“Of Course, You and I Are Sisters...” NATALIA GONCHAROVA AND MARINA TSVETAEVA - THE HIDDEN WORLD OF GONCHAROVA’S POETRY

Maria Valova

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#2 2018 (59)

“Take Goncharova - she’s never written poetry, she’s never lived poetry, but she understands because she looks and she sees,” the poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in 1929, describing Natalia Goncharova’s perceptive appreciation of her poem “To the Herald”.[1] Even though they remained in constant contact in the years 1928-1932, Tsvetaeva was not aware that her artist friend did indeed try her hand at poetry. No doubt she would have found that overlap of brush and the written word intriguing. Today, four complete notebooks and numerous separate handwritten poems are extant,[2] and they make it clear that Goncharova used poetry as a private diary and a means of sketching fleeting impressions. It was also a mode of reflection, a way of searching for a symbol, a colour, or an atmosphere. (Sometimes Goncharova even switched into French to achieve the right tone.) Most of her poems were not dated, with the exception of those written in April and May of 1957, the year when the 76-year-old Goncharova mentioned the idea of publishing her verse in a letter to Orest Rozenfeld, although with little faith in the viability of the project: “Apart from that, there is also something I did for myself, a collection of poems that I am sure will never appear in print.”[3]

Goncharova's poetry, while familiar to scholars, has never been examined in its entirety or in relation to her work as an artist. In this context, Goncharova's connection to Tsvetaeva - they were friends, collaborators and kindred artistic spirits - takes on extra significance. In 1932, in an attempt to capture her impressions of Goncharova, Tsvetaeva wrote an essay titled “Natalia Goncharova - Life and Art". The poet called her essay “an attempt at the biography of an artist's soul".[4] All the facts of Goncharova's life were drawn directly from Tsvetaeva's conversations with her, and the poet used them to create a first-hand appreciation of the artist's world. Tsvetaeva wrote: “I cherish Goncharova because she does not realize her value - either as a person or as an artist. So for me, she is like nature, and I am the artist painting from nature."[5] Putting together these “real-life" impressions, we can see Tsvetaeva's understanding of Goncharova's nature as an artist as a fusion of painting and poetry. From this perspective, Goncharova's verse is clearly an addendum to her art, particularly as her poetry can most fairly be described as “amateur".

Natalia Goncharova's poetry can be roughly divided into several groups: love poems, poems about Russia, poems about the destiny and vocation of the artist, and a series of poems dedicated to nature and the place of man and machine within it. The sea is also a separate motif, and there are a large number of poems about death and immortality, God and the human soul, most of the last written late in the artist's life, dated 1957.

Images of the sea and the seaside permeate Tsvetaeva's essay. Even her first impression from Rue Visconti, the street in Paris where Goncharova rented her studio, was associated with the sea: “The smell of the sea. No, the breeze coming from the sea - we add the scent ourselves."[6] Goncharova's studio, in Tsvetaeva's imagination, was a ship's cabin, and the wind beyond the window blew from the sea. In her poems, Goncharova also associated Paris with the sea:

Today, Paris is a seaside town.
The breeze carries a salty smell
At the end of the boulevard, perhaps there are masts.
I wish I could go to the shore, look at the seagulls,
Listen to the waves.
The wind brings my dreams from afar,
And it is better to trust than to verify.[7]

“‘The theme of the sea - no, not merely the sea, I think, but the light, the colour, and that purity...' That's what Goncharova took from the sea."[8] Thus Tsvetaeva recorded the artist's words. Maritime themes do indeed appear in Goncharova's paintings, but not frequently (as in “The Sea. A Rayonist Composition", 1912-1913, or “Rock on the Seashore", early 1920s, among others.) In her verse however, Gonchareva had recourse to this theme more often and it could also be said that the sea - its light, colour, and purity - often seeps through from behind other subjects in her poems and paintings alike. The sea was not a separate theme but rather a leitmotif that brought together all other themes and revealed the artist's true nature. The sea has different images, appearing as a symbol of both life and death:

The sea with its crashing waves
Is a cold symbol of life.
Build and build up,
Build and build out,
Rebuild.
It’s there, it’s gone.
Gone as if it never was...[9]

Often, images of the sea appeared in Goncharova's love poems as a symbol of hope and despair, the joy of being together and the pain of separation:

At the shore the sea roars without a breeze.
At the shore the foam boils.
It must be tears, tears for those
Who are far out at sea,
For those who will never be returning,

Foam made of the tears of brides
Forever forgotten, abandoned to song.[10]

For Goncharova, the sea also spoke of life in exile, of longing for her native land, Russia:

The blue of the sea and the mountains fatigues,
The sun swelter on the sand is blinding,
The waves roar in foreign tongues,
The chirp of cicadas sedates.
How I wish I could fall asleep peacefully
And wake up in a birch grove."

