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Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern – until 8 Sep 2019

‘Everythingism’ was a term coined by fellow artists Mikhail Larionov and Ilia Zdanevich to describe Natalia Goncharova’s extreme versatility and wide range of work. With over 170 international loans, this is the UK’s first ever retrospective of this creative genius and radical figure. Born in 1881 in the Russian countryside, Goncharova grew up in a culturally dynamic and liberal family, linked to the textile production. At age eleven she moved to Moscow to attend school, but regularly returned to the family estates, where she was exposed to traditional art, costumes, textiles, and the daily life of farmers. Throughout her life she drew inspiration from the palette and stylised forms of Russian arts and crafts. She collected icons, popular prints and tray-paintings, and created her own original versions. “I’m by no means European”, she would say. And this is what makes her work so unique. The route of the exhibition starts with the countryside, where a regional costume, textiles and a woodblock for printing fabric, give us an idea of the Russian arts and crafts of the times. The self portrait in period costume and Peasant Woman from Tula Province, set the tone to what we shall see as recurrent aspects of Goncharova’s work – colour palette, attention to design and fashion, strong composition, often highlighted by thick outlines, and hieratic, inscrutable expressions. We proceed to Moscow, where Goncharova met fellow artist and lifelong partner Larionov. Moscow had one of the richest collections of European painting, put together and exhibited by industrialists Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, which included works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and many others. In this room we see some examples, e.g. Picasso’s Queen Isabeau, alongside Goncharova’s work, including Peasants Picking Apples, 1911. This work marks her departure from realism, and the beginning of a visual exploration that harmoniously blends Russian iconic and folk traditions with the contemporary trends of European art.

Room 3,‘1913 Exhibition’, is possibly the most crucial, giving us a taste of the gigantic retrospective held at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow, which included more than 800 works by Goncharova, who was then only 32. Bread Seller, 1911, is particularly worth observing, as a great example of the artist’s vision, the face of the seller is perhaps sad, but mostly reminiscent of religious icons. Her hands seem to mould the bread, bread that almost resembles human flesh. There is a sense of harmony, and the blending of humans with their environment.

We continue through thematic rooms to explore the various facets of this polymathic artist: fashion, artist books, theatre. Goncharova paraded the streets of Moscow in extravagant dress-style and face-painting (a Russian Khalo?), attracting the attention of the fashion industry. She was commissioned to create designs for Nadezhda Lamanova and then later, in Paris, she collaborated with the design house Myrbor. Most famously, Goncharova worked for many years with ballet impresario Diaghilev, collaborating with Russian composers, dancers and artists for the Ballets Russes. The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to her theatre work, with costumes and sketches designed by the artist, and it is truly extraordinary. All her immensely diverse work is marked by a sense of constant curiosity, almost a musicality, in its harmony and movement. Even the saddest room, ‘War’, depicts soldiers and war planes, intermingled with angels and iconic images. There is very little display of inner emotions in her work, except for, perhaps, a sense of peace and respect for the sacred.

First published in the East Finchley Open Artists July 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

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