Natalia Goncharova and Rayonism

Natalia Goncharova       1881 - 1962
Natalia Goncharova
1881 – 1962

In my blog today I want to look at the life of the avant-garde Russian painter, stage designer and printmaker, Natal’ya (Sergeevna) Goncharova.   Natalia was born in Russia on her father’s estate in the Tula governate in June 1881.  She was the daughter of Sergey Mikhaylovich Goncharov, a renowned architect and mathematician, and her mother was Yekaterina Il’icha Belyayeva.  However, in her early infant days she grew up in her grandmother’s home at Ladyzhino, near Kaluga. When she was ten years old, the family moved to Moscow and she attended the Fourth Gymnasium for Girls in Moscow and in 1898, when she was seventeen years old she decided to study sculpture and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a sculpture student where her tutor was Paolo Troubetskoy.  It was at this establishment in 1900 that she met and became friends with fellow student, Mikhail Larionov.  He had enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the same time as Goncharova, studying painting under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov.  Larionov was a student with very contentious and provocative views and was suspended from the academy on three occasions for his deep-seated opinions.   He and Goncharova became lifelong friends and he was to have a great influence on her.  It was Larionov who persuaded Goncharova to switch from studying sculpture to concentrate on studying painting.

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov
Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Goncharova’s early work concentrated on the medium of pastels and her first works were showcased at the Diaghilev’s Russian Art Exhibition, which was held in Paris in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne and a year later her first paintings were shown at the Moskovskoye Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov (Moscow Association of Artists) of which she was a member.  At this time, her friend Larionov’s painting style was that of Impressionism and Natalya, for a time, also became interested in the style which had become so popular in France.  In 1908 she took part in the Golden Fleece exhibition and it was during this show that she became more aware of a modern style of art with the works of Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec.  The influence of these painters made Goncharova rethink her artistic style.

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)
Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

In 1909 she completed a work of art, which highlighted her much-loved topic that of Russian peasants hard at work on the land.  The painting, which is currently housed at the Tate Liverpool, is entitled Gardening.  It is a painting, which is typical of her depictions of peasant life and was made around the time of her stay on a family estate in rural Russia.  Of this style of painting and her patriotism, she explained:

‘…If I extol the art of my country, then it is because I think that it … should occupy a more honourable place than it has done hitherto…”

In the painting we immediately sense her love for colour and her depiction of the peasants is a somewhat stylistic portrayal.  The display caption at the Tate describes the way she has portrayed the subjects shown in the paintings as:

 “…Her statuesque peasants, with their thickset bodies and massive limbs, are imbued with a heroic grandeur…”

 Her subsequent works were so colourful that they were likened to the work of the Fauves, which was an avant-garde movement that thrived in France during the first decade of the twentieth century, led by the likes of Matisse and Derain, these artists were the first to split from the Impressionism.

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)
Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

  In 1910, Goncharova became one of the founder members of the Jack of Diamonds group, sometimes referred to as Knave of Diamonds.  This group of painters was deemed to be the first group of Russian avant-garde artists and it was Mikhail Larionov who came up with the group’s name.   This collection of painters came from both Moscow and nearby provinces and most of them, including Goncharova, had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  They were all influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.  Once again we see a group of artists coming together with the common idea that they would discard the links with traditional art, and discard the knowledge that they were taught at their alma mater. For them, it was all about change and new artistic ideas.  Goncharova exhibited a number of her works in the group’s first exhibition in December 1910.  Their art was not loved by everybody, in fact it horrified some.  The influential Russian artist, art critic, historian criticised the group of young artists for having gone too far in overthrowing accepted artistic ideals.  Many other critics and members of the public declared that many of the works of art shown at the exhibition were in bad taste, gauche and lacked artistic elegance and some were even criticised as being too violent.