Having departed from Russia for good with Mikhail Larionov in 1915, leaving her parents and brother behind, Goncharova returns time and again to the country in her verse:

My country, where I left all who were mine,
And where I shall not return, even when dead.
My spirit in a foreign land Is always, wherever I am, with you,
At your feet I lay all my gifts.[12]

A significant part of Goncharova's painting is devoted to her “peasant cycle", to the life of the Russian countryside, a life of work from season to season. Goncharova felt and expressed her deep sense of belonging to that world. In Tsvetaeva's words, she was “a country girl": “When I call her a country girl, I naturally include the life of the gentry, too - all that boundless outpouring of spring, yearning, ploughed fields, rivers, and working the land [...]. Country here is not a social class, but a way of life."[13] Goncharova was “clearly a nomad, clearly a peasant."[14]

Goncharova expressed a similar sentiment in her poems:

I did not build a home for myself in foreign lands.
A nomad, I come to my tent.
A nomad, I fold my narrow bed.[15]

When Goncharova moved abroad, the images of Russia, which previously shaped her “peasant" and “religious" paintings of the early 1910s, found their way into her work for the theatre, specifically her stage and costume designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with productions such as Rimsky-Korsakov's “The Golden Cockerel" (1914) and Stravinsky's “Les Noces" (1923) among others. In both her designs for the theatre and her poetry, Russia for Goncharova is folklore, rural life, labour, and religious festivals and rites.

Tsvetaeva divided her subject's life into two parts: “before Russia" and “after Russia". Goncharova saw the split through the images of “Mother Russia" and “Stepmother Europe".

In another country my whole life goes by,
And my stepmother is beautiful and wise.
Still, my mother’s grey hair,
And her wild, stern gaze

To me are sweeter than a stranger’s lovely face.[16]

Natalia GONCHAROVA. Early Spring. Triptych. 1908
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Early Spring. Triptych. 1908
Oil on canvas mounted on wood. 110 × 223.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

Any sign or spark of life attracted Goncharova. Nature as an integrated, living, unending and recurring cycle was at the centre of her art. “Plants - that's what I inevitably come back to when I think about Goncharova. [...] A bush, a branch, a stem, a shoot, a leaf - these are Goncharova's political, ethical and aesthetic arguments. A plant herself, she does not love individual plants, she loves herself in them. No, not actually herself, but what's hers," Tsvetaeva wrote about the artist's love for the living world.[17] Goncharova's nature poems reflect eternal cycles. Spring and autumn were the seasons that particularly attracted her, both as an artist and as a poet. Tsvetaeva made note of the artist's preference: “In fact, what did Goncharova paint in Russia? Spring, spring, spring, spring, spring. Autumn, autumn, autumn, autumn, summer, summer, winter. Why doesn't Goncharova love winter? Actually, why does she love it less than the rest of the seasons? Simply because there are no flowers in the winter, nor is there work for the peasant."[18] The artist sees winter as a time when life stands still:

Shall I curl up
And sleep under a fur coat?
Two chairs and a table, and a simple bed of planks.
The ceiling hangs like a winter sky.
Everything clings to the winter earth.[19]

Human life unfolds against the backdrop of this perpetual motion. Having so cleverly mastered nature, building machines and factories, man lives by his own rules. A life of work controlled by machines is meaningless in comparison with the peasant life dear to Goncharova:

Work and work, like yesterday,
Work and work, as always.
Inescapable basement work.
From childhood tears
To the very last breath
It takes everything...[20]

In her paintings, Goncharova also took on the theme of the machine: engines, factories, and urban life. In a way, she was attracted to the subject: “Biplane Flying over Train" (1913) or “A City. Composition in Black and Yellow" (1950s). Here is Tsvetaeva's comment: “Goncharova feels affinity towards nature, while her attitude to the machine world (alienation, disgust, fascination, fear) is more like the ‘opposites attract' kind of love."[21] It attracts her as a phenomenon, as a different kind of life.

