Research series: Russian Art and Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

One of the paintings we discussed in the piece on Natalya Goncharova a couple of weeks ago, was her “Rabbi with Cat” [1912; National Galleries of Scotland] – a fascinating image, that links in closely to Goncharova’s radical desire to portray the peoples of Russia usually left out of art. More than that, the painting recognises the persecution of Jews – both on a community level and on the individual level. In the background of the picture we see two Jewish men carrying sacks on their backs: are they fleeing a pogrom, a violent displacement so regularly experienced by Russian Jews, a history of persecution went back centuries? And in the foreground the rabbi, with a look of sadness in his eyes, holds a cat. It’s a strange image, seemingly symbolic; yet it could be that Goncharova is presenting a singularly personal moment of reflection: the rabbi must flee his home, leaving the pet behind. It’s a moment of sympathy; the artist and the viewer connecting with this individual man having to deal with awful circumstances.

As we’ve seen, Natalya Goncharova found her vision of Russia and Russian people through her experiments in Post-Impressionism and it seems to me that the cross-over of Parisian modernism with the Russian social, political and cultural contexts of post-1905 engendered a remarkable fusion of expression and representation: a liberation for artists in terms both of what they could paint (the subject matter) and the ways in which they could paint (the brilliance of colour, the disregard of formal perspective, the texture of painterly faktura). On or around 1910 and the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, this would both shock the general viewer and provide the catalyst for ever more radical experiment among the avant garde artists.

When it came to representing Jews, however, Goncharova was – for all her sympathy and empathy – looking from the outside.

It was another artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who brought aspects of the Russian-Jewish experience to the canvas.

Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Brushes [1909; Dusseldorf]

Chagall was born Moische Segal in Vitebsk, a village in the Pale of Settlement (in today’s Belarus), a stronghold of Hassidic Judaism which encouraged “intuitive communion with God and universal love. The Hasidic Jews loved to dance and chant, their hearts fired with ecstasy” writes Jacob Baal-Teshuva, who suggests: “Chagall’s work undoubtedly sought to communicate this love, this joyfulness to the world.”

There is an extensive article on Wikipedia covering Chagall’s life.

My focus here is on the early years, especially ‘on or around 1910’ which is when Chagall left Russia for Paris and when the full impact of Post-Impressionism began influencing his art. It seems important to say though that whilst colour, texture and non-perspectival design had a dramatic impact, Chagall’s vision was never diluted or disrupted. He used these new ideas and techniques to find ways in which he could emphasise his own ideas ever further.

The Model [1910; private; c/o “Chagall” Walther & Metzger, Taschen]

The experience of journeying from Vitebsk to Paris – even by way of a few years studying in St Petersburg – must have been astonishing for the young artist. Despite his precarious day-to-day existence and poverty, he plunged into both modern art and the Old Master paintings on show at the Louvre. “The Model” was one of the first Parisian paintings. The Taschen authors invite us to look at: “the thick application of the paint and the frayed, fibrous juxtaposition of colourful brush-strokes [that] reflect contemporary colour theories. Chagall’s subject is a studio scene, and thus a meditation on his own work, but his model is holding a brush as well and painting a picture herself, which metaphorically creates an atmosphere of prevalent creativity… “

It’s as if Chagall is breathing the very air of art, living in art and painting every moment in every way – even the artist’s model is a painter! The colours are rich, the brush-strokes loaded; the whole scene is given a decorative flatness – one can almost feel Chagall’s excitement: in Paris, the very epicentre of the art world.

Another early Paris painting is at the Tate:

The Green Donkey 1911 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by Lady Clerk 1947 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05758

The Green Donkey [1910; Tate]

The Tate display caption reads:

While living in Paris between 1910 and 1914 Chagall made many works based on nostalgic memories of his Russian homeland. The naïve style and curious subject of this painting reflect the artist’s preoccupation with folk traditions, particularly those of his Jewish heritage. At one time known as ‘Village Scene’, the colouring and strange arrangement of figures evoke a fantastical scene. While this may relate to a folk tale, no specific narrative for the green donkey has been identified.

