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Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was a dynamic and unorthodox individual. Unusual for female artists of the period, she was famous within her own lifetime, and revered as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by her male colleagues. Supported by her partner Mikhail Larionov, she helped to revolutionise the Russian art scene of the early 1910s, challenging societal convention, flouting artistic canon, and producing powerful works that both heralded modernism as well as celebrated the time-honoured folk art and popular culture of Russia. She was a traveller through space and time in search of the ultimate art form beyond style or individuality, geography or history, the artistic or the decorative – a Renaissance Woman who defies labels.

Artists featured in this Curation: Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) and Michel Larionov (1881–1964)
6 artworks

In 1913, a 32-year-old Goncharova astonished Moscow with her first major retrospective. Including over 800 works, it was the most ambitious project by a Russian artist to date. Indeed, it confirmed Goncharova as one of the country’s most successful and radical artists. While she may be situated within her rebellious creative milieu, the diversity of her artistic practice was entirely singular. The exhibition presented a variety of works by Goncharova, integrating paintings with works on paper, designs for theatre, textiles and fashion, wallpaper and popular prints.

Leading up to her retrospective, Goncharova and her colleagues painted their faces with asymmetric hieroglyphic patterns in blue and red, and walked along Kuznetsky Most and the Petrovka in Moscow - the district from which the fashionable and respectable private art galleries and haute couture of Moscow operated. The encroachment of these artists into this space was a shock to the purveyors and purchasers of good taste, creating a sensation in the press which hailed Goncharova as ‘the leader of the futurists’. Her fame rose in tandem with a period of radical socio-economic and cultural change in Russia and the rest of Europe. It is this context, alongside Goncharova’s upbringing, with which we will now examine her extraordinary artworks.

Goncharova was born and raised in the countryside of the Tula province, south-west of Moscow. The Goncharovas’ dwindling fortune had been built on textile manufacturing in the 18th century. Being surrounded by traditional folk arts and crafts during her childhood had a lasting influence on Natalia. Her paintings feature woven and embroidered textiles in various stages of production. Her figures - often peasant women engaged in laborious activities - wear vibrant clothes that replicate with ethnographic precision the colour, pattern and embroidery customs of the Tula province. Her scenes display a striking array of tablecloths, wallpapers, curtains and throws that animate the canvas and delight the eye.

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Gardening
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024. Image credit: Tate

Gardening

Having grown up in the countryside, Goncharova identified with peasant culture, frequently adorning peasant costume herself. She used her experience, knowledge and skill to paint peasants at work, such as in Gardening. The harmonious blues, purples and greys create a sense of calm and harmony in the piece; the gardeners go about their work in peaceful composure and dignity, their blue attire echoing the heavens above. As Goncharova reflected on the importance of tone, 'colours affect the mentality, they are closely linked to a state of mind or of morality towards which they can direct a person and at the same time they express an atmosphere, an environment.' These solemn, diligent, almost saint-like figures inspire our respect.

Gardening 1908
Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962)
Oil on canvas
H 102.9 x W 123.2 cm
Tate

When Goncharova was 11, her family had become increasingly impoverished, resulting in their uprooting to Moscow. The loss of a childhood home had a profound effect on her, mirroring the seismic upheavals that were taking place in Russia towards the end of the 19th century. Technological and industrial progress was taking over everyday life a largely agrarian society, undermining the traditional rural crafts, culture and ways of life with which she identified and paid tribute to in her artworks. The dream of the Russian countryside as a lost Eden was imprinted on her memory. As such, Goncharova responded to the mechanisation of economic and societal structures with ambivalence.

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The Weaver
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024. Image credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

The Weaver

The Weaver depicts a woman operating a mechanised loom. As Goncharova declared: ‘The mechanised and the bio-mechanical are one and the same. The very joy of my work is to reveal it.’ Here, she not only expresses how machines were changing everyday life, expanding human capability, but how they were becoming an extension of the human itself, transforming people’s perceptions of themselves and reality. While the loom is an impressive structure, dominating the picture space and illuminated by an electric light, its human operator is rendered transparent, lacking human identity. Hunched over, her fragmented body is conflated with the loom process. She is entrapped, a cog in the machine: a far cry from the traditional rural worker.

The Weaver 1910
Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962)
Oil on canvas
H 154.4 x W 99.8 cm
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

In 1901, at the age of 19, Goncharova commenced training as a sculptor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. It was during her time there that the 1905 Russian Revolution radicalised the intelligentsia, rendering the school a refuge for activists who challenged the autocratic establishment under the Tsar. Unsurprisingly, Goncharova’s lifestyle and creative works reflected that revolutionary spirit, defying the rules and conventions that the establishment urged upon her—both as an artist and a woman. It was at art school that she met Mikhail Larionov, with whom she lived (unmarried) and worked for the rest of her life. Side by side, they set out to establish a radical art scene and pioneer new means of expression.

‘It seems to me that we are living through the most critical moment in the life of Russian art. The factors that have caused this are: the strong impact of French art of the last decades and the strong rise in the interest in ancient Russian painting.’

Goncharova and Larionov’s artistic development bespeaks their response to the Paris-centred art of the West. During this time, Russia was enjoying economic growth and cultural reawakening, aided by creative partnerships with Europe. In 1906, Larionov had seen the Paul Gauguin retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, which inspired his efforts towards the Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow in 1908, celebrating modern Western art. Their influences included Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism and Futurism. Goncharova was one of the first Russian artists to embrace the latter two, developing a ‘Cubo-Futurist’ style that integrated the French Cubist fragmentation of form with the Italian Futurist representation of dynamic movement.

