Tate Modern’s latest retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist, Natalia Goncharova, is a triumph of colour, style and artistic brilliance, writes our arts contributor Gabriela Frost.
I spent some time trying to work out what it was about the Natalia Goncharova retrospective at Tate Modern which made it feel so special. Was it the dazzling range of works from across the globe reunited now, here, in London? The much overdue and greatly anticipated arrival of such an exhibition? Was it simply the heady draw of the vivid and instinctive colours? After some reflection, I realised that it was something interstitial, somewhere between and beyond these factors. The thing that makes the retrospective so alluring, so tantalizing, is the closeness we feel with the artist herself as we stroll through the space. Goncharova is not only present in every single painting, drawing, textile and print: she is a spirit inhabiting the very space, standing by your side as you tour the exhibition, nodding, gesturing, interjecting. You are in good hands.
Indeed, though Goncharova passed away more than half a century ago, we have the distinct impression that she had her say in the curation of the exhibition. After all, this retrospective is an echo of another, long ago. In 1913, when still only in her early thirties, Goncharova held a monumental retrospective at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow, which featured eight hundred pieces across just six rooms. The passion and integrity with which Tate curators Natalia Sidlina and Matthew Gale have approached the grandiose task of reassembling her expansive oeuvre is testament to the respect commanded by Goncharova’s outstanding production; like her, they have organised the works into themes. To this day, the breadth and vivacity of Goncharova’s practice humbles even the most prestigious of modern art spaces.
Born in Russia in 1881, Goncharova came from a family of impoverished aristocrats whose business was in textiles. Growing up on the country estates the artist became familiar both with the processes of textile production, and with the lives and toils of the agricultural peasantry. After moving to Moscow aged eleven, Goncharova studied at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from the age of twenty, where she not only developed her own aesthetic approach – which would later be dubbed ‘everythingism’ by her long-term partner Mikhail Larionov – but also met other like-minded artists, and forged connections and ideas which would situate herself and her peers at the cutting edge of the Russian and European avant-gardes. The significance of her place in avant-garde art history is impossible to overstate.
As visitors, our experience begins even before we cross the threshold into the gallery. Through the doorway, we see a costume – a dress of rich and evocative design that immediately situates our journey in the colourful imaginary of rural Russian tradition (Festive Female Costume, anon, Tula province, 19th Century). The first room welcomes us as if into a home; the walls are pasted with a yellow and white decorative paper, from which hangs the warm and familiar face of the artist herself in Self Portrait in a Period Costume (1907-08). Opposite hangs her counterpart, the rosy-cheeked and vibrantly clad Peasant Woman from Tula Province (1910). Here and in the next room, bold colour and folkloric subjects combine with an eye for design, pattern, texture. The walls, the clothes and the natural world are as much protagonists of each scene as their human inhabitants.
Meandering through the 10 rooms which comprise the Tate retrospective, it is impossible not to be struck by the scope of Goncharova’s prolific oeuvre. Through the medium of painting she confronts landscapes, portraits, nudes, still lifes, icons, genre painting and cubo-futurist studies, all in a mixture of hot, fauve flushes and icy winter hues. Her harmonious understanding of textile and design manifests in her fashion designs and costumes; in the floral arabesques and byzantine flair of her patterns as well as in her paintings. She also worked in print. Her lithographs are displayed in room 5, where we encounter saints and legends rendered in some cases with a medieval coarseness, in others with a byzantine sheen. In room seven her seemingly medieval illustrations accompany stories, lending an air of magic and myth. Her posters and programs evoke the buzz of the exciting artistic scene which Goncharova busily cultivated everywhere she went.
