Russian Painter, Writer, Set and Costume Designer, and Illustrator
Nagaevo, Tula Province, Russia
Summary of Natalia Goncharova
The work of Natalia Goncharova oscillates between tunes of the sacred and notes of the profane. From an influential, wealthy, and musical family, the artist's own interests lay with Russia's rural workers and by seeming contradiction, with a cast of otherworldly characters. In her paintings, peasants portrayed in the throws of their labor - cutting hay, shaving ice, washing, and weaving - are imbued with monumental dignity. Through repetitive everyday tasks, Goncharova observed the same celestial strength more commonly associated with religious figures, and in this sense merged the realms of heaven and earth in her pictures. Alongside her lifelong love and fellow artist, Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova was part of the Russian avant garde generation involved in a relentless exploration of different visual styles and shifting ideological standpoints - eventually pioneering Rayonism. Not adverse to working in dialogue with popular culture, the artist worked closely with her friend and theater director, Sergei Diaghilev, (of Ballets Russes fame) as a costume and set designer; it was in this role that Goncharova became most well known in her later years.
- In her early work, Goncharova combines a Cézanne-inspired brushstroke, a Fauvist love of color and certain repeated motifs (most notably the circular dance formation) shared with Matisse, and a similar worldview (the religious paired with the secular) to that of Gauguin. Such assimilation of these three powerful influences produces work that is at once decorative and empregnated with meaning.
- Orthodox Christian icons commonly found in homes and churches throughout Russia were well known and loved by Goncharova. Like many artisans and believers before her, she too painted religious scenes as 'gifts from above' that materialized intuitively following ongoing devotional dialogue with the Lord. Adding slight subversions to her 'icons' - for example the blank scrolls of The Evangelists (1911) - she revealed intentions to agitate national tradition and propose alternative, less didactic, and more open approaches to spirituality.
- Goncharova expresses a particular interest in 'women's work'. Women are often depicted washing and preparing linen, harvesting fruit, and planting new crops. In stature, ordinary people (both men and women) are painted solid and hefty in reference to their position as the pillars of society, yet it is specifically women - historically sculpted as architectural caryatids - that appear most often in Goncharova's oeuvre as the load bearers of society.
- As a couple, Goncharova and Larionov set a precedent for performance art that was not further developed until during the 1970s. Together, the artists would appear naked in public with their bodies painted in a similar collaboration to that of Marina Abramovic and Ulay. Their experiments also bear parallel to those of Yayoi Kusama; she too blurred boundaries of so-called propriety by appearing with her body used as canvas and her skin painted with spots (it was usually flowers for Goncharova).
Biography of Natalia Goncharova
Natalia Goncharova was born in the town of Nagaevo in the Tula Province in Russia to an elite Russian family. Her father, Sergei Goncharov, worked as an architect and was a descendent of Aleksandr Pushkin, the legendary poet and novelist credited as the patriarch of Russian literature and a revered symbol of national identity. Natalia was named after Pushkin's wife, in honor of her family's history. Goncharova's mother, Ekaterina Il'ichna Beliaeva came from a family that had been musically influential, and included a number of significant religious figures who were renowned musical patrons. As a young girl, Goncharova lived on her grandmother's large estate in the country, which gave her a lifelong appreciation of village life and nature. Her nanny often took her to church, which instilled a lasting spirituality. In spite of their noble lineage and significant land holdings, the family suffered financial strain. In 1892, when Goncharova was ten, her father moved the family to Moscow in search of greater financial opportunities.
Important Art by Natalia Goncharova
A look of assured simplicity, flowers in hand, and a studio backdrop give insight into the artist's bohemian existence and love of nature. As the art critic Donald Goddard wrote, "The figure exists...in the cycle of her own paintings on the back wall and of the flowers that have been cut. She is between the rough geometry and brushstrokes of the paintings and the organic shapes and brilliant colors of the flowers, not a sacred monster but a human presence, the artist as her own model, and as part of the structure of her own art."
Flowers recur throughout Goncharova's career, standing as the moment of the present, not for a time of growth or that of demise, but instead for life's incredible force of now. Flowers are a much repeated subject for modern artists, with Vincent Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian being two of the most notable examples. Whilst Van Gogh chose the sunflower as his signature bloom, Goncharova identifies instead with lilies. She also painted a Rayonist picture of lillies in 1913. The lily has long since had religious associations as the flower of chastity, as presented at the annunciation of angel Gabriel. This, however, was always a white lily and Goncharova chooses an orange alternative perhaps making reference to her own sexual experience. It does though seem important that the lily is a religious flower, for with intentions akin to those of Gauguin when he painted himself as The Yellow Christ in 1889, Goncharova also humbly presents herself as a spiritual figure on earth.
Heavily influenced by the Golden Fleece exhibition of 1908, this work painted the following year has much in common with two works that Goncharova would have seen there, Cézanne's Bathers (1898) and Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905). As in the work by Cézanne, a group of women gather beneath the trees but here they are clothed. The women enjoy the light and airiness of time outdoors, and there is one amourous couple in the fore ground as is also in the painting by Matisse. Overall though, the figures are more pensive and reserved than the reveling pleasure-seekers found in the Frenchman's rainbow-colored tableau.
Goncharova adds a national sentiment with her inclusion of the Russian donkey, and furthermore and most originally, gives the work a religious dimension. The overall meaning of the painting is in fact far removed from Cézanne and Matisse, whose works likely inspired its brushstroke and composition. As the women are picking apples and there exists one male/female couple, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve is evoked. The women, it seems readily take from the forbidden tree of knowledge that led to Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Goncharova painted Pillars of Salt the previous year, illustrating the story of Lot's wife, who looked back at the destroyed city of Sodom after being told not to. The message on both accounts is one of rebellion, and demonstrative that women are not able to be controlled by patriarchal hierarchy.
Showing two women and two men, dancing a round dance, on green earth with a dark blue sky behind them, Peasants Dancing is part of The Vintage: Composition in Nine Parts that contains paintings depicting the grape harvest. Arranged together, they were meant to resemble an iconostasis, a backdrop to an Orthodox church altar. The series was paired with The Harvest: Composition in Nine Parts, nine paintings that contained images from the Book of Revelation. The peasants thus dancing become, in effect, earthly saints.
Executed in her Neo-primitive style, the work combines the influence of Matisse's two 1910 works, Dance and Music, with the folk imagery and style of lubki, popular woodcuts that depicted images taken from Russian life and folklore. In making the two dimensional figures more sculptural, Goncharova makes them monumental, and by depicting them in a formation that draws from folk and ecclesiastical imagery, she situates them in the Russian cultural tradition.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Natalia Goncharova
- Natalia Goncharova: The Russian YearsOur PickBy Yevgenia Petrova (Editor)
- Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia GoncharovaBy Anthony Parton
- Russian Modernism between East and West: Natalia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-GardeOur PickBy Jane Ashton Sharp
- Natalia Goncharova: Between Russian Tradition and European ModernismBy Evgenia Iluchina (Author), Alla Chilova (Editor), Beate Kemfert (Editor) et al.