[Loose paraphrase from Woman power русского авангарда, by Elena Fedotova, on Colta.ru.]
Between October 16, 2013 and February 16, 2014, the State Tretyakov Museum holds an exhibition titled ‘Between the East and the West’, dedicated to the works of Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).
Natalia Goncharova has been variously called an Amazon of the avant-garde, a great Russian artist, a left-wing painter of the Russian avant-garde. And yet a 100-odd years ago, conservative critics were deprecating her as an blasphemer and an untalented dauber. When you look at the amazing power of her spiritual cycles, her refined theatrical sketches, her decorative still lifes, it is difficult to understand why so much criticism clung to her, and why her works were snatched right off their displays.
Goncharova’s solo exhibition in 1914 (in Nadezhda Dobychina’s ‘Art Bureau’, at the time, the fashionable gallery for modern art in St Petersburg) created a scandal. An anonymous screed by W titled ‘Futurism and blasphemy’ in the journal Peterburgsky Listok savaged the exhibition. Shortly thereafter the police descended upon the gallery and impounded twenty-two paintings. The chief procurator of the Holy Synod (of the Orthodox Church) had sanctioned the raid. After hearings, the paintings were returned to the gallery.
What had happened? The church’s fury was directed at Goncharova’s religion-themed works. W’s review – blasphemous works in the exhibition must be immediately removed: the deliberate disfigurement of holy persons for ridicule among green dogs, ‘rayonist’ landscapes and similar ‘cubist’ drivel must be prevented – read more like a denunciation. Fortunately, despite the serious allegations, there was no auto-da-fe. Goncharova was supported by influential people, such as the count Ivan Tolstoy, the curator of the Hermitage Nikolay Vrangel, and the artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. In the end, even the Archimandrite of the Alexander Nevsky monastery gave his approval to the works for their revival of the style of ancient iconography.
Meanwhile, the noncanonical manner of depiction of the saints came not only from the Primitivist avant-garde. Although by the time Goncharova painted her cycle, Moscow had already witnessed Gauguin’s works – both in the collection of Shchukin as well as the art journal Golden Fleece. Goncharova had already begun to base her works on the religious compositions of the luboks, especially as (her partner) Mikhail Larionov collected luboks while she collected the pre-Christian sculptures called ‘stone women’. The free treatment of biblical stories also grew directly out of Goncharova’s own life.
Goncharova was born in 1881 in the village of Ladyzhino in the Tula governorate. This was to be her Tahiti. She spent her school years in the village; evidently she had encountered her evangelising peasants and more – the stone women here that irritated adherents of traditional values no less than her religious paintings. Of course, Goncharova travelled extensively around Russia, not restricting herself to Tula. In her paintings of biblical scenes, she brought not only her own readings of the sacred text, but also the religious attitudes of the peasantry which retained traces of paganism. She surrounded the peasantry with an aura of sanctity, a gesture, naive though it was, radical for its time.
Yet other scandals that brought in the police were caused by her paintings of female figures, which were deemed worse than pornographic cards. Today such a characterisation rather sounds like a compliment. Corpulent, megalithic Venuses from which emanated primitive sexuality appeared absolutely indecent in those days. These lumpen women could not elicit the delicate voyeuristic pleasure that was the perception of nudity in the beginning of the 20th century. One could say that Goncharova had made a personal translation of European modernism to Russia, equating Scythian or Polovtsian stone sculptures with the African and Oceanic idols that had so excited the post-impressionists.
Not only in her art but also in life, Goncharova broke with traditional ‘feminine’ behaviour. She wore men’s attire – shirts reminiscent of work-clothes, trousers and cap. She appeared bare-breasted in the film Drama in the Futurists’ Cabaret No. 13. She co-habited with Mikhail Larionov. She managed from the beginning of their relationship to not become a mere wife/muse to the original ‘master’ of the union. (He had said to her “You have an eye for colour and you are busy with form. Open your eyes on your own eyes!” advising her to start painting when she was still engaged in sculpture.)
In 1915, Sergei Diaghilev invited Goncharova to Paris to design the scenes for ‘The Golden Cockerel’ in his ‘Russian Seasons’. As it turned out, Goncharova and Larionov had left Russia for good. Goncharova spent her post-Russian years working in theatre design; she lived a long, creative life, without being persecuted – unlike the majority of the avant-garde. She died quietly in Paris, in 1962.