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

She exhibited another example of her Primitivist style art at the 1912 Jack of Diamond exhibition.  It had been completed a couple of years earlier and was entitled Fishing.  Again the style is similar to her painting Gardening and is part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and is housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

 Another one of the paintings which Goncharova exhibited was entitled The Evangelists and this was among her first mature works devoted to a religious subject.   In her 1962 book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, art historian, Camilla Gray, the daughter-in-law of Sergei Prokoviev, wrote:

“...The depiction is typical of Russian iconic paintings and so is a combination of old and new influences in Russian art. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of these four paintings is their effective use of color, line, and composition to create a strong rhythmic whole. Goncharova manipulates these elements with such understanding and perception that when one looks at the four authors of the Gospels there are no distractions and no weak points — only strength and security in a modern interpretation of tradition and native style. Both line and color become here “expressive entities in their own right” and convey the sense of calm spirituality and wisdom treasured by icon painters. However, what the Neo-primitivists of Goncharova’s time might have treasured most was an almost childish “directness and simplicity” characteristic of folk art which they tried to imitate in their works. Today, the four paintings of the Evangelists may be admired for many reasons, and regardless of the basis for the viewer’s appreciation, they definitely are an integral part of the Russian avant-garde movement…”

This religious work by Goncharova was heavily criticised for its primitive depiction and the critics believed no religious work should be associated with a group known as The Donkey’s Tail as it was bordering on blasphemy and so it was removed from the exhibition.

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Natalia Gonchorova produced a series of paintings in 1911 that became known as the Peacocks.  They were highly colourful and were influenced by Larionov and his new style of work at the time which was termed Rayonism or Luchism (luch being the Russian word for “ray”) which was a type of abstract or semi-abstract painting.  The Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, and to break the barriers between the artist and the public. They derived the name from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting colour, representing lines of reflected light — crossing of reflected rays from various objects.  .The painting seen above is an example of this and is entitled Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) which can be found in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.  The museum’s description of the work states:

“…The works in question combine the laws of Ancient Egyptian art and traditions of Russian folk art. The figure of peacock is transformed into an expressive sign. The bird’s chiselled head and elegant neck are shown in profile, whereas the magnificent tail is spread in front, as prescribed by Ancient Egyptian art. Between them is a green oval providing a background for the neck, head and body. The peacock seems to be examining its own tail in surprise, the tail resembling a grand architectural structure. It resembles at the same time the Coliseum, an arched iconostasis, a rainbow and palette. Unlike the artists of Art Nouveau, who associated peacock feathers with elegant luxury, Goncharova interprets this motif as primordial power, expressed in colours. The image of peacock seems to embody the ancient symbol of immortality…”

All was not well within the Jack of Diamond group as a rigorous debate took place between, on one side, David Burliuk, who was a fervent supporter and strongly supportive of Western art, and on the other side, Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, who favoured Russian themes. The two parties could not agree a compromise and so the Russian artists split into two camps. In the one corner was David Burliuk with his supporters, such as Alexi von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, who favoured the art which was influenced by Western painters.  In the other corner was the more traditional camp, including Goncharova and Larionov, who believed that a modern Russian art should address the question of national artistic traditions and therefore they disassociated themselves from the Jack of Diamonds on the grounds that Burliuk was a “decadent Munich follower” while the others, known as Cézanne-ists, were conservative and eclectic..

Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter  Joachim Raphale Baronali
Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter Joachim Raphale Baronali

A year later in 1911 the more radical artists in the group, including Goncharova and Larionov, broke away and formed a new artist’s group which Larionov launched as Osliny khvost (the Donkey’s Tail), in order to promote avant-garde art inspired exclusively by Russian themes.  The name, The Donkey’s Tail, derived from a famous Parisian hoax in which the art critic, Roland Dorgelès and Fréderic Gérard, proprietor of the Montmartre café, Le Lapin Agile, had painted a lurid red and blue seascape by tying a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail. The work was exhibited as Sunset Over the Adriatic under the name of Joachim Raphale Baronali at the Salon des Indépendants of 1910 apparently without comment.

