Goncharova -"This Name Had the Ring of Victory"

Irina Vakar

Magazine issue: 
#1 2014 (42)


Natalia Goncharova's exhibition in Moscow in autumn 1913 was vast, with the young artist, who was only 32 at the time, showing more than 750 pieces. But the diversity of her work impressed as much as its quantity: like most of the avant-garde artists, Goncharova was constantly changing her artistic signature, effortlessly moving from one style to another, and never shied away from radical experiments. Critics labeled this trait "eclectic" and "indiscriminate". "Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Larionov's Rayon-ism, some sort of theory from a certain Firsov... Where is the true Natalia Goncharova, where is her artistic self?" 1

There were, however, critics who defended her, among them distinguished figures like Alexandre Benois. Usually rather conservative in his opinions, Benois admitted that he "had experienced much during these two days at Goncharova's exhibition," and had a drastic change of heart about the artist: he "came to believe" her.2 Soon after the publication of Benois's article that was full of unfeigned admiration, Goncharova received Diaghilev's offer to design his production of the opera-ballet "Le Coq d'Or" (The Golden Cockerel), and set off for Paris. It was the beginning of her worldwide renown; Marina Tsvetaeva remembered that, back then, the name Goncharova "had the ring of victory"

Goncharova was the first Russian avant-garde artist to win over the public and gain recognition. Occasionally it became comical, as Diaghilev recalled: "The most famous of these progressive artists is a woman. The young crowd both in Moscow and St. Petersburg bows to her. But the funniest thing is that they don't just emulate her as an artist, they imitate her appearance, too. It was she who made the shirt dress fashionable - black and white, blue and ginger. But that was still nothing. She drew flowers on her face. And soon enough, both the nobility and the bohemians started showing up with horses, houses, and elephants on their cheeks, necks and foreheads. This does not stop her from being an important artist."3

Memories of such times come alive at the major exhibition "Natalia Goncharova. East and West" at the Tretyakov Gallery, which has generated considerable public interest. Even though only half the number of works, compared to 1913, are shown in this centenary year, the breadth of this exhibition was comparable to the legendary one from 100 years ago. Again, Goncharova's art proves unexpected and capable of surprising us; in this case, however, it was not only the dazzling beginning of her career, but her entire long and complicated artistic journey that was presented to the public.

It is the first exhibition of its kind to be held either in Russia or in the West. It is common knowledge that avant-garde art was prohibited in Soviet times. Only once, in 1965, were works by Goncharova and Larionov shown for a few days at the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow as part of a series of discreet, semi-underground exhibitions titled "Illustrators of Mayakovsky's Publications", organized by Nikolai Khardzhiev. In 1968, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow picked up the baton and exhibited Goncharova's early pastels, followed in 1987 by the Serpukhov Museum of Art and History. The Tretyakov Gallery's 1999-2000 exhibition "Mikhail Larionov-Natalia Goncharova. Masterpieces of the Paris Years" was a milestone, showing as it did works that had been bequeathed to the museum by the artists' heiress Alexandra Larionova-Tomilina. Goncharova's oeuvre was represented by 50 canvases, most of them from her Russian period. In 2002 a major exhibition "Natalia Goncharova. The Russian Years" took place at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, a show that made it clear that the Goncharova-Larionov pairing, which survived throughout their long lives, was not essential for current exhibition practices. In fact, it showed a need to "split" the star couple, so that the inimitable works of both artists could shine separately.

At the current Tretyakov Gallery exhibition, the first thing to strike visitors is its atmosphere, its immediate and spontaneous emotional connection, to feel which no special training or prior research is needed. Anyone entering the exhibition hall is instantly affected by the spontaneous and unrestrained joy with which Goncharova painted, whether vigorously and passionately, from life, or drawing from the imagination, "building" and embellishing her compositions. This abundance of motifs, colours and patterns may be perceived simply as a spectacle, a feast for the eye, or a current of energy that flows from the canvases. Goncharova will never bore: the variety of her expression and her decorative creativeness is unsurpassed. Occasionally, it seems that she is intentionally provoking the viewer to exclaim in innocent amazement: Why, could this be Goncharova too? However, the show also suggested a different approach: as viewers analyze and compare works from different periods in Goncharova's career, and move from one section to the next and then back again, they may be able to see that behind the striking "appearance" of Goncharova's works there is a thoughtful, deep and inspired individual.

