year, which some 9 other artists also signed.

6. Their Decline

Perhaps due in part to their increasing focus on ballet, Larionov and Goncharova fell upon hard times as they got older. Goncharova was hit by arthritis in her hands, leaving her to paint by tying paint brushes to her wrists. Larionov was still being exhibited in Paris, London, and Milan during the 1950s and 1960s, but lived in poverty for the last 14 years of his life. They didn't receive widespread attention again until 2007, when the auction of Goncharova's "Picking Apples" (1909) for $9.8 million set the record for work by a female artist. She achieved the distinction again the following year, when "The Flowers" (1912) sold for $10.8 million.

Larger versions of Larionov's "Portrait of the Artist Natalia Goncharova" (above left) and Goncharova's "Self Portrait with Yellow Lilies" (above right) are available.

Fans should check out the Larionov collections at Museum Syndicate, MoMA, and the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery; Mikhail Larionov and Ilya Zdanevich's futurist manifesto; the Goncharova collections at Museum Syndicate, MoMA, USC, and the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery; the Hidden Treasures episode on Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter; and this art deco dress designed by Goncharova.

For more Russian art, check out our past posts on Karl Briullov, Alexei Harlamoff, Wassily Kandinsky, Pavel Korin (#9 on the page), Konstantin Korovin (a pupil of Polenov), Arkhip Kuindzhi (second on the page), Aristarkh Lentulov, Vasily Polenov, Illarion Pryanishnikov, Nicholas Roerich, Mark Rothko, Nadya Rusheva, Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Surikov, Vladimir Tretchikoff, Mikhail Vrubel, Konstantin Yuon, and the joint post on Marie Bashkirtseff, Boris Kustodiev, and Andrei Ryabushkin.

"Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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