In my blog today I want to look at the life of the avant-garde Russian painter, stage designer and printmaker, Natal’ya (Sergeevna) Goncharova. Natalia was born in Russia on her father’s estate in the Tula governate in June 1881. She was the daughter of Sergey Mikhaylovich Goncharov, a renowned architect and mathematician, and her mother was Yekaterina Il’icha Belyayeva. However, in her early infant days she grew up in her grandmother’s home at Ladyzhino, near Kaluga. When she was ten years old, the family moved to Moscow and she attended the Fourth Gymnasium for Girls in Moscow and in 1898, when she was seventeen years old she decided to study sculpture and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a sculpture student where her tutor was Paolo Troubetskoy. It was at this establishment in 1900 that she met and became friends with fellow student, Mikhail Larionov. He had enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the same time as Goncharova, studying painting under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov. Larionov was a student with very contentious and provocative views and was suspended from the academy on three occasions for his deep-seated opinions. He and Goncharova became lifelong friends and he was to have a great influence on her. It was Larionov who persuaded Goncharova to switch from studying sculpture to concentrate on studying painting.
Goncharova’s early work concentrated on the medium of pastels and her first works were showcased at the Diaghilev’s Russian Art Exhibition, which was held in Paris in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne and a year later her first paintings were shown at the Moskovskoye Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov (Moscow Association of Artists) of which she was a member. At this time, her friend Larionov’s painting style was that of Impressionism and Natalya, for a time, also became interested in the style which had become so popular in France. In 1908 she took part in the Golden Fleece exhibition and it was during this show that she became more aware of a modern style of art with the works of Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec. The influence of these painters made Goncharova rethink her artistic style.
In 1909 she completed a work of art, which highlighted her much-loved topic that of Russian peasants hard at work on the land. The painting, which is currently housed at the Tate Liverpool, is entitled Gardening. It is a painting, which is typical of her depictions of peasant life and was made around the time of her stay on a family estate in rural Russia. Of this style of painting and her patriotism, she explained:
‘…If I extol the art of my country, then it is because I think that it … should occupy a more honourable place than it has done hitherto…”
In the painting we immediately sense her love for colour and her depiction of the peasants is a somewhat stylistic portrayal. The display caption at the Tate describes the way she has portrayed the subjects shown in the paintings as:
“…Her statuesque peasants, with their thickset bodies and massive limbs, are imbued with a heroic grandeur…”
Her subsequent works were so colourful that they were likened to the work of the Fauves, which was an avant-garde movement that thrived in France during the first decade of the twentieth century, led by the likes of Matisse and Derain, these artists were the first to split from the Impressionism.
In 1910, Goncharova became one of the founder members of the Jack of Diamonds group, sometimes referred to as Knave of Diamonds. This group of painters was deemed to be the first group of Russian avant-garde artists and it was Mikhail Larionov who came up with the group’s name. This collection of painters came from both Moscow and nearby provinces and most of them, including Goncharova, had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. They were all influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse. Once again we see a group of artists coming together with the common idea that they would discard the links with traditional art, and discard the knowledge that they were taught at their alma mater. For them, it was all about change and new artistic ideas. Goncharova exhibited a number of her works in the group’s first exhibition in December 1910. Their art was not loved by everybody, in fact it horrified some. The influential Russian artist, art critic, historian criticised the group of young artists for having gone too far in overthrowing accepted artistic ideals. Many other critics and members of the public declared that many of the works of art shown at the exhibition were in bad taste, gauche and lacked artistic elegance and some were even criticised as being too violent.
She exhibited another example of her Primitivist style art at the 1912 Jack of Diamond exhibition. It had been completed a couple of years earlier and was entitled Fishing. Again the style is similar to her painting Gardening and is part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and is housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
Another one of the paintings which Goncharova exhibited was entitled The Evangelists and this was among her first mature works devoted to a religious subject. In her 1962 book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, art historian, Camilla Gray, the daughter-in-law of Sergei Prokoviev, wrote:
“...The depiction is typical of Russian iconic paintings and so is a combination of old and new influences in Russian art. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of these four paintings is their effective use of color, line, and composition to create a strong rhythmic whole. Goncharova manipulates these elements with such understanding and perception that when one looks at the four authors of the Gospels there are no distractions and no weak points — only strength and security in a modern interpretation of tradition and native style. Both line and color become here “expressive entities in their own right” and convey the sense of calm spirituality and wisdom treasured by icon painters. However, what the Neo-primitivists of Goncharova’s time might have treasured most was an almost childish “directness and simplicity” characteristic of folk art which they tried to imitate in their works. Today, the four paintings of the Evangelists may be admired for many reasons, and regardless of the basis for the viewer’s appreciation, they definitely are an integral part of the Russian avant-garde movement…”
This religious work by Goncharova was heavily criticised for its primitive depiction and the critics believed no religious work should be associated with a group known as The Donkey’s Tail as it was bordering on blasphemy and so it was removed from the exhibition.