Whilst his head must have been a whirl of colour, form and modernist experiment, Chagall nevertheless recognised that for him the importance of his art lay in the subject matter that had been central to both his life experience and his painterly vision for years: the village and community, the heritage and cultural imagination of Vitebsk.

This pen and ink drawing was made in Paris [1911; Pompidou Centre]; the artist has his brush and palette – and his mind is full of pictures of Russia.

It’s worth exploring the Pompidou Collection – here – they have many of his sketches, as well as paintings; it’s quite an insight ‘beyond’ the famous pictures and gives us a much fuller record of his experiments.

Sadly the majority of Chagall’s very early work, that painted in Russia before 1910, has been lost – actually stolen by a picture-framer in St Petersburg – but it’s fascinating to look see:

The Dead Man [1908; Pompidou Centre]

It’s not the best reproduction I’m afraid, but it seems to relate an extraordinary episode. A dead man lies in the street, candles have been placed all around him. A woman seems to be calling for help, or wailing; a man behind her looks on. There’s something almost nightmarish – certainly surreal – about it. Could it have happened – an awful event in Vitebsk? Meanwhile another man (Chagall’s uncle) is sitting on a roof playing the violin – an image to which Chagall often turned, indeed there’s a glorious early drawing, again in the Pompidou collection:

The Violinist [1908; Pompidou Centre]

Christie’s notes, with regard to another painting, that, [j]ust as The Fiddler on the Roof was…. derived from tales of life in Hasidic communities, so too Chagall revived that constant presence of the violin in town life. Even Chagall’s own uncle would play, as he himself remembered… ‘uncle is playing the violin… The man who spent the whole days leading the cows into the sheds, tying their legs, and dragging them around, is playing now, playing the rabbi’s song’.” The violinist then recalls both community and familial life for Chagall. And whilst in The Dead Man one might imagine the tune to be mournful, here one hopes it is rather jollier:

The Wedding [1909; Zurich]

A much livelier street scene certainly – the violin player leading the procession – and, again, one that Chagall could have witnessed in Vitebsk. Moreover, it might also reflect his meeting with and love for Bella Rosenfeld (they would marry in 1915).

The Birth [1910; Zurich]

These are all universal experiences, especially birth and death, but from a distinctly Vitebsk perspective, the heritage that gives Chagall his ways of seeing. Notice that even in The Birth the villagers are present – along with a young calf; even the birth of a child is a matter for the village community. Note too the man – presumably (hopefully) the father – hiding between the curtain and the bed!

In Paris:

“Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafes and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower. Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the work of French artists… Yet in the end Chagall remained true to his feelings, to his memories of Vitebsk, and to his Russian homeland” writes Baal-Teshuva, and in the end what we see in the first Paris paintings is a sort of exploration and balancing, a weighing up of new ways of painting with whether they extend and expand what it is that Chagall wishes to express and represent.

Finding himself a studio in La Ruche (which one can still visit) in Montparnasse, Chagall painted through the night, experimenting with Post-Impressionist ideas.

Father [1911] (left) and The Studio [1910] (right) [both Pompidou Centre]

One feels both Matisse and Van Gogh in these paintings, as Chagall explores. He is searching though not for ‘new images’ but to find ways in which he might give greater expression to his own vision – that unique ‘Chagall’ vision – which, in the short term also included experimenting with Cubism.

The Poet (Half Past Three0 [1911, Philadelphia]

As the Museum of Philadelphia notes:

This painting is a portrait of Mazin, a Russian poet who often stopped by Chagall’s studio to drink coffee while his friend painted late into the night. Diagonal shafts of color generate kaleidoscopic energy, and the transparency of forms creates a teasing, ambiguous effect; the portrait detaches from ordinary reality. Mazin’s topsy-turvy head may relate to an idiom Chagall would have known from his childhood spent in the Jewish community of Vitebsk in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. The Yiddish fardreiter kop (turned head) signifies a giddy mental state—an apt description for this image of poetic inspiration.