Many of these works are familiar to art lovers: the permanent exhibition of the Tretyakov Gallery's Krymsky Val building usually has 10 or 15 of Goncharova's paintings on display. However, in Benois' words, "It is exceedingly important to see them all [Goncharova's works] today, once again, as the artist's entire oeuvre."4 Once again we are convinced that Goncharova is a true master of the artistic ensemble, whether painted polyptych, a series of works on the same theme, or works of theatre design that includes both decorations and costumes. This is why in this case it was essential to bring together the parts of whole ensembles, which had been separated for various reasons. Thus, the nine-piece series "Harvest" (1911), based on the themes of the Apocalypse (a work central to Goncharova's art from her Russian period), has "lost" two paintings, while the remaining parts are housed at the Tretyakov Gallery, and museums in Omsk, Kostroma and Paris. They were first reunited at the 1995 exhibition of Larionov and Goncharova at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Today, for the first time in a century, what remains of the series was presented in Russia.

Another important piece is the artist's polyptych "Spanish Women" (1925-1926): it consists of five paintings, one of them in the Tretyakov Gallery, and the four others divided between the Pompidou Centre and the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. In 1928 Marina Tsvetaeva saw this composition in Goncharova's studio and recorded the artist's account of its creation. The first version was painted in 1923-1924; it was fashioned as a folding screen and sold to a private owner in America (it would later enter Sofia Lor-en's collection). The artist was sad to have to part with her work, and"as she was sending her 'Spanish Women' overseas... to console herself Goncharova decided to paint an exact replica to keep. And what of it? 'The tone is different, and some figures are rendered differently.' And think of it, the task was simply to replicate."5 In the space of the Moscow exhibition, "Harvest" and "Spanish Women" emphasize the differences, even the contrasts, between the two stages in Goncharova's evolution as an artist, as they signify the themes of "East" and "West". However, it is a theme that cannot be reduced to simply noting that Goncharova worked in different ways in Russia and in France. The issue of East and West is associated with the early Russian avant-garde movement's search for a national identity, so in discussing it we have to go back to Goncharova's "Russian years", her formative period as an artist.

Natalia Goncharova was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde, and along with Mikhail Larionov she is credited for creating the first Russian avant-garde movement in art, Neo-Primitivism. The movement started when these young Muscovites became acquainted with contemporary French art, a fact that neither would deny. Goncharova wrote: "At the beginning I learned mostly from contemporary French [artists]."6 This knowledge brought results, more than anything, in her treatment of colour: her palette became intense, based on contrasts of supplementary colours; her brushstrokes turned unrestrained and broad. It was the manner of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and it became Goncharova's style, too. In 1908-1910 her still-lifes and landscapes did not imitate the methods of these masters, but were certainly in tune with their discoveries.

Nevertheless, the influence of the French school did not only make Goncharova reinvent her artistic idiom - its effect went much deeper. It is worth returning to Goncharova's own words: "They [the contemporary French artists] opened my eyes to the great importance and value of my country's art, and by extension, of Oriental art as well."7 It is a statement that deserves clarification. The French artists, who had long previously rejected the academic canons and laws of representational realism (the requirement to achieve a likeness to the depicted object), taught their contemporaries to see beauty in non-classical art and make peace with elements of "conditionally" in art, such as "improper" drawing, irregularities of perspective and anatomy, and "unnatural" light. Their young followers discovered the magnificence of world art, from antiquity to the most modern movements, from Egypt, China and Africa to Matisse and Picasso; even further, to the more basic forms of folk art.

