Natalia Goncharova was a Russian avant-garde artist who throughout her career was preoccupied with the world of the Russian peasantry.
Upon entering this exhibition, you’re presented with the artistic culture of an old, lost world; entrancing tray-paintings (an old folk handicraft), stylised versions of traditional religious prints, a peasant’s dress. Goncharova was a modernist, but her modernism was concerned with preserving a dying feudal world, whose artistic traditions were soon to be obsolesced by the October Revolution.
This unique artistic posture – modernism directed away from the modern – invites an interesting question, one that the exhibition sadly doesn’t interrogate. What was Goncharova’s relationship with the world of the Tsar?
An Aristocrat’s daughter, she left Russia for Paris in 1915, and the tumult of the years preceding the Revolution is infused into her work – particularly her urban paintings, which are fraught with unease. Her art doesn’t glorify pre-Revolutionary Russia, but it is willfully blind to the hardships it inflicted upon people. Peasant life was surely not this colourful.
As a result, there is an elitism – perhaps inevitable, given her background – permeating Goncharova’s gaze, which looks at Russian peasantry as Kipling did at Indians under the Raj. She is not interested in the grim reality of their lives, instead finding their value only in their traditions, substituting their humanity for the primitivism and folklore with which she was infatuated.
Crossing between Moscow and Western Europe, Goncharova used her modernist training to explore nascent artistic movements, enmeshing her inimitably slavic style with the rapidity and restlessness of Italian futurism, which called upon artists to embrace the dynamism of modernity (and later, fascism).
The discovery of futurism was a seismic moment in her artistic life, prompting her to move her canvas from Russia’s villages to its factories and city streets. However, her work remains indigenously Russian throughout this shift, with small Slavic touches insinuating themselves into the fractured shafts of colour characteristic of cubo-futurism, a style she helped pioneer.
As the exhibition moves into its final rooms, it introduces a number of clever innovations, overlaying a series of stencil prints, lithographs, and illustrations with contemporaneous Russian poetry and music by Igor Stravinsky. The curators have clearly made an effort to situate Goncharova in the cross-pollinated Eurasian millieu that produced her, and the exhibition also features works by Picasso and André Derain that were part of turn-of-the-century Russian collections, and were influential on her artistic development.
There is something infuriating about this collection, in that it presents, and then leaves mostly unaddressed, a set of contradictions, in the process slightly obscuring the beautiful paintings on show. But it’s also a fascinating glimpse into a world largely alien to us, of peasants and aristocrats, preserved in glorious colour shortly before it was forever destroyed.