And for Chagall, an artist, like a poet, has a fardreiter kop – artists see things differently.

Moreover, Chagall was learning fast. There is, for example, a fabulous Parisian rendition of The Wedding:

The Wedding [1910, Pompidou]

The scene has been extended – it’s more like a stage set – into Cubist blocks, and the procession (still led by musicians, including the violinist) has become an extraordinarily colourful Fauvist affair, yet the painting retains its distinct Vitebsk, folk-ish, Jew-ish quality. The Pompidou quotes Chagall saying:

“I painted turning my back on what was in front of me.”

which recalls the poet with his upside down head: Chagall is not looking at the present, but back to the past, to Vitebsk and his experiential inheritance – even in the centre of Paris.

I and the Village [1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Chagall looks into the eyes of the animal – there is a thin white painted line connecting pupil to pupil; the milkmaid, the village houses, a man with a scythe and a woman come to mind; the painter-with-the-turned-head see some of the houses and the woman upside down, cast in a semi-cubist geometric scenario, all brilliant with colour. Memory, folktale and fantasy all play their part, illuminated by Post-Impressionism.

“I and the Village” is recognised as a key work from these Paris years, a sort of manifesto. Chagall was in Paris until 1914, the war and revolution then kept him in Russia until the early 1920s; but those four years working in the French capital engendered his unique vision – the combination of memory and homage, folk-tale and fantasy, his Jewish heritage and a Post-Impressionist liberation of colour, design and expression.

Feast of the Tabernacles [no date; Israel Museum, Jerusalem]

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edith-sitwell-npg

Russian Art & Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

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We will return to Chagall’s work again in the context of the 1917 Revolution. First though, on 12th June, we turn to another Russian artist working in Europe on or around 1910 – Wassily Kandinsky.

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One last Chagall painting, for we should never forget the whimsy his art:

Rain [1911; Guggenheim, Venice]

Books:

Chagall’s “My Life” – In his colourful, dreamlike autobiography, written as he was about to leave his homeland for good in 1922, he vividly brings to life the memories and places that fed into his unique work, from his shtetl childhood to revolutionary Russia and Belle Epoque Paris. 

and the authoritative Jacob Baal-Tusheva: Chagall [Taschen; 1998]

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Research series: Russian Art and Artists (11): On or Around 1910 – the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, Moscow

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) The Barber [1907; State Russian Museum]

It’s an exhilarating coincidence/ parallel that, as Roger Fry et al. showed the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London – shocking and horrifying the viewers, in Moscow at the same time, the Jack of Diamonds exhibition opened – shocking and horrifying the viewers there also.

The title was enough to cause distress: as Anthony Parton tells us, a Jack (or Knave) of Diamonds refers, in the parlance of the Russian vernacular to prisoners and social outcasts – “In this way the artists self-consciously put themselves beyond the pale of social acceptability.” And with Natalia Goncharova especially present at the exhibition – showing numerous paintings and, of course, being a woman – she was readily dubbed by the press the Queen of Diamonds, giving her an immediate notoriety.

In looking at some of the artists showing at the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, I hope to

  1. recognise some of the key artists of the time
  2. suggest the ‘aesthetic context’ in which Goncharova’s paintings might be seen
  3. question what it was that made the paintings so shocking: a) subject matter, b) florid colour and c) exaggerated textures

“The key figures of the new movement became the young painters Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin, Robert Falk and Vasily Rozhdestvensky. The group included painters both from Moscow and from the Russian provinces who were established in Moscow, the unofficial metropolis of new Russian art. The “Knave of Diamonds” show shocked the public……the ‘bad-taste’ of the subjects…” [Tretyakov], such as those by Goncharova’s partner, Mikhail Larionov:

Mikhail Larionov: Soldier Resting [1910; Tretyakov Gallery]

