Modernist art isn’t always easy to decipher – Malevich’s Black Square, for example, has puzzled audiences for decades – but there is something simple to understand in Goncharova’s otherwise complex works in Tate Modern’s latest exhibition. This is the first retrospective of her work to be held in the UK, the gallery portraying many different aspects of Russia. Goncharova uses Russian religion, culture and identity throughout her works to get a message across. Yet it is not just the diversity of themes she explores which will amaze the audience. The sheer range of media she uses, from painting to fashion and theatre design, are enough to keep you thinking about her works for days after a visit to the exhibition. There is something for everyone, and you don’t have to be a professional artist to appreciate the depth of meaning of Goncharova’s works.
The exhibition consists of ten rooms organised thematically. The largest, room three, contains pieces from Goncharova’s 1913 exhibition, which originally consisted of over 800 works (an extremely ambitious project for the then thirty-two-year-old Goncharova). One of the highlights in this room is the seven-part work The Harvest, 1911 – an illustration to the Book of Revelations, it is one of the largest pieces she created in her little Moscow studio. Curators were only able to discern the order of the pieces from Goncharova’s own exhibition catalogue, as there was little information on the pieces themselves to indicate how they should be hung. Also in this room is her Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908. This is a stunning yet humbling portrait. As curator Natalia Sidlina points out, Goncharova has not beautified herself here – she simply presents herself, with some of her own works painted behind her, following an all-encompassing approach.
Moving through the exhibition, room four displays several textile and pattern designs, with several for the French couture fashion house, House of Myrbor. Almost all of these pieces are on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Room six contains paintings that were sadly often censored in Goncharova’s time. Her religious paintings were created with her own avant-garde approach, making them completely unique. Yet as she was not officially trained in religious icon painting, and furthermore was not male, she encountered a lot of controversy. Despite their beautiful portrayal of some religious scenes, carvings she created were often destroyed by the Orthodox Church. In her exhibitions, Goncharova sometimes changed the names of her pieces to make them sound secular – The Evangelists, 1911, seen in room six, was once called simply Composition in an attempt to mask its true meaning. This is the same painting that was removed by authorities from a show in 1912, due to it being ‘inappropriate’. However, in terms of religion, it wasn’t just the Orthodox Church that inspired Goncharova. The Pale of Settlement, a well-established Jewish-only residency in the early 20th century, gave Goncharova a glimpse of a culture she hadn’t come into contact with before. This is evident in Elder with Seven Stars (Apocalypse), 1910, which contains features of more Jewish beliefs (such as Christ’s dark hair and crown) as well as Christianity. Of course, due to this, the work was also very controversial.
Perhaps one of Goncharova’s most notable qualities is her diversity and the extent to which her talent for different media extends, a rare attribute in any artist, let alone one from the early 20thcentury. Room ten is a display of the costumes and set designs that she created whilst working alongside Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. She saw her first success in Paris with these in the 1914 production of Le Coq d’Or. The costumes seen on display in the Tate today are from the 1937 revival of the production, using the same designs. Similarly, Goncharova worked on costume design for a production of Liturgy in 1915 – despite it never reaching the stage, the stencil designs she created for it were later widely distributed. Several of these can be seen in this room, some of which are on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Perhaps the most remarkable theatre work she did, however, was for the Ballets Russes’s production of The Firebird. The incredible set design she created for its final scene, depicting a town with many quintessential Russian buildings, is being used in the Royal Opera House’s production of The Firebird being staged this month. Its vibrant colours make the already stunning production come alive even more.
“She might have been known as a costume painter and designer for Diaghilev, but there is so much more to her work…thismade Goncharova such a phenomenon,” remarked Natalia Sidlina when we asked her what she found most interesting about Goncharova’s work. And indeed, this seems to be the case – of course, her avant-garde paintings are remarkable, some of the first of their kind, and have so much life in them. But it is the fact that her talents were so extensive that makes Goncharova outstanding. She wasn’t just a painter, or a costume designer – she was a true artist, in every sense of the word. There has been a lot of commotion surrounding this exhibition, and it is easy to see why. It has been a huge project, and contains some pieces which have been rarely seen outside of Russia. After the exhibition has ended in Tate Modern, it moves first to the Palazzo Strozziin Florence, followed by the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. Don’t miss out before it leaves; it is a complete journey through one woman’s life work, as well as through Russian religion, history and culture.