Natal’ya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were the power couple of the Russian avant-garde. They met at art school in Moscow in 1898, where their talent was spotted by Sergei Diaghilev, whose role as an impresario extended far beyond the performing arts. The two gained further recognition by exhibiting with various short-lived groups: Knave of Diamonds (named by Larionov because of its vaguely subversive associations), Plevok (‘spit’) and The Donkey’s Tail (don’t ask). Larionov was no slouch when it came to self-promotion but Goncharova garnered more column inches because of her sex. In 1910 she was arrested on charges of peddling ‘pornography’, i.e. nudity; she helped things along by wearing trousers in public and appearing in experimental cabaret daubed in body paint and not much else.
As Tate’s retrospective shows, Goncharova’s early work was relentlessly experimental and impressively diverse: as well as her paintings, she turned her hand to book illustration, printmaking and designing for fashion, textiles and the theatre. Her preferred subject-matter was in a rather idealised version of peasant life: hay cutting, apple picking, harvesting and so on. She used an unholy mix of modernist styles du jour: Neo-Primitivism, Cubo-Futurism and a weird, semi-mystical form of abstraction known as Rayonism, which had been dreamt up by Larionov (who gets short shrift here, by the way). Despite these influences Goncharova roundly denounced Western art and pledged her soul to ‘the source of all arts, the East’. This meant adding folk art, religious icons – very risky – and, above all, the glorious tradition of the Russian popular woodcut (lubok), grandaddy of today’s criminal tattoo art. The overall effect is exuberant, eclectic – I think I spotted some Pointillism in there as well – and invigorating. It’s also very uneven, deliberately so; her four ‘Evangelists’ (1911), for example, which caused much scandal, are as coarsely painted as scenery flats.
Goncharova’s big break came when Diaghilev took her to Paris to work on designs for Rimski-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, which brought her international fame. In 1915 she and Larionov settled permanently in Paris and never returned to Russia, meaning that they missed out on all the later upheavals: Suprematism, Constructivism and, of course, the Revolution. Living in genteel poverty in a small flat on the Left Bank, their work became decorative and rather tame. Goncharova’s creative urges waned still further after Diaghilev’s death in 1929; she died aged 81 in 1962, Larionov two years later. At the risk of exposing my ‘bourgeois’ tendencies, I have to say I rather like the prettified version of Cubism that Goncharova adopted in her Paris years (see below). All the same, Tate is probably right to concentrate on the glory days.
But visitors to the show will probably gravitate most towards the final room, covering Goncharova’s work for Ballets Russes, for which she’s probably best known. Here you can admire her dazzling sets and costumes for Les Noces, Sadko and the Firebird, as well as Le Coq d’Or, while the music of Stravinsky strums away in the background.
Header image credit: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908 Oil paint on canvas 775 x 582 mm State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Purchased 1927 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019