Brilliance and Diversity

Natalia Goncharova 1881-1962

Artist: Natalia Goncharova
Born: 21 June 1881, Nagaevo, Russia
Nationality: Russian
Movements: Rayonism, Russian Futurism, Performance Art, Proto-Feminist Artists, Neo-Primitivism
Died: 17 October 1962, Paris, France

Goncharova was an avant-garde artist, painter, writer, costume designer, set designer, and illustrator. Her lifelong partner was the fellow avant-garde artist Mikhail Larionov with whom she invented Rayonism. She was also a member of the German art movement Der Blaue Reiter. She moved to Paris in 1921 where she lived until her death. Her work profoundly influenced the Russian avant-garde.

Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907. Oil on canvas. State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Goncharova’s work oscillates between sacred tunes and profane notes. From a wealthy and musical background, her interests were with rural Russia and contrastingly with the otherworldly. Her paintings of rural labour carry monumental dignity as through the repetitive mundane tasks Goncharova the celestial strengths reserved for religious figurations, merging the heavenly with the mortal realm. Part of the Russian avant-garde, with her life partner Mikhail Larionov, her painting involved the exploration of different visual styles and ideological points of view eventually pioneering Rayonism. Working with popular culture and the theatre director of the Ballets Russes as a set and costume designer Goncharova became well-known in her later years.

Goncharova combined a Cézanne-styled brushstroke, Fauvist love of colour, and repeating motifs inspired by Matisse, and Gauguin-inspired religion paired with the secular. The combination of three powerful influences created artwork that is decorative and impregnated with depth and meaning.

Russian Orthodox Christian icons found in churches and homes throughout Russia were well-known and loved by the artist. Goncharova, like artists and believers before her, painted religious scenes as ‘gifts from above’ materializing from an ongoing devotional conversation with the Lord. Through subtle subversions to the icons, she revealed the intention to agitate tradition and demonstrated less didactic alternatives to spirituality. Goncharova’s work often expresses a particular interest in ‘women’s work, with women depicted washing and preparing linen or harvesting and planting new crops. Ordinary people, male or female, are painted solid and hefty in reference to their positions in society, yet women specifically appear most often as the load bearers of society.

Goncharova and Larionov set a precedent for performance art. As a couple, the artists would appear naked in public with their bodies painted in a similar collaboration to Marina Abramovic and Ulay. They blurred the boundaries of propriety by using their bodies as canvas and their kin painted with spots or flowers.

Picking Apples, 1909. Oil on canvas. Private Collection

Goncharova was born in the town of Nagaevo in the Tula Province of Russia to an elite Russian family. Her father was an architect and a descendant of the legendary poet and novelist Aleksandr Pushkin. As a young girl, she lived on her grandmother’s large estate in the country, giving her a lifelong appreciation of rural life. Goncharova lived on her grandmother’s estate in the country as a young girl, which gave her a lifelong appreciation of village life and nature. Often taken to church by her nanny she was also instilled with a lasting spirituality. The family suffered financial strain despite their noble lineage and land holdings. In 1892 Goncharova’s father moved the family to Moscow in search of better opportunities.

Goncharova enrolled at The Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1901 to study sculpture. She work alongside Pavel Trubetskoy who was influenced by the Impressionists, especially Auguste Rodin. In 1903 Goncharova won a silver medal for her work. It was whilst at school she met and fell in love with Mikhail Larionov and began to study painting with his encouragement.

A lively artistic community grew between Goncharova and Larionov, including Sergei Diaghilev, an art critic and founder of the World of Art periodical. Diaghilev’s publications epitomized the avant-garde aesthetics of the time, with an emphasis on individual creativity and Art Nouveau. Diaghilev was a dynamic force gathering artists, musicians, directors, and dancers together for major exhibitions of Russian art, dance, and drama that toured Paris and other European cities. In 1906 Goncharova and Larionov exhibited at a World of Art exhibition and Diaghilev invited them to his 1906 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris.

On exhibiting in the Golden Fleece exhibition in 1908, Goncharova encountered the works of Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The influence of their work encouraged Goncharova to pursue including Russian subjects and techniques in her own work.

