Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova was a prominent Russian painter and designer in the early 20th century. Her work influenced the avant-garde movement in Russia and contributed to Russian futurism, primitivism, and Rayonism.
Goncharova was born on June 3, 1881, in Nagaevo. Her parents, both highly educated, gave Goncharova and her brother a thorough education. She graduated from the Fourth Women’s Gymnasium in 1898.
She had many interests but eventually decided that she would study sculpture. In 1901, she began attending the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. There, Goncharova excelled and started showing her work in exhibitions around Moscow in 1903.
Gender discrimination forbade women to get a degree at the Institute at the time. So in 1909, Goncharova withdrew, preferring to continue her education in private. But her imitation of European Modernism resulted in her expulsion from private classes.
Goncharova’s aesthetics combined Western and Eastern styles, inspiring many other artists of her day. She was a prominent figure in the Cubo-Futurist style that she helped pioneer.
The Jack of Diamonds
The Jack of Diamonds was a radical independent art exhibition group of which Goncharova was a part. It was the first radical art group of its kind in Moscow.
The name was seen as provocative because it alluded to prison uniforms and boulevard literature. The group held its first exhibition in December of 1910 and 1911, displaying cubist and primitivist works by Goncharova.
Goncharova created her paintings from inspirations she drew out of Russian folk art and iconography, especially the popular form called luboks. Primitivist influences also inspired her. The Jack of Diamonds’ most radical members split off in 1912 to form another exhibition group called the Donkey’s Tail.
The Donkey’s Tail
The Donkey’s Tail was intended to break away from European art styles’ influence to give rise to an independent and thoroughly Russian school of modern art. It was conceived as a futurist group with inspirations from the Cubo-futurist style.
Renowned Russian artists in the Donkey’s Tail included Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Shevchenko, and Mikhail Larionov, who created the group’s name. The Donkey’s Tail’s first and only exhibition was held in March and April 1912, displaying over 50 works by Goncharova. By 1913, the group had disbanded.
Natalia Goncharova Paintings
Goncharova’s works grew out of the contrasts she found in city and country living. Her painting was inspired by the contemporary Russian paintings and European Modernist movements. Goncharova displays characteristics of the slower, quieter nature of country life alongside Moscow’s hustle and bustle, drawing attention to their contradictions.
She painted self-portraits, and many of her early works dealt with her own identity. She dressed variously as a gentlewoman and explored her artistic identity, experimenting with environments and local characteristics.
Goncharova’s early paintings and pastels draw inspiration from her family’s estate in Kaluga province, showing work and leisure creatively combined. She observed servants, peasants, and other locals to depict their lives. She also painted the landscapes and gardens of the estate.
Significant influences in Goncharova’s work include futurism, cubism, primitivism, and Russian religious folk art.
After Goncharova withdrew from the Moscow Institute, she found influences in her private studies. These would go on to affect her work for the rest of her life. She studied with Illia Mashkov and Alexander Mikhailovsky at their studios. There, Goncharova was able to study male and female nudes. She also trained in skills she would have gained at the Moscow Institute if she had been allowed.
Goncharova listed Picasso, Le Fauconnier, and Braque among her influences. She began focusing on primitivism, as found in Russian folk art and iconography. Eventually, She moved to bring together cubism and futurism in her paintings. This led to the start of Cubo-Futurism and greatly influenced the contemporary Russian style. She developed Rayonism alongside Larionov and organized many provocative lectures.
Throughout her life, Goncharova never lost her love for the artistic styles of her homeland. She once declared: “The West has shown me one thing — everything that it has comes from the East.”
Costume and Set Design
Goncharova was notably successful in the fashion industry, creating costumes for the Ballets Russes, perhaps most famously for the production of The Golden Cockerell and Firebird. She worked with Bronislava Nijinska and Sergei Diaghilev, eventually having a sizable impact on contemporary French fashion.
Her engagement with the avant-garde and local Russian heritage influenced her designs. Her creations inspired further development within Russian and European styles.
In addition to ballet costumes, Goncharova also contributed to set designs for the ballet. Her sets were vibrantly colorful, combining elements of both Eastern and Western art.
Her designs were often abstract, bringing together many materials in distinct patterns and colors. She eventually worked at the House of Myrbor in France and for the renowned Nadejda Lamonava in Moscow. Her work was influenced by Byzantine mosaics and Russian traditions, along with the primitivism found in ethnic folk art.
Controversy followed Goncharova throughout her career. Goncharova’s early paintings during her time with The Donkey’s Tail shows a strong influence drawn from cubism. Many of these paintings are adaptations of scenes from Russian folklore and even religious icons.
The Donkey’s Tail generated a stir, leading censors to confiscate The Evangelists. Many people believed that displaying the work at an exhibition named for a donkey’s rear was blasphemous. Goncharova’s depiction of profane and sacred imagery together was shocking. Icons painted by a woman were also taboo.
Goncharova was known for shocking public behavior, like painting her topless chest and walking down the streets. She would paint her face for exhibitions and was often criticized for her displays. Because of these controversies, she often successfully used her notoriety to bring attention to her works and collections.
After WWI, Goncharova sensed that unrest was heading toward Russia. She spent the rest of her life in Paris. There, she switched her focus to costume and set designs, only giving a few exhibitions in the last few decades of her life. She died in Paris in 1962.