During those same years the art world was also deeply impressed by the simultaneous rediscovery of old icons by restorers. Their beauty stunned Henri Matisse, who saw them during his 1911 visit to Moscow. At about the same time Goncharova wrote in her diary: "Cezanne and icons are equivalent, but my works, which I painted under Cezanne's influence and under the influence of the icons, are not the same at all___I am by no means European."8

How did her"non-European" nature express itself? Goncharova was never quite happy with the genre structure of European painting, as it was followed by French artists (with divisions into landscape, portrait, still-life, nude); like many Russians, she was drawn to a narrative, a "story". Unintentionally, Goncharova started to put human figures and scenes of harvesting into her landscapes, and thus a nationally significant theme emerged in her art: peasants, their labours and their beliefs, giving rise in turn to the artist's interest in religious subjects. Simultaneously she was turning from the early avant-garde to national sources of artistic style, in icons, the Russian lubok popular prints, folk decorative art, including signboards, children's toys, painted trays, and the like.

The artists from Larionov's circle considered all phenomena of non-classical art as "Eastern" and contrasted them with the tradition of antiquity, the Renaissance, classicism and the contemporary "realist canon". For Goncharova the "East" included Scythian stone stelae, Biblical characters, and Byzantine mosaics. There is no doubt that one can find traces of various influences in her art. For example, what was the primary influence on her"Apos-tles"? Was is Russian wood sculpture or the Gothic tradition? Durer or El Greco? Whatever the impetus for creating the tetraptych was, it is unquestionably, uniquely "Goncharovian" in its rendition of the Gospels' images, in its visual intensity and monumentalism.

In the spring of 1913 Larionov organized a debate that was titled, very significantly, "The East, Nationality and the West". Soon after that, writing for the catalogue of her solo exhibition, Goncharova declared: "I have absorbed everything that the West has to offer as of now_ my path takes me to the very origin of all art, to the East."9 Goncharova was not meant to take that path. This theme did find its expression in a number of works depicting representatives of various ethnicities (she was working on them while Larionov worked on his "Venuses" series, dedicated to different ideas of beauty among the nations of the world); they included her Jewish cycle, "African Woman", "Chinese Woman", the lost "Indian Woman", "Japanese", and "Persian Woman". These works were wrapping up the era of Neo-Primitivism, but not quite opening up new possibilities. Later on, Kazimir Malevich, who was a member of Larionov's circle, remembered the power of the idea of "The East": "Its influence was strong. But it somehow broke off unexpectedly. The West won ."10

Goncharova reached the same conclusions. Before the Great War she was mostly painting cubist, futurist and rayonist compositions (the last term was Larionov's 1912 invention); she also dabbled with abstraction. The Moscow exhibition combined such works into a separate section that could be titled "the quest for form". Many of the works have never been exhibited in Russia before; drawn from museums in Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam, and from international private collections, some of them are magnificent. The rayonist "Sea" (1913) from the Stedelijk Museum sparkles like tinted crystal; "Portrait of Larionov" (1913), from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, is an amazing combination of stylistic conventionality and personal likeness, while the futuristic/rayonist "The Rowers" (1912, from a London private collection) is charged with energy. It is especially fascinating to see these paintings because there are no rayonist works by Goncharova in any of the Moscow museums, including the Tretyakov Gallery - they were the most popular of her works, and were sold during her lifetime. The same can be said about Futurism. One of Goncharova's most remarkable compositions is "The Letter" (1913, Serpukhov Museum of Art and History). Almost abstract at first glance, it is specific to the point of being naTve: the letters that form the image allow the viewer to literally "read" the painting: "And here in Moscow trees are in bloom now. Yea[r] 1913."

Goncharova's abstract works are not well known in Russia, either, but, along with the famous "Emptiness" (1913), her other experiments in this style were fascinating: "Abstract Landscape" (second half of the 1910s-first half of the 1920s, ABA Gallery, New York), is reminiscent of an extraterrestrial view; "Trees Trunks" and "Composition with Black Spots" and other works (from the 1930s, in the Tretyakov Gallery), graphic abstractions-landscapes with fading outlines; and "Abstract Composition" (second half of the 1910s, private collection, London), which seems to be a cross between Rayonism and Suprematism.