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo
Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

That year, Ilya Repin recounted the incident of the donkey’s tail in his review of Izdebsky’s International Exhibition and used the term as a critical epithet for the modernist work on show. Shortly afterwards, the Russian press satirized the Knave of Diamonds exhibition by publishing a cartoon of a donkey painting with its tail, with the cynical caption:

“…Off home already after looking round just one hall. Don’t be shy. Get your sixty kopeks worth and next year come again. Then we will change the name and under the sign of ‘the Donkey’s Tail’ we will show you the way we paint our pictures...”

In adopting this name for his group, Larionov beat the critics with their own stick.  Other artists to join the group were Marc Chagal and Kazimir Malevich.  The group, however, was only short-lived, disbanding at the end of 1912 having only managing to stage one exhibition in the March of 1912.  Goncharova submitted over fifty works of art to this exhibition.

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova
The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

Goncharova continued with her Rayonist works of art but unlike her friend Larionov her paintings depicted distinguishable objects or people, whereas Larionov’s paintings became more pure abstract. One of her most famous works of that period was one entitled The Cyclist in which her depiction cleverly captures the energy of the man on his bike as he passes by.  The blurred background adds to the sense of speed and movement.

Goncharova and Larionov were fervent believers of Rayonism, so much so they issued a joint manifesto in 1913 of what Rayonism meant to them.  The manifesto entitled Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifesto, began with:

“…We, rayonists and futurists, do not wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about modern Western art. We leave the old art to die and leave the “new” art to do battle with it; and incidentally, apart from a battle and a very easy one, the “new” art cannot advance anything of its own. It is useful to put manure on barren ground, but this dirty work does not interest us. People shout about enemies closing in on them, but in fact, these enemies are, in any case, their closest friends. Their argument with old art long since departed is nothing but a resurrection of the dead, a boring, decadent love of paltriness and a stupid desire to march at the head of contemporary, philistine interests. We are not declaring any war, for where can we find an opponent our equal? The future is behind us. All the same we will crush in our advance all those who undermine us and all those who stand aside. We don’t need popularization—our art will, in any case, take its full place in life—that’s a matter of time……..”

The American art historian, Camilla Gray, in her book gave her definition of Rayonism as:

“…[as an art style which] encompasses all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture…”

Larionov and Goncharova started to believe that light was the indispensable source of our sensory appreciation of the world and believed that for any object to be observed it had to be lit up and the Rayonist style was to incorporate rays of light that then allows us to view a particular scene. Their manifesto explained:

 “…In fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision…”

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

In March 1913 Goncharova’s friend Larionov organised an exhibition entitled Mishen (Target) to introduce the Donkey’s Tail group of painters to the Moscow art critics and public.  One of the paintings Goncharova exhibited at the show was entitled La Forêt (The Forest) which is now part of the National Gallery of Scotland collection.  Although this is looked upon as an example of Goncharova’s Rayonist style with its coloured rays shooting out in different directions, it offers up the thought that Goncharova was more influenced by the Cubist style when she painted this work.  The shapes she has used in the depiction of trees in this work was replicated in a number of her works around this time.  It is a truly fascinating work.

 

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

Goncharova went on to design ballet costumes and sets for ballets in Geneva and in 1914 she and Larionov moved to Paris to work alongside the great Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghliev, during which time they designed a number of stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Goncharova still found time to carry on painting and exhibited works at the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.

Goncharova was quite a controversial character.  She was a woman that did not “toe the line” of convention.  It was said that she would sometimes appear topless in public, with symbols painted on her body. In a sense, their use of odd, possibly meaningless symbols united the masses with the past Symbolist aesthetic. In John Bowlt’s 1990 article in the Art Journal entitled Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theatre, he commented on her bizarre behaviour writing:

“…in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes…”

According to Mary Charmot who wrote an article in 1955 for the Burlington Magazine entitled The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov, Diaghliev was full of praise for this unconventional painter who had brought life to his ballets.  He talked of her, saying:

