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Child of the revolution

Artist Jacqueline Fahey responds to the life and art of Russian avant-guarde painter Natalia Goncharova

<P data-associrn="40701"></P> <P><STRONG>Artist in focus</STRONG></P> <P>We cannot begin to understand the work of the Russian painter Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) if we do not understand the tumultuous times she inhabited. Tumultuous, yes, but out of that tumult magic happened. </P> <P>The environment Goncharova lived in was created over the century that preceded her arrival at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1901. It was a long time coming, that state of mind. There were painful uprisings in 1825 and again in 1855, when Tsar Alexander II succeeded Nicholas I. The journalists, poets, and performers of that time were a big influence into the future.&nbsp; They were outspoken and in constant fear for their lives. Nadezhda Krupskaya, an ardent Marxist, educationalist, and politician, explained the change they brought about this way: ‘They taught us to look at life.’ Krupskaya was eager to see reality. In 1898, she married Lenin. So she learned a great deal through looking.</P> <P>Krupskaya ardently believed that the evolving new society would include equality for women. She had a great faith in the society that was to come, and the role of women in it. But when Goncharova was at art school in Moscow, women were not equal. They were not offered equality. They could graduate, but they could not have their own studios. This meant they were, in the real world, not in business. They were not ‘professionals’. </P> <P data-associrn="1465707"></P> <P><STRONG>That amazing avant-garde</STRONG></P> <P>During her years at the Moscow Institute, however, Goncharova found a way of asserting her personhood.&nbsp; She expressed this in an explosive burst of creativity which carried her over all those years before her first Paris exhibition, in 1914. It wasn’t just Goncharova. In those early years of the new century, she was in the company of that amazing avant-garde, the female artists Aleksandra Exter, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova, amongst others. This revolution was indeed a long time coming.</P> <P>Some have expressed surprise as to why there should be, in Russia at that time in history, so many remarkable women painters. It should be no mystery; obviously, there were reasonable women who could put two and two together. They were sitting in on groups talking about the new socialist society. Reason would have suggested to them that if the worker was to have equality, then so should they. After all, they were workers, weren’t they?</P> <P data-associrn="1465706"></P> <P><STRONG>Portrait of the artist as a working woman</STRONG></P> <P>My own <EM>Woman at the sink</EM> (1958) was inspired by an argument I was having with left-wing intellectuals of the day. They felt I should be painting workers, which meant men digging holes in the ground, that sort of thing. I said, ‘But women are workers! Women in the kitchen, making beds in hotels, cooking and cleaning for husbands and children - all working women.’ Goncharova’s <EM>Woman carrying fruit on her head</EM> (about 1911) is also a working woman. Strong and powerful in her nature, like my <EM>Woman at the sink</EM>. Both of them are carrying the food, bearing the brunt. Remarkable how Goncharova’s visual insight seeped down through time so that I should, quite unconsciously, paint something like her working women. Both my painting and hers illustrate patience and endurance in servitude.</P> <P>In <EM>Self-portrait with yellow lilies</EM> (1907), Goncharova positions herself in her workplace, her painting area with her works hanging on the wall behind her. With engaging energy she focuses, striving to see what is really there – herself in the mirror as alive as those lovely orange flowers. Here is a modern woman. She presents herself as a person first, a painter. She refuses to eunuch her creativity. She glows with self-confidence. She is herself.</P> <P data-associrn="1465708"></P> <P>In my painting <EM>With French paint use protection</EM> (1994), I am emphasising that same notion, of myself as a thinking, working woman. At that time I was a lecturer in the painting department at Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland. I loved it, but I was not using my visual intelligence. I was all into talk, talk, talk, so this image of myself is all mouth, no eyes. The gloves are a directive. A warning that your art students could be dealing with poisonous stuff, so use protection.</P> <P><STRONG>The seed of genius</STRONG></P> <P>I do not believe for a moment that men conceded equality to those amazing avant-garde female artists in Moscow. Goncharova and her peers knew enough not to ask permission; they assumed their equality. When a group of students were expelled from the institute’s portraiture class, they formed Moscow’s first radical exhibiting group, named the Jack of Diamonds by Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova’s life partner. Goncharova, the only female member, would be the group’s star. Her success was an inspiration to the avant-garde art scene at the time and especially to other women painters. By seizing control of her environment she had asserted herself as a person, an artist. </P> <P>Artists must of course believe in their own personal vision, be in charge of it. But I believe also that Goncharova’s compulsion was motivated by the times. Goncharova’s notion of herself did not emerge out of thin air. She thought of herself as transcending daily life, not succumbing to it. I don’t believe that by denying Goncharova the status of self-propelled genius I denigrate her. It is an upper-class notion that genius will prevail, in ways never explained. In truth, seeds must fall on fertile ground to flourish. The odd one may make it out of the barren patch but its growth will be distorted. Goncharova was lucky that her seed of genius found fertile ground. Voltaire’s bridge of inspired reason had been thrown over the abyss. During her years in Moscow, it held, and she flourished.</P> <P data-associrn="1465705"></P> <P><STRONG>New Primitivism</STRONG></P> <P>The creative ferment leaking out of Russia was a ferment brewed in a stew of rage, simmering just under the surface. A longing for equality that gave hope to the meanest peasant. Goncharova herself had the advantage of an enlightened extended family. Her grandfather was into the new thinking, and had actively attempted to put the principles of equality into practice. At his estate in the rural Kaluga province, and at the family home in Moscow, they talked about everything political. That environment opened Goncharova’s eyes and she could see, see what was really there. Her fishing cycle, her farming cycle, and of course, her gardening images. I just love <EM>Mowers</EM> (1907–08). You can almost hear the hiss of the scythes mowing the luscious golden wheat. That harvest moon, the two smaller figures bringing in the sheaves. Its rhythm is lovely, its balance perfection.