Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Avant garde

6 June – 8 September, @Tate Modern

Natalia Goncharova was super cool. First of all, because she was a woman in a period where women got discredited and unconsidered, so today it’s a bit of an added value just per se. Secondly, because she was actually a sparking, brilliant ray of creativity.

Natalia Goncharova (1881 – 1962) painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator and set designer died in poverty in Paris, although today she would be the highest paid female artist in the world, with a work (Picking Apples, 1911) sold by auction at Christie’s a few years ago for 9.8 million dollars. Tate is presenting, in collaboration with Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, an artist who almost automatically became a key figure in the Russian avant-garde after her first exhibition in Moscow in 1913. The retrospective presents an immense pile of works that help us define her ‘coolness’ –  Natalia produced incessantly throughout all her life, constantly exploring new sources and combining avant-gardes and Russian folklore.

There’s so much stuff to look at it makes it hard to place her into any ‘art circuit’. As a Russian expatriate in Europe (she lived in Paris for most of her life), she blended distant cultures together and kept on experimenting – from the modernist to the neo-primitivist, passing through the futurist – or designing ‘furious’ costumes for Sergei Diaghilev for her Russian dances.  She was always controversial (which adds up to her coolness, of course), scandalizing the public with her private life as well, with her open relationship with the modernist painter Mikhail Larionov and her personal royal and intellectual incredible heritage. And we don’t need Picasso’s painting at the entrance of the exhibition to make us understand the artist’s relevance or to make the story more credible.

The show highlights her versatility, documenting the history through a chronological itinerary and identifying the artist’s big epiphanies. Analysing her style – a mixture of European avant-gardes, reinvigorated when “diluted” with Russian iconic painting and primitive forms of art, or through monumental religious paintings; then the avant-garde cinema, the experiments with design and thr fashion houses in Moscow and Paris. She always managed to capture moments of history, private and collective. In her paintings there are Cézanne, Matisse and Gaguin with those brilliant colors that are exceptionally passed down to genuine moments of Russian folklore. The evangelical themes or the annunciation, religious characters of Russian medieval painting, or elements directly related to her personal life – her love for Russia and for the rural population: peasant women, whom she admires, portrayed in everyday scenes. The harvest of wheat and apples is depicted through skies of synthetic rose and blue trees, like a reverie or simply a re-enactment. Finally there is Rayonism, developed directly by Goncharova after having clashed with Giacometti: it’s kind of futurism and cubism where light and electricity interact and all the rest comes after. A perennial search for vitality comes with this artist who tried to transform every artistic adventure into an explosion of energy, recreation and rebirth.

It is no coincidence that the last part of the retrospective is dedicated to her work for the stage – a world that seems to fit better with her dynamic and versatile personality. Through costumes, drawn for the stage, ballet videos, we can almost re live these performances when we leave the static environment of a simple art gallery for an artist with a thousand faces. Yep, she was super cool.





03.06.2019Tate Modern. Level 3.