Larionov’s art is regularly dismissed; it is often ‘brutal’ and ‘badly’ painted. London gallerist and Russian Art expert James Butterwick for example is very dismissive in his Russian Art & Culture article, which we might contrast to the exuberance of the Tretyakov’s Yevgenia Ilyukhina, curator of New Perspectives on Mikhail Larionov. What is important though, at this time in Russian Art, is that Larionov is very much part of the artistic generation who not only learnt from the Post-Impressionist movements of Paris but then deployed these radical modernist ideas to blast contemporary Russian art – the naturalism and social realism of the Wanderers, the dream-like atmosphere of the decadent Symbolists – out of its safety zone. Larionov’s work is deliberately harsh, his subject matter deliberately brutish – especially his soldiers who are not romantic and heroic in their military uniforms, but uncomfortable and uncomforting. Larionov was called up for military service himself at this time, he would have seen the ‘reality’ of soldiers’ lives, the hard training and squalid barracks: note the graffiti on the fence behind the resting soldier; there would be crude imagery and rough language, not ‘high’ academic art, in the soldier’s everyday world.

Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944): Self-portrait and Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky [1910; State Russian Museum]

Mashkov’s double portrait of himself with fellow artist Konchalovsky similarly questions the ‘refined’ arts and indeed the image of the ‘gentleman artist’. Both artists are represented in shorts, almost naked, like athletes; their poses and appearance inspired by portraits of boxers and wrestlers. It’s peculiar and controversial. But note that amongst the dumb-bells on the floor and their muscular torsos, they are musicians – one with a violin, the other with sheet music. There are books about art and artists (Cezanne and Matisse) on the shelf above them. Moreover, they are surrounded by ‘folk’ artefacts – the pictures of flowers on the wall are like tea-trays; there are flowers on the tablecloth; the music on the piano is a popular ditty. High art is mixing with low art. The wrestlers are scholars; creative visual art can be found in all sorts of places. As the State Russian Museum notes: “Mashkov’s portrait was perceived as a manifesto of a new movement in art, intending to make viewers pause, look and think”.

As we can see from these two paintings, Portrait of E. I. Kirkalda [1910; private] and Boy in an Embroidered Shirt [1909; State Russian Museum, c/o Bridgeman Images], Ilya Mashkov was inspired to experiment in a very Matisse-like spirit. The subjects are flattened and decorative, the patterning and colours are at the fore. As Christie’s notes, Mashkov later recalled:

WE WANTED OUR ART TO BREAK THROUGH THE EXISTING, STAGNANT WORLD OF PAINTING, TO BE POWERFUL AND FULL OF RICH COLOURS. IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR US THAT OUR ARTISTIC LANGUAGE SOUNDED LIKE AN ORGAN, AN ORCHESTRA, A COMPLEX CHORUS, BRINGING SOCIETY TO A GENUINE UNDERSTANDING OF ART.

Those powerful and rich colours certainly come through in much of the Jack of Diamond’s exhibition – they are unrelenting, inflammatory and provocative:


Natalia Goncharova: Spring [1910; private]; Spring in the Country [1910; private]

And then, there’s the faktura, the texture of the painting; the revelation of the painted surface as a painted surface. In many ways this is more important than the use of colour, and it was important, Anthony Parton writes, for two reasons: it contravened Academic expectations of ‘polished brushwork’, and it usurped the illusionism – the suspended disbelief – of a painting’s ‘realism’. Faktura meant that we can see that the painting is a ‘created object in its own right’, it is made of paint on canvas and pretends to be nothing else.

Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), the second artist in Mashkov’s painting of the two apparent wrestlers, was similarly enthralled by colour and faktura. He had seen the exhibition of Monet’s Haystacks series in Moscow in 1895 (which had similarly inspired Kandinsky), an influence that led to:

Belkino Garden [1907; c/o Christies]

“What had impressed [Konchalovsky] as a young boy in Monet’s painting, [he] recreated in his Belkino landscape: a vibrant sense of life, spontaneity and radiance of the image, free and light application of brushstrokes, and decisive renewal of a pictorial palette.” [Christies Lot Essay].

