Goncharova, Natalia (1881–1962)

views updated

Goncharova, Natalia (1881–1962)

Russian painter and stage designer who drew on a variety of influences from the West but produced her most significant work by tapping the traditions of Russian art. Pronunciation: Na-TAL-ya Gan-CHAR-av-ah. Born on June 4, 1881, in the village of Nechaevo, Russia; died in Paris, France, on October 17, 1962; daughter of Sergei Goncharov (an architect and owner of a linen factory) and Yekaterina Goncharova; attended High School No. 4 in Moscow, 1893–98; studied sculpture at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, 1898–1901; married Mikhail Larionov, in 1955; no children.

Met Larionov at art school (1900); won silver medal for sculpture at school graduation (1901); shifted artistic interest to painting (1902); exhibited in Impressioniststyle at Salon d'Automne, Paris (1906); presented works in folk tradition at Moscow's Jack of Diamonds exhibit and sued newspaper for accusing her of painting pornography (1910); held one-woman exhibit in Moscow's Artistic Salon (1913); created stage designs for production of Coq d'Or in Paris, then returned to Moscow (1914); joined Ballets Russes in Switzerland (1915); toured Spain and Italy as member of Ballets Russes (1916–17); settled in Paris with Mikhail Larionov (1919); created stage design for Les Noces (1923); created stage designs for Czar Sultan and Fair at Sorochinsk (1932); became French citizen (1938); produced final theatrical designs (1957); sold collection of her works to Victoria and Albert Museum (1961).

Major works:

Haymaking (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1910–11); Landscape No. 47 (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1912); Cats: Rayonist Apprehension in Pink, Black and Yellow (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1913); Scenery and Stage Designs, 1914–1957 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Natalia Goncharova, along with her lover and artistic companion Mikhail Larionov, was an important figure in the Russian world of painting in the early 20th century. Women played a significant role within this art world. Both in their numbers and in the prominence they achieved, they far outstripped their counterparts in Western and Central Europe. Fully half of the Russian artists who pioneered the techniques of abstract art at the start of the 20th century were women. M.N. Yablonskaya has referred to Goncharova and her fellow artists, such as Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova , and Alexandra Exter , as "the Amazons of the Avant-Garde." Some writers believe that the integration of women into the radical political circles of the 19th century paved the way for their acceptance as equals in the art world.

In that exciting environment, young artists found themselves bombarded by the influences of Western European art, such as Cubism, while they were also tempted to explore the rich artistic traditions of their own country. Goncharova stood in the center of such tensions, and thus critics have placed differing emphases on her work. In one assessment of what Goncharova and Larionov accomplished, Camilla Gray noted how they "selected and sifted turn by turn the most lively and progressive ideas in Europe and Russia from the beginning of the century up to the First World War." But Yablonskaya has assessed Goncharova's significance very differently:

"The essence of Goncharova's art lies in the fact that she was a deeply national painter."

There was a rich artistic tradition in Russian popular culture upon which Goncharova and Larionov drew. Woodcuts (known in Russian as lubki) had been a widespread form of popular art since the 17th century. They reflected religious controversies, served as propaganda for Tsar Peter I the Great's effort to bring Western manners to Russia, and, as a primitive teaching device, helped to introduce the alphabet to the country's vast peasant population. Lubki were sometimes bound together to tell a story much like a 20th-century American comic book.

The traditional religious paintings of old Russia, known as icons, were also a potent source of inspiration for artists like Goncharova. Both lubki and icons featured characters with distorted figures who seemed to float in space. Goncharova also found inspiration in the large stone statues called babas. Considered by some a product of the area's prehistoric era, babas were more probably constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Old embroidery and painted trays offered other traditional techniques.

A member of an impoverished Russian noble family, Natalia Goncharova was born in the village of Nechaevo near the city of Tula, southeast of Moscow. She had numerous hereditary connections with the highest levels of Russian culture. Through her father Sergei Goncharov, the young woman was a descendent of Alexander Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet of the 19th century. Her mother Yekaterina Goncharova was a member of the distinguished Beliaev family, publishers and patrons of Russia's 19th-century musical development. Natalia's maternal grandfather had been on the faculty of the Theological Academy in Moscow.

Goncharova's success was to encapsulate the very spirit of Russia in visual form.