The largest of the exhibition rooms, dedicated to her 1913 exhibition, is filled with paintings, many of which are scenes from rural life, such as Hay Cutting (1907-08) and Round Dance (1910). From around the walls a veritable forest of trees subtly emerges, the lines and angles of their forms serving as a precursor to the rayonism of her later work. Yet the epicentre of this room is found in the Harvest series (1911). This set of seven pieces (of an original nine) adorns an entire wall, blazing in a saturated whirl of burning carmine, amber and saffron, pitched against the sacred midnight blue of countless cathedral domes, of byzantine mosaics and precious sapphires. The religious-inspired work epitomises the narrative capacity of Goncharova’s stroke; here the wrath of God emerges not only in the Christian imagery, but also in the violent colour and bold brushstrokes. This expressive work bursts like a torrent from the wide, white walls. Yet Goncharova is nothing if not versatile. Still treating religious themes in series form, The Evangelists series (1911) – which is found a few rooms later – looms gloomily over the visitor like the sombre stained-glass windows of a musty church on a cloudy day.
Throughout this retrospective we are constantly reassessing and expanding our understanding of the artist. Room 8 showcases Goncharova’s cubo-futurist modernist production, including the famous Cyclist (1913). Here we shift from rural to urban, from iconographic to industrial, from past to future. The walls dance with the spinning of cogs (Loom + Woman, 1912-13) and the pumping of pistons (Dynamo Machine, 1913). There is a sense of perpetual thrust, in the futuristic fragmentation of the cyclist, in the crashing of the waves over The Rowers’ Race (1911) and the hurtling multi-directionality of Aeroplane Over a Train (1913). Even here, textile re-emerges in the comparatively cold Linen (1913), where rolls, strips and frills combine and collide in a collage of whites and blues.
Indeed, fabric, pattern and design are ubiquitous across Goncharova’s broad experiments in style. They recur in Orange Seller (1916), Saint Barbara (1912-13), and of course in her fashion and costume. In room nine, which showcases her Paris work, there is an intriguing shift towards East Asian design: an enormous Japanese screen stretches across the far corner. On this piece, entitled Spring (1927-27), Goncharova’s bold and vibrant geometric patterns, inspired by the traditional dress of the Russian Tula province, are replaced by pale and delicate woodland blossoms, soft seeds, and quiet roots. It becomes clear that there is no style, no subject, nothing which Goncharova does not wish to embrace.
Yet it is the final room which proves to be the highlight of the retrospective. After a series of bright and light galleries, here the deep blue of the Harvest series returns to swallow us up. This is the treasury of the collection: here everything dazzles. The dark walls are laden with meticulous and delightful set designs, lit up in intricate mosaics of colour (see Set Design for the final scene of the Firebird, 1954). In the centre, a series of costumes – designed by Goncharova for numerous productions, including many of the legendary Ballets Russes under Diaghilev – sparkle, glisten and twinkle in majestic opulence. Goncharova’s costumes are of phenomenal richness, both with regard to the plush luxury of the fabrics and the intensity of colour. The level of detail in this room astounds the eye. The costume for the Coq D’Or (1937) is particularly entrancing, made up of a mixture of sheening fabrics in hues of bronze, silver, and gold. A soft, fine chainmail of a bodice sits below the flush of gleaming feathers. It is an outfit to make Midas blush.
In a time when arts were strictly divided, hierarchised and even gendered between higher, fine (masculine) art, and lesser, decorative (feminine) design, Goncharova’s work marks an intervention in the stultifying restrictions of contemporary ideologies. Her oeuvre bursts the seams, and leaps instead into a joyful exploration of art without limits. She was not uncontroversial in her time, and even faced an obscenity trial for her depictions of nudes. Yet as an outspoken and innovative artist, and an early proponent of body art, Goncharova can be seen to have forged a path for what we have come to know as the avant-garde – both specifically in early twentieth-century Russia, and more broadly in Europe. The Tate retrospective eradicates any doubt over the place of Goncharova at the forefront of modern art. When I asked her thoughts on Goncharova’s all-embracing approach, curator Natalia Sidlina succinctly pinpointed the particularity of the artist which the Tate exhibition so deftly captures and communicates: Goncharova’s practice was ‘an absolute synthesis of art and life’.
- Feature image: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911). Oil paint on canvas 1000 x 1290 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Bequeathed by A.K. Larionova-Tomilina 1989 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019.
- Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Theatre costume for Sadko in Sadko, 19161850 x 850 x 650 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by the British Theatre Museum Association © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019.
- Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Two female dancers (half-length) Choreography design for Les Noces (c.1923). Ink and paint on paper, 250 x 250 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019.