This exhibition poses a special difficulty - the contemporary public is used to viewing avant-garde art as a field of purely formal, non-representational experiments, rational formalistic pursuits, and speculative intellectual games, and it does not seem possible to describe Goncharova's art in these terms. In fact, she thinks in very precise terms, she is bound to things "earthly", and her images are, according to Larionov, "well defined and clear".11 Abstraction was just one of the possibilities open to her, and not the most important one; as a result, most of the exhibition was dedicated to figurative art.

Nevertheless, Goncharova's abstract works cannot be ignored, revealing as they do the essence of her thought-processes, as in her "Emptiness". It is perfectly clear that Goncharova's vision for this painting was different from, for example, Malevich's creative ideas; even Larionov's Rayonism is more conceptual, more rooted in a formalistic find. In "Emptiness", we see something entirely different: a vivid, almost palpable expression of an idea, and a very simple idea at that, one that many of us contemplate: Is there anything beyond the bounds of the material world? Goncharova's imagination is quick to offer a plastic solution: we are looking at thick, coloured fabric, with a split in it that seems to be appearing in front of our eyes. It grows wider and more quivering, and if we were to look inside, the viewer would be able to see "nothingness", another dimension, to see through the looking-glass. It is as if Goncharova is telling us to see it for ourselves, see exactly what it is like.

Having brought her idea to life, Goncharova did not return to it, and did not turn her creation into a new variety of "-ism". Only once in the remaining years of her life would she develop the same theme, in her "Space Series" of 1957-1958. These works display more uniform creative solutions; however, they once again testify to the artist's uncommonly precise original impulse - Goncharova is trying to imagine what outer space looks like, though not as an idea, not as the kind of philosophical concept that had inspired the great minds of the early 20th century, but as a reality that was soon to be within the reach of her contemporaries. It is noteworthy that these compositions are reminiscent of her early drawing "Universe", an illustration to K.A. Bolshakov's poetic book "Le Fu-tur" (Moscow, 1913). In "Universe", however, the abstract rhythms were interrupted by mystical symbols, while in the later "Space Series", those symbols are not to be found in the universe, which is under the attack of technical revolution.

We should return to 1915, when the direction of Goncharo-va's life took a sharp turn: was dreaming about the East, but ended up in the West."12 The exhibition devotes a large section to the works from the artist's Paris years, the time of a truly "unknown Goncharova". There are some large decorative canvases here that are real "discoveries" in the Moscow exhibition, such as the panel "Autumn Evening. (Spanish Women)" (1922-1928, Tret-yakov Gallery), amazing in its gloomy magnificence, and the decorative composition "Woman Selling Oranges" (1916, Museum Lud-wig, Cologne), the stylistic predecessor of Goncharova's "Spanish Women". These are very "Western" paintings, in keeping with the two-dimensional decorative Cubism of the latest variety: they are imaginative, formal and rather cold. It would seem that Goncharova was no longer thinking about "The East", that Russia remained only in her memories and nostalgic dreams, and perhaps also in her ironic representations of the French bourgeoisie ("Breakfast", 1924, Tretyakov Gallery).

In its entirety, however, in the 1920s and 1930s Goncharova's evolution as an artist was always pointing towards new directions, that of classical tradition and the study of nature. There was consistency in this process, and the same was true about artists in France and other countries as well, including Soviet Russia. It would be hard to say that Goncharova was always successful on this path. Her paintings lose their energy and their edge, sometimes even their decorativeness, as can be seen in some of the exhibited works. Most of them were rarely shown, and spent decades stored in the artist's studio, and later in the vaults of the Tret-yakov Gallery. Many viewers may be disappointed by them, even upset. However, we firmly believe that it is important to know fully the oeuvre of any major artist, and for that purpose the works needed to be exhibited.