—M.N. Yablonskaya

The young girl spent a happy childhood on her grandmother's estate at Ladyzhino near her birthplace. She left the countryside to attend school in Moscow in 1893. In 1898, Goncharova turned to a life of art as she began studying sculpture, from distinguished sculptor Pavel Trubetskoi, at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. But she soon redirected her energies to painting. As she told an interviewer in 1937, she abandoned her early ventures in sculpture for the easel "because I was fascinated by the play of light, the harmonies of colour." Reinforcing this novel direction in her work was a new and lasting personal tie: around 1900, she started her lifelong relationship with Mikhail Larionov, another young Russian artist.

Goncharova had a complex career as a painter, working in a number of different styles. And, rather than abandoning one style for another, she frequently produced works in several styles in the same period. Nonetheless, the most important and lasting theme in her prolific work turned out to be the Russian folk tradition.

Like many young artists at the turn of the century, however, Goncharova began her painting influenced by the French Impressionists. It was in this tradition that she produced her first exhibited works, presented to the Russian public in 1903. She then drew on the innovations of the Post-Impressionists and the Fauve school. Along with Larionov, she displayed paintings done in the Impressionist style at Sergei Diaghilev's Paris exhibition of 1906.

The lessons she learned from these developments in France combined, however, with her basic interest in Russian folk art. Even in these early years, she was attracted to Russian traditions such as icon painting. Moreover, artists like Henri Matisse, who called for the need to look at "primitive" art ranging from medieval woodcuts to Tahitian idols, paved the way for Russians like Goncharova and Larionov to examine their own nation's artistic tradition. Few of her early works in this folk genre have survived, but her Madonna and Child, painted sometime between 1905 and 1907, shows her fascination with her Russian heritage. As Camilla Gray has noted, there are "two streams in Goncharova's work" at this time: "her vigorous and independent research in reviving national traditions, and her more timid and academic interpretations of the current European styles."

In 1910, Goncharova painted a series of works on the daily activities of Russian peasants. Here, icon painting, frescoes, and the popular prints of the 19th century guided her efforts. Her pictures were distinguished by brilliant colors and strong emotions. For Anthony Parton, she and Larionov were pioneers in "neo-primitivism," which he defines as an effort "to reinvigorate [Russian] painting by returning to the stylistic principles of native Russian art forms and the pictorial conventions of naive artists and peasant craftspeople."

Ever restless in seeking new inspiration, the young painter also drew heavily on early Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso for a time. This phase in her work, which began after 1910, lasted for several years and overlapped her painting inspired by the Russian tradition. Her illustrations for several books of poetry by Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh in 1912 and 1913 showed her devotion to old Russian art forms such as the icon, religious frescoes, and woodcuts. In 1913, she declared dramatically that she was turning away from the West. "It has dried up," she stated in her preface to the catalogue accompanying her exhibit at the Artistic Salon in Moscow, and now "my sympathies lie with the East." At the Salon, in October and November, she presented a remarkable collection of 800 paintings drawn from all phases of her career.

Despite her 1913 declaration rejecting the West, Goncharova drew heavily on Italian Futurism in works she produced just before World War I. Her futurist paintings included Aeroplane over Train and Dynamo Machine. Reveling in this rebellious Western art form and the conduct associated with it, she and Larionov appeared in public with painted faces. They also organized futurist evenings at a local cabaret, where they painted the faces of patrons and, finally, provoked a riot that led police to close the establishment. She and Larionov even produced and starred in a brief futurist film. Apart from riots, Goncharova found another way to cause a stir in conventional circles. An exhibition of her work in the spring of 1913 in Moscow and St. Petersburg featured pictures of Biblical characters painted in neo-primitive fashion. The government censor stepped in to close part of the exhibit

after a newspaper critic called the paintings blasphemous.

In 1914, this eclectic artist made a definitive turn back to the Russian tradition. The stage impresario Sergei Diaghilev was impressed with Goncharova's Futurist paintings. Despite her recent, lurid record of hooliganism, he invited her to design sets for his ballet productions to be presented in Paris starting in the spring of 1914. The work she produced for him was permeated by Russian traditional art. As Parton has put it, from now on Goncharova and Larionov found that "their theatre design began to eclipse their painting" and their reputation outside Russia came to depend upon their work for the ballet stage.

