Natalia Goncharova - Biography and Legacy
Russian Painter, Writer, Set and Costume Designer, and Illustrator
Nagaevo, Tula Province, Russia
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.
Education and early training
In 1901, Goncharova enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture focusing on sculpture. Studying with Pavel Trubetskoy, a sculptor influenced by the Impressionists and in particular by the work of Auguste Rodin, she won a silver medal for her work in 1903. At school, Goncharova began the most significant personal and artistic relationships of her life. She met and fell in love with Mikhail Larionov, a fellow art student, and began to study painting with his encouragement.
A lively and youthful artistic community grew surrounding Goncharova and Larionov to include Sergei Diaghilev, an art critic and patron who founded the World of Art periodoical and art movement. Diaghilev's publications embodied the avant-garde aesthetics of the time, placing emphasis on creative individuality and an interest in Art Nouveau. A dynamic force in general, Diaghilev gathered together artists, musicians, directors, and dancers for major exhibitions of Russian art, drama and dance that traveled to Paris and other European cities. When Goncharova and Larionov showed work in 1906 at a World of Art exhibition, Diaghilev invited them to show in his 1906 Salon d'Automne exhibition in Paris, beginning a lifelong professional relationship with both artists.
Goncharova subsequently exhibited in the Golden Fleece exhibition of 1908 and there encountered the works of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Influenced by them, she was encouraged in her pursuit of including Russian subjects and techniques into the present idiom, claiming that, "At the beginning of my development l learned most of all from my French contemporaries. They stimulated my awareness and I realized the great significance and value of the art of my own country." In spite of her growing success, her formal training came to an end in 1909, when she was expelled by the Moscow Institute for failing to pay tuition.
In 1910 she was one of the founding members of the Jack of Diamonds, Moscow's first exhibiting group of avant-garde Russian painters. Most of the participants had been expelled from the conservative Moscow Institute for painting in the Post-Impressionist style. That year also saw Gonchrova's first solo exhibition that included twenty paintings, and was denounced by the press for its "disgusting depravation." The police confiscated two female nudes and her 'God(dess) of Fertility' painting. Goncharova was put on trial for pornography, yet was acquitted. In 1911, she also began exhibiting with the German based international collective, Der Blaue Reiter, a group known for merging spirituality with expressive freedom.
The Jack of Diamonds group broke up over a conflict between those who favored Western art and those who favored Russian subjects, including Goncharova and Larionov. To promote Russian themes, the couple started a new artist collective called 'Donkey's Tail', which included Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Driven by a powerhouse of personal energy and a work ethic bound to her esteem for rural labor, Goncharova included fifty paintings in the group's 1912 exhibition. As the famous poet, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote later, "She has the courage of a Mother Superior. A directness of features and views...Such is Goncharova with her modernity, her innovation, her success, her fame, her glory, her fashion...she did not lead a permanent school, she did not convey a one-time discovery into a method and did not canonize. To sum her up? In short: talent and hard work."
The artist's own deep spiritual affinity drew Goncharova to painting religious icons inspired by the Orthodox Church. In creating icons, she followed an icon painter's traditional practices of praying and fasting, as she said, "Others argue - and argue with me - that I have no right to paint icons. I believe in the Lord firmly enough. Who knows who believes and how? I'm learning how to fast." A personal commitment to the spiritual made her attuned to her subject matter, its relationship to the divine, and the traditions of which she was a part. While struggling with one iconic image, she wrote to a friend, "Will the Lord not let me paint this?"
Her religious imagery aroused further controversy. Following the 1912 Donkey's Tail exhibition, both her work and her own ethics were condemned by the church; her work was denounced for its treatment of religious subjects while she as a woman was labeled a controversial figure, for being unmarried but living with a man. Much to the distaste of the church, Goncharova often wore men's clothing and sometimes went topless in public with designs painted on her breasts. Both she and Larionov loved tattoos, and would appear in public, with their bodies painted, thus merging art making and daily life to challenge social expectations. They also gave chaotic 'lectures' where they would throw jugs of water at the audience. Art historian, John Bowlt wrote, "in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the 'boundary of decency' and to 'hurt your eyes'."
In the same year as the 1912 exhibition, an inexhaustible interest in new artistic styles led the couple to join Hylaea, a literary group of Russian Futurists, which had developed independently to Italian Futurism but emphasized the same literary experimentation. Shortly thereafter, the couple developed the notion of Rayonism, writing Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifest in 1913. Focusing on the deconstruction of rays of light, Rayonism also involved the radical extension of art into everyday life. Goncharova and Larionov described it as, "a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision." In effect, they saw it as a uniquely Russian contribution to the Futurist sensibility.