And, building on that Monet influence, as Russopedia notes:

In 1907 Pyotr Konchalovsky attended the exhibition of works by Van Gogh in Paris. It impressed him greatly and made a significant impact on his work. Later he would write: “Van Gogh gave me the understanding of painting as art. I shall not mark time any longer; I shall go forward, as now I know how an artist should paint nature. A real artist should not just copy it, he should underline its characteristic features.”

Van Gogh’s idea are certainly noticeable in Konchalovsky’s works of 1907-1910, from those painted on a trip to Spain to those of provincial Russia:

The Bull Fight [1910; c/o Wikimedia]; Tea Room in Khotkovo [1911; Konchalovsky Museum, Moscow]

Whilst Goncharova and Larionov would leave in 1911 to form The Donkey’s Tail, the artists of the Jack of Diamonds group continued to exhibit through until 1916. One particularly important member was Robert Falk – of whom there is a significant exhibition currently running at Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery.

Falk’s work shifts between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including Cubism:

Portrait of a Woman [1910]; Church in Lilac [1912; Treyakov]

But some of his most interesting work is that painted in Russia’s eastern republics.

Girls of Konotop [1912; Saratov State Museum of Fine Arts; see Tretyakov Gallery Magazine]

The simplification of form, the rhythm of line and dramatic colouring gives an ‘exoticism’ to the painting that will be replicated by many of the early Ballet Russes’ productions in Paris and London.

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) is also extremely interesting. His early work is particularly Fauvist in colour and form, but by the early 1910s he develops an intriguingly radical style as in this glorious representation of St Basil’s Cathedral [1913; Tretyakov]:

In many ways the 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition marks both a beginning and an end. It was the end of the Russian artists’ (perhaps too) close proximity to French Post-Impressionism – a period of intense absorption and experimentation from 1905-1910, say. And it was the beginning of an ever more expansive investigation into colour and faktura that would take the Russian avant garde through to the Revolution of 1917 and into the first radical years of the Soviet Union. Whilst other exhibiting groups would appear, the Jack of Diamonds series of shows would include many of the leading artists, as we’ll see over the next few weeks and months, and it continued in many ways to be a hub for Russian – European (French, German and Italian) artistic dialogue.

One of the artists who showed at that first 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition was Chagall, whose art we’ll look at next.

Russian Art & Artists (11): The Jack of Diamonds 1910

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We’ll finish with a glorious Kandinsky, who also showed at the 1910 exhibition; it’s interesting to note too that some of his paintings would be shown at Fry’s Second Post-Impressionism Exhibition in London.

Here’s Landscape with Factory Chimney [1910; Guggenheim]

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Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (10): Natalia Goncharova – part one

Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova (1881-1962)

Self-Portrait with Lilies [[1907; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]; Sunflowers [1908; State Russian Museum, St Petersburg]

Now I have to be honest, I absolutely adore Goncharova’s art – it can reduce me to tears with its beauty. At the 2019 exhibition at Tate Britain I almost bowed down before her Self-Portrait, of which the Tretyakov notes:

The snow-white blouse with blue and pink overtones, framed with a blue contour, is like a white primed canvas with flaring yellow lilies on it. The flowers look like a blazing torch in the artist’s hands. 

The “Sunflowers” painting I have as a postcard, bought in St Petersburg so long ago it is yellowing; it sits before me, framed, on my writing table as it has done for years: the bold colours and textures, the patterns of petals and leaves – there’s a joyous naivete, a thrilling exuberance.

In that lynchpin decade for Russian society and culture following the 1905 Revolution, the art of Natalia Goncharova seems to connect everything together: from the subject matter of everyday Russian life focused by the late 19th century Wanderers movement to the importance of decorative folk art, and all within the pan-European dialogue brought about by Post-Impressionism.

In ‘Part 1’ here, we’ll look at Goncharova’s formative years, 1907 to 1911 as she explores the art of Russia and Europe, experiments with her paint brush as if in conversation with other artists, and presents her own unique and pioneering vision to the world.

