Saturday, 18 July 2020


Tate Modern, London

“Now I shake the dust from my feet and leave the West, considering its vulgarising significance trivial and unimportant – my path is toward the source of all arts, the East. The art of my country is incomparably more profound and important than anything that I know in the West.”
- Goncharova, 1913

Barbarism Begins At Home

Several shows on Russian Modernism had featured Natalia Goncharova (including the Royal Academy’s ‘Amazons of the Avant-Garde’ in 2000, and the Tate’s own ‘Futurism’ in 2009), all of which had left me primed for this solo retrospective.

The folk traditions of her homeland often inspired her art, with ’Washing the Canvases’ (1910, above) demonstrating a stage in textile production. Inserting this task into an idealised landscape creates a somewhat bucolic scene, suggesting that peasants remain ‘natural artists’. As Mureil Zagha of Apollo magazine puts it: “A vein of nostalgic pastoral – the dream of the Russian countryside as a lost Eden in the face of industrialisation – informed her work throughout.”

It’s idealised in both senses, not just utopian but also abstracted from the reality it’s based in. The dog for example is virtually a silhouette. And though the picture conveys the sense of an abundant nature stretching to a distant horizon, in a nod to folk art conventions it’s actually organised into distinct segments.

‘Peasant Woman From Tula Province’ (also 1910, above) relocates indoors, not even giving us much of a window view. Which throws focus on the patterns of those textiles, not just on the woman’s clothing but the curtain behind her. Though her face is modelled, this is very much a painting which knows its job is to arrange elements on a flat surface. And Goncharova not only took inspiration from fabric patterns, she designed them herself.

Like Malevich’s early work, from a similar time and place, the title asks us to see the woman not so much an individual as a type, as an example of peasantry. Which he came to use as “the emblem of Russia.” It may even be Goncharova gave him this motif.

In its use of vivid colours ‘Orchard in Autumn’ (1909, above) is quite Fauvist. Was the earth actually that strong a ruddy brown? Would a workman’s shirt really stay pure white long enough to get painted? But that’s not really the point. The colours aren’t beholden to accuracy so much as on the canvas to convey something to us. There’s only seven colours to the whole thing. But what originally looks like solid blocks, almost spot colours, turns out to be made up of painterly strokes. (Check out the tree trunks, for example.) Which gives the work a shimmering, enticing effect.

Like that nameless peasant woman Goncharova’s family came from Tula province, and had originally made their money from textiles. (Though much of it had dissipated by her day, the show describing her generation with the somewhat Checkovian term “impoverished aristocrats”.) But they had moved to Moscow when she was eleven. And while she made summer visits back there, these were really little more than holidays. As Jane A Sharp says “photographs show her playing peasant, dressed in local clothing but wearing city shoes.”

Some while ago I speculated that Moscow’s distance from Paris, the epicentre of Modernism, gave the movement a lustre and mystique. It seemed convincing at the time. As I was to find out, Muscovite merchants were such keen collectors they actually made the town a handy place to get up to date. Goncharova’s quote up top is a good polemic, reviews of this show often quoting it. But as was common with her it worked better as a sound-bite than it did statement of reality.

This style, which came to be called Neo-Primitivism, is best considered not as ‘the new primitivism’ so much as ‘the new combined with the primitive’. And this had a special piquancy, not just for Goncharova but for Russian art in general. As I said over the Academy’s ‘From Russia’ show:

“Modernism’s access to the primitive mostly came from the treasures of colonialism, the tribal masks of Picasso coming from France’s African colonies. Russia’s treasures, conversely, were domestic… This was perhaps a consequence of Russia’s unique status in Europe, its vast size and still-near-feudal relations in the countryside.”

Similarly, a review of the Russian section of the 1909 Vienna exhibition commented “a very short while ago it was a saying that if one scratched a Russian, one discovered a barbarian. Now… in the barbarian we find a great artistic advantage… the barbarian embraces us with the most elegant of modernists, and each completes the other.”

Neo-primitivism ensured that ‘Russian-ness’ was no longer something provincial but now exotic and alluring. You just needed some Moscow mixed in with that Tula.

…all of which fed precisely into Goncharova’s great talent, to blend ‘barbarism’ and Modernism so seamlessly you’d swear you were mistaken ever to see them as separate things. She could be country girl and Muscovite sophisticate, both at once. To quote Jane A Sharp again: “she initiated an interchange between fine and popular arts that became the focus of post-Revolutionary avant-garde projects.”

And so, in her writings, she was ever-insistent that Modernism needed to be ever-moving and polygamously assimilationist of styles, not tied to the mast of some restrictive manifesto. Artists should first create, and theorise later. She once wrote a stroppy letter to Marinetti, essentially accusing him of making rules under the guise of breaking them. This attitude allowed her to swallow up and digest influences like the Cyclops of Greek myth.

Yet the fact it was a good polemic is significant too, for she was someone who saw the value of a good blag. Her 1913 solo show was launched with a lecture on her by Ilia Zdanevich, sketching in her biography - elaborate, adventurous and almost entirely fictitious. She quite literally made an exhibition of herself, seeking out notoriety with zeal. John C Bowlt says she “turned her very life into a work of art”, while the show describes her “parading in the streets of Moscow with her face painted and wearing extravagant outfits” (see photo above). Wikipedia claims, in a pre-echo of Femen, she’d sometimes appear topless painted with symbols. 

More than once her pictures were seized from exhibitions and her put on trial for pornography. (Though she was never convicted.) Sergei Diaghilev commented “The young crowd […] don’t just emulate her as an artist; they imitate her appearance, too.” So she started a fashion house. She had a penchant for planning and designing extravagant parties.

Bohemian in spirit, she didn’t marry Larionov, her lifelong companion, until 1955 - when inheritance laws essentially bounced them into it. Once, mis-addressed as his wife, she angrily slapped the transgressor. But it’s perhaps more than that. Dedicating yourself to antagonising a bourgeoisie you feed from and belong to… the claim Modernists were the first rock stars would find much material in Goncharova. Her own personal image cannot be seen as something separate from her work. And as such, grand claims and fake biographies should be seen as creative statement.

Into Icons

All the previous illos have used some form of pictorial space, even if just enough to keep the viewer happy. Whereas ’Hay Cutting’ (1907/8, above) more foregrounds its compositional devices - with bold outlines and more defined colours. There’s little attempt to differentiate the two most foreground figures. Not just in their dress and poses but their impassively depersonalised faces, they’re more a symbol of a peasant than an example of one. And most of all, as if in emulation of folk art, they’re allowed to vary considerably in size from the left-hand figure with the scythe. Though an earlier work than the others, this condensed-down style would be her direction.

It shouldn’t be denied that her idealised views of peasant life were more easily indulged in by those who didn’t have to do the hard labour which came with it. And it was Moscow which allowed a woman to pursue this life of a free-spirited artist, she needed those city shoes to stand in. She and Larionov became set designers for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, who (in he show’s words) “manufactured an exotic version of the East for captivated audiences in the West”. So a shift away from seemingly literal depictions, to something more easily seen as the countryside of the mind, made sense. Contrast two works…

‘Winter; Gathering Firewood’ (1911, above) is a broadly similar composition to ‘Hay Cutting’, one working figure faced against two carriers, with a tree backdrop. But the notoriously harsh Russian winter is seen through a sentimentalised lens, as if gathering firewood is a fun way of getting out the house rather than labour necessary to keep you alive. Frankly, it wouldn’t look out of place on a Christmas card. (Is there a Russian tree which blossoms white in mid-winter, as seen at the top here? I feel mildly sceptical.)

Whereas in ’Frost’ (1910/11, above) the figures are reduced to trudging silhouettes, dwarfed by the expanse of icy white which occupies most of the picture. Winter here is an all-pervasive force. While ’Gathering Firewood’ bustles with activity, ’Winter’ is solemnly dominated by an overpowering silence, as if human society’s been muted by nature and is likely to stay that way all season long. ’Gathering Firewood’ seems intended to make us feel all warm inside, ’Winter’ the very opposite.

And this more iconic style came, at least in part, from Icons. Traditional religious painting either went alongside peasant art or was one form of it, it scarcely matters which. Here works are only concerned with their symbolic meaning, with what they represent. See for example ’The Evangelists’ (1911, below). These gained great attention almost straight away, and continue to be among the more widely known of her works. Not to mention controversial….

Some have seen a link between the relatively high number of women artists in Russian Modernism and its basis in folk arts and crafts. But as soon as we get to the Icons this reverses. Russian Orthodoxy was patriarchal, its head literally called the Patriarch. And it saw the creation of Icons as explicitly man’s work, so her versions became (in Wikipedia’s words) “transgressive and problematic”. More than once they were removed from shows by censors, ’The Evangelists’ among them.

Which does suggest this interest comes from the controversy rather than the art itself. In fact, the ‘pure’ Icons are not among my favourite of her works. The essence of Goncharova comes in her ability to mix and blend, where these can look merely imitative.

It ’s hard to reconstruct how much she intended this furore. It became common for Russian Modernists to take an interest in Icons, but only for their formal qualities. They were after all an avowedly atheist bunch, with Rodchenko dismissing painting as being “as useless as a Church”. But Goncharova, like the peasant art which inspired her, saw this the other way up - making no distinctions to be drawn between religion, art and daily life. Of the controversy she said “I believe in the Lord firmly enough. Who knows who believes and how?” Elsewhere she asserted “everybody, including women, has an intellect in the form and image of God.”

