Walking into the Tate’s exhibition on Natalia Goncharova, one is immediately struck with vibrancy and colour. This experience continues all the way through the collection as Goncharova’s bright works are given equally bright backdrops of mustard yellow, electric blue and sharp white. This is the first UK retrospective of Goncharova and it really shows us that we have been missing out. It is compiled of over 160 works that are rarely loaned out to other galleries and it is truly a blessing.
Natalia Goncharova, 'Gardening', 1908 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
Goncharova was born into nobility in Tula in 1881, and having moved to Moscow in 1892 for her education, took influence from the culture and customs of peasants living in pre-soviet Russia. Consequently, the exhibition also provides an insight into the cultural history of the country. Goncharova proves herself to be radical—through her choice to depict female nudes, something that was a crime in Russia in 1910—and reputable in the art scene of Moscow. In 1914, Goncharova moved to Paris, where she would spend the rest of her life, eventually passing away in 1962.
The various styles of her work show her exploration of genres but also, more importantly, intentionality. Goncharova’s mastery allows her to put an exactitude to each of her paintings, creating a specificity to their tone. It is evident she was multi-talented: some paintings are angular and heavy, others light and beatific. Her ability to express darkness is met with the corresponding ability to express joy. Colour is frequently met with bold, black outlines that seem to push the vibrancy towards the viewer but also these outlines simultaneously consume the work. A fantastic example of this is Peasant Woman from Tula Province which welcomes you into the exhibition space.
Natalia Goncharova, 'Peasant Woman from Tula Province', 1910 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
In the latter half of her career, when Goncharova was based in Paris, she began work alongside Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, creating costumes and set designs. Folklore, iconography and embroidery all come together to create some undeniably exquisite work, especially those from Le Coq D’Or, which are her most celebrated contributions to ballet. Her set designs are equally as impressive; they are almost indistinguishable from some of her other works. She further delves into lithograph. The series Mystical Images of War—Goncharova’s response to the First World War—is dark and stylistic. The prints play with imagery, exploring narratives of war, with depictions of Russian historical figures.
Natalia Goncharova, 'The Phoenix' (Harvest polyptych), 1910 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
The Harvest is a highlight. It is bright and expressive, originally composed of nine different paintings: two are presumed lost, the other seven have been reunified to create a massive work. It beams with brightness, walking the line between cubism and expressionism. They are composed of colours which slot together perfectly: sweeps of orange among plum. Taking the time to sit in front of and soak them in as a collection is a marvel.
Moreover, there is the opportunity to view a remarkable Picasso painting on loan from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow: Queen Isabeau. This is a deft rendering in vivid green of a French medieval Queen as she reads. It is absolutely radiant. Her artistic influences are overt; one can clearly piece together Picasso, Matisse and Derain through her work, which definitely raises questions about her originality.
Natalia Goncharova, Peasant woman, 1910 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
One of the largest downfalls of the exhibition’s display was that aesthetics have been chosen over practicality when it came to labelling: many of Goncharova’s works are hung separate from their titles. This decision has confusing results. The walls covered in uninterrupted art is quite a spectacle, but it is difficult to piece together the exhibit. Subsequently, it occasionally felt like it lacked coherence and it also makes the work less accessible.
Regardless of this, it is an exhibition full of incredibly rich, elegant and lively work. It is also a fantastic addition to the collection of women the Tate has had on display this year: Goncharova acts as a perfect coupling to the Dorothea Tanning. For those who enjoyed Tate’s exhibit on Tanning earlier this year, I encourage you to attend and draw the parallels between them.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor