“The West has shown me one thing—everything that it has comes from the East.” These are the words with which Natalia Goncharova expressed her skepticism toward the prestige that Western art enjoyed in Russia. Though she, too, had been influenced by modern French painting, she now began to see its “insignificance,” declaring, “My path is to the original source of all the arts—the East.” What Goncharova had in mind was the art of vsechestvo (everythingness). The essence of this new art lay in an omnivorous embrace of ancient, modern, Eastern, and Western styles and in the conviction that Cubism was not Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s invention but rather something anticipated by ancient Scythian sculpture.
Goncharova was born in Tula, Russia. Her great-grandfather, Sergei Nikolaevich Goncharov, was the brother of Natalia Nikolaevna Goncharova, who married the poet Alexander Pushkin. In 1892, her family moved to Moscow, hoping to improve its financial condition. While at school, Goncharova developed an interest in history, zoology, and botany but eventually decided to pursue art, enrolling at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1898. There, she met Mikhail Larionov, a key Russian avant-gardist who became her lifelong partner. Their lives and practices evolved in parallel—they guided and encouraged one another as they made forays into new artistic territories.
Goncharova was integral to the Jack of Diamonds, the avant-garde group that Larionov founded to protest the dogmatism of the older generation. Poet Benedikt Livshits remembered that, at one of the public debates on new art organized by the group, she “was like one of the exalted Socialist Revolutionaries, who called to us in 1905 to throw ourselves under the hooves of the Cossack cavalry.” Her radicalism elicited polarized reactions. Some argued that her work was, in the final analysis, reactionary. “Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Larionov’s Rayonism, some theory of Firsov’s...where is Natalia Goncharova herself, her artist’s ‘I?’” the critic Jacob Tugendhold wondered. Yet others expressed great enthusiasm, seconding the critic and scholar Abram Efros’s assertion that, “While the vast majority of Russian modernists trudge dolefully along in the wake of foreign schools...Natalia Goncharova is...no epigone.”
Mystical Images of War: Fourteen Lithographs (1914) is a series of works whose experimental quality resides in the juxtaposition of an impulse to depict a contemporary event—the First World War, which had broken out in July of that year—and an interest in the formal characteristics of the lubok, a traditional print medium specific to Russia. One of them depicts angels fighting against German airplanes. Goncharova sought to represent a religious faith persisting in the face of an enemy threatening the “Third Rome,” something Russia believed itself to be as the spiritual successor to Constantinople and the new seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Goncharova and Larionov, anticipating the unrest that would follow the war’s conclusion, left for France. The couple would settle there permanently, but Goncharova, as devoted to the pursuit of new art as ever, continued to collaborate with Russian colleagues. In 1930, she designed the cover of the 17th issue of Unreleased Khlebnikov—a serial publication undertaken by the Moscow-based Society of Friends of Velimir Khlebnikov—in honor of the avant-garde poet who was her frequent collaborator and friend.
Da Hyung Jeong, Mellon-Marron Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Architecture and Design
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.