</P> <P data-associrn="1465703"></P> <P>Goncharova’s New Primitivism predated the modernism of Matisse and Cézanne. In paintings like <EM>The evangelists</EM> (1911), she felt free to draw on the icons of the Russian Orthodox Church, popular broadsheets, and Western European artistic movements in any way that suited her. She denied the right of the artist to visually ‘own’ something. The reason this was so good, so radical, was because the viewer was then free to read different, and even opposing, meanings into her work. So I would ask, ‘Why are the evangelists’ scrolls blank? Is Goncharova commenting on how you can never know what’s going to happen next? On the things the prophets can’t prophesise?’</P> <P data-associrn="1465700"></P> <P><STRONG>Colin and Natalia</STRONG></P> <P>There is to my mind a rationale that <EM>The evangelists</EM> shares with modern New Zealand artist Colin McCahon’s painting <EM>The Virgin &amp; child compared</EM> (1948). Sometimes Colin’s paintings are viewed as a declaration of Christian faith, I don’t see them that way. Fundamentalist Christianity was the mentality that half-destroyed our land. This series of paintings is a statement about resurgences, the land as a living powerful creature. The angels heralding in another awareness. The land nurtured, loved, and sad. Colin once said of those rolling Canterbury hills, ‘I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people.’&nbsp; Goncharova, too, talked about seeing what was there. I don’t doubt that she, like Colin, had her own epiphanies.</P> <P>There are many ways of reading both Goncharova’s and McCahon’s work. When Goncharova exhibited her religious paintings in Moscow in 1912, and in St Petersburg in 1914, the Ecclesiastical Censorship Committee of the Holy Synod did some reading of their own. Their conclusion? That Goncharova was an ‘anti-artist’, and her paintings the work of an Antichrist. The police physically removed the panels, twice! Perhaps the New Zealand clergy were not so good at reading paintings as the Russian priests. McCahon certainly suffered verbal abuse.</P> <P><STRONG>Ballets Russes</STRONG></P> <P>When Goncharova left Russia, she was famous in her own country, famous enough to be scandalous. She epitomised that slap in the face of the public that was the slogan for the avant-garde of Moscow at the time. One critic wrote that her painting was sourced in ‘the disgusting, cross-eyed, crooked green and red mugs of peasants’. When you get that sort of response from a critic everybody knows you are on to something. Russian peasant visual intelligence was consistent, it pervaded everything. Mugs, fabrics, clothes, and buildings. A vibrating world throbbing with life. The singing, the dancing, it was all part of that whole.</P> <P>Goncharova first went to France in 1914. It was Sergei Diaghilev, the legendary director of the Ballets Russes, who made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Designing sets for the Ballets Russes was exciting, as exciting for Goncharova as an actress today taking out a contract to go to Hollywood. Her first sets and costumes, for the premier of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet Le Coq d’or, were perceived, correctly, as properly Russian and really quite astonishing. She was into everything: textiles, clothing, wallpaper. </P> <P>My mother certainly felt it, that creative ferment leaking out of Russia. Before she married, through the 1920s which were her twenties, she was the repetiteur for the Boucicault Company in Melbourne. Pavlova danced and Chaliapin sang; those Russians got around. (Would they have used Goncharova’s sets from Nijinsky’s time in ballet, in Paris?) My mother was enchanted by them, those Russians, and they stayed a glowing memory to cheer her in grimmer times. Their appetites for life, their assumption they should live centre stage, and Dionysius George Boucicault, the marvellously named actor and theatre producer who got them there.</P> <P data-associrn="38323"></P> <P><STRONG>Death stalks the countryside</STRONG></P> <P>In 1919, unsure of their welcome in their beloved homeland, Goncharova and Larionov settled in Paris. But they never gave up hope that the time might come when they could safely go home. Goncharova said she had left the ‘huge strength of Russia’ for a ‘dry and pale Europe’. I love it, that classic quote, that homesick cry from the heart. In France, she was always perceived as a Russian artist and she longed to return there. But she left it too late. Voltaire’s bridge was already fragile, and when Stalin came to power that did it. The silver bridge collapsed and plunged down into the seething depths. Brutality and stupidity flourished all over Europe. The faces of both capitalism and socialism were looking ugly. Diaghilev died that same year Stalin came to power, 1928. </P> <P>For the next 20 years at least it was to be horrible all over Europe, but most horrible for Russia and the Ukraine. The futurist poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky was the poster boy of the day. Death stalked the countryside in more terrible guises than any imaginings of his.</P> <P>But come, Goncharova lives on. A lovely record from a hopeful, creative time in history. These glimpses of the past that she inhabited are a gift to us. Although she lived exiled from her homeland and in extreme hardship, she lived in hope. And that hope was that the people’s revolution would be restored to them. </P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>The young radicals of the early 20th century were often contemptuous of writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy. Of course this does not mean they had not been seriously influenced by these remarkable thinkers. </LI> <LI>Although Goncharova attended the Moscow Institute sporadically after 1904, she did not withdraw until 1909. </LI> <LI>See Bowlt, John E, Matthew Drutt and Zelfira Tregulova (eds), <EM>Amazons of the Avant-Garde</EM>, Guggenheim Publications, 2000. </LI> <LI>The group’s name, Jack of Diamonds, referenced the pattern on the prisoners’ uniforms in the Tsar’s jails. Goncharova’s paintings, which drew on primitivist and cubist ideas, were the subject of clamourous attention during the group’s first exhibition, in late 1910, and again in the 1912 Donkey’s Tail exhibition. See Jane A Sharp, ‘Natalia Goncharova’, in <EM>Amazons of the Avant-Garde</EM>, p. 158. </LI> <LI>Neil Rowe, ‘Notes Toward a McCahon ABC’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM> 8 November/December/January 1977–78, <A href=""></A> </LI> <LI>‘Natalia Goncha, rova’, <EM>Amazons of the Avant-Garde</EM>, p. 162. </LI> <LI>John E Bowlt, ‘Women of genius’, <EM>Amazons of the Avant-Garde</EM>, p. 29.</FONT></LI></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>