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La forêt (The Forest)
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024. Image credit: National Galleries of Scotland

La forêt (The Forest)

La forêt evinces Goncharova’s experimentations with Cubism. Its foreground and background elements seem to intermingle, flattening the picture plane. The trees and trunks are fragmented, erasing the individuality of leaves and grass and replacing them with solid blocks of bright colour. In the French Cubist style, the painting emphasises the two-dimensionality of the canvas while refuting the academic tradition of imitating nature. Goncharova imparts a new reality, where trees are broken down into their constituent elements of trunks and leaves: a simplified, almost machine-like view of the natural world.

La forêt (The Forest) c.1913
Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962)
Oil on canvas
H 53.8 x W 81 cm
National Galleries of Scotland

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Linen
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024. Image credit: Tate

Linen

Linen bears traces of influence from synthetic Cubism: a stage in the artistic movement that incorporated new textures and patterns into paintings and experimented with collage. Moving beyond mere figural representation, Goncharova also uses synecdoche — inserting letters — to signal the subject matter, laundry. The Russian inscriptions indicate a laundrette sign — Prache originating from the word for laundry, b.s. being an abbreviation for ‘white wash’ and BOT possibly stemming from the word rabota, meaning ‘work’. The painting is a celebration of the commonplace in post-industrial Russia – modern laundry practices. Our perspective of the gleaming iron is distorted, broken down into flat geometric shapes with the semblance of motion.

Linen 1913
Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962)
Oil on canvas
H 95.6 x W 83.8 cm
Tate

With as much dynamism as the artworks they created, Goncharova and Larionov went on to develop another abstract art movement: rayonism (luchizm). Following Cubo-Futurism, the style explored the effect of light rays as they reflect, intersect and break around objects, distorting an image. In Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto (1913) they write: ‘The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, its saturation, the relation of coloured masses, depth, texture’. While Larionov and Goncharova recognised the importance of Western art on avant-garde artistic practice, their work simultaneously fostered a distinctly Eastern character.

As Goncharova declared in the catalogue for her 1913 exhibition: ‘Modern French painters opened my eyes, and I grasped the great importance and value of the art of my native land, and through it, the value of the art of the East.’

Distinguishing their work from the Western modernists, they embraced and promoted a ‘Neo-primitivist’ celebration of art and culture from Russia and the East. Larionov adopted a child-like, two dimensional style and incorporated the language of Russian popular culture: a deliberate flouting of academic convention and respectability. Meanwhile, Goncharova fused the decorativeness of traditional Russian art forms — the icon and, above all, the lubok, illustrated stories for the largely illiterate peasantry — with Western painting, often drawing from the culture of her native Tula province. Their revival of uniquely national art forms enabled them, as Goncharova later said, 'to shake off the dust of the West’.

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Soldier on a Horse
© the copyright holder. Image credit: Tate

Soldier on a Horse

The influence of lubki on this work is undeniable: the vivid colours, the empty background, the flatness of the figures and landscape, and the insertion of script. For makers of lubki these devices were part of a standard code of representation, but for Larionov and Goncharova they offered an alternative to classical perspective, proportion and subject matter. Larionov viewed soldiers as dissenters from strict social convention, whose manners and speech embodied rebellion against the establishment. The immediacy of the graffiti – Russian slang – provides a release of subversive thoughts and feelings, correlating it to the immediacy of the creative act, without pruning or polishing. It captures a moment of uninhibited expression.

Soldier on a Horse c.1911
Michel Larionov (1881–1964)
Oil on canvas
H 87 x W 99.1 cm
Tate

Not only did their work subvert Western norms, but Goncharova was one of the most notorious artists in Russia. In December 1910, she had stood trial, accused of pornography. Although the charges were subsequently dismissed, the basis of them was that Natalia had exhibited religious subjects in a secular context and, moreover, as a woman artist, she had chosen to depict what were viewed as ‘masculine’ subjects. Along with her illicit relationship with Larionov, this was enough to establish her, in the minds of the Russian public, as an example of modernism and avant-gardism. Perhaps because of this dubious social reputation, her art was said to transgress the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes’.

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Rabbi with Cat
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024. Image credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Rabbi with Cat

Goncharova’s rebellious stance is particularly evident in her paintings of Jews, such as Rabbi with Cat. She was a universalist, believing in the equality of all religious beliefs – a very radical view for her time. Under the antisemitic Tsarist regime, Jewish people were pushed to the fringes of society, subject to discrimination and pogroms. This painting outraged the political and religious authorities, deliberately depicting a Jew in the format of a Russian orthodox icon that echoes the Virgin and Child. The hand that descends from the top-left corner is ambiguous. Is it the Hand of God, blessing the Rabbi? Or is it the scapegoating, accusatory hand of the socio-political establishment, condemning Jews to their marginalised position?

Rabbi with Cat c.1912
Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962)
Oil on canvas
H 100.2 x W 92 cm
National Galleries of Scotland

By 1913 Goncharova had embraced the principle of ‘everythingism’ (vsechetsvo), a term used by their colleague, the futurist poet Zdanevich, to describe her non-hierarchical openness to artistic practice. ‘We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today — for example, cubism, futurism, orphism, and their synthesis, rayonism, for which the art of the past, like life, is an object of observation.’ She was a universal artist who, openly and without constraint, built on diverse forms of art, past and present. Consistently throughout her career, this enabled her fluidity between the ‘individualism’ of the canvas and the participatory nature of fashion and theatre design.