Russian revolutionary? Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

“I shake the dust from my feet and leave the west, considering its vulgarising significance trivial and insignificant. My path is towards the source of all art, the east. The west has taught me one thing: everything it has is from the east!”

That was the war-cry of ambitious young Russian painter Natalia Goncharova in the 1910s. But her works, assembled at Tate Modern for her first ever retrospective, declare the opposite.

Opening with a Gauguin-influenced patterned portrait “Peasant Woman from Tula Province”, proud, nationalistic yet emotionally distant, the show tells a story about assimilation, identity, battles between global and national, and the limits of conceptual strategies: difficult themes sharply resonant today.

‘Peasant Woman from Tula Province’ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

A receptive, astute synthesiser, Goncharova was the first Russian painter to fuse modern flatness, bold outline and simplicity of form — derived from École de Paris innovations — with local references. “The Evangelists” quartet 1911 combines a modernist manner with the hieratic style of icons and an ornamental, rhythmic linearity redolent of Russian textiles. Still lifes allude to folk media: “Cat and Tray”, “Peacock In the Style of Russian Embroidery”. An uneven narrative series from 1908-12 depicts peasant life — an obsessive subject of Russian writers and artists since Tolstoy and 19th-century realist painter Ilya Repin. At its best, it crosses Picasso’s fracturing and geometrisation of form with the harsh blocky figuration of Russian lubok woodcuts and archaic Scythian sculpture: the chiselled mask-like faces of “Peasants Picking Apples”; a stark, brutish labourer wielding a huge scythe in “Hay Cutting”.

“A very short while ago it was a saying that if one scratched a Russian, one discovered a barbarian,” noted a prewar Viennese critic. “Now . . . in this barbarian we find a great artistic advantage . . . The barbarian embraces with the most elegant of modernists and each completes the other.”

‘Peasants Picking Apples’ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Goncharova was no barbarian, but was a canny manipulator of identities. Born in 1881 in Tula province to an aristocratic family related to Pushkin, she was a well-travelled cosmopolitan intellectual who played a small, vital role in art history: she was the hinge by which Moscow artists grasped the possibility of translating Parisian innovations into an original, revolutionary, Russian yet internationally far-reaching language — one that left Goncharova behind.

Encountering Goncharova’s weighty peasants and potent socialist emblems was a lightning moment for Malevich: his “Mower”, “Woodcutter” and other tubular figures with metallic sheens and carved, stony faces descend from Goncharova’s monumental forms. A more subtle painter, Malevich took her peasant motif and, after 1915, forged from it the bombshell of abstraction. But he remained loyal to the connection: unlike Russian artists “working in the line of Cézanne”, Malevich insisted, “Goncharova and I worked more on the peasant level. Every work of ours had a content which, although expressed in primitive form, revealed a social concern.”

Through 1912–13, Goncharova and Malevich rushed ahead in parallel, reworking those “primitive forms” for an evolving urban society. Each incorporated industrial tropes, signage and numbers into their canvases. Malevich “Lady at a Tram Stop”, “Englishman in Moscow” developed Cubism towards overlapping planes concealing mysterious figures; Goncharova again expertly adapted the latest western, Cubism-derived twist, Italian Futurism, to a Russian context. She depicted the dynamics of motion in the accomplished, witty “Cyclist”, a worker-hero pedalling with effort over a cobbled street, oblivious as he passes shop window advertisements for luxuries — silk, thread, hats. Jutting diagonal and vertical chimneys thrusting across “Factory Futurist” and a labourer in headscarf leaning over an industrial loom in electric light in “The Weaver Loom + Woman” celebrate Russia’s technological advances.

‘Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies’ 1907-08 Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But already the apprentice was outstripping the leader. Where Malevich had a formal and spiritual agenda that was coming to dominate the avant-garde — reinventing painting to consider relationships between the visible and invisible world — Goncharova essentially remained a narrative realist, and an increasingly desperate self-promoter yoked to a narrow nationalism. In 1912 she and her partner Mikhail Larionov launched a group exhibition asserting an independent Russian school “against the west, vulgarising our eastern forms”: Goncharova showed 50 paintings, Malevich 23; Chagall was permitted one, Kandinsky excluded as “Munich decadent” and “lackey of Paris”.

Goncharova’s 1913 solo exhibition, the first devoted to an avant-garde artist in Russia, was inaugurated with a procession of face-painted acolytes along a street in central Moscow, and contained more than 800 works in every international style then current. The quantity suggests staggering absence of self-criticism, and Tate’s centrepiece, a restaging of the show in miniature 29 paintings is very dispiriting.

While Malevich’s agenda came to dominate the avant-garde, Goncharova remained a narrative realist

“Nude Black Woman” comes straight from Matisse, its strident colour, bulbous breasts, muscular thighs, prominent buttocks and twisting movement closely imitating the Fauve master’s “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra”. Cubism’s interlocking planes, like facets of crystals, and brown-grey tonality, is the vocabulary of Goncharova’s “A Model Against a Blue Background”. Impressionist and post-Impressionist landscapes — “Mountain Ash: Panino near Vyazma”, “Orchard in Autumn” — jostle with a symbolist frieze, recalling Maurice Denis, of Russian girls in white and sugar pink in “Picking Apples”.

Any thoughtful artist in 1913 would have incorporated such range of influence; the problem is how dull, without painterly interest or expressive feeling, most of Goncharova’s imitations are.

“We deny that individuality has any value in a work of art. We declare that copies never existed,” she insisted — the mantra of the second-rate. Tate applauds her “multiplicity”. But the beautiful refinement of Picasso’s “Queen Isabeau” and André Derain’s “Tree Trunks”, exhibited here to demonstrate Parisian impact they come from the great prewar Moscow collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov only emphasise Goncharova’s limitations.

Set design 1954 for ‘The Firebird’ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is ironic that the loudly anti-western Goncharova and Larionov were the first of the avant-garde to quit Russia — in 1915, to work for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Their time was over. Goncharova’s painting after the revolution is negligible Tate includes just four examples; it was artists unexposed to foreign travel, from working-class backgrounds — Malevich, Rodchenko — who took the Russian experiment to its absolutist conclusion, to abstraction then back again in the 1930s, by which time nationalism in art was a terrifying force.

Living in Paris, Goncharova continued as a theatre designer through the 1920s and 1930s. “Bohemian in dress, indolent, reserved, mysterious, Russian to a T” was Cubist Ardengo Soffici’s memory of her in the French capital.

Concluding this show and looking back poignantly to the opening Tula portrait, Goncharova’s flamboyant costumes drawing on Russian provincial dress, especially for “Le Coq d’Or”, demonstrate her flair for ornamentation, plus the nostalgia afflicting every exiled Russian artist. Both served her well as she now capitalised on the “vulgar” western love for oriental imagery that she had previously criticised. She was an opportunist from first to last.

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