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The Golden Age of Russian Impressionism

Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova (1881 - 1962)

Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova
(1881 - 1962)
      Art Work
Name: Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova
Gender: Female
Place of Birth: Negayevo, Russia
Nationality: Russian
Birth: 1881
Death: 1962
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   Quick Facts
Known For:
Style: Blaue Reiter
Fine Art Profession(s): Painting

Natalia Goncharova was thirty-two years old when a major retrospective of her work was held in Moscow, in 1913. Comprising more than seven hundred items, the exhibition was a huge success with the public - even if the critics remained sharply divided over it. Goncharova was at the height of her career as a member of the Russian avant-garde. She had already exhibited her work in western Europe: in Paris in 1907, in Munich with the 'Blaue Reiter' (Blue Rider) in 1912 and in Berlin at Herwarth Walden's celebrated 'First German Salon d'Automne' in 1913-alongside the work of such artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter and Paul Klee.

Goncharova's life and work were shaped by two extremes: her Russian origins and Western influenced modernism. She was born into the educated and liberal aristocracy and grew up on her family's country estates. Around 1900, she met the painter and designer Mikhail Larionov at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and the two of them began a lifelong love affair and working relationship. Both were key figures in Moscow's avant-garde, who shocked the bourgeoisie with their unconventional behavior. They exhibited with the 'Knave of Diamonds' group and held heated debates about the latest avant-garde trends in Paris.

Goncharova immediately embraced ideas from the West and combined them with Russian traditions. She first painted in an Impressionistic style, but soon discovered the work of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. From her examination of Cubism, she eventually developed a Neo-primitive style characterized by block-like forms, strong colors and motifs taken from peasant life Her models were Russian peasant art, with its crude woodcuts and decorative patterns, as well as Byzantine icon paintings.

Her 1913 Portrait of Larionov is in the Rayonist style and thus marks a new phase in her development as an artist. Rayonism was based on a theory that Larionov expounded in the Rayonist manifesto of the same year and which Goncharova signed. It held that all objects emit rays that are intercepted by other objects nearby. The task of artists was to make these rays visible in their paintings. Goncharova's portrait of Larionov reveals a typically fragmented use of color, especially around the edges. His flat-looking face appears to have been unfolded to reveal various facets. There are obvious similarities both with Cubism and the way it deconstructs its subjects, as seen in the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and the dynamic rhythms of Italian Futurism - even if Rayonism was intended by Goncharova and Larionov to be an original Russian avant-garde style.

Goncharova soon took up new challenges, however. The renowned impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes in Paris, invited her to design sets for his production of The Golden Cockerel after the opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. From then on, the theatre became the focus of her work as an artist. For the music of Claude Debussy and Stravinsky, she designed colorful, ultramodern costumes and sets influenced by Eastern folklore, and accompanied the Ballets Russes on tours through France, Italy and Spain. Natalia Goncharova returned to Russia only once more, in 1915, eventually becoming a French citizen. In 1962 - two years before her companion, Larionov - she died in Paris.

In her 'Thoughts on Art' written in 1912, Natalia Goncharova declared: 'Cubism is a positive phenomenon, but it is not altogether a new one, especially as far as Russia is concerned. The Scythians made their stone maidens in this hallowed style. Wonderful painted wooden dolls are sold at our fairs ... in France, too, it was the Gothic and African figure sculptures that served as the springboard for Cubist painting. Over the last decade, Picasso has been the most important, most talented artist working in the Cubist manner, whereas in Russia it has been yours truly.' ^ The following year Goncharova exhibited over 760 works at the Moscow Art Salon. This was the first large-scale retrospective in the city given to a woman artist's - or an avant-garde artist's - work, and proved a great success. It was sponsored by the woman dealer Klavdiia Mikhailova."

One of an extraordinary group of women artists in the twentieth century Russia. Goncharova featured alongside Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova and Nadezhda Udaltsova in the touring exhibition Amazons of the Avant-Garde, organised by the Guggenheim Museum, New York,m 1999-2000. Goncharova entered the Moscow School of Painting. Sculpture and Architecture in 1898. A fellow student, Mikhail Larionov, became her close collaborator. For women in the avant-garde, forging a new art could mean trying to live in new ways. Goncharova and Larionov cohabited but remained unmarried until 1955. Addressing women in an open letter of around 1913, she exhorted: 'Believe in yourself more, in your strengths and rights before mankind and God, believe that everybody, including women, has an intellect in the form and image of God.' TC Goncharova's early work was influenced by Gauguin and Matisse. Modern French art was being imported and exhibited in Russia by wealthy collectors. Goncharova used her knowledge of the new art as a filter through which to pass the forms and conventions of Russian popular and religious culture, peasant embroidery, hand-colored prints (lubki), shop signs and icons. The marriage of European modernism with Russian culture is evident in Gardening (1908, Tate), in which barefoot women carry pots of white tulips. Goncharova defined her neo-primitive style as 'Eastern' in contrast to the rationalism of the Western renaissance, and she and Larionov organized two artist groups in Moscow, Bubnovy Valet (Jack/Knave of Diamonds) and Osliny Khvost (The Donkey's Tail), including Malevich, Shevchenko and Tatlin. The obvious influence of peasant artefacts is likely to have offended cultivated society, which tended to regard them as primitive and ugly. Goncharova's exhibition of several figure paintings at the Society of Free Aesthetics that led to her trial in court on a charge of indecency. The figure was heightened because she was a woman; the male art establishment reacted against such work being made by a female.'

Goncharova began to picture modernity, and, influenced by Cubism and Futurism, painted fractured compositions capturing movement. In The Weaver (Loom + Woman) (1913, National Museum of Wales. Cardiff), the figure is an extension of the loom, her arm like a lever, linen had a personal resonance for Goncharova. Her family had owned linen factories, and she explored the relationship between femininity and the fabric of everyday life in the painting. We are not shown the person working on the crisp lace and piles of shirts, collars and cuffs, but it would, conventionally, have been a woman, and the iron evokes her presence. Goncharova also performed in Futurist theatre and film. And, with Larionov, she developed a mystical representation of light and space. 'Rayism', in a series of paintings titled Rayist Forest of 1912-14 (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and elsewhere), which, again, drew upon Cubism and Futurism, but also the work of Sonia Delaunay and her husband.

In 1913 Diaghilev commissioned Goncharova to design the ballet Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel) for the Ballets Russes (Rimsky Korsakov composed the music after a poem by Alexander Pushkin). She travelled to Paris to see the production in 1914 Three years later she and Larionov moved to the French capital, and in 1918 he organized the exhibition L'Art De'coratif Thedtral Moderne at the Galerie Sauvage. Several of Gonchaiova's designs were for ballets with music by Stravinsky, including L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) (1926). She was also a printmaker and graphic artist. During the First World War she made a series of lithographs.

Goncharova was critically neglected for a long period, but she continued to work. A series of late paintings, including Outer Space of 1957-8 (National Art Gallery. Wellington, New Zealand), celebrate the launch of the first sputnik from the Soviet Union. En 1961 an exhibition was organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and in 1963 a Goncharova and Larionov retrospective was held at the Musee dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

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