The Russian artist Natalia Goncharova was born in the Tula District in 1881. I have been to Tula, a couple of hours south by train from Moscow. It’s real Central Russia, long famous for its massive landed estates. It is well worth visiting and has a quirky Samovar Museum, don’t miss that. Tolstoy’s estate of Yasnaya Polyana is in the region. In Natalia’s day it was all farms, and her family, impoverished aristocrats who had to work for a living, lived on their estate. Her family was educated, her father an architect and they encouraged thier daughter to study art. Every summer she returned to the estate to live among the country people, wearing ‘peasant’ dress and absorbing the folk art, folk tales and traditional culture that remained virtually unchanged despite the huge political changes of the previous century.
At art school in Moscow Natalia met Moldovian-born Mikhail Larionov and they became life partners. They completely supported each other in art and life, embracing the avant-garde and challenging established ideas about art and everything else. Both of them turned to Russian folk art and culture in their reimagining of the contemporary. It makes sense: being taught by masters of realism like Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov, they probably thought ‘what is there in that for me?’ They returned to the sunlit pastoral world of their childhoods, finding new ways to interpret the stripped-down polychromatic aspects of peasant life. From the cheap printed lubok (like comics) to church icons and folk costume, the artists collaged together images and memories, an artistic approach they continued their whole lives.
One thing interesting about both Goncharova and Larionov, is that they didn’t set much store by the idea that a ‘fine’ artist makes fine art and a designer makes designs.
My first exposure to their work was many years ago at the Stedelijk, and I was amazed by the superb drawings on show. Someone sniffily told me it was not, in fact, art but ‘design’ because these drawings were actually set and costume designs for the theatre. I didn’t understand that notion at the time.
Later I saw their work many times in Russia, at the New Tretyakov Museum (one of my favourite places, ever) and other museums and I was always struck by how much I like it. So I was very happy to see that a retrospective of Natalia’s work was coming to Tate.
it is a large show and displays the diversity of Natalia’s work, from her stage designs – a number of actual costumes are presented as well as her exquisite drawings. Her early paintings, which demonstrate her facility for realism, and her subsequent excursions into Cubism and ‘Primitivism’ (their version was called ‘Vsechestvo’ or ‘Everything-ism’ because they excluded nothing) are represented by a range of high quality works sourced from the Tretyakov and private collections.
Natalia’s passion for colour is one of her most striking qualities and it’s the thing that endears me to her. She makes colours that are fulsomely consumable, you want to suck them in with immense greed. Your eye just feasts and feasts. Yet this is no candy coloured playground, there is craft, depth and meaning in even the simplest sketch.
When the Bolshevik Revolution happened, Natalia and Larionov made the choice not to go back to Russia but to remain in Paris where they had been working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In this way, they missed out on revolution but also on the incredible artistic flowering of early Soviet art. Was it a mistake? Who can say? What is interesting is how both of them stayed so strongly committed to an aesthetic that clearly draws from the Russian aesthetics of their childhoods and early lives. Their art and designs remain resolutely ‘Russian’ in the very best sense of the term:
It’s pretty apparent that Natalia was a more important artist than her partner Larionov, though it’s also clear that a solid artistic partnership should never be underestimated. It’s also true that she has never really been given her due. Hopefully, this show, which was well attended by a very diverse range of visitors, will change that.