Natalia Goncharova’s Tate Modern retrospective, the Russian modernist’s first in the UK, opens and closes with images of peasant women in the traditional dress of the artist’s native Tula. In the show’s opening room, the titular Peasant Woman from Tula Province stares out from beneath a striking orange headdress. Painted in 1910, the portrait’s melancholy mien and patterned background made me think of Cezanne’s pictures of his wife in her armchair from the late 1870s.
The peasant attire reappears in the show’s closing room, devoted to Goncharova’s longstanding collaboration with Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. A dramatic fan of orange skirt adorned with bold blue and white flowers, the costume is for a dancer in Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cock) – an opera-ballet with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and choreography by Michel Fokine first staged in Paris in 1914. In a deep-blue painted room, it sits alongside performance clips, stage designs and costumes – including the gilded wings of the Coq d’Or herself.
Diaghilev said of Goncharova, ‘the most famous of these progressive artists is a woman. The young crowd both in Moscow and St Petersburg bows to her.’ And these two images of peasant women bookend a rich and beautiful exhibition that covers an extraordinarily diverse career: from fabric designs for the fashion house of Nadezhda Lamanova; to the ‘Mythical Images of War’, a lithography series published (in Goya-esque tradition) after the outbreak of World War I in 1914; to numerous artists’ books, manifestos and designs for exhibition ephemera. Goncharova’s solo show in 1913 at Mikhailova Art Salon, when the artist was just 32, included more than 800 works in such a variety of styles – from Cubism to a naïve folk style – that the writer Ilia Zdanevich coined the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her output. The image of women, though – nude, clothed, working, dancing – remain at its spiritual heart.
Curators Natalia Sidlina and Matthew Gale have corralled this wealth of material into a typically clear and coherent Tate curation. It continues the institution’s important spotlight, in recent years, on international female modernists whose influence and importance have all too frequently been overlooked.
Main image: Natalia Goncharova, Harvest: The Phoenix, 1911, oil on canvas, 92 × 98 cm. Courtesy: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London