"Nude in Front of Draperies" (1920) is one example of Goncharova's work that has been negatively received by experts, with its bleak colours, "plasticine"-like shape, "sleek" texture, and cloy-ingly pretty models. This painting is not unique: in the same manner Goncharova executed her "Four Seasons" (a series of panels based on stories from operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsak-ov) for the residence of the conductor Serge Kusevitsky (1922-1923, USA). What did Goncharova's use of such aesthetics mean? After all, she did not paint her "Nude" on commission, so she must have been pursuing some creative goal.

A curious comparison comes to mind. Late in his life, Ma-levich painted studies in a naturalist manner, seeking to grasp the principles of this "method". Could it be that Goncharova also had the need to master art forms that had previously been foreign to her? In that case, was it nothing other than a consistent realization of the vsechestvo (referring to the Russian word that can be best translated as "everything-ism") principle?13

There is also, however, a much simpler explanation. For that, we should consider the influence that Sergei Diaghilev's artistic approach as well as his personality had on both Goncharova and Larionov. For both artists, who had once been considered the most independent and daring rebels, he was the ultimate authority. During that time Diaghilev, to everyone's surprise, turned to classical ballet, with old productions of"The Sleeping Beauty" choreographed by Marius Petipa; the experiment almost bankrupted his company. Goncharova did not take part in this undertaking, but the fact that Diaghilev worshipped Tchaikovsky's music could not have failed to impress her imagination.

At one point Goncharova countered the accusations of her critics that "[modern art] is rejecting beauty and turning to ugliness. I maintain that this opinion drastically narrows down both the meaning of beauty and the meaning of ugliness, as well as the view of art as something... that has nothing to do with life, and lives by its own laws."14 Today, when we reproach Goncharova for the "prettiness" of her work, we may be acting in the same way as such critics, who were ruled by their own tastes. The only difference is that the tastes have changed, but who can guarantee that it is the right criterion anyway?

Another marginal effort is "Bather with a Dog" (from the end of the 1920s-early 1930s). Its strange, intentionally shapeless plasticity must have been inspired by the aesthetics of Surrealism.

A surrealist exhibition that took place in Paris in 1925 was of great interest to Diaghilev, who was keen on all things innovative - he even got Max Ernst and Joan Miro to work for his "Ballets Russes". Here, Goncharova was trying to master a new "-ism"; it looks like she was promptly disappointed in the result.

How should these particular works, and those from her Paris period in general, be considered? It was a question that the Moscow exhibition posed for the first time. Experts have long ago concluded that her best work was done when she was living in Russia; that fact, however, does not negate the need to know, understand, study and evaluate her later creations. The majority of Goncharova's canvases, scattered now all around the world, were created in France. Much is not clear here, including the dating of certain works and the artist's motivation to experiment (or not). Indeed, the main question remains unresolved: living in Europe, did Goncharova remain an avant-garde artist, and if so, up to what point? Was there a commercial dimension to her evolution, did she try to conform to the public's taste, or was it something else that inspired her to seek change?

In 1929 Marina Tsvetaeva contemplated the question: "_ Did Goncharova seek to be an innovator? No, I am convinced that she just wanted to be herself... The desire to create something 'new' (which tomorrow will be 'old') is akin to the desire to be famous... which means being involved in yourself, and not your creation."15 One may agree with these words, even if with some reservations. It is indisputable that Goncharova did not suffer from the "pioneer complex", nor was she obsessed with being a visionary; she was perfectly comfortable moving from the "avant-garde" to the "rearguard" and back. It was important for her to stay connected to artistic evolution, to feel its heartbeat, and in that respect she was no different from other avant-garde artists. I would go further: in my opinion, Goncharova needed to be guided by someone, someone who was strong and knew the way, someone who could lead; that was why she always needed to be inextricably spiritually connected to Larionov. In this respect, and in many other ways, she was not really an "Amazon", like Popova, Rozanova, and Exter...

