Wednesday 10 July 2019

Natalia Goncharova

Apelsinia, 1909, (oil on canvas)

Four years ago I saw this painting at the Courtauld Institute. It had a profound effect on me in ways that I cannot articulate. It's the colours, the forms, the way the figures are positioned, but a lot more than that: my love of this painting comes from the gut, beyond thought or art criticism.

This painting is the most expensive work of art by a female artist in history which sold for £4.9 million at Christie's in 2007. It was originally displayed in Goncharova's solo exhibition in Moscow in 1913, as Apelsinia, a place-name she invented. It echoes Gauguin's Tahiti paintings but it's the colours that are so distinctive and give it its dreamlike atmosphere: delicate, pinkish hues evoking a sunset, the women's costumes suggesting scenes of Ancient Greek mythology. My feelings about this painting have never subsided, and from time to time I will go back to my blogpost about it just to have another look.

So, I was extremely pleased when I found out that Tate Modern were staging an exhibition of  Goncharova's work. I have mixed feelings about the exhibition: I loved seeing Apelsinia again, and loved some of her other work, but some of it left me cold. I am however very pleased to have had the opportunity to see this exhibition and learn more about this pioneering artist.

Natalia Goncharova

at Tate Modern.

Natalia Goncharova produced an astonishing variety of work, crossing the boundaries between art and design. Living first in Russia, then in France, she was a painter, print-maker, illustrator and fashion designer, as well as a set and costume designer for the Ballets Russes. She drew inspiration from the colours and stylised forms of traditional Russian arts and crafts. She actively campaigned for the preservation of traditional art forms. There is a characteristic overlap of past and present in her work. Scything, harvesting, dancing, Russian Orthodox candelabras: all mixed up with high modernism. And then she will paint a Moscow street scene - women in modish new hats, early biplanes hovering overhead - with an almost regressive primitivism.

In Imperial Russia, social roles and behaviour were dictated by rigid class structures. Goncharova didn't fit easily into the accepted categories. As an aristocrat's daughter, a radical artist and a woman she always stood apart. She shocked society with her cross-dressing and wrote that 'if I clash with society, this occurs only because the latter fails to understand the bases of art and not because of my individual peculiarities, which nobody is obliged to understand'. She once punched a man for calling her Mrs Larionov, and not because she was the more famous.

Goncharova presented more than 350 paintings at her 1913 exhibition, varying from impressionist landscapes to cubo-futurist compositions. Larionov, her partner, and the 19-year-old writer and publisher Ilia Zdanevich coined the term everythingism to describe her art, emphasising her non-hierarchical openness to sources of artistic inspiration. Goncharova was seen as a universal artist who freely borrowed, interpreted and built on the art of the past and present. This was a trait that she followed consistently throughout her career.

Peasant Woman from Tuba Province, 1910 (oil paint on canvas)

Circus, 1907, (oil on canvas)

Orchard in Autumn, 1909, (oil on canvas)

Peasants Picking Apples, 1911, (oil on canvas)

This work marks a departure from the realism of Goncharova's earliest paintings. The everyday routines of agricultural work are depicted using the conventions of ancient and monumental art, such as stiff frontal poses, angular forms and bold colours. The mask-like faces of the apple-pickers are related to stone figures made by the Scythians, an ancient nomadic people. Goncharova examined these statues in Southern Russia.

In her early paintings, the eyes are often like fishes; fishes as religious as the loaves stacked on harvest tables beneath groaning apple trees in a kind of Russian Eden.

Hay Cutting, 1907-08, (oil on canvas)

Apelsinia, 1909, (oil on canvas)

Gardening, 1908, (oil on canvas)

Round Dance, 1910, (oil on canvas)

The Deity of Fertility, 1909, (oil on canvas)

Goncharova's experimental approach to the traditional subject of the nude proved controversial. The public was outraged that a female artist of privileged upbringing should depict a nude female model. Even more offensive was her depiction of pagan deities. The police seized a number of paintings from Goncharova's first monographic exhibition in 1910, and Goncharova became the first modern artist to be charged with the production of 'corrupting imagery'. She was acquitted and, three years later, she will retort with a show of almost 800 pictures in defiance of her censors, right in the middle of Moscow.

Nude Black Woman, 1911, (oil on canvas)

A Model (Against a Blue Background), 1909-10, (oil on canvas)

Water Nymph, 1908, (oil on canvas)

A Smoker (in the Style of a Tray-Painting), 1911, (oil on canvas)

The City, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Winter: Gathering Firewood, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Wrestlers, 1908-09, (oil on canvas)

Maiden on the Beast, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Portrait of Mikhail Larionov and his Platoon Commander, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Angels and Aeroplanes

The Doomed City

The Pale Horse

Communal Grave

The four prints above, are part of the series Mystical Images of War, Goncharova's response to WWI. She hoped that a series of prints could reach a wider audience, and her deliberately simplified compositions combine patriotic and religious imagery. These include stylised symbols of the Allied Forces  and apocalyptical imagery (Pale Horse and Maiden on the Beast). Some of the prints feature historical figures associated with the defence of Russia.

Christ the Saviour, 1910-11, (oil on canvas)

The Evangelists, 1911, (oil on canvas)

By reinterpreting icons in her own work, Goncharova entered challenging territory. For the devout, icon painting was an exclusively male practice. In 1912 the authorities had removed The Evangelists from a group show organised by Goncharova and Larionov on the grounds that an avant-garde exhibition was an inappropriate setting for sacred imagery. For her 1913 exhibition Goncharova placed her religious paintings in a separate room, and they were acknowledged as among the strongest works. When the exhibition reached St Petersburg, however, they were again removed by the censors.

Linen, 1913, (oil on canvas)

Dynamo Machine, 1913, (oil on canvas)

Around 1912-13 Goncharova began to address more urban subjects in her work. She portrayed machines and factories, placing a new emphasis on movement. Like other avant-garde Russian artists, she was responding to Italian Futurism - a call for artists to reject the past and celebrate the dynamism of the modern age - as well as the fractured perspectives associated with Cubism. This combined style was known as Cubo-Futurism.

Factory (Futurist, 1912, (oil on canvas)

Cyclist, 1913, (oil on canvas)

Aeroplane over a Train, 1913, (oil on canvas)

Letter, 1913, (oil on canvas)

Peasants Gathering Grapes, 1913-14, (oil on canvas)

Orchids, 1913, (oil on canvas)

The Rowers' Race, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Russian Woman, late1910s, (oil on canvas)

Bathers, 1922, (oil on canvas)

Spanish Woman with a Fan, 1925-29, (oil on canvas)

Spring, 1927-28, (oil on canvas stretched over frame)

Choreography designs for Les Noces, 1923, (ink on paper)


  1. Coincidentally, I have just written a post on this exhibition - or at least the catalogue. I was looking for a photo of Apelsinia, and found this post, so have linked to you.