Goncharova's experimentation with self-fashioning succeeded in provoking a reaction and brought her considerable attention. Following her solo exhibition of 1914, when she was only 33, Goncharova became, as Diaghilev said, "the most famous of these progressive artists...The young crowd both in Moscow and St. Petersburg bows to her. But the funniest thing is that they don't just emulate her as an artist, they imitate her appearance, too. It was she who made the shirt dress fashionable - black and white, blue and ginger. But that was still nothing. She drew flowers on her face. And soon enough, both the nobility and the bohemians started showing up with horses, houses, and elephants on their cheeks, necks, and foreheads. This does not stop her from being an important artist."
In spite of deeply felt mutually nationalistic sentiments, Goncharova and Larionov moved to Paris in 1914, where Goncharova extended her work in the theater and became primarily known for her stage design. Diaghilev, who had founded the acclaimed Ballet Russes in Paris, invited her to work on his production of The Golden Cockerel, based upon Pushkin's poem of the same title, and she began traveling with the troupe throughout Europe. Following the Russian Revolution, she and Larionov moved permanently to Paris in 1917. Though she ardently wished to return to Russia, Stalinism made that impossible, as she said, "I want to go east . . . but I ended up in the West," and in her diary wrote a prayer to St. George, "Will you not allow us to return?"
In the 1920s her paintings were much influenced by her stage design and inspired by her travels, particularly to Spain, as she said, "I love Spain. It seems to me that out of all the countries I have visited, this is the only one where there is some hidden energy. This is very close to Russia." Fashion design and interior design also became a noted part of her work, as she was invited to design for Marie Cuttoli's innovative fashion line, Myrbor, and was commissioned as an interior designer for various private residences. Wherever she went, she made a social statement. When working, she often adopted peasant clothing, her head covered with a scarf in the manner of the Russian peasants and the working class. Yet she also frequented aristocratic social gatherings to which she wore trend-setting outfits and entertained others by reading their palms in a humorous parody of folk superstition.
Diaghilev's death in 1929 brought with it financial hardship for Goncharova. Although she continued with her set design and illustration work, she missed her friend's skills as a promoter and patron. She revisited earlier stage works, redesigning The Golden Cockerel in 1937, and Cinderella in 1938. During World War II she traveled and designed for ten ballets in South Africa, and, after the war, divided her time and work between London and Paris. During the 1950's, despite the fact that severe arthritis made it necessary to tie her brush to her hand, she continued to paint and sought inspiration from current events. In the mid to late 1950s she painted a series entitled Outer Space, inspired by the Russian space program. In 1951, Larionov suffered a stroke, and for inheritance reasons the couple married in 1955. Goncharova died in 1962 after a long struggle with severe rheumatoid arthritis, her partner outlived her by only two years.
The Legacy of Natalia Goncharova
Goncharova's Rayonist and Futurist work influenced many of her Russian contemporaries, including Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. In turn, two major new art movements were coined in Russia, Suprematism and Constructivism. Figurative scenes that had been fragmented into shards by Goncharova and Larinov became more and more abstract with only geometrical spaces recognizable as particular forms in the work of Malevich. This lead to a wave of abstract work being produced in Russia and Europe more widely; Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee were among innovators to experiment with color and form and Goncharova knew both Kandinisky and Klee through her involvement with Der Blaue Reiter.
Whilst Rayonism and Russian Futurism were influential movements in the development of abstraction, with egalitarian intentions, these new styles also pushed the trend towards Constructivism; a step further to an obvious and dramatic rejection of autonomous art in favor of art used for social purpose. Whereas Goncharova designed costumes, her fellow artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova illustrated the fabrics themselves. Goncharova had made designs for curtains but it was Popova and Stepanova who printed textiles en masse. Whilst Gonchaova painted peasants cutting hay in the field, Popova conveyed a similar message some ten years later (knowing Goncharova's work well) by simply repeating the Russian hammer and sickle symbol in geometrical formation.
In the artist's later years, while her work as a painter received little attention, she was well known for her stage and costume designs, which were influenced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the most innovative of ballet companies which had a long-lasting impact on dance, theatre, and opera productions. In the 21st century her work has again risen to the forefront, and she is today considered a leading Russian painter.