We should also remember that Russian Orthodoxy had repressed but not expunged paganism, leaving fertility symbolism latent for an artist to pick up on. So for example ’Christ the Saviour’ (1910) depicts Jesus in a traditional pose but garlanded with grapevines. Just as she absorbed art styles which came her way, she incorporated mythological systems into her own.

And for someone so attuned to art’s connections to performance, if not showbiz, she also had a strongly mystic side. Her lithographic services, ’Mystical Images of War’ reflected the outbreak of the First World War by “blending contemporary warfare and ancient prophecy.”

Malevich’s mysticism was ascetic, art’s value lay in pointing us away from this transient world to the ineffable. Whereas Goncharova’s is more like Blake’s, something which runs through our reality. Yet for all the drama there’s a fatalism, rather than any sense of taking sides the feeling persists that events must run their course. The ‘mystic’ can occupy the top third of the image, like heralds with messages in the sky. As in ’Angels Throwing Stones on the City’ (below), which seems to refer to the Biblical destruction of Sodom, even as the city under bombardment looks modern. Yet at other points the two vie with one another, as in ‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ (below below).

So ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911, above) pushes the iconic path further, making only the vaguest gestures to a background. There’s some shifts between deep blue and black to suggest that’s not just a painted flat, but that’s all. Even the picked apple appears from outside the frame, rather than from a branch which would necessarily connect the tree to the figures. But there’s still just enough hand-holds for us to see the apple pickers as inside, and interacting with, an environment.

Whereas by the compositionally similar ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ (1913/14, above) the hulking geometric figures monstrously dominate their surroundings, enhanced by a composition which makes them resemble a single central block. And unlike, say Bomberg’s ‘Mud Bath’, the picture doesn’t seem to be about individualism succumbing to a collectivised abstraction. Instead they look primordial giants.

If the influence of Cubism is clear here, ever the nativist Goncharova countered that Cubism was nothing new for Russia due to their heritage of Scythian art. However the Scythians were a historic group dating no more recently than the second century. It was akin to Picasso being influenced by Greek art, something at more of a remove than peasant art.

And if ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ seems the figurative equivalent of stem cells ’Bathers’ (1922, above) suggests a primordial scene, where the figures seem to be emerging from the water and into human form simultaneously. The colour scheme, from black to brown to orange, does much to enhance this. But the figures themselves are pitched almost perfectly between abstraction and recognisable form. The triptych format, common in religious art, may also lead you to so cosmogenic areading.

The Charged City

Despite all these rural scenes, Goncharova neither neglected urban life nor necessarily saw it negatively. In Italy the deep contrasts between country and city spurred Futurism. So it did with Goncharova, but without the antipathy. She saw the country with the enthralled eye of a city dweller, but also vice versa. So she could recognise, and celebrate in art, what was unique to both - timelessness and time running at full speed.

Contemporary audiences seem to have trouble with this. Google-image her name and it’s predominantly rural scenes you find, while with Larionov it’s the reverse. Yet the truth is both painted both. And this was not unusual for Modernism. It was there from Impressionism, arguably the first of its many movements.

’The City’ (1911, above) is an exercise in packing level atop level, like a pictorial Jenga tower. The fence is taller than the figures, the houses taller than the fence, the tree than the houses, the tower blocks than the tree, the spire and chimney than the tower blocks, then the planes soar above all. Yet unlike, say ’Washing the Canvases’ there’s not even a simulation of perspective, just a stacking of objects behind one another. The urban world goes up, not back.

The composition is almost like ’Frost’ in placing a dwarfed line of human silhouettes at the base of the frame. While the comparison of the spire to the chimney seems almost emblematic of Russian Modernism at this time. Yet she is still painting in the same way she painted the country. Which was soon to change…

Russia took up Cubo-Futurism, a compound term used for the simultaneous adaptation of two Western styles. Goncharova and Larionov launched a particular strand they called Rayonism (or Rayism, depending on your translator) in 1913. (With accompanying manifesto, antipathy to all of that presumably temporarily suspended.) Her rural works, even when they portrayed an activity, seem fixed, suggesting what we’re seeing is reiterations of a timeless activity. Even active figures look solid and immutable. With the Rayonist works, even solid things no longer seem solid things.

Take for example ’Cyclist’ (1913, above). Perhaps not un-coincidentally for Cubo-Futurism it’s based on a kind of double vision. Reiterations of the rider’s outline create a blur effect, as if we see him speeding past us. The attempt to capture motion in art, you might want to call that Futurist.

