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The aristo who broke the rules of art

Natalia Goncharova: a Russian aristocrat turned radical artist

A new exhibition in London paints a portrait of a true original

A new exhibition in London paints a portrait of a true original

Chloë Ashby | June 12th 2019

Of all the Russian avant-garde artists of the 20th century, Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was the most experimental. She absorbed the artistic styles around her, from traditional Russian folk art and religious icons to the latest trends in modernism. She dabbled in different art forms, like book illustration and fashion design, and painted a wide range of subjects, from the female nude to peasant scenes and urban landscapes. Her lifelong partner and fellow painter Mikhail Larionov described her ever-changing style and subject matter as “everythingism”. On paper, this approach might seem unfocused and unwieldy, but a new exhibition of Goncharova’s work at Tate Modern in London proves otherwise. The first Goncharova retrospective in the UK, it brings together 500 of the raw, vibrant works she produced in the first decades of the last century. Together they paint a portrait of a truly original artist. 

Born into a family of impoverished aristocrats in 1881, Goncharova spent her early years on country estates in rural Russia, where she was influenced by the life and culture of the local peasantry. When she was 11, she and her family moved to Moscow, and nine years later she enrolled at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where she met Larionov. By 1913, when she was 32, Goncharova had established herself at the artistic vanguard with a retrospective at an enormously prestigious gallery in Moscow: the Mikhailova Art Salon. Her rise to prominence hadn’t been without its stumbling blocks. In 1910 critics had panned an exhibition of hers which included abstract depictions of the female form – a far cry from the idealised nudes commonly found on gallery walls at the time. This didn’t deter the 12,000 people who pitched up to the salon to see more than 800 of her works three years later. The exhibition, which showed off her experiments with paint, textiles, print-making and set design, was the most ambitious of any Russian avant-garde artist to date. The catalogue was so popular it ran to three editions. 

Goncharova also designed colourful costumes and stage sets for theatre and dance companies including Sergei Diaghilev’s illustrious nomadic troupe, Ballets Russes. She and Larionov left Russia in 1915 to tour through Europe with them. Unable to return to Russia after the revolution and civil war, they settled in Paris in 1919. From there, Goncharova went on to show her work in Europe and the United States. She died aged 81 in 1962.

“Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies” (1907-08)

Goncharova was named after her great-aunt, Natalia Nikolaevna Goncharova-Pushkina, a well-known beauty and the wife of the great 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin. And yet in this confident and colourful self-portrait, produced at the family estate of Polotnianyi Zavod, Goncharova distances herself from her glamorous, aristocratic family. She portrays herself in a humble white blouse tucked into a black skirt, her hair pulled back, her eyes narrow, with thin lips pursed in a knowing smile. She has the sturdy, worn hands of an artist and behind her hang canvases that she painted – like this one – in the manner of post-impressionists like Vincent van Gogh, another artist fond of flowers. The gestural brushstrokes, bold outlining and wonky backdrop reflect Goncharova’s bohemian existence. She’s asserting herself as an individual and a painter, engaged with accepted styles yet forging her own way. 

 

“Peasants Picking Apples” (1911)

Goncharova spent her early childhood in Tula province in central Russia. It was there that she first became interested in the lives of peasants, observing their daily drudgery and occasional festivities. She went on to illustrate it all, from sheep-shearing and potato-planting to village weddings and funerals. One of the first artists to take up non-figurative art, Goncharova gives us a glimpse of a more abstract rural Russia in this painting. Two bare-footed figures in off-white smocks and dark breeches stand on a grassy knoll before a deep-blue sky. The bearded fellow in front reaches up towards a branch for one apple while dropping another into a basket, his loyal companion standing by. Goncharova’s interest in primitivism, a branch of modernism which channelled non-Western art forms, can be seen in the figures’ oval faces which, with their two-toned skin, flat profiles and blank expressions, resemble tribal masks.

 

“Harvest: The Phoenix” (1911)

Gallery-goers strolling through Goncharova’s exhibition at the Mikhailova Art Salon would have seen “Harvest”, an ambitious, nine-part representation of the end of the world based on the Book of Revelation. Licking flames are represented by flashes of red, yellow and orange – highly saturated hues no doubt influenced by the stained-glass windows of Russian churches – while the phoenix symbolises the resurrected soul rising from the ashes. Paintings like this, which evoked the Russian tradition of icon painting, were highly controversial. Objects of worship, icons were only just beginning to be seen as artworks in themselves, and they were painted only by men. 

 

“Cyclist” (1913)

“The principle of movement is the same in the machine and in the living being,” said Goncharova, who turned her attention to the urban landscape of factories and machinery in around 1913. Like other avant-garde Russian artists, she was reacting to the Italian futurists’ call to reject the past and rejoice in the hustle and bustle of the modern industrial world. But there’s nothing especially energetic about Goncharova’s hunch-backed cyclist, contending with cobbles, oblivious to the window displays lining the street. The fractured composition may be a tip of the hat – or in this case a worker’s cap – to cubism, which inspired Goncharova and Larionov to develop their own abstract movement. They called this subgenre of Russian futurism “rayonism” and Larionov published two manifestos to promote it. The style was characterised by sharp rays of light that splintered solid objects. 

 

“Orange Seller” (1916)

Goncharova became fascinated with Spanish art and culture in 1916, when she spent the summer travelling around Spain with the Ballets Russes. She was captivated by the colourful textiles, which reminded her of home, and the figure of the Spanish woman became a hallmark of her work until the late 1930s. Her orange seller is shrouded in patterned fabrics – some painted flatly, others with gentle folds reminiscent of the drapery in classical sculpture. The arched doorway recalls art-deco architecture, as do those highly stylised eyebrows. And who could look at the disjointed composition without thinking of the surrealists? To me it seems that, beneath the tent dress, our orange seller may in fact be three small children standing on each other’s shoulders in a precarious pyramid, the basket of sweet-smelling fruit teetering dangerously on top of one lucky head.

 

“Two female dancers (half-length) Choreography design for Les noces” (c. 1923)

Goncharova’s fame as a costume and set designer grew while she worked for the Ballets Russes in Paris, particularly during Diaghilev’s production of the opera-ballet “Le coq d’or” in 1914. She  later worked on “Les noces”, a ballet about an arranged peasant marriage. Goncharova tried out various versions of the costume design, collaborating with the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska to create outfits that wouldn’t inhibit the dancers’ movement – as she demonstrates in ink and paint on paper here. In the end, she traded colourful garb inspired by Russian folk art for simple brown pinafores worn over cream blouses – not unlike her own outfit in that candid self-portrait with the lilies. 

Natalia Goncharova Tate Modern, London until September 8th