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Published 30/05/2002 email E-MAIL print PRINT

‘Skythian baba’s: A painting counter-revolution

Natalia Goncharova: The Russian Years. Russian Museum, Benois Wing, St. Petersburg. From 25 April to 15 July, 2002.

Natalia Goncharova, one of the famous originators of Russian avant-garde, is now the subject of a large, academically developed personal exhibition. Despite the fact that Goncharova is an important pioneering figure in the history of Russian avant-garde as described by Camilla Grey in her book The Great Experiment in Russian Art, the interest in her creativity has faded away.

The explorative pathos of western researchers was warmed by early avant-garde ideas of the dematerialisation of art and the ‘death’ of painting, which became quite real in the 1970s. Among other highlighted features there was Malevich and constructivism, – ‘post-Black Square art’ – Goncharova, with her brutal painting, was not included in ‘The Great Utopia’ show (1992–93). The increased interest about this period began with an exhibition called ‘Goncharova and Larionov’ in the Pompidou Centre in 1995. Last year’s exhibition, ‘The Amazons of Russian Avant-garde’, where Goncharova’s paintings were an important feature – marked the final triumph of pictorial revisionism and the return of total visuality.

At the same time, despite Goncharova’s refugee status, her heritage was carefully studied in Russia by scholars, most of which never accepted the ideas of high modernism. Maybe that is the reason why Goncharova and Larionovs’ archives were transferred in 1989 to the Tretyakov gallery by their Parisian inheritors. Besides that, due to the long-term lack of interest in Goncharova’s work on the part of foreign museums and collectors, her name was almost never involved in the scandals over fake copies that are quite common in the world of Russian avant-garde. In addition, unlike her male companions in art, who were rather light-headed, Goncharova cared much about the result of her work.

Goncharova’s exhibition in the Russian Museum was expected to take place in 1981, as a commemoration of Goncharova’s centenary. Numerous items indicated in the catalogue were prepared by Evgeniy Kovtun, a great connoisseur and researcher of Russian avant-garde, who died in 1995. Moreover, Goncharova’s exhibition is the first one to be prepared and organised by only Russian scholars alone. The other good news is that foreign museums and collectors are no longer scared of Russia’s unsettled state.

As a result, the exhibition turned out to be really enormous – more than 250 items were presented.

The most important and interesting problem for a researcher is that it is often almost impossible to tell Goncharova’s technique from that of Larionov’s. They worked and lived together for decades, and used the same brushes and paints. This romantic story began in the Moscow College for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where they studied together. At first, Goncharova became a follower of the young and active rebel Mikhail Larionov. As years passed, they came together and separated again and again – both as artists and as a married couple. From time to time one of them was ahead, providing ideas for the one who remained behind.

The futuristic era of ‘storm and charge’ marked the irrepressible running forward, and even the indomitable Malevich occasionally found himself among Goncharova’s followers. Larionov, the son of a military medical attendant from provincial Tiraspol, was descended from inferior classes along with many other Russian avant-garde artists. The plebeian pathos of destruction of higher culture coming from ill-bred and badly educated but very angry young people, was counterpoised and structured by the women of Russian avant-garde, who, in their turn, originated from higher, more educated classes. Natalia Goncharova, a descendant of Alexander Pushkin’s wife, originated from impoverished aristocratic circles, which thoroughly preserved and cultivated cultural traditions, meaning that she could ride a horse while wearing a dress.

Goncharova, who had never accepted ‘the great denial of art’, was nevertheless a very determined woman. ‘First: the manliness – of a Mother Superior – a young Mother Superior’, as Russian poet Marina Tzvetaeva writes of her friend-artist. Without any feminist hysteria Goncharova made a reality of ‘free family’ ideas; she only registered her marriage with Larionov in the 1950s, she wore men’s clothes and once during an action which was filmed she stripped her breast. This was an unprecedented accident not only in patriarchal Russia. She was brought to trial for pornography several times, and her interest in icons and religious paintings resulted in the official banning of her paintings on religious subjects.

Intensive social articulation and anti-bourgeois rhetoric in combination with skilful mass media manipulation led to a paradoxical result – the terrorist artist had suddenly become a heroine of yellow media, which discussed her cries like ‘Stupid bourgeois!’ or ‘A herd of sheep!’. Since that time the manipulation of public opinion became an important technology of modernism. Although, the actions of Dadaists and surrealists seemed more easy-tempered than the rowdy public appearances of Russian futurists. Even Tommaso Marinneti, who visited Russia in 1914 to promote machine art, was horrified by them. The ritual catcalling to which the leader of Italian futurists was subjected was based on a new anti-western programme formulated by Russian avant-garde artists, who by that time had already assimilated every existing style and trend such as cubism, futurism and so on. In 1910 Goncharova said, ‘I have tried everything the West could give. Now I shake the dust off my shoes and move away from the West. I make my way towards the East, the source of all arts’. But these anti-modernist and anti-western words said by a European intellectual secretly refer to the critique of European culture practised by Gaugin, Picasso and German expressionists.

If one tries to interpret neoprimitivism in the manner of Eduard Said, as a specific form of colonialism, it seems obvious that German and French artists had to carry out their predatory expeditions in faraway lands (such as Africa and Tahiti). Russians, according to local imperial tradition, developed domestic artistic spaces. As an alternative to the fading West, Goncharova drew her cubism from Scythian stone female images (‘baba’s’) which are portraits of mythological amazons of the southern Russian steppes. Although, these idols painted by Goncharova have, instead of an expression of motionless eternity on their faces – which is more proper for them – a kind of weird, bully grin.

The stormy decade of colonisation of time and space ended with a strange picture ‘The emptiness’ (1910). Goncharova reached an absolutely new and individual level of non-figurativeness that already had no psychological motivations à la futurism or cubism (direction of X-rays or a moving observer’s point of view). One can only suppose that this provocative and shapeless piece among coloured blobs turned out to be that final impact which gave birth to the icon of the twentieth century – the ‘Black Square’. Malevich had only to cut off the last signs of colour and light perspective so creating a three-dimensional space, which Goncharova had never dared to abandon, and to close the door to the apprehensible Carthesian reality.

For Malevich it was only the beginning, but Goncharova’s tireless moving forward had abruptly ended. The famous entrepreneur Sergey Dyagilev found out that the Parisian public was no longer interested in the sophisticated aestheticism of his early seasons, and began to export Russian exotics in 1914. The collaboration of passeists and futurists in the same export team turned out to be quite effective – the brilliant ballet ‘The Golden Cock’ decorated by Goncharova became the classic masterpiece of scenography. But the successful export of spicy and brutal eastern art to the West turned out to be destructive for the artist. In a short time some non-artistic circles in Russia succeeded in shocking the western bourgeois, so mighty that the latter had forever lost any wish to travel to the East forever. So, in the long run everything ended quite grievously – the Russian Europeans and the creators of the future, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, died in absolute poverty and obscurity in the very Paris they had once tried to subvert.

Andrey Kovalev



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