Natalia Gonchorova produced a series of paintings in 1911 that became known as the Peacocks. They were highly colourful and were influenced by Larionov and his new style of work at the time which was termed Rayonism or Luchism (luch being the Russian word for “ray”) which was a type of abstract or semi-abstract painting. The Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, and to break the barriers between the artist and the public. They derived the name from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting colour, representing lines of reflected light — crossing of reflected rays from various objects. .The painting seen above is an example of this and is entitled Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) which can be found in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow. The museum’s description of the work states:
“…The works in question combine the laws of Ancient Egyptian art and traditions of Russian folk art. The figure of peacock is transformed into an expressive sign. The bird’s chiselled head and elegant neck are shown in profile, whereas the magnificent tail is spread in front, as prescribed by Ancient Egyptian art. Between them is a green oval providing a background for the neck, head and body. The peacock seems to be examining its own tail in surprise, the tail resembling a grand architectural structure. It resembles at the same time the Coliseum, an arched iconostasis, a rainbow and palette. Unlike the artists of Art Nouveau, who associated peacock feathers with elegant luxury, Goncharova interprets this motif as primordial power, expressed in colours. The image of peacock seems to embody the ancient symbol of immortality…”
All was not well within the Jack of Diamond group as a rigorous debate took place between, on one side, David Burliuk, who was a fervent supporter and strongly supportive of Western art, and on the other side, Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, who favoured Russian themes. The two parties could not agree a compromise and so the Russian artists split into two camps. In the one corner was David Burliuk with his supporters, such as Alexi von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, who favoured the art which was influenced by Western painters. In the other corner was the more traditional camp, including Goncharova and Larionov, who believed that a modern Russian art should address the question of national artistic traditions and therefore they disassociated themselves from the Jack of Diamonds on the grounds that Burliuk was a “decadent Munich follower” while the others, known as Cézanne-ists, were conservative and eclectic..
A year later in 1911 the more radical artists in the group, including Goncharova and Larionov, broke away and formed a new artist’s group which Larionov launched as Osliny khvost (the Donkey’s Tail), in order to promote avant-garde art inspired exclusively by Russian themes. The name, The Donkey’s Tail, derived from a famous Parisian hoax in which the art critic, Roland Dorgelès and Fréderic Gérard, proprietor of the Montmartre café, Le Lapin Agile, had painted a lurid red and blue seascape by tying a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail. The work was exhibited as Sunset Over the Adriatic under the name of Joachim Raphale Baronali at the Salon des Indépendants of 1910 apparently without comment.
That year, Ilya Repin recounted the incident of the donkey’s tail in his review of Izdebsky’s International Exhibition and used the term as a critical epithet for the modernist work on show. Shortly afterwards, the Russian press satirized the Knave of Diamonds exhibition by publishing a cartoon of a donkey painting with its tail, with the cynical caption:
“…Off home already after looking round just one hall. Don’t be shy. Get your sixty kopeks worth and next year come again. Then we will change the name and under the sign of ‘the Donkey’s Tail’ we will show you the way we paint our pictures...”
In adopting this name for his group, Larionov beat the critics with their own stick. Other artists to join the group were Marc Chagal and Kazimir Malevich. The group, however, was only short-lived, disbanding at the end of 1912 having only managing to stage one exhibition in the March of 1912. Goncharova submitted over fifty works of art to this exhibition.
Goncharova continued with her Rayonist works of art but unlike her friend Larionov her paintings depicted distinguishable objects or people, whereas Larionov’s paintings became more pure abstract. One of her most famous works of that period was one entitled The Cyclist in which her depiction cleverly captures the energy of the man on his bike as he passes by. The blurred background adds to the sense of speed and movement.
