The exhibition of the work of Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) at Tate Modern raises some key issues for the history – and the future – of art. Goncharova is presented here as a forgotten pioneer, key to the development of modern art in Russia. Her work challenges art-historical orthodoxies through its fusing of contemporary French experiments in Cubism with the subject matter and palette of Russian folk art. This was not a limitation in her modernity but a positive choice, since she saw in the intense colours and bold lines of traditional religious prints a way of bypassing the timid good taste of academic painting. Unlike French primitivists such as the School of Pont Aven, Goncharova and her colleagues were not so much throwing off a dominant style as refusing to adopt it. In this they presaged the cultural experiments of the Russian revolutionaries,
Goncharova’s output also challenges orthodoxies in its range of genres and materials, ranging across secular and religious paintings, textiles, fashion, theatrical design and performance art. She was not unusual in this – contemporaries from Dufy to Picasso to Matisse relied on design commissions to supplement income from sales of paintings. However it could be argued that Goncharova’s engagement with design was more fundamental to her art. Her set and costume design for Serge Diaghilev’s 1914 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or were integral to the work’s presentation of Russian tradition as a topic for lavish stage productions. Leon Bakst, Diaghilev’s main designer, had drawn on Russian tradition for L’Oiseau de Feu and Petrushka– but in his case these were viewed through a lens of exoticism which found its full expression in the Orientalism of Scheherazade or the Greek sensuality of L’Apres-midi d’un Faune. Goncharova was able to see past the decorative surfaces to the pared down shapes of Russian traditional tunics and smocks that she used for Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923).
Like her compatriot Sonia Terk Delaunay, Goncharova designed garments to be worn off stage as well as on. In the 1920s she was commissioned by the Paris fashion house of Myrbor to design printed textiles – and collaged compositions to cover the surface of shift dresses. The exhibition includes a mockup of one of these, a riot of coloured and textured shapes that have nonetheless been carefully placed to enhance the shape of the garment. This collage is closely related to her high-impact stage costumes, with motifs that would be clearly legible as a distance, but Goncharova also understood the requirements of more conventional fashion. Some fashion designs for Myrbor included in the exhibition deploy the couture repertoire of luxurious textiles, glittering beads and body-conscious cut to create garments that are striking but still wearable.
With so much talent, and such close relationships with the worlds of theatre, dance and fashion as well as art, it may seem surprising that Natalia Goncharova is not better known. That she is not may point to the reinstatement of the hierarchies of the genres which she hoped to overthrow. It is too tempting to see Goncharova’s straddling of genres a a limitation: modernist – BUT Russian rather than Parisian; artist BUT also a designer of costumes, fashion and textiles; and most pertinently avant-gardist BUT also female. Perhaps it is time to step forwards and assess her in her own terms, as the creator of ‘everythingism’ who refused to be limited by the definitions of others. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/natalia-goncharova