Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern: an illuminating show of extraordinary breadth

At the age of 32, in 1913 the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova was given an exhibition in Moscow in which she showed an eye-popping 800 works. Landscapes, still lives and street scenes were crammed in the six rooms alongside pictures of traditional crafts, nudes, Russian peasantry and experiments in the shards-of-light style, rayonism. Religious paintings were given a room of their own.

It was an extraordinary feat, even in a golden era for both European and Russian art. Thirty-one works were sold for a healthy 5,000 roubles, 12,000 people visited in the course of five weeks and the catalogue ran into three editions. The artist herself was understandably pleased.

By 1913, already considered among the leading Russian artists of her day, Goncharova’s future was assured, and outside the gallery world too

“Bundles of newspapers featuring articles big and small, contradicting each other,” she wrote to a friend. “There were public scandals and receptions in restaurants, commissions for portraits, a carpet, for [stage] decors…”

More than a century later, the UK gets its own, first Goncharova show, with 160 works, many on loan from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses the largest collection in the world of the prolific artist. Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern re-creates in part the 1913 exhibition and shows the extraordinary range of her long career.
Natalia Goncharova’s set design for the final scene of The Firebird, 1954. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)
By 1913, already considered among the leading Russian artists of her day, Goncharova’s future was assured, and outside the gallery world too. The stage design commission came from the dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev: he invited her to create sets and costumes for the spectacular new ballet Le Coq d’Or, based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s recently premiered opera, and performed by the Ballets Russes.

The extravagant, traditionally-based costumes with modernist motifs would appeal to Western audiences’ idea of Russian exoticism, as would her onion-domes backcloth for a later ballet commission, Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

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This blend of folklore and futurism sprang from Goncharova’s early life. Born in 1881 to comfortably-off parents in Tula province, as the family wealth, originally from textiles, drained away, she moved to Moscow where she met her life partner Mikhail Larionov at the start of her intermittent art education; the two worked hand in hand until her death at 81 in 1962.

Familiar with both rural and city life, her subject matter seems limitless, as the 1913 show demonstrated. A term was coined for her boundary-less style: vsechestvo – “everythingism”.
Natalia Goncharova, Peasant Woman from Tula Province, 1910. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Bequeathed by A.K. Larionova-Tomilina 1989 (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)
Everythingism began in the countryside, then, with affectionate scenes. In Washing the Canvases (1910), there are hints of decorative motifs to come, in the concentric ripples of the water and the vigorous furrows of the fields behind, but at the heart of the picture are the women who process textiles at the pond, soaking, scraping and drying them in the sun.

Their traditional skirts and blouses will reappear in the ballet costumes and also underpin Goncharova’s sketches for the fashion designer Nadezhda Lamanova, and indeed her own distinctive and, according to Diaghilev, much-imitated bohemian style of dress.

Familiar with both rural and city life, her subject matter seems limitless. A term was coined for her boundary-less style: vsechestvo – ‘everythingism’

But the tunic-wearing men in Peasants Picking Apples (1911) are distinguished not by their dress but by their mask-like faces. Like her contemporaries in France who were admiring and collecting African art, Goncharova was inspired by the statuary of the Scythian nomadic people.

The simple features appear too in Hay Cutting (1907-08) where, as in religious art, figures are painted on entirely different scales, suggesting their level of importance, the man with the scythe lording it over the little hay-carriers.
Natalia Goncharova, 1881- 1962, Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Purchased 1927 (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)
Religious art was very important to Goncharova, who drew on its iconography while reinventing if for the modern world (This was too much for more conservative St Petersburg, which censored out her striking Evangelists (1911) when the 1913 exhibition moved there, rather unsuccessfully). She admired the tradition of luboks, cheap prints for the home, on both sacred and secular subjects, and designed many of her own.

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Arguably, everythingism benefited from being reigned in to these smaller formats. In 1914, in a first portfolio of lithographs, prompted by the outbreak of the First World war, she manoeuvres both angels and fighter planes in the sky, and, on the ground, infantryman march with guardians just overhead.

Such compositional ingenuity and suggestions of man as machine reappear in the futurist works of everythingism, of which there are several outstanding examples in the show. In Loom + Woman (The Weaver, 1912-13), the textile worker has all but vanished in the warp and weft and grinding machine.
Natalie Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913. State Russian Museum (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)
Dynamo Machine (1913) is a labyrinth of bolts, pistons and coils, but nature creeps in: there are little flower motifs in the few gaps between metal components. And in Cyclist (1913), the pedalling man is almost overwhelmed by the cobbles and by the bike itself, which fills the picture.

In 1919, after several trips to Paris, Goncharova settled permanently in an apartment in the 6th arrondisement; the couple were granted French citizenship in 1938. When Larionov had a stroke in London in 1950, Goncharova sold some of her earlier work to pay the medical bills, including Linen (1913), acquired for the Tate.

With the concision and intensity of Loom + Woman and Dynamo Machine, in it she stacks the neat collars, cuffs and pleated shirtfronts of Larionov (marked with his initials) alongside her items of lace – and the flat iron, shown over and over again, with her initials incised on its top.
Natalia Goncharova, Peasant woman- costume design for Le Coq d’Or, 1937. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Presented by E. Kurnan 1983 (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)
Success in the fashion world was mirrored by Goncharova’s popularity in designing for the home. The conductor Serge Koussevitsky asked her to style his Paris apartment; a screen, Spring (1927-28), on display here, was commissioned for the Arts Club of Chicago.

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But it is with the ballet designs that the show concludes, with a suitably theatrical flourish. Among them are costumes for a religious drama, Liturgy, never realised, with the choreographer Léonide Massine and Stravinsky. They were re-purposed as prints, demonstrating a businesslike practicality that emerges time and again in this illuminating show.

Goncharova is often at her best when working to a brief. It takes an everythingist to produce work that is really something.

Natalia Goncharova, Tate Modern, London, to 8 September (020 7887 8888)