The first retrospective of the (take a deep breath) female Russian avant-garde artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer Natalia Goncharova is being held in the UK at the Tate Modern and will be available until the 8 September 2019.
When embarking on this art journey and blog around two years ago, I had no idea what my preference would be or what would interest me. It has been a journey of self-discovery and a lot of learning along the way. Though very early on, I knew that I would make the effort to celebrate and learn about the works of female artists. Living in London has meant that I have been able to enjoy the increase in exhibitions to celebrate the works of solo women artists, such as Lee Bul, Dorothea Tanning, Diane Arbus and Lee Krasner just to name a few and may it long continue! For those interested in female artists, I recommend following @thegreatwomenartists on Instagram, where Katy Hessel does an amazing job of introducing up and coming women artists as well as historical figures.
Born in 1881, Natalia Goncharova grew up in the Tula province, some 200 miles away from Moscow. She was born to a family of “impoverished aristocrats” who made their fortune through textiles, and as a result, this meant that she was familiar with all the stages of textile production, in addition to, nature and farming life. This influenced a lot of her later work through the design of costumes and fashion, as well as her paintings of traditional Russian dress and life.
In Imperial Russia, life and society were dictated by rigid class structures, though Goncharova did not fit into these accepted categories. She was a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with Larionov (her life-long partner) invented Rayonism (1912–1914), see more on this below. She was also a member of the German-based art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter.
Her work greatly influenced the avant-garde in Russia and she was not afraid of being controversial. In 1910, her first solo exhibition was denounced by the press as “disgusting depravation.” Russia, clearly, was not ready for her. At her exhibition, where she displayed the first time her depiction of female nudes ultimately led to the confiscation of her two female nudes and her ‘God(dess) of Fertility painting by the police. This led to her being on trial for violating a law relating to the public display of ‘corrupting’ images but was acquitted. These are currently displayed at the Tate Exhibition.
Goncharova’s experimentation with self-fashioning succeeded in provoking a reaction and brought her considerable attention. Her first retrospective exhibition in 1913 confirmed her as one of the most successful and radical artists, where over 12,000 people visited the exhibition. She was a force to be reckoned with and broke down the barriers of what society deemed what a woman should and should not do.
The exhibition is displayed roughly in chronological order and the key influences on her art during that time. Below are a few key pieces in each room to illustrate how she is a pioneer of “everythingism”.
- Countryside: Peasant Woman from Tula Province (1910) is a beautiful example of Goncharova’s eye for detail and realism, in particular, textiles which continued to be explored and developed throughout her life. The bold lines contrast with the intricate pattern on the traditional costume making it a very striking portrait.
- Moscow: Peasants Picking Apples (1911) marks a change in Goncharova’s painting style. Influenced by European painting, realism made way for old colours and minimal and flattened surfaces. On the opposite wall, there is Queen Isabeau (1909) by Picasso, the similarity is clear. I am not actually a fan of this painting as it looks like something that would be included in a children’s book but recognise it is a key piece in her repertoire and emphasises her ability to adopt many different styles.
- 1913 Exhibition: Gardening (1908) is one of my favourite pieces, where the limited palette reminds me of the French Impressionist style. Goncharova expresses a particular interest in work completed by women, such as them washing linen or harvesting, have a look-out for others in this room.
- Fashion: From the accounts of people who met Goncharova testify to her unique approach to self-presentation, including painting her face and wearing extravagant outfits. Fashion designer Nadezhda Lamanova commissioned Goncharova to create works for her fashion house, where she chose to use a striking colour palette in Design with birds and flowers. Study for textile design (1925–8)
- War: In 1914, Goncharova and Larionov arrived in Paris, however, by August it was the outbreak of the First World War. In this room, it displays her series of Mystical Images of War. This was the first time she used lithography to produce these hauntingly beautiful black and white prints. The White Eagle, Maiden on the Beast and Angels and Aeroplanes are just a few of my favourites
- Art and Religion: central to the development of Russian art is devotional religious paintings, however, this was an exclusively male practice. Goncharova entered a challenging territory when she applied her own approach using simplified forms. Many at the time thought it was inappropriate and yet were acknowledged at the time to being some of her strongest works. My favourite was Christ the Saviour (1910-11)
- Modernism: this is the room that introduces the new movement that she created with Larinov Rayonism, look out for the colourful and electric painting Dynamo Machine (1913)
- Paris: In 1919, Goncharova moved to a flat in Paris where she would remain for the rest of her life. Having a studio enabled her to return to large scale works, including the beautiful Spanish Woman with a Fan (1925-9) and Spring (1927-8) which is stretched over a frame creating a free-standing screen.
- Theatre: the final room brings together Goncharova’s sketches, costumes and set designs from several ballet productions. The costumes in this room are splendid and not to be missed, my favourite being The Firebird which is one of the most enduring productions in the Ballet Russes repertoire.
Rayonism, or rayism, was based on the effect of light on landscape or cityscapes. Goncharova and Larionov developed a new modern style to express energy and movement. It is a subset of Russian Futurism and the movement was inspired by scientific understanding of the material world through x-rays and radioactivity, as well as, the fourth dimension.
Extraordinary Pioneer of Everythingism
The exhibition celebrated an extraordinary woman who defied conventions and had her own voice during a time when many others wanted to silence her. Highly recommended, 3.5 out of 5 pineapples. As always, I would love to hear what you think so please do leave a comment below!
With Sweet & Sour Love,
Pineapple Chicken x