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Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova

The Russian painter and theatrical scenery designer Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was pivotal in the development of avant-garde Russian art during the decade prior to World War I and thereafter was an important and innovative designer of costumes and stage flats.

Russian art during the first two decades of the 20th century absorbed the new styles and philosophies of Western European art and moved to the cultural forefront. Goncharova and her husband, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), through their work and their efforts organizing shows and artist's groups were at the center of this artistic revolution which preceded and was concurrent with that country's political upheaval.

Natalia Goncharova (sometimes spelled Gontcharova) was born in Nagaevo in central Russia. The Goncharova family had lost its fortune, based on the manufacture of linen, by the late 18th century. The renowned poet Pushkin had married one of her ancestors, Natalia Goncharova, after whom she was named. Her father was an architect. Natalia's mother's family, the Belyaevs, had produced a number of priests and were noted for being patrons of music. From 1891 to 1896 Goncharova attended the gymnasium in Moscow. In 1898, having formed her decision to be an artist, Goncharova entered the College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (Moscow) where she studied sculpture under Pavel Troubetskoi, who worked in the style of Auguste Rodin. Three years later she left the college despite having won a silver medal and not having completed the ten-year period of study of that curriculum. This coincided with her adoption of painting as her preferred medium of expression.

A Career and a Husband

By 1900 Goncharova had met her future husband, Mikhail Larionov. He had also enrolled in the college in 1898, but in the Department of Painting. Her decision to take up painting was encouraged by Larionov and by her fascination with the play of light and the harmonies of color. Like many Russian artists of her time, the first few years of the 20th century was a period of exposure to and adoption of the styles that had evolved in the capitals of Western Europe. At the time she was drawn to Impressionism and Divisionism, styles associated respectively with Monet and Seurat. Both styles emphasized not the recording of solid objects but the capturing of light (color) that was reflected back from the object to the eye. As a result, drawing tended to be loose and there was an emphasis on color, the strokes of paint. This led to a consciousness of the paint, the strokes, and the texture and pattern on the canvas. These two styles were important for freeing art from being purely representational. Artists were acquiring an awareness of art being an esthetic expression inspired by, but not dependent on, the appearances of the physical world.

In 1906 the great Russian ballet impressario Diaghilev arranged for a selection of paintings by Goncharova and Larionov to be included in the Russian section of the Salon d'Automne in Paris. Their inclusion in this recently established yearly showing of new radical art (the Fauves had their first group showing there that year) indicates that both artists were considered exemplars of trends in the avant-garde of their country. Over the next nine years, prior to her emigration from Russia, Goncharova participated in a number of important exhibitions, many of which she and Larionov organized. During this period she was also represented in the 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry at London's Grafton Gallery, in a one-person show (1913) of 761 works in Moscow (reduced to 249 pieces the following year when shown in St. Petersburg), and in a show at the Paul Guillaume Gallery of Paris with a catalogue by the noted critic Apollinaire.

The Style of Rayonism

The half decade which preceded the outbreak of the war was a period of rapid development in the visual arts in Russia. Goncharova was at the forefront of this. Amazingly, three distinct trends simultaneously appeared in her work: Rayonism, Neo-Primitivism, and Cubo-Futurism. The first of these is an original style conceived by Larionov and was extensively explored by Goncharova as well. Rayonism was among a number of completely abstract styles at the time in Western art. Like Impressionism, Rayonism concentrates on the light rays reflecting off objects. The space in a Rayonist painting is not measurable but is an atmosphere charged with the energy of an infinite number of light rays either directly from the sun or, more likely, rays bouncing back and forth from the physical objects around one. From this infinity of rays were selected particular ones—the title often revealing the objects from which they had been reflected. The guiding principle is purely esthetic in that the colors are chosen for their harmony or visual effect.

For over three decades artists had been fascinated by the idea of creating a non-objective art based on the orchestration of color. If music was completely abstract and yet infinitely expressive, could not there be an art using color (instead of sound) which was equally abstract and expressive. Goncharova was among the 11 artists who signed Larionov's Rayonist Manifesto when it was published in 1913, at which time she showed Rayonist works at the Donkey's Tail and Target exhibitions Cats: Rayonist Apprehension in Pink, Black and Yellow of 1913 (New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) approaches Braque and Picasso's Analytical Cubism in its overall animated and crystalline effect, though with rich color. Instead of the fragmented interlocked shapes found in Cubism, Cats is based on long, slashing colored strokes. Rayonism was a short-lived style, having reached its end by 1914. Franz Marc, associated with the Blaue Reiter of Munich (with whom Goncharova exhibited in 1912), admired her work and painted in a manner inspired by Rayonism in 1913, perhaps due to her influence.