A significant part of Goncharova's poetry is dedicated to contemplating her own destiny. Quite often, the artist likened her vocation to the calling of a poet. Here is how Tsvetaeva compared her life to Goncharova's: “Favourable conditions? There is no such thing for an artist. Life itself is an unfavourable condition. All art [...] consists of suppressing, grinding, and shattering life, even the happiest life."[22] Goncharova speaks of the challenging path that an artist/poet takes in her poem “I carry what the Lord gave me":

Yet shutters and doors are closed,
Your ears cannot hear,
Eyes cannot see.
Frost shimmers in my hair.
The centuries will tell you
That you are destitute, scorned.
You have neglected God’s gift.[23]

In Goncharova's art, a poet is chosen by God, bringing truth to the world beneath his rags. A poet is “the spirit of the Creator."[24]

Yet like blue lightning
His burning gaze Flashed
Between his curved lashes.
And his hands were small,
And his fingers thin and lithe,
Face and hands dark.
A face from an icon.[25]

Tsvetaeva's first impression from meeting Goncharova sounds similar: “Goncharova's physical appearance. First: courage, strength. An abbess. [...] Straight features, straight gaze, [...] gravity in her entire persona."[26]

When Goncharova contemplated her calling, she saw destiny, God's will:
All lines, straight and curved, are fixed,
As is the angle of the incline.
Their placement on the scroll Is fixed by life itself
And my weak will.[27]

It is not only abstract ideas that can be found in Goncharova's verse, but also very real poets. She responded to the tragic death of Vladimir Mayakovsky,[28] and in another poem it seems she is speaking to Tsvetaeva:

Of course, you and I are sisters,
Not by father and not by mother,
But by the white poplar,
The shadow that fell
Morning and evening
On your yard and mine,
By the vagrant wind...
That scattered leaves
Autumn yellow
Over my yard and yours,
By the yellow gleam
In grey and brown eyes,
By the clear rhythm
In brushstrokes and words.[29]

As she wrote her essay, Tsvetaeva found more and more hidden connections to Goncharova: her beloved Pushkin and the Goncharov family;[30] the shared intensity at the core of being an artist; Trekhprudny Lane, the small Moscow street where both of them had lived in Russia. Perhaps that was the site of the “yard" in Goncharova's poem cited above.

Goncharova's love poems are marked by the dramas she experienced. Her life was inextricably connected with the life of Mikhail Larionov. Notwithstanding the ups and downs of their love and personal relationship, the two artist spent their entire professional life together, from 1901, when they first met, to 1962, when Goncharova passed away. “It is impossible to talk about Goncharova without talking about Larionov," wrote Tsvetaeva, and went on to quote Goncharova's own words: “Larionov is my artistic conscience, my tuning fork. [...] We are very different, and he sees me from my perspective, not from his. And I do the same for him."[31] Goncharova's nostalgic poem “Geography" is a remembrance of the artists' life in Paris:

This morning I made the rounds
Of the places we used to go.
Here’s the cafe where we went
To share our modest breakfast.
Here is the bench on the boulevard,
Where I waited for you so often.
Little things, but not forgotten,
Little things, but how it hurts –
My eyes are filled with tears.[32]

Love in Goncharova's poetry takes on the tragic quality of unrequited passion, if not betrayal. It is inextricably linked to self-sacrifice.

You won’t scare me with betrayal,
I know that love and betrayal are inseparable,
Betrayal follows passion,
As night follows day.[33]

Earthly love is spring blossoming, always followed by autumn, and the sense of the soul's loneliness, the loneliness each of us feels in the face of eternity:

No point in saying those words
When the soul is forever alone.[34]

Goncharova juxtaposes human love with heavenly love, the love of God. Without God, a person is truly alone.

Thoughts of God, eternity, death and immortality are intrinsic to Goncharova's art. The first time Tsvetaeva was introduced to Goncharova was indirectly, through her illustrations to Tikhon Churilin's book of poems “Spring After Death", published in 1915. “The main motif of the book was resurrection and recent death. [...] What prompted Goncharova, so young at the time, to look into this abyss?"[35] These themes had one of the central roles in Goncharova's art in the early 1910s. In 1910 and 1911, she painted many works on religious themes, including icons with images of saints, the Evangelists, archangels, the Virgin Mary, and the Trinity. Goncharova's series “Reaping" (1911) is devoted to the subject of the Apocalypse. In her later works of the 1950s, these themes would evolve to become a contemplation of eternity and the mechanisms of creation in her abstract compositions of the universe and space.

Space has no boundaries
And time no beginning or end,
Like dust in the ray of light,
Making its way through the shutters,
Worlds float by
Yet beyond the ray of light
Myriad dust specks spin,

And somewhere in endless space
Planets float
In the icy darkness.[36]

Tsvetaeva describes this aspect of the artist thus: “Goncharova answers death with death, with rejection. [...] Death (a dead body) is not her subject. Her subject - always and in everything - is resurrection, and life. [...] Goncharova - everything about her - is the living affirmation of life."[37]

I know a different truth,
That after death
The soul enters
An invisible world.
Oh, wide-open wings,
Oh, the yearning of a lonely soul.[38]

In her verse Goncharova conveys all the transience of earthly life, comparing it to the cycles of nature, and often employing images of spring and autumn:

For all of us, there are in store
Autumn leaves.

They are still green.
Birds make their nests in them.
But inescapable autumn
Is born with the first foliage,

The first spring shoot,
The first spring flower.[39]

Goncharova's later poems, those dated April-May 1957, were steeped with the premonition of her own death:

How tired I feel today,
How very tired...
Just waiting to get into bed.

Perhaps soon now I’ll be this tired Before the final sleep of all.[40]

In 1957, five years before she passed away, Goncharova wrote her “poetic will" (“My beloved friends, I beg you."):

My friends, do not visit my grave.
You will often encounter my spirit in life,
And my grave is far.
A long way to go, and with sad thoughts.[41]

Natalia Goncharova's poetry, unlike Tsvetaeva's verse, cannot really be rated as of any great quality. Nevertheless, Goncharova loved poetry all her life, as evidenced by her tireless interest in the work of poets of her generation such as Tsvetaeva, Konstantin Balmont, Tikhon Churilin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. She also loved Pushkin's verse. Her interest in poetry also manifested itself in her illustrations for collections of verse and individual poems: “Spring After Death" by Churilin, “The Swain" (Le Gars) by Tsvetaeva, “The Tale of Tsar Saltan" by Pushkin, and “Clear Shadows. Images" by Mikhail Tsetlin among them. Goncharova's own poetry may be considered an interesting footnote to her work as an artist. In it can be seen the development of her major themes and the evolution of her imagery. This is especially true regarding the themes of nature, religion, and philosophy, as well as her memories of Russia. However, for Goncharova the purpose of writing poetry was her inner desire to give voice to her feelings, to confess. Her poems were above all the expression of her inner world, her personal and romantic life.

“Goncharova [...] has never lived poetry, but she understands." In these words we can feel the artistic kinship between Tsvetaeva, the poet, and Goncharova, the painter. Both were iconic figures in Russian culture in the first half of the 20th century. Each treasured the other's talent and work. Tsvetaeva gave us a biography of the painter's soul and underlined the essential elements of her art. The poet's appraisal of the artist, in combination with the artist's self-appraisal in her own poems, helps us take a fresh look at the oeuvre of this Amazon of the Russian avant-garde.

 

  1. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 52. Herineafter - TG.
  2. These poems are housed at the Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. N.S. Goncharova, M.F. Larionov.
  3. TG. F. 180. Item 850. P. 2.
  4. TG. F. 180. Item 1814. P. 1.
  5. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 60.
  6. Ibid. P. 3.
  7. TG. F. 180. Item 251. P. 44.
  8. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 66.
  9. TG. F. 180. Item 232. P. 16.
  10. Ibid. P. 7.
  11. Ibid. Pp. 17-18.
  12. Ibid. P. 10.
  13. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 59.
  14. Ibid.
  15. TG. F. 180. Item 232. P. 62.
  16. Ibid. Pp. 10-11.
  17. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. Pp. 74-75.
  18. Ibid. Pp. 60-61.
  19. TG. F. 180. Item 259. Pp. 4-5.
  20. Ibid. P. 27.
  21. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 94.
  22. Ibid. P. 24.
  23. TG. F. 180. Item 251. Pp. 3-4.
  24. Ibid. P. 21.
  25. TG. F. 180. Item 261. P. 1.
  26. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 17.
  27. TG. F. 180. Item 232. Pp. 36-37.
  28. TG. F. 180. Item 259. P. 33.
  29. TG. F. 180. Item 232. P. 48.
  30. Alexander Pushkin’s wife Natalia Goncharova (1812-1863) came from the same Goncharov family as the artist Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova.
  31. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 81.
  32. TG. F. 180. Item 257. P. 1.
  33. TG. F. 180. Item 229. P. 4.
  34. TG. F. 180. Item 232. P. 49.
  35. TG. F. 180. Item 9133. Pp. 16-17.
  36. TG. F. 180. Item 232. Pp. 27-28.
  37. Ibid. P. 74.
  38. TG. F. 180. Item 259. P. 21-22.
  39. TG. F. 180. Item 232. P. 54.
  40. TG. F. 180. Item 259. P. 32.
  41. TG. F. 180. Item 262. P. 1, 1 reverse.