“…The most celebrated of these advanced painters is a woman. [. . .] This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet. And you will be interested to know that she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks…”

Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)
Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)

Goncharova and Larionov had lived together shortly after their first meeting in 1900 as fellow students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and they stayed together as an unmarried couple for more than fifty years.  She and Larionov became French citizens in 1939 and in 1955 the two artists married.  The reason for marrying so late in their romantic relationship was believed to be so that their paintings would revert to the surviving partner.  In the latter years Larionov and Goncharova suffered financially.   Goncharova suffered badly with arthritis in her hands and it is said that to carry on painting she had to tie the paint brushes to her wrist.  Goncharova died in Paris, in October 1962 and Larionov died two years later.

So what happened to their works of art?  The story goes that when the couple had both died, most of their collections were inherited by another Russian émigré, Alexandra Tomilina, who had met Larionov in the 1930’s when she was his student, and later became his mistress.   After Goncharova died in 1962, Larionov married Tomilina in order that she would inherit all the paintings, which by this time was numbered in the thousands, and by doing so the two artists would continue to be remembered and therefore it would safeguard both artists’ legacies.  Sadly Tomilina had always viewed Goncharova as a love rival and so hated her, so much so that she gave away, destroyed or disposed of many of Goncharova’s works. Tomalina’s old age became one of a life of poverty and so, desperate to pay off her debts, contacted the Soviet authorities and offered them all the remaining artworks if they would financially support her for the rest of her life.  This they agreed to.  When Tomilina died in 1987, her ashes were buried in Goncharova and Larionov’s double grave

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

After her death, Goncharova was almost forgotten as a painter in the West. Why?  Maybe it was because she painted in many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism, and  also maybe because she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. This lack of recognition was all to change in 2007 when her work, Picking Apples, which she completed in 1909, was sold at Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London for £4.9 million ($9.8 million), a record for a female artist, only to be bested a year later when her painting, The Flowers, sold for £5.53 million ($10.8 million).

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)
The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

Goncharova’s life, like her art, was very colourful.  She was unconventional and actually fell foul of the law on a number of occasions.  She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910 and as I mentioned earlier, her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.

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Maria Luise Katharina Breslau

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)
Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

In my recent blogs looking at the life of Marie Bashkirtseff, I talked about the time she spent studying art at the Académie Julian in Paris and her rivalry with her fellow artist Louise Breslau.  Despite the wealthy lifestyle of Bashkirtseff she was still constantly jealous of Breslau, who she perceived as her rival at the academy.  She was also very jealous of Breslau’s friendship with contemporary artists such as Edgar Degas.  So today, I thought I should dedicate this blog to her rival, and look at the life and works of the German-born artist, Louise Breslau.

Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)
Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau, who would later be known simply as Louise Catherine Breslau,  was born in Munich in December 1856 but spent much of her early life in Zurich. She was born into a prosperous middle-class family.   Louise had three younger sisters Marie-Henrietta, Emma and Bernadette.  Her father was an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist and in 1858 he and his family moved to Zurich where he took up a position as head physician in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University Hospital of Zurich.

Louise suffered badly from asthma when she was young and was often confined to her bed and it was due to this enforced confinement, that to pass the time and counter loneliness, she immersed herself in reading and also developed a love of sketching.

La fille à l'orange by Louise Breslau (1897)
La fille à l’orange by Louise Breslau (1897)

