How Russian Artist Natalia Goncharova Revolutionized the Avant-Garde
Natalia Goncharova, Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Courtesy of the Tate.
Natalia Goncharova, Three Young Women, 1920. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. Tate Museum. Courtesy of the Tate.
To all the artists today who are working between mediums, collaborating with others across disciplines, and exploring personal identity in nationalist times, meet your patron saint: Natalia Goncharova. The Russian artist’s rigorously experimental, interdisciplinary approach to the arts—from drawing, painting, and illustration to printmaking, performance, and costume and set design—is the subject of a retrospective at the Tate Modern. The show, on view through September 8th, seeks to reinstate Goncharova as the leader of the Russian and international avant-garde in the tumultuous pre- and inter-war periods of the 20th century.
The most pivotal moment of Goncharova’s career came in 1913 when the 32-year-old artist presented her first solo exhibition at Moscow’s taste-making Art Salon. Goncharova’s thoroughly modern exhibition was unlike any that had come before it. The “bohemian public,” one reviewer wrote, packed the galleries, which were themselves packed with hundreds of drawings, paintings, and fashion designs.
Natalia Goncharova, Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City, 1911. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Courtesy of the Tate.
Goncharova had landed the first solo show for a Russian avant-garde artist (although she and her Moscow circle participated in many group exhibitions prior), an unlikely coup considering her gender. The exhibition was “unprecedentedly diverse,” Tretyakov Gallery curator Evgenia Iliukhina writes in the exhibition catalogue, and showed a “young artist’s rapid evolution from impressionism to post-impressionism to expressionism.”
The scale of the display heightened it to a kind of early retrospective. In her landscapes, still lifes, urban and peasant scenes, religious visionary paintings, and costume designs, Goncharova demonstrated boundless creative energy. She drew as easily from the bold colors and decorative patterns of the rural Russian folk culture of her youth or flattened Byzantine icon painting as she did from Paul Gauguin’s fractal planes.
Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. State Russian Museum. Courtesy of the Tate.
“One of Goncharova’s guiding principles was that of vsechestvo,” known in English as “Everythingism,” Katy Wan, assistant curator at the Tate, wrote to Artsy. Goncharova’s lifelong partner, Mikhail Larionov, who she met while studying at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, had just outlined the liberal philosophy in the Rayonist and Futurist manifesto: “We declare that there has never been such a thing as a copy and recommend painting from pictures painted before the present day…We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today.”
“Nonetheless,” Iliukhina writes, “the multiplicity of styles and tendencies evident in Goncharova’s works also prompted accusations of eclecticism,” and thus, a lack of originality. Critics accused the artist of copying the European modernists to play to the market. The Rayonist style is akin to the Russian version of Cubism, a connection Goncharova once modestly pointed out: “In France, Picasso is the foremost talented artist working in the cubist manner; in Russia, it is your humble servant.” But Everythingism swallowed Rayonism whole; it allowed for a multiplicity of working methods, styles, and philosophies—anything and everything was acceptable fodder for an artist to exert their vision.
Natalia Goncharova, Peasant woman. Costume design for Le Coq d’Or, 1937. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Courtesy of the Tate.
The Art Salon exhibition was a crowning achievement for Goncharova. It established her as the leader of the avant-garde and put her on the radar of Sergei Diaghilev, who promptly commissioned the young artist to design the Ballets Russes production of Le Coq d’or, “her first step to European fame,” writes Iliukhina. Soon after, Goncharova and Larionov followed the corps to Paris, where they associated with the community of Russian émigrés.
Goncharova remained involved with theater for the rest of her life, and her costume and set designs for the Ballets Russes have largely dominated her reception in the West. In the inter-war years, the paintings that had populated the 1913 exhibition were stranded in Russia while the couple lived in France and moved around neutral territories with Diaghilev. She and Larionov missed out on participating in important European shows, and interest in their art waned even as Goncharova’s reputation in the theater grew, primarily as the Ballets Russes toured internationally. It was during this period, from 1915 to 1923, that she worked with composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska on the radically modern ballet Les Noces (among many other projects). Her monochrome sets and vibrant peasant costumes helped to establish the production as an enduring, rule-breaking classic of Russian modernism.
Natalia Goncharova, Two female dancers (half - length), Choreography design for Les Noces, ca. 1923. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Tate.
Goncharova is an exciting figure to rediscover today because she was so clearly in command of the modernist revolution, despite its international scope. She charmed Paris, the center of the art world before the First World War, but also embodied the radical Russian spirit. In Moscow, she navigated mass political and social unrest—as well as an opening up of public cultural life—that would reach its boiling point in the 1917 Revolution.
She is also admirable in her frequent defiance of gender norms and flaunting of proper womanly behavior in Imperial Russia. Her choice of subject matter aided in her rebellion: The nude female form and ecclesiastical imagery were considered off-limits to female artists at the turn of the century. “Not only did she paint these as large canvases, but often as multi-part works. She also co-wrote manifestos and led group performances on the streets of Moscow, which was considered unbefitting of a woman at that time,” Wan explained. Her notoriety faded in the post-war period because of her varied approach, and therefore lack of easy categorization because Wan suggests, “male artists [were] dominating narratives of art during that moment.”
Natalia Goncharova, Set design for the final scene of The Firebird, 1954. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Tate.
Goncharova and her reputation suffered in her own time, too. She was frequently cast as second fiddle to Larionov, even though evidence suggests that they were equal partners. Art historian Evgenia Petrova writes in the catalogue, “elements of Rayonism that appeared in Goncharova’s works before the theory itself was formulated prompt one to wonder if it was Larionov or Goncharova who actually pioneered Rayonism in practice. One account maintains that it was Goncharova who made Larionov write the manifesto.”
Still, public opinion followed along the lines of British scholar Camilla Gray, who once declared “Larionov was the leader and Goncharova the brilliant pupil.” Another critic suggested that Goncharova had been “largely guided” by Larionov. In some ways, this is true. Goncharova relied on her partner for the business aspects of her career, and he expertly curated and organized exhibitions and press for their work. She called him “my working conscience, my tuning fork.”
Despite their love of country, Goncharova and Larionov were never able to return to Russia after the First World War. Goncharova died in 1962 in France, where she spent most of the rest of her life. She would be pleased to know that today the state-run Tretyakov Gallery is the largest repository of her work, with 413 paintings, 6,924 works on paper, and archival and photographic materials, in its collection, and plans to digitize much of it for the public.