The Neo-Primitivism Style

Concurrent with Rayonism, Goncharova painted in a style now referred to as Neo-Primitivism. This was a phenomenon that had occurred earlier in France and elsewhere and seems related to changing political, social, and cultural aspirations. In conjunction with a democratization of political and social thought, there was often a tendency to try to discover the underlying character of national cultures by looking to traditional folk or peasant art for inspiration. Because of her family's clerical background and her having spent her youth living at a country estate, Goncharova would have been drawn to traditional religious and folk art as part of her formative experience and as the fine arts of the masses of her countrymen. This was a period when the intelligentsia came to look upon icons (Russian devotional images) as an important national cultural heritage. The great Romanov exhibition of icons (1913), many of which had been cleaned for the first time, excited many esthetically sensitive people.

Goncharova had painted religious themes for a number of years, having felt that the intensely religious sense and meaning of icons was one of the most important goals for an artist to capture in his or her work. The rich colors, dazzling decorative effects, and highly formalized and stylized character of icons had already inspired her work. Archangel (Paris, private collection) of about 1909 to 1911, the left panel of a triptych titled The Savior, in facial type and drapery pattern bears resemblance to typical aspects of icons. The emphasis on broad flat patterning, as in the angel's wings or the large rhythms of the fabric, suggests the influence of folk arts. This led Goncharova to employ a manner that was unrelated to academic practice. Besides emphasizing flat, decorative qualities, at times the paint was seemingly splashed on the surface or was applied rapidly for spontaneity of effect. The charm and naiveté that had earlier been acclaimed in the painting of Henri Rousseau appeared in Goncharova's work and were, very importantly to her, derived from native sources.

Cubo-Futurism Style

Between 1913 and 1914 Cubo-Futurism, aspects of the then-contemporary styles of Cubism and Futurism, appeared in Goncharova's painting. Cubism would have been known to Russian artists through publications, exhibitions, and collections such as those of Morozov and Shchukin. Cubism was ambivalent to color to the benefit of a new sense of structure—the fragmentation and interlocking of form and shape resulting in a uniformly animated composition in which the figure/ground relation is eliminated.

Italian Futurism also had a following in Russia in the years immediately preceding World War I. Futurism's glorification of dynamism as a constant in modern experience often led to the use of images such as large scale industry, trains, and race cars as emblems of the world rapidly transforming culturally and technologically. This is reflected in Goncharova's work Airplane over Train (Kazan Art Museum) of 1913, for example. Her Futurism, like that of the Italians, was alive with color. The sensations of motion were suggested by rhythmic repetitions of shapes or lines. The inclusion of painted words or word fragments, as if they were from signs and part of an environment through which one was passing, further aided this perception. Sound waves were similarly implied by rhythmic effects and occasionally by the use of musical notations.

A Solid Place in Art History

In 1915 Goncharova and Larionov, who had been released from service in the Russian Army for medical reasons, moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, to continue their collaboration with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. This lasted until 1929 when Diaghilev died, after which Goncharova worked for other ballet companies. Her travels of 1916 and 1917 to San Sebastian (Spain), Paris, and Rome formatively brought her into contact with traditional Spanish culture and with a wide range of important contemporary styles. In 1919 Goncharova permanently settled in Paris. The year before the Galerie Sauvage (Paris) had held an exhibit of the theatrical work of Goncharova and Larionov. To Goncharova, painting and theatrical work were closely related, both being forms of esthetic expression. Her theatrical sketches and flats have frequently been exhibited and collected. The vision or interpretation of the ballets on which Goncharova and Larionov worked resulted in a close involvement of the visual with the performing arts. Their costumes and settings often determined the tone of the performance.

By the 1950s growing interest in the flowering of radical Russian art prior to the revolution established Goncharova as one of the pioneers of modern art. Her paintings were acquired by important museums, such as the Tate Gallery, London, and there were a number of exhibitions, that of the Galerie de l'Institut (Paris, 1956) having included new Rayonist paintings and drawings. Despite almost crippling arthritis, Goncharova continued to be productive during the last decade of her life. Her final works moved away from the interpretive and the decorative and sought to explore the infinite, as if at the end of her career Goncharova was returning to her earlier interest in expression through abstraction.

Further Reading

Mary Chamot's Goncharova-Stage Designs and Paintings (London, 1979) is invaluable for the study of Goncharova's art, particularly in that it reviews her seldom treated theatrical work. John E. Bowlt's Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1902-1934 (1976) is equally important for an understanding of the intellectual bases of her early work and the climate in which it was conceived. □

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