Illustrations

Natalia GONCHAROVA. Self-portrait with Yellow Lilies. 1907
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Self-portrait with Yellow Lilies. 1907
Oil on canvas. 77 × 58.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Abstract Composition (Arc). 1958
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Abstract Composition (Arc). 1958
Oil on canvas. 53 × 46 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Marina Tsvetaeva. Photograph. 1930. Saint-Laurent
Marina Tsvetaeva. Photograph. 1930. Saint-Laurent
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. F. 1190. File 2. Item 232. P. 1
Goncharova's poem “Of course, you and I are sisters…”
Goncharova's poem “Of course, you and I are sisters…”
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 232. P. 48
Natalia Goncharova at her studio on Rue Visconti. Photograph. Late 1920s-1930s, Paris
Natalia Goncharova at her studio on Rue Visconti. Photograph. Late 1920s-1930s, Paris
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 12005. P. 1
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Rock at the Seashore. Early 1920s
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Rock at the Seashore. Early 1920s
Oil on canvas. 93.5 × 66.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Natalia Goncharova. Photograph. 1930s-1940s
Natalia Goncharova. Photograph. 1930s-1940s
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 12007. P. 1
Natalia Goncharova at her studio with the polyptych 'Spanish Women' and the painting 'Two Spanish Women'. Photograph. [Mid-1920s-1930s]
Natalia Goncharova at her studio with the polyptych "Spanish Women" and the painting "Two Spanish Women". Photograph. [Mid-1920s-1930s]
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 12001. P. 1
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Stage Design for Act 3 of “Le Coq d’Or” (The Golden Cockerel). Opera-ballet by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, choreography by Mikhail (Michel) Fokine
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Stage Design for Act 3 of “Le Coq d’Or” (The Golden Cockerel). Opera-ballet by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, choreography by Mikhail (Michel) Fokine
The Paris premiere took place on May 21 1914 at the Grand Opéra. Carton, graphite pencil, watercolour, cut-outs, whitewash. 66.1 × 99.9 cm. Bakhrushin Theatre Museum
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Biplane Flying over Train. 1913
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Biplane Flying over Train. 1913
Oil on canvas. 55.7 × 83.8 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Tatarstan
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Peasant Woman from Tula Province. 1910
Natalia GONCHAROVA. Peasant Woman from Tula Province. 1910
Oil on canvas. 102 × 73 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Goncharova's poem 'I did not build a home for myself in foreign lands...'
Goncharova's poem "I did not build a home for myself in foreign lands..."
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. File 2. Item 232. P. 62
Natalia Goncharova at her studio. Photograph. 1920s-1930s, Paris
Natalia Goncharova at her studio. Photograph. 1920s-1930s, Paris
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 12006. P. 1
Natalia Goncharova's poem 'To me, it was a strangers' land...'
Natalia Goncharova's poem "To me, it was a strangers' land..."
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 255. P. 1
Marina Tsvetaeva's poem 'To Natalia Goncharova' with dedication to Natalia Goncharova. 31.12.1928
Marina Tsvetaeva's poem "To Natalia Goncharova" with dedication to Natalia Goncharova. 31.12.1928
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 1814. P. 2 - 2 reverse
Title page of Marina Tsvetaeva's manuscript about Natalia Goncharova. Last page of Marina Tsvetaeva's manuscript about Natalia Goncharova. 1929
Title page of Marina Tsvetaeva's manuscript about Natalia Goncharova. 1929
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 1
Last page of Marina Tsvetaeva's manuscript about Natalia Goncharova. 1929
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 9133. P. 103
Marina Tsvetaeva. Photograph. 1930. Saint-Laurent
Marina Tsvetaeva. Photograph. 1930. Saint-Laurent
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. F. 1190. File 2. Item 232. P. 7
Goncharova's poetic will 'My beloved friends, I beg you…'. 1957
Goncharova's poetic will "My beloved friends, I beg you…”. 1957
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 262. P. 1
Natalia Goncharova's poem 'To Mayakovsky'. [First half of the 1930s]
Natalia Goncharova's poem "To Mayakovsky". [First half of the 1930s]
Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 180. Item 259. P. 33
Natalia GONCHAROVA. The Elder with Seven Stars (Apocaiypse). 1910
Natalia GONCHAROVA. The Elder with Seven Stars (Apocaiypse). 1910
Oil on canvas. 147 × 188.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

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