Nevertheless, Goncharova's path, even when compared to that of Larionov, was absolutely unique, with its sharp turns, digressions and tough curves; Picasso may have been the only artist to outrank her in this respect. She was able to live up to the principle she had declared in 1913: "Establish no boundaries or limits for oneself in the sense of artistic pursuits. Always use all modern achievements and breakthroughs in art."16 She was a rare example of an artist who had no particular area of expertise, who was not constrained by any genre, style, or other such preferences. Not only in the 19th century, when historical painters, portrait painters and landscape painters belonged to closed communities, but also in the 20th century as well, artists, as a rule, chose a certain style, image, an "-ism", a range of themes, techniques and styles. Even that ultimate anarchist, Salvador Dali, who started as a true "everything-ist", did not allow himself to step out of his "image" at the height of his worldwide fame.

Goncharova chose an opposite model for her development as an artist. She did not know the fear of "cheapening" or "losing" herself, of betraying who she was. Such inner freedom and courage are clearly rooted in the avant-garde.

Goncharova's heritage is enormous. She worked in a multitude of fields; in Tsvetaeva's words, "All themes, all sizes, all artistic methods."17 The current Tretyakov Gallery exhibition proves a necessary stage in studying the oeuvre of this master of painting, graphics, and stage design; the next stage is bound to bring even more revelations. We would like to think that this exhibition has contributed to piecing together a complete picture of who Natalia Goncharova really was, with all her charm, both as an individual, and as an artist.

  1. Y.A. Tugenhold, "Exhibition of Natalia Goncharova's Paintings (Letter from Moscow)". 1913. Quote from:"Natalia Goncharova. The Russian Years. Exhibition Catalogue". St. Petersburg, Palace Editions, 2002, p. 292.
  2. A.N. Benois,"From an Artist's Diary". 1913. Quote from: "Goncharova. The Russian Years", p. 294.
  3. M.I. Tsvetaeva, Natalia Goncharova (Life and Art) //"Contemporaries Remember Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov". Compiled by G.F. Kovalenko. Moscow, Galart, 1995, p. 64.
  4. A.N. Benois,"From an Artist's Diary". 1913. Quote from: "Goncharova. The Russian Years", p. 294.
  5. M.I. Tsvetaeva, p. 75.
  6. N.S. Goncharova, 'Foreword to the Catalogue of Paintings by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. 1900-1913'. Quote from: "Goncharova. The Russian Years", p. 291.
  7. Ibid.
  8. N.S. Goncharova,'Album (1911?)' //"Amazons of Avant-Garde. Exhibition Catalogue", New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2000, p. 309.
  9. N.S. Goncharova, 'Foreword to the Catalogue of Paintings by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. 1900-1913'. Quote from: "Goncharova. The Russian Years", p. 291.
  10. "Malevich About Himself. Contemporaries about Malevich. (Letters. Documents. Memoirs. Reviews)", 2 vols. Compiled by: I.A. Vakar, T.N. Mikhienko. Moscow, RA, v. 2, p. 361.
  11. Quoted from:"Mikhail Larionov-Natalia Goncharova. Masterpieces from the Paris Period. Paintings". Exhibition Catalogue. Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery, RA, 1999, p. 182. Publisher: O.L. Zabitskaya.
  12. Tsvetaeva, p. 71.
  13. Vsechestvo, "everything-ism" in Russian, is a concept of stylistic plurality, which was defined by Ilia Zdanevich in 1913, with Natalia Goncharova's art as an example.
  14. N.S. Goncharova, Letter to Editor of"Russkoye Slovo" (Russian Word). 1912, "Amazons of Russian Avant-Garde", p. 313.
  15. Tsvetaeva, p. 78-79.
  16. N.S. Goncharova,'Foreword to the Catalogue of Paintings by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. 1900-1913'. Quote from: "Goncharova. The Russian Years", p. 291.
  17. Tsvetaeva, p. 95.





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