Dancing with Saint Peter ***

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was born the daughter of an aristocrat into a rural Russia profonde two hundred miles from Moscow, amongst piety, peasantry and the older ways of doing things.

Her family had been manufacturers of textiles, and from the start this huge retrospective of her work at Tate Modern embeds her deep in tradition – in the very first gallery we see her painting herself as a woman from that rural past, together with examples of traditional dress and designs.

Self-Portrait in a Period Costume (1907-8), Natalia Goncharova, oil paint on canvas, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Bequeathed by A.K. Larionova-Tomlina, Paris, 1989

Goncharova herself both moved away from her past, and perpetually returned to it throughout her long working life as an artist. Alongside the newness of the new, there was also the continuing lure of the oldness of the old. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century her own work had fallen under the powerful influence of the newest of the new from the West – Derain, Picasso, Matisse – thanks to the collecting habits of two great Russian collectors, Schchukin and Morozov. Goncharova’s figures of these years are bold, flat, simple, fiercely angular, the colours no-holds-barred fierce.

A Prophet (1911), oil paint on canvas, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow. Bequeathed by A.K. Larionova-Tomlina, Paris, 1989

In 1913, she had a huge show of paintings in Moscow – 800 works in all, 350 of which were paintings. The Tate has both created a gallery of enormous size in order to suggest the size and the impact of that original show, and brought 30 of those works together again to demonstrate the range of subject matter and styles. How breezily eclectic she is! She can do rural and urban, the tweeness of an owl and urban grit.

The difficulty with Goncharova, an irrepressible virtuoso life-long, is that she could mimic and re-create the painting style of almost anyone. Her ability to blend the influences of folk art and Western Modernism was not only extraordinary. It also revealed how much Modernism itself had absorbed from the past. A writer judged her the mistress of Everythingism – which just about hits the nail on the head. She borrowed, stole, re-fashioned. She could do it all. But this lack of a signature style brings problems in its wake. It is the source of her strength and weakness as an artist. So many of her paintings are so accomplished; so few of them can be said to be truly great.

Orchids (1913), Natalia Goncharova, oil paint on canvas, Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum

Not one to limit herself, Goncharova excelled at so much during her long working life – including the art of self-display. The fact that she lived in Paris continuously after 1919 meant that she escaped the fate of so many Russian artists during the years of repression.

She was a designer of clothes and textiles. She made cycles of religious paintings – to the consternation of the male censors who thought that it was no business of a woman to meddle in such things. She made artists’ books, posters, prints. She created a variant on Futurism called Rayonism. She collaborated on sets and costumes with the Ballets Russes and Stravinsky – the final gallery is entirely given over to her work for the the theatre.

Just look at her delightfully inventive costume designs for seaweed, jellyfish and coral. She even made, my unholy goodness, the Apostle Peter dance.

Apostle Peter (1915), Natalia Goncharova, gouache, graphite and paper on paper mounted on cardboard.
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Bequeathed by A.K. Larionova-Tomlina, Paris, 1989

This woman was adaptable, irrepressible, unstoppable.

Natalia Goncharova is on Level Three at the Boilerhouse, Tate Modern from 6 June until 8 September 2019.

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