The Variety of Things: Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern
In September 1913 Natalia Goncharova had a one-woman exhibition at Moscow’s Mikhailova Art Salon. This was in itself a significant event for a woman artist, and all the more so as Goncharova was herself still in her early thirties. If the catalogue from that event is to be believed, close on 800 works were on display, and the third room of Tate Modern’s new exhibition tries to convey something of the profusion of images those Muscovite visitors would have seen. Here, around 30 paintings have been gathered for this re-imagining and even in reduced numbers the effect is remarkable. The sheer profusion of colours and styles threatens to disorient the viewer, showing what use Goncharova had made of the time spent (as many young artists in Moscow did) visiting and learning from the collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Schukin, where crates of modern art arrived from Paris bearing the latest innovations in modern art that the acquisitive Russians had authorized their dealers to acquire for them. From these influences were see Goncharova adopting the delicate Impressionism of ‘Mountain Ash’ (1908) before switching to the to the acid greens and yellows of Van Gogh-influenced ‘The Pond’ (1909) and the traces of Picasso in ‘The Deity of Fertility’ (1910). Goncharova’s partner Mikhail Larionov, who worked with Ilia Zdanevich on the catalogue to accompany this mammoth display, coined the term ‘Everythingism’ to Goncharova’s work. It is a fitting word for a room that overwhelms with its diversity.
The borrowings from Paris are one thing, though, and the paintings that sit alongside them in Room 3, as they did in Moscow over a century ago, are something else entirely. In a monumental installation called ‘Harvest’ seven canvases (out of an original nine, the other two missing presumed lost) are reunited from their usual homes in Paris and Moscow to hang alongside each other once again. The effect is stunning. In a riot of bright yellow, orange, blue, and purple the Christian Apocalypse (depicted here, as the Russian church often framed it, as a harvest scene) comes to life. Mythical birds and beasts look on while angels rain rocks down upon a city doomed for destruction. Nothing else in the room hints at the visual excess of these images – at once both daringly modern and ancient – where the centuries-old faith of Goncharova’s homeland collides with the neo-primitivism of Gauguin and Picasso.
Throughout the exhibition it is that interplay between Russia and the West that informs Goncharova’s art and sets it apart from both sides. An image like ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911) owes as much to the Russian lubok tradition of wood-block prints as it does to developments in Montmartre, and in their quiet monumentality these men seem old and new at the same time. Elsewhere, the vivid colours of traditional Russian dress are reprised in designs for Parisian fashion houses (Goncharova having made visited the city several times before making it her home in 1919 when the Revolution made a return to Russia impossible) and the same angels seen in ‘Harvest’ hover above the advancing troops in the ‘Mystical Images of War’ series from 1914.
The religious element recurs, too, in the icons and religious works that caused such controversy when first displayed in 1912-13. Having made a claim to the role of an icon painter – traditionally an exclusively male vocation – Goncharova gives us images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Evangelists that are both traditional and modern. Removed from view by Tsarist censors, her Evangelists now line up alongside the prints in which Goncharova tried to frame her own response to the imminent horror of the war into which Nicholas II had led her Russia. Through a juxtaposition of modern warfare and traditional religious imagery (biplanes and angels in one image, Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky elsewhere) the First World War is awkwardly framed as a just cause for Russian faith and nationalism. By the time the mechanised horrors of the conflict were fully understood the old regime in Russia had been swept away, and Goncharova watched from a distance as the Soviet state emerged. One might argue that in her own responses to new technology Goncharova saw all too clearly that the Futurist aesthetic was also a militarised one. In 1912’s ‘Factory’ the chimneys resemble gun barrels, while images like ‘Aeroplane over a Train’ (1913) look more like collisions between different forms of mechanised reality. The figure in her wonderful ‘Cyclist’ (1913) seems to shake before the viewer’s eyes, each line suggesting the vibration produced as he rides his bicycle over the cobbled street. Modernity is not a comfortable world.
In a retrospective exhibition we may usually find ourselves following the artist’s journey, chronologically and geographically, seeing how their style changed over time and tracing the links between early work and later development or recycling. Goncharova frustrates that approach because everything is already there from the outset, and just becomes more evident as time goes on. I say ‘just’ not to dismiss the body of work produced, but to suggest that her work contained within it the multitudinous possibilities of her career from its very earliest stages. An artist who can exhibit 800 works while in their thirties has deep reserves on which to draw. And Goncharova kept on drawing on those reserves throughout her life.
Like many émigrés, Russia was always there in Goncharova’s view from her Parisian apartment on the corner of rue Jacques-Callot and rue de Seine. The travels that she and Larionov undertook in the years before the Revolution were often linked to her work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and in the final room of the exhibition we see her designs for costumes and stage sets for the company. Here, mythical figures from poems and folk tales are brought to life on stage, their costumes a riot of colour like those of the peasants depicted in Goncharova’s early work. It is a fitting close to the exhibition, a reminder that this most diverse of artists carried with her the traditions of her home and the sense of daring that enabled her to produce work of such variety that is celebrated in this justly deserved display. The work of Natalia Goncharova is, as this exhibition reminds us, as complex and as daring today as it was over a century ago. Head to Tate Modern and be dazzled by her, just like the Muscovites of 1913 were.
Natalia Goncharova runs at Tate Modern, London, until 8th September. For more details visit: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/natalia-goncharova