With the start of World War I in 1914, the young artist, who had been in Paris for the premiere of her stage designs, returned to her native country. Larionov was called up for military service at once and wounded during one of the war's first battles. While her companion was recovering from his injuries, Goncharova entered a period of intense work. She did a series of 14 lithographs intended to promote Russian patriotism, Mythical Images of War. These combined national symbols with visions and images drawn from the Bible. She also illustrated a book of war poetry. Then, in a decisive step in her variegated career, she left Russia for the last time in 1915 to settle in the West. The impresario Diaghilev was struggling to form a new ballet company in the difficult circumstances of the war and pressed Larionov and Goncharova to help him.

Joining Diaghilev's ballet company as it performed in Switzerland, Goncharova went on to travel in Western Europe. In the spring of 1918, both she and Larionov exhibited a vast collection of their ballet stage designs in Paris. The two Russian emigrés found themselves directly endangered by the course of the war as the Germans began to bombard the city with long range artillery, and they were forced to flee to the countryside. They settled in the French capital at the close of the war. Russia was in the midst of civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, and most of their colleagues from the art world had also left. Their decision to stay in Paris for the time being led to their permanent residence there.

Goncharova spent the remainder of her life in Paris, accepted as an important member of the city's artistic community. She continued to paint, but her most notable work took place in the field of stage design. In this realm, both she and Larionov became international stars. With the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the two of them began to work for a number of ballet and stage companies. Her striking stage designs for Czar Sultan and Fair at Sorochinsk, both in 1932, reflected her continuing attraction to the themes and techniques of traditional Russian art. But Goncharova increasingly moved to identify her work with France. In 1936, she and Larionov participated in an important international competition in theatrical art held in Milan. They chose to exhibit their work in the French rather than the Soviet Union's section, and, when they won the silver medal, the honor went to their adopted country.

The darkening international scene in 1938, which raised the possibility of war with Germany over Czechoslovakia, impelled the two Russian refugees to take up French nationality. They could not consider returning to the Soviet Union, now under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, and remaining resident aliens in France was equally undesirable. In September 1938, both Goncharova and her longtime companion became French citizens.

Following Adolf Hitler's invasion of France in the spring of 1940, Goncharova and Larionov found themselves under German occupation. During the following difficult years, the two managed to continue their careers in the theater. Then, an exhibition of their nonobjective paintings in Paris in 1948 reminded the public of their prominent role in the growth of modern art at the start of the century. As Parton notes, the two painters deliberately predated some of their work, sometimes by more than a decade, in order to heighten their reputation as path-breaking artists.

In 1950, Larionov suffered a stroke, and the couple's financial circumstances, never very comfortable, became even more precarious. They survived partly by selling off their early paintings. Goncharova also endured a variety of physical ailments, including a severe form of arthritis that made it impossible to paint on an easel. In a continuing display of her devotion to her work, she placed her canvas in a flat position in front of her so that she could continue to manipulate her brush.

Goncharova and Larionov were married in Paris on June 2, 1955, an event that took their circle of acquaintances by surprise. Though they had been intimate companions for more than half a century, the two had shared in the artistic conventions of the early 20th century, rejecting a formal relationship. They decided, however, that a legal ceremony was now appropriate in order to assure that the survivor of the pair could inherit the other's artistic works.

Natalia Goncharova produced her last effort in the field of theatrical design in 1957. This consisted of the costumes and sets for a series of ballets in Monte Carlo. In 1958, she put on a final exhibition of her painting in Paris, showing some 20 canvases inspired by the Russian launch of a space satellite, Sputnik, the preceding year. The couple remained beset by financial woes. Only selling a large portion of the couple's library and works to London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 1961 helped to keep them solvent.

Goncharova died of cancer in Paris on October 17, 1962. Her tombstone noted simply that she was an artist and painter. Larionov's death came shortly thereafter, in May 1964. He was buried beside her with an identical statement on his tombstone.


Chamot, Mary. Goncharova: Stage Designs and Paintings. London: Oresko Books, 1979.

Gray, Camilla. The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863–1922. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1962.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Parton, Anthony. Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age. Edited by Anthony Parton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

suggested reading:

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California