The Evangelists, 1911. Oil on canvas – Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

In 1910 Goncharova was one of the founding members of the Jack of Diamonds, Moscow’s first exhibiting group of avant-garde Russian artists. Most of the group had been previously expelled from the conservative Moscow Institute, for painting in the Post-Impressionist style. 1910 also saw Goncharova’s first solo exhibition that included twenty paintings and was denounced by the press as ‘disgusting depravation’. Two female nudes and her Goddess of Fertility were confiscated by the police and Goncharova was put on trial for pornography. She was acquitted. She began exhibiting with the German international group, Der Blaue Reiter, known for its merging of expressive freedom with spirituality.

The Jack of Diamonds group collapsed after an internal conflict between those who favoured Western art and those who preferred Russian art, including Goncharova and Larionov. For the promotion of Russian themes the couple founded a new collective, The Donkey’s Tail, s group including Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Goncharova, driven by her powerhouse of personal energy and a work ethic bound to her esteem for rural labour included fifty paintings in the group’s 1912 exhibition

Her own deeply held spiritual affinity inspired Goncharova to paint religious icons inspired by the Orthodox Church. Following an icon painter’s traditional practice of fasting and praying as a reflection of her personal spiritual commitment allowing her to attune to the subject matter, its relationship to the divine, and the traditions of her faith.

Goncharova aroused further controversy with her religious imagery and following the 1912 Donkey’s Tail exhibition her work and her ethics were condemned by the church and her work was denounced for its treatment of religious subjects and she was labelled as a controversial and subversive figure for living with a man outside of marriage. She also often wore men’s clothing which also offended the church. Both Goncharova and Larionov loved tattoos and would appear in public with body art merging their art with their daily lives and challenging the expectations of the social norm.

Linen, 1913. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

In 1912 Goncharova and Larionov joined Hylaea, a Russian Futurist literary group that was developing independently from Italian Futurism but also emphasized literary experimentation. The couple formed the notion of Rayonism and wrote Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifest in 1913. Rayonism’s focus on the deconstruction of rays of light also involved the radical extension of art into everyday life. Goncharova and Larionov saw Rayoniosm as a uniquely Russian contribution to the Futuristic sensibilities.

Goncharova’s experiments with self-fashioning provoked a reaction and brought her considerable attention. After her solo exhibition of 1914, she became one of the most famous progressive artists of her time.

Goncharova and Larionov moved to Paris in 1914 and Goncharova extended her work in the theatre and became known for her stag design. The founder of the Ballet Ruses in Paris, Diaghilev, invited her to work on the production of “The Golden Cockerel,” based on Pushkin’s poem and she travelled throughout Europe with the troupe. Goncharova and Larionov made their move to Paris permanent in 1917 following the Russian Revolution.

In the 1920s Goncharova’s paintings were influenced by her stage designs and travels, especially in Spain. Fashion design and interior design also became noted in her work. Wherever she went she made a social statement, often adopting peasant clothing while she was working and covering her head with a scarf in a manner similar to that of Russian peasants and working classes. Goncharova would also frequent aristocratic gatherings wearing trend-setting outfits.

The death of Diaghilev in 1929 brought financial hardship for Goncharova despite her continuing set design and illustration work, she missed her friend’s skills as a promoter and patron. She revisited and redesigned earlier stage works including “The Golden Cockerel” in 1937 and “Cinderella” in 1938. During WW2 Goncharova travelled and designed for ten ballets in South Africa, and after the war, she divided her time working in London and Paris, During the 1950s severe arthritis meant she had to tie her brush to her hand but she continued to paint seeking inspiration from current events. Goncharova painted a series titled “Outer Space” in the late 1950s taking inspiration from the Russian Space program. Larionov suffered a stroke in 1951 and for inheritance purposes, the couple married in 1955. Goncharova died after a long struggle with severe rheumatoid arthritis in 1962.

Linen, 1913. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Many of Goncharova’s Russian contemporaries were influenced by her Rayonist and Futuristic work, including Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich. Rayonism and Russian Futurism were influential movements in the development of abstraction, they also pushed the new style towards Constructivism, a step further to the dramatic rejection of autonomous art in favour of art with a social purpose. Goncharova designed costumes, whereas her fellow artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova illustrated the fabrics themselves. Goncharova created designs for curtains but Popova and Stepanova printed the textiles on masse.

In her last years, Goncharova’s work received little attention for her paintings, however, she was well known as a stage and costume designer, influenced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the innovative ballet company that had a long-lasting impact on dance, theatre, and opera productions.


Natalia Goncharova: The Russian Years: The Russian Years edited by Yevgenia Petrova