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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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring "The Art & Artists of Russia (1850s-present) currently, and please see the A History of Art in England series; looking forward to discussing "British Art Groups (1930s)" when we can have live group meetings again! Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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