In 1866, When Louise was nine years old, her father died of staph infection which he contracted during the execution of a postmortem examination. Louise, even though still very young, was tasked with helping her mother to bring up her three younger sisters.  When her health worsened, she spent some time in a convent near to Lake Constance where with its warmer climate it was hoped that her health would improve.   It was during her stay at the convent that she became more interested in art and she continued to sketch and paint during her teenage years.  Her love of art and her artistic ability became apparent to her mother who persuaded Louise to attend the drawing classes of the local Swiss portrait painter, Eduard Pfyffer.  She excelled under his tuition but after a while she believed that she had learnt all she could from Pfyffer and she wanted her art to be more than just a pleasing hobby.  All young ladies of a certain class, besides learning about domestic skills, were also encouraged to be able to play a musical instrument and be able to paint or sketch.   However, Louise wanted art not to be just a pleasant pastime, she wanted to become a professional artist and to achieve this she knew she had to leave Switzerland, move to the European capital of art, Paris, and enrol at a specialist art academy.   In 1876 she went to Paris but like many other female artists who wanted the best art training that Paris could offer, she was disappointed with the ruling of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts that only male artists would be allowed to enter their hallowed establishment.  This sexist ruling did not change until 1897.  So, like Bashkirtseff, she enrolled at the Académie Julian who catered for aspiring female painters.

Children reading by Louise Breslau
Children reading by Louise Breslau

Her fellow students at the Académie Julian included the Ukrainian artist, Marie Bashkirtseff, Madeleine Zillhardt, the French painter, Sophie Schäppi who, like Louise, had come to Paris from Switzerland and the Irish painter, Sarah Purser.  Louise excelled at the academy and was looked upon by her tutors as one of their best students and this fact did not lie well with Marie Bashkirtseff who was inordinately jealous of her fellow student. In 1879, Louise Breslau, Sophie Schäppi and the singer Maria Fuller moved into a large apartment in the Avenue des Thermes and that same year Breslau had her painting entitled Tout passé accepted at the Paris Salon.  This was a great achievement not only for Louise but also for the female atelier of Académie Julian.

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)
Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

Two years later, in 1881, she received an honourable mention at that year’s Salon for her triple portrait entitled, Les amies (Portrait of Friends).  In it we see her friends Maria Feller on the left, Sophie Schäppi in the centre and Louise on the right, with a white dog sitting on top of the scarlet tablecloth.  It is a painting in which we see the three females in a reflective mood.  The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  Louise Breslau was now acknowledged as an up-and-coming artist.  She opened her own studio and soon started to receive numerous commissions for her work from the wealthy of Paris society.

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)
Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

In 1883 she was commissioned by the owner of the French newspaper Le Figaro to paint a portrait of his daughter.   She completed the commission and exhibited the painting entitled Isabelle de Rodays at the 1883 Salon.  She also exhibited another of her works, Five O’clock Tea at that year’s Salon and this can now be found at the Berne Kunstmuseum.

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)
Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

In 1885 Louis Breslau completed another great work entitled Chez Soi which is a portrayal of her mother and sister in an interior setting.  The dog sits at the feet of her mother and this genre piece exudes an air of silent contemplation.  The painting resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau
Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau

The friendship between Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt would last a lifetime and she would appear in many of her paintings.  After a brief affair in 1886 with the sculptor Jean Carriès, whom she met through Jules Breton, Louise Breslau chose to share her life with Madeleine Zillhardt and in 1902 the two women moved to a studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine where they set up home.

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau
Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

She eventually became the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honour award.  During World War I Breslau, although by this time a naturalised Swiss citizen, and Zillhardt, remained at their home at Neuilly. Breslau showed her patriotism towards her new country, France, by drawing numerous portraits of French soldiers and nurses on their way to the Front. Louise was sixty-two years of age when the war ended and she began to withdraw from public view and was contented to stay at home and sit in her garden, painting flowers but she still loved to entertain her friends.

Louise Catherine Breslau died in May 1927, aged 70 after suffering from a long and debilitating illness.   Most of her estate went to her good friend and long-time companion Madeleine Zillhardt.  As per her wishes Louise Breslau’s body was taken to the small Swiss town of Baden where she was buried next to her mother.

Unlike Bashkirtseff, who died at the age of 25, Breslau had many years to forge her artistic reputation.  Bashkirtseff sadly knew, when she was told that she was dying, that she would never have the time to be able to build up such an artistic reputation as Breslau but of course Bashkirtseff will always be remembered for her diaries.  The works of art of Louise Breslau were very popular when she was alive but sadly, after she died, she was almost forgotten.