In the catalogue preface to her one-woman show in 1913, Goncharova wrote that one of her aims as an artist was:

“To apprehend the world around us in all its brilliancy and diversity.”

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Notes:

I’ve not ‘filmed’ it this week, but I am putting together a film to discuss the artists who were Goncharova’s contemporaries around the time of the infamous 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition, to give a broader context and resources for further research, which I shall ‘publish’ in the next week or so.

Goncharova’s paintings are scattered across galleries throughout the world; I have attempted to source as many of the images here as closely as possible and connect them to their home galleries via hyperlinks and/or their publication in books and catalogues for further research. Alongside the 2019 Tate catalogue edited by Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, one of the key books for English readers is Anthony Parton’s superbly illustrated “Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova” published by the Antique Collectors’ Club in 2010.

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As we noted last time, the Golden Fleece magazine and its subsequent exhibitions were especially important in the post-1905 cultural climate of Moscow and St. Petersburg as they, along with the collections brought together by Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, connected Russian art and artists with broader European developments in painting, particularly Post-Impressionism.

The Shchukin collection, for example, included Van Gogh’s “Memory of the Garden at Etten (aka. The Ladies of Arles)” [1888, now in the Hermitage collection] and Gauguin’s “What, are you jealous” [1892, now at the Pushkin Museum] along with many more, including works by Matisse.

Goncharova’s very earliest works include Impressionist canvases as well as Symbolist paintings, yet it’s Post-Impressionism, with its colour and heavier textural brushstrokes and the move from ‘realist’ perspective to a more decorative flatness that really stimulates her vision.

Willows [1906; National Gallery of Armenia]; Landscape with Izby [1908; private; Moscow]

Woman with Flowers [1908; private]; Still-life with Lilies and Lacquer Box [1908; private; London]

Perhaps one of the most influential Gauguin paintings for Goncharova might be:

Ruperupe (Tahiti Is a Wonderful Land. Gathering Fruit) [1899; Pushkin Museum]

It’s as if Goncharova enters into an artistic dialogue with Gauguin, her response is:

Planting Potatoes [1909; Pompidou Centre, Paris]

As Anthony Parton writes:

In its large-scale format and in the monumental forms of the figures [this] painting recalls the work of Gauguin, but Goncharova replaces the olive-skinned Tahitians with the swarthy peasant women of rural Russia… The trees and foliage are reduced to schematic geometrical shapes and the peasant women are treated in a stiff and angular manner which gives them a statuesque presence in the landscape.”

Indeed it is notable that Goncharova began her artistic career as a student of sculpture; but these women – who, in contrast to Gauguin’s ethereal figures who seem almost to float – are fundamentally grounded, notice their solid feet firmly planted in the soil. These “rough-hewn and monumental” figures are all part of what would be called Goncharova’s “Primitivism” – and they are imbued with a distinctive Russian quality, not only as contemporary rural-workers but by way of their ancient heritage, a ‘pagan’ Russia that was of interest to many artists at the time.

Such are the connections that we might link Goncharova’s “Planting Potatoes” with other paintings such as “Pillars of Salt” [1909; Tretyakov], the ‘stone women’ – ancient idols found across the steppe of Ukraine and, indeed, Picasso’s “Three Women” in Shchukov’s collection [1908; now in the Hermitage].

(We might also link the Ballet Russes and their performance in 1913 of “The Rite of Spring” with Roerich’s pagan backdrops and Stravinsky’s ‘barbaric’ music.)

Connections such as these opened the way for Goncharova’s vision, as Christie’s notes in regard to “Picking Apples”:

Picking Apples [1909] is one a series of highly important paintings of Russian Peasants made by Natalia Goncharova between 1908 and 1911, that proudly announce the awakening of a new indigenous spirit in Russian art and lay the foundations of its avant-garde.