Goncharova and Larionov were fervent believers of Rayonism, so much so they issued a joint manifesto in 1913 of what Rayonism meant to them. The manifesto entitled Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifesto, began with:
“…We, rayonists and futurists, do not wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about modern Western art. We leave the old art to die and leave the “new” art to do battle with it; and incidentally, apart from a battle and a very easy one, the “new” art cannot advance anything of its own. It is useful to put manure on barren ground, but this dirty work does not interest us. People shout about enemies closing in on them, but in fact, these enemies are, in any case, their closest friends. Their argument with old art long since departed is nothing but a resurrection of the dead, a boring, decadent love of paltriness and a stupid desire to march at the head of contemporary, philistine interests. We are not declaring any war, for where can we find an opponent our equal? The future is behind us. All the same we will crush in our advance all those who undermine us and all those who stand aside. We don’t need popularization—our art will, in any case, take its full place in life—that’s a matter of time……..”
The American art historian, Camilla Gray, in her book gave her definition of Rayonism as:
“…[as an art style which] encompasses all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture…”
Larionov and Goncharova started to believe that light was the indispensable source of our sensory appreciation of the world and believed that for any object to be observed it had to be lit up and the Rayonist style was to incorporate rays of light that then allows us to view a particular scene. Their manifesto explained:
“…In fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision…”
In March 1913 Goncharova’s friend Larionov organised an exhibition entitled Mishen (Target) to introduce the Donkey’s Tail group of painters to the Moscow art critics and public. One of the paintings Goncharova exhibited at the show was entitled La Forêt (The Forest) which is now part of the National Gallery of Scotland collection. Although this is looked upon as an example of Goncharova’s Rayonist style with its coloured rays shooting out in different directions, it offers up the thought that Goncharova was more influenced by the Cubist style when she painted this work. The shapes she has used in the depiction of trees in this work was replicated in a number of her works around this time. It is a truly fascinating work.
Goncharova went on to design ballet costumes and sets for ballets in Geneva and in 1914 she and Larionov moved to Paris to work alongside the great Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghliev, during which time they designed a number of stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Goncharova still found time to carry on painting and exhibited works at the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.
Goncharova was quite a controversial character. She was a woman that did not “toe the line” of convention. It was said that she would sometimes appear topless in public, with symbols painted on her body. In a sense, their use of odd, possibly meaningless symbols united the masses with the past Symbolist aesthetic. In John Bowlt’s 1990 article in the Art Journal entitled Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theatre, he commented on her bizarre behaviour writing:
“…in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes…”
According to Mary Charmot who wrote an article in 1955 for the Burlington Magazine entitled The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov, Diaghliev was full of praise for this unconventional painter who had brought life to his ballets. He talked of her, saying:
“…The most celebrated of these advanced painters is a woman. [. . .] This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet. And you will be interested to know that she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks…”
Goncharova and Larionov had lived together shortly after their first meeting in 1900 as fellow students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and they stayed together as an unmarried couple for more than fifty years. She and Larionov became French citizens in 1939 and in 1955 the two artists married. The reason for marrying so late in their romantic relationship was believed to be so that their paintings would revert to the surviving partner. In the latter years Larionov and Goncharova suffered financially. Goncharova suffered badly with arthritis in her hands and it is said that to carry on painting she had to tie the paint brushes to her wrist. Goncharova died in Paris, in October 1962 and Larionov died two years later.
So what happened to their works of art? The story goes that when the couple had both died, most of their collections were inherited by another Russian émigré, Alexandra Tomilina, who had met Larionov in the 1930’s when she was his student, and later became his mistress. After Goncharova died in 1962, Larionov married Tomilina in order that she would inherit all the paintings, which by this time was numbered in the thousands, and by doing so the two artists would continue to be remembered and therefore it would safeguard both artists’ legacies. Sadly Tomilina had always viewed Goncharova as a love rival and so hated her, so much so that she gave away, destroyed or disposed of many of Goncharova’s works. Tomalina’s old age became one of a life of poverty and so, desperate to pay off her debts, contacted the Soviet authorities and offered them all the remaining artworks if they would financially support her for the rest of her life. This they agreed to. When Tomilina died in 1987, her ashes were buried in Goncharova and Larionov’s double grave
After her death, Goncharova was almost forgotten as a painter in the West. Why? Maybe it was because she painted in many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism, and also maybe because she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. This lack of recognition was all to change in 2007 when her work, Picking Apples, which she completed in 1909, was sold at Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London for £4.9 million ($9.8 million), a record for a female artist, only to be bested a year later when her painting, The Flowers, sold for £5.53 million ($10.8 million).
Goncharova’s life, like her art, was very colourful. She was unconventional and actually fell foul of the law on a number of occasions. She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910 and as I mentioned earlier, her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.