Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova – June 21, 1881 – October 17, 1962 was a Russian avant-garde artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer. Goncharova’s lifelong partner was also a fellow Russian avant-garde artist Mikhail Larionov. She was a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with Larionov invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German based art movement known as “Der Blaue Reiter”. Born in Russia, she moved to Paris in 1921 and lived there until her death.
Her painting vastly influenced the avant-garde in Russia. Her exhibition held in Moscow and St. Petersburg (1913 and 1914) were the first promoting a “new” artist by an independent gallery. When it comes to the pre-revolutionary period in Russia, where decorative painting and icons were a secure profession, her modern approach to rendering icons were both transgressive and problematic. Her work is usually considered too culturally specific to her Slavic heritage to be universally figured as avant-garde.
At the end of the century the gender segregation in the official art institutions was no longer implemented, but still denied women the right to get the diploma upon the completion. Still, Goncharova got training at Ilia Mashkov’s and Alexander Mikhailovsky’s studio, where she was able to study both male and female nude, and as such was trained equivalent of what she would learn upon completion at the Moscow Institute as a man. In January, 1920, a group of artist got expelled from Konstantin Korovin’s portrait class, as they were accused of copying a European Modernist painting. In that group were Larionov (Goncharova’s partner), Robert Falk, Alexander Kuprin,, Mashkov, Petr Konchalovsky, and others. They formed a first radical independent exhibitionist group which Larionov names “Jack Of Diamonds”. This title is rather a provocative name, as it both alludes of boulevard literature and the prison uniforms.
The Jack of Diamonds’ first exhibition (December 1910-11) included Primitivist and Cubist paintings by Goncharova, and in the later Donkey’s Tail exhibition (March–April 1912) organized by Larionov, more than fifty of her paintings were on display. Goncharova drew inspirations for primitivism from Russian icons and folk art, otherwise known as luboks. The Donkey’s Tail was conceived as an intentional break from European art influence and the establishment of an independent Russian school of modern art. The exhibition proved controversial, and the censor confiscated Goncharova’s religiously-themed work, The Evangelists (1910–11), deeming it blasphemous for it to be hung at an exhibition titled after the rear end of a donkey. Goncharova and her counterpart, Larionov, were continuously harassed for their artwork and the way they expressed themselves. However, the influence of Russian Futurism is much in evidence in Goncharova’s later paintings. Initially preoccupied with icon painting and the primitivism of ethnic Russian folk-art, Goncharova became famous in Russia for her Futurist work such as The Cyclist and her later Rayonist works. Goncharova and Larionav painted hieroglyphics and flowers on their faces and walked the streets as a part of a primitivist art movement. Goncharova herself sometimes appears topless in public with symbols on her chest. As leaders of the Moscow Futurists, they organized provocative lecture evenings in the same vein as their Italian counterparts. Goncharova was also involved with graphic design—writing and illustrating several avant-garde books.
Another important exhibition Goncharova participated in is called The Target (March-April 1913) and No. 4 (March-April 1914). She played a very important role when it comes to Russian art at the time. Her aesthetic choices that were bridging the Eastern and Western traditions, served as a catalyst for manifestos and art movements at the time. She was one of the leading artists in Cubo-Futurism’s (Airplane over a Train, 1912) and Rayism’s (Yellow and Green Forest, 1913) circles. Even though her pre- World War I art still had problematic associations, her participation in these exhibits were a segue for Moscow’s avant-garde blending of both Western European Modernism and Eastern traditions. In one of her interviews, she says that she got inspiration from Picasso, Le Fauconnier, and Braque, but still her first “Cubist” works to date as long as one year before that.
She started to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne (Exposition de L’art Russe) beginning in 1906.
Goncharova was a member of the avant-garde Der Blaue Reiter group from its founding in 1911. In 1915, she began to design ballet costumes and sets in Geneva. In 1915 she started work on a series of designs—Six Winged Seraph, Angel, St. Andrew, St. Mark, Nativity, and others—for a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to be titled Liturgy. Also involved in the project, for which Igor Stravinsky was invited to compose the score, were Larionov and Léonide Massine, but the ballet never materialized. Goncharova moved to Paris in 1921 where she designed a number of stage sets of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She also exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1921, and participated regularly at the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.
Goncharova also gets identified with Everythingvism (russ. Vsechestvo) as the Russian avant-garde movement. Everythingvism was considered as an extension of Neo-Primitivism. This art promotes heterogeneity, a blending of multiple cultural traditions, such as West and East and different styles such as Cubism and Futurism. It aspires to erase the boundaries between what is considered the origin and the copy, and assimilates those together. It is an art movement that is free of already set artistic laws.
Goncharova and Larionav collaborated on four charity events in Moscow. These events were the Grand Bal des Aristes, the Bal Banal, the Bal Olympique, and the Grand Ourse Bal. They both designed much of the publicity materials for the event.
Between 1922 and 1926 Goncharova created fashion designs for Marie Cuttoli’s shop, Maison Myrbor on the Rue Vincent, Paris. Her richly embroidered and appliquéd dress designs were strongly influenced by Russian folk art, Byzantine mosaic and her work for the Ballets Russes.
Together with Larionov, she left Russia and went to Paris on April 29, 1914. In this year she designed costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes’s premiere in the city of The Golden Cockerel. In 1938 Goncharova became a French citizen. On June 2, 1955, four years after Larionov suffered a stroke, the two artists got married in Paris to safeguard their rights of inheritance. Influenced by the School of Paris, her style moved from Cubism nearer to Neoclassicism. Goncharova was the first of the pair to die, seven years later, on October 17, 1962, in Paris after a debilitating struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.