With their simple two-tone costumes of white and pink seeming to echo this clear division of earth and sky, the community of peasants is rendered in such a way that it punctuates and articulates the simple and idyllic landscape without disturbance or rupture. Gathered around the trunk of an apple tree that harmoniously divides the flattened vista à la Gauguin along the lines of the golden section, these peasants lead the eye across the canvas in such a rhythmic and lyrical way that they assert a keen identification between figure and place. As this formal harmony makes clear, these peasants belong to this land [c/o Christie’s Lot Essay].

We should also note the Tate‘s “Gardening” [1908]:

Gardening 1908 Natalia Goncharova 1881-1962 Presented by the artist 1961 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00468

Again we have monumental women, gardeners, working, their feet in the soil. And notice the comic ‘awkwardness’ of the perspective – the head of one of the women passing by in the background seems to belong to the woman in the foreground who is bending down to plant. And that action, brings Vincent Van Gogh into the conversation as well – remember the Ladies of Arles?

Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are, perhaps, the sunflower series – the paintings he hoped would decorate the walls of the Yellow House at Arles which he would share with Gauguin (the experiment in living that came to such a dramatic end). Indeed the Hermitage now has Gauguin’s “remembrance” painting:

In 1901, when this painting was produced, Gauguin was still living in Tahiti and nearing the end of his life. Yet the subject dates back to the time of his friendship with van Gogh, in whose work the sunflower motif, a symbol of the sun, occupied a special place. In 1888, both artists worked together at Arles in Provence, and van Gogh painted a number of now famous still lives with sunflowers. Gauguin took to growing these flowers in Oceania from seeds sent specially from France. The artist’s fantasy turns reality into mystery, the eye which takes shape in the centre of the flower in the background creating a mystical mood, recalling the “all-seeing eye” which is often found in Christian churches. The face in the window also has much in common with the blank features of Buddha. Thus the exotic land of Oceania was combined with nostalgic reminiscences of the Europe the artist had left behind – Hermitage.

Goncharova puts herself directly into the conversation:

Still Life with Sunflower [1909; private]; Still Life with Sunflowers [1909; private]

Sunflower Harvest [1911; private]

The still-life-with-flower paintings are immensely important for it is here that Goncharova is able to fully exploit her fascination with bold colour, decorative pattern and generous texture – combining, as it were, the lessons and ideas of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse. But it is by painting the scenes of rural Russia and everyday Russian people that Goncharova marks the significance of her work:

“The material of a work and, beyond that, its creative spirit, lies not in the individual, but in the people, in the nation to which the individual belongs, in its earth and nature. It is part of the common popular soul, like a flower on a huge tree” – Goncharova, 1914 [quoted by Christies.com]

The idea of a painting being a flower of the common culture is a glorious concept; it suggests a shared creativity – like a dance breaking out after the harvest has been brought in.

Khorovod (The Round Dance) [detail; 1911; private]

Not that any of this was appreciated – at least not by the critics of the Jack of Diamonds exhibition (1910-11; Moscow), indeed Goncharova’s subject matter, her colours, the primitivism of it all was scandalous; she became notorious. It didn’t stop her. Rather it made her push ever further with her ideas and experiments. Along with her pictures of peasants, she sought to depict the range of diverse Russian peoples – including the Jews. As Anthony Parton notes, the Russian state at this time was deeply anti-Semitic and there were horrific pogroms. Moreover, Jewish figures were rarely the subjects of Russian art. The National Gallery of Scotland has in its collection, for example:

The two men carrying sacks in the background are Jews fleeing a pogrom. The Hand of God can be seen in the top-left corner, blessing the Rabbi, who may be stroking the cat for the last time before he too departs. The painting delivers a poignant message about compassion, suffering and religious intolerance – National Galleries of Scotland.