Yet the window displays behind him are shown in a fragmentary fashion, a jumble of impressions passing too fast to fix on, so creating a kind of collage effect. The backwards pointing hand is a particularly nice touch. As the Rayonist manifesto put it, “the painting is revelaed as a skimmed impression”. The background, in other words, is Cubist. Which creates a rather literal version of Cubo-Futurism, where the two styles aren’t combined but kind of hitched together. It’s as if we see what he sees even as he see him,

But perhaps the significant this is how it doesn’t look like that, how effectively the two blend. We see the cyclist in the same frame as we see what he sees, but we just go with it.

This is possibly her best-known urban work. But it’s not the most radical. Their manifesto said:

“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, it’s saturation, the relation of coloured masses, depth, texture. We do not sense the object with our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures… in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision.”

This takes something literally true, we ‘see’ via light entering the eye. We sometimes dismiss optical effects as ‘a trick of the light’, when vision is nothing but that. And like much of Futurism this builds directly from Impressionism. In art we should paint what we see – not just take what we assume to be there. But it then takes a poetic turn, by associating light with other forms of energy.

We should remember such things are electric street lighting were then still relatively novel. And if we cannot see electricity, we can still depict it artistically. Imagine if the sights in ‘The City’ had been shown not as solid objects, but via the electricity passing through those buildings. We would still get a sense of them, just as we would a living creature seen only through its veins and arteries. In this way the city is not an assemblage of things but pulses with energy.

‘Dynamo Machine’ (1913, above) is almost as diagrammatic as a blueprint, but at the same time gloriously irresolvable. If the lightbulb above the head signifies an idea, this suggests a near-cacophony of notions, all exploding at once. The title cheerily suggests the machine has no practical purpose other than to act dynamically. All those bolts fastened at the base lead you to believe that without them the painting itself might fly off.

The Ukrainian poet Shevchenko said at this time: “the world has been transformed into a single, monstrous, fantastic, perpetually-moving machine, into a single huge non-animal automatic organism… [this] cannot help but be reflected in our thinking and in our spiritual life: in Art”

Yet, rooted in a way of seeing, Rayonism didn’t solely restrict itself to urban themes. ‘Rayonist Lillies’ (1913), for example… well, it does what it says on the lid.

Art In Exile

In 1914, “at the peak of her Russian career” (to quote Jane a Sharp), Goncharova and Larionov went with Diaghilev to Paris. She never lived in her homeland again. A succession of events, from the First World War to the turmoil surrounding the Revolution to later artistic repression, kept her back.

It’s temptingly romantic to assume her work withered in exile, cut off from her muse. But, at least initially, that’s not how it was. The already-seen ’Bathers’ was produced in this time. And ’Orange Seller’ (1916, above) reflects a new-found fascination with the culture of Spain. As heads and hands jut out from a collage of flat fabrics, it’s almost a playing card image. It’s the step from ’Peasant Woman’ that ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ was from ’Peasants Picking Apples’. (Why Spain should grab her, I couldn’t say. Provincial parts of France would have been just as rustic at this time. Perhaps it had a similar economic basis to Russia, islands of industry in a sea of agriculture.)

However, her era was soon over. After being the belle of the avant-garde ball, it wasn’t so long before she was sidelined. By the Forties, it’s generally agreed, the creative spirit finally left her. Jane A Sharp describes her later years as “unrecognised and impoverished”.

Perhaps there’s a problem of her not fitting our standard narrative, where the Revolution fired the starting gun for radical art, allowing it to climb out of that confining picture frame to directly engage with real life, and all the rest of it.

Just as her aristocratic origins were unusual for a Modernist artist, she was a feature of the tentatively liberal period between the revolutions of 1905 and ’17, when Russia looked both out to the West and into its own culture. In many ways Russia had its Roaring Twenties a decade early, and by the time everyone else had got to the party it had got down to more serious business. Though originally supportive of the revolution, Goncharova was more bohemian than Bolshevik. And soon replaced by the ‘cultural worker’, striving not to shock but remake society.

It can often take death to rekindle an artist’s reputation. Unfortunately here, even that didn’t really work. Laura Cummings states that she left the majority of her paintings to her homeland, doubtless a heartfelt gesture but one that left them languishing out of public view until glasnost. And even from there her climb back was slow. This is only the second solo show mounted since her death. (After Moscow in 2013.)

Sometimes you need to rediscover the artists who, through no lack of talent, languished in obscurity. But at others you need to take the once-famous and make them famous again.

NB Otherwise unattributed quotes are from ’Amazons of the Avant Garde’, the book accompanying the Royal Academy exhibition.


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