Homage to Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova, femme fatale of the Russian avant-garde, was born June 21, 1881 in the region of Tula, 200 kilometers south to Moscow. Of noble descent and born into a highly educated family, one of her ancestors (after whom she was named Natalia) had been the wife of Alexander Pushkin (and inadvertedly responsible for Pushkin´s death in a duel about her). She went to school and became friends with Marina Tsvetaeva, who would later become one of Russia´s leading poets, and also a biographer of Goncharova. After school, Natalia tried to study zoology, botany, medicine and history, but after not fitting into the respective environments, she turned to study sculpture in Moscow. There she would meet fellow student Mikhail Larionov, who recognised her talent as a painter and convinced her to concentrate more on painting and to become part of what would soon become to be the Russian avant-garde. Larionov and Goncharova would remain a lifelong couple, living an obviously perfect relationship of equals who share the same interests and capabilities and being collaborators, yet also remain distinct enough to follow individual paths and not to become overpowered or distracted by each other. As an unmarried couple they would be seen as „scandalous“, yet also as powerful and independent: They would marry only late in their lives, in order to avoid legal trouble concerning their respective estates. Natalia Goncharova was described as a strong-willed and provocative personality, causing scandals not only in the art scene and living an exuberant lifestyle. In the 1910s, both Larionov and Goncharova quickly became successful not only in Russia, but also in Europe, and during the first world war both managed to move to Europe, to soon permanently settle in Paris, where Goncharova also worked as an art teacher and as a set and costume designer for the theatre.  Working for the theatre was not her major passion, yet since her flamboyant set designs and costumes would become very popular, it became her major source of income and also a means to continue to promote herself as a painter. In later years, public interest in the art of both Goncharova and Larionov waned, together with declining health of both it would make the life of the couple more complicated. In the mid-1950s the interest in their works would resurge, while their health, however, was on further decline. Plagued by arthritis in her final years, Natalia Goncharova died in her sleep on October 17, 1962, while Larionov had been at the hospital at the same time. He would pass away only two years later.

Natalia Goncharova´s trajectory as an artist was illustrious. Starting as a sculptor, she was soon to become one of the best and most promising students of her academy. Influenced by Mikhail Larionov she moved to painting, starting with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec being a major influence and idol for her. In accordance with the rapid development of stylistic innovations at that time, she would remain aware of what is going on around her, and also especially embrace Cubofuturism soon thereafter. Eager to develop a distinct „Russian“ avant-garde, she, and Russian avant-gardists in general, would begin to rely on „archaic“ traditions or approaches to painting, and amalgamate them with the most contemporary ones, resulting in Neo-Primitivism, therein also trying to amalgamate childlike innocence and spontaneity and sophisticated artistic intelligence and craftsmanship, as well as an affirmation of both future-directed modernity and being and remaining spiritually rooted in „Russian soil“. Religious motives and iconography would remain a constant topic in her work all the same, as well as the depiction of farmers (as a child she had preferred rural over urban life). Larionov and Goncharova would also come up with an original stylistic innovation, „Rayonism“, which is about depicting light itself respectively objects via the way they reflect light. She was a great colorist (and it was her talent as a colorist that originally made Larionov encourage her to shift from sculpturing to painting). She was competent in portraying figures both via contour as well as via the „forces“ and intensities that seem to constitute that figure in the respective environment. Fluent in many styles, Goncharova was able to come up with interesting and intuitive solutions about how impressionist or cubofuturist depictions could look like, displaying an innate command over artistic depiction in general. Goncharova, Larionov and others of their circle would advocate a pluralism of styles and cement it theoretically and philosophically.

Above all, what seems most striking is the sheer humanity in the art of Natalia Goncharova. Without being naive, her depiction of the world, of humans and of animals is of great dignity and sweetness. It seems Natalia Goncharova had a very harmonious soul. Unfortunately, such is a rare occurence, not least in the arts.

Mikhail Larionov: Natalia Goncharove sleeping