Such a painting combines Goncharova’s sympathy towards the diversity of Russian peoples and interest in traditional cultures and beliefs – marking her out even further as against the ‘bourgeois establishment’. And her notoriety was only increased when she represented Orthodox subject matter and Christian figures – not only because of her style, but because she was a woman. Yet as displayed in the Tate 2019 exhibition, some of these paintings are amongst her most beautiful works, perhaps especially:

Mother of God [1911, triptych; Tretyakov]

In many ways, Goncharova found in her art a vehicle for social and political comment, especially as we’ve seen with regard to her appreciation of peasant life and rural customs; we might see in much of her 1910-1912 work as a sociological documentary of sorts – and her ‘primitivist’ style is as important in that as the subject matter itself: both are rooted in the Russian cultural experience – an experience she frames against the ‘academic’ art of the bourgeoisie.

Winter: Gathering Faggots [1911; Tretyakov]

Goncharova’s artistic rebellion will continue.

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But first I’d like to follow two parallel Post-Impressionist paths:

29th May – The Art of Marc Chagall, who looked to Jewish village life for inspiration; and,

12th June – The Art of Wassily Kandinsky, who imbued abstraction with Russian Orthodox beliefs;

then on the 26th June – we’ll return to Goncharova and her experiments in Cubism and Futurism.

Russian Art and Artists – Goncharova (part one)

If you are enjoying this research and are able to ‘donate’ even occasionally, I am extremely grateful!

£5.00

Oh, okay, just one more GORGEOUS painting!

Gathering Apples [1910; Philippe Samuel Gallery, Paris]

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Resources

For further reading, there is a fascinating article in the Tretyakov Magazine about Russian artists involved in the Jack of Diamonds exhibition and the dialogues they created between Eastern and Western visual cultures:

“The East, Nationality and the West” | The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine

and for Goncharova and Gauguin:

Early Goncharova and Gauguin | The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine

There’s a great article about Goncharova on the Christie’s website: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) (christies.com)

and the Sotheby’s website too is worth investigating: Natalia Goncharova | Art, Biography & Art for Sale | Sotheby’s (sothebys.com)

Also, Russian Art Week, Summer 2021 is coming at the end of May – a rare chance to really explore Russian art in London: Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture (russianartandculture.com)

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John Nash in Essex

I’ve just spotted that there’s to be an exhibition of John Nash’s paintings at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne:

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace | Towner Eastbourne

which is very exciting, as John is so often over-shadowed by his more famous brother Paul.

This will be the first exhibition of his work for sixty years and, especially interesting is that the Towner website says:

“The Landscape of Love and Solace will contextualise the artist’s life and work within the history of the 20th century, and in particular via his key relationships with Dora Carrington and Christine Kuhlenthal, who later became his wife”.

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“Combining acute observation and a strong individual vision Nash’s oeuvre includes many of the finest depictions of the British landscape created in the 20th century” notes the Towner, which immediately brought to mind the John Nash painting in my own local gallery, The Beecroft in Southend,

Nash, John Northcote; Melting Snow at Wormingford; Southend Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/melting-snow-at-wormingford-2708

which always fills me with delight. Why? Partly because there’s so much of interest to look at: the deep wide view to the horizon, the quilt of fields and the man (a farmer?), his dog running ahead. The colours are those of nature, and beautifully calming. And then there is this heap of cut down trunks and branches right in the foreground, ‘blocking’ our view and refusing to allow the painting enter the ‘pastoral’ genre; it’s a recognition that even in winter there is work to be done on the land. The tree stumps to the left are also fascinating, they have a hint of Graham Sutherland – looking a little monstrous or wounded, we might think of that gaping stump as howling in the aftermath of such violence. This is not a ‘bucolic’ Essex landscape then, there are harsh realities. And yet I cannot but sense that ‘opening of a window’ feeling, the scent of late-winter freshness in the air as the land emerges from a blanket of snow; the adrenalin-rush of hope and joy that the season is turning and spring not far away. I want to go out and walk, take it all in.

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There’s a gorgeous-looking book by Andy Friend that accompanies the Towner exhibition.

There is also a really interesting article by Frances Spalding reviewing Andrew Lambirth’s book on John Nash: John Nash and the British landscape | Apollo Magazine (apollo-magazine.com) and 79 paintings by Nash on http://www.artuk.org

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