Natalia S. Goncharova, Porteuse de raisins, circa 1911, oil on canvas,
Gift of Mme Larionov, Paris, 1973.
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014
Full object info is available on

Jacqueline Fahey, &lt;EM&gt;Woman at the sink&lt;/EM&gt;, 1958

Jacqueline Fahey, Woman at the sink, 1958

Natalia Goncharova, &lt;EM&gt;Self portrait with yellow lilies&lt;/EM&gt;, 1907

Natalia Goncharova, Self portrait with yellow lilies, 1907 ,
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014

Jacqueline Fahey, &lt;EM&gt;With French paint use protection&lt;/EM&gt;

Jacqueline Fahey, With French paint use protection

Natalia Goncharova, &lt;EM&gt;Mowers&lt;/EM&gt;, 1907–08

Natalia Goncharova, Mowers, 1907–08 ,
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014

Natalia Goncharova, &lt;EM&gt;The evangelists&lt;/EM&gt;, 1911

Natalia Goncharova, The evangelists, 1911 ,
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014

Colin McCahon, &lt;EM&gt;The virgin &amp; child compared&lt;/EM&gt;, 1948, oil, canvas on board. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, 73/169, 2013

Colin McCahon, The virgin & child compared, 1948, oil, canvas on board. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, 73/169, 2013 ,
Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust


Natalia S. Goncharova, Yellow roses, 1920-23, oil on canvas,
Gift of Mary Chamot, London, 1983.
© Natalja Goncharova/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, 2014
Full object info is available on