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Goncharova, Larionov and the Limits of Cubism

These essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

In the autumn of 1913, a period of increasing social unrest and political turmoil, the prominent avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova issued a surprising challenge to her critics. In a draft of what became the catalogue essay for her mammoth 1913 Moscow retrospective, she rejected the subjectivist aesthetics that so many associated with an alienated modernism. Opposing “the trivialized and decadent sermons of individualism,” she declared her readiness to use “all contemporary accomplishments and discoveries in the realm of art,” particularly Rayonism (“a new form of art and life” and “the pure doctrine of painting”) promoted by her companion, painter and avant-garde impresario Mikhail Larionov. Yet practically in the same breath, she proclaimed her unique proclivity as an artist to absorb all impressions and types of experience – even the most banal. For Goncharova, subjectivity is shaped by the society that nurtures it, and motivation found in the “bright, unpretentious reception of all that surrounds me, and a specific attitude to all things. That is, having studied the views circulating in society and winnowed through upbringing, I am free.” She concluded that the era of art theory and debate had ended – it was time “to appeal directly to the streets, to the popular masses in general.”1

These were the paradoxical conditions of modernist art in Russia during the decade when Chagall was working in a different centre, namely Paris. In their most fruitful phases, the careers of both Goncharova and Chagall pitched between Moscow, St. Petersburg and Paris, obliterating the centre-periphery hierarchy. During this time, their open orientation to diverse cultures prevented critics from settling comfortably on either historical period or personal style to represent their art. Indeed, Goncharova’s Cubism and Futurism was nearly as questionable as Chagall’s – if we limit ourselves to a particular kind of formalist interpretation. It is even more difficult to speak of Cubism in Larionov’s progression, despite his careful reading of its history. Yet all three were engaged in exploration of the material-formal principles associated with Cubism and, especially in Larionov and Goncharova’s case, Futurism. Their tangential approach to style as a marker of identity and creative purpose distinguished their projects from what became the mainstream of Modernist art, both Russian and Parisian.

Though Chagall was not an active player in the Moscow groups that formed and dissolved around Goncharova and Larionov, few artists’ oeuvres evolved so naturally from the principle advanced in their most radical public pronouncements – that art obtained value in life’s circulation. Chagall would act on this perceived unity partly by accident, partly by design. The responsive character of their progression as artists should be linked to their lived experiences. Like Goncharova, Chagall was the quintessential outsider at the centre. Jewish artists, as with most women, were marginalized from the moment they sought entry into the art world: the academies had a quota system, and successful completion of any course of study required a negotiated “exceptionalism.” Of course, Jewish artists had the additional burden of arranging legal registration beyond the Pale of Settlement. Women typically encountered other barriers arising from notions of an essentialized femininity. As a provincial newcomer to Moscow, Larionov also experienced stereotyping. Born and raised in Tiraspol, a town that was home to orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish “nationalities” on the southern fringes of the empire, Larionov drew on this diversity for his provincial genre scenes. These are the works echoed in Chagall’s shtetl images – and explains the latter’s contribution to the Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow (possibly with the second version of The Dead Man).

The Donkey’s Tail exhibition (March 11–April 8, 1912) marked a turning point in the oeuvres and exhibiting activities of Goncharova and Larionov. Having announced their defection from the Jack of Diamonds group – which Larionov had co-founded with other students in 1910 upon exiting the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture – they orchestrated the Donkey’s Tail exhibition to promote an aggressively anti-institutional series of projects. This was the year that exposure to Cubism and Futurism had brought together poets and painters in collaborative creative and publishing ventures – later characterized as “Cubo-Futurist.” If these terms, examined independently, designated multiple orientations to artistic media, to faktura in painting and to “the self-oriented word” in poetry, the hyphenated branding of the group – which included poets Velemir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, David and Vladimir Burliuk, Aleksei Kruchenykh (who were also active as painters) as well as painters Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Goncharova and Larionov among others – is even more difficult to parse.2 The extent to which a work might be understood as Cubist, Futurist, or “Cubo-Futurist” depended on a complex network of formal, promotional and social associations. 3

Key works identified by Goncharova aposteriori as Cubist, or Cubist-inspired, such as Planting Potatoes (Posadka kartofel’ia, 1908–1909) had entered public discourse three years earlier (it was exhibited at the third Golden Fleece exhibition in winter–spring of 1909–1910).4 Some Russian artists had seen Cubist painting first-hand in Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow home during the course of 1909; at the end of 1910, paintings by Henri Le Fauconnier and Albert Gleizes were included in the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition and hung together with Russian works. Though Goncharova first claimed an alliance with “the Cubists” in a press statement in the spring of 1910, Cubist art and theory had greater impact the following year when she was creating her major primitivist works: her religious compositions and the nine-part Harvest (Zhatva) and Grape Gathering (Sbor Vinograda) series.5 Paintings exhibited in the Donkey’s Tail exhibition (and listed in the catalogue) revealed a concern to “bare devices,” to make explicit what had been implicitly structured into the earlier canvases. By the spring of 1912, important French and Italian theoretical and historical texts had been translated and assimilated by the Russians.6 Goncharova’s commitment to using colour as an essential component of her Cubist play with signifying systems became self-conscious in this year, demonstrated by its prominence (and her use of explanatory subtitles) in particular paintings. Indeed, the painting that Nikolia Kul’bin cited as exemplifying Cubist painting in Russia, Spring in the City (1909–1910; State Russian Museum), was the focus of press attention, praised for its highly structured colouristic juxtapositions. It was this event that spurred Goncharova to rebut Kul’bin’s purpose – linking her effort with that of the Jack of Diamonds artists. In her response, published in the press, she acknowledged Picasso’s prominence, but cast her own work painted in a Cubist manner as derived from other “Russian” sources, and as equal in historical significance to his. 7

For all three artists, a devotion to Matisse’s expression of form through colour trumped the conceptual work of Cubist passage and scaffolding. Goncharova’s spectacular work, Still Life with Lobster, given to Kandinsky by the artist and valued highly by him, exemplifies this preference. Painted in 1909–1910, at the height of debate over Cubism, Goncharova’s painting turns away from the self-referential to initiate other dialogues. She explores form as mediated by cultural traditions – East and West, popular and elite. Here saturated colour and white highlights project the objects depicted forward into our space as in commercial billboards and icons. They are drawn further into material relief by dark crimson and black contour lines, mimicking the effect of popular prints (narodnye kartinki). Unlike Matisse, Goncharova’s expressive brushwork doubles over the language of mass culture to imbue even a still life with a new type of public address.

Goncharova’s Cubist works demonstrate the same inclusive rhetoric. As in her primitivist works, her predilection for contrasting hues in parallel planes creates tensions rather than ambiguities in our reading of pictorial space – distinguishing their painted effects from that of Cubist passage in France.8 She remained indifferent to the representational play implied in the elision of difference in adjacent planar forms – a key element of Picasso’s Cubism. At about the same time as the “orphic” Cubists, especially Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, she drew on the expressive acuity of colouristic dissonance, which could be used – and would be received – as the embodiment of social conflict.9 Goncharova tested the model proposed by Picasso and Braque in a few images in 1908. In Planting Potatoes, the shard-like fragmentation of form that complicates our perception of sky, ground and peasant dress contrasts with the graphic clarity of the contour lines and monumental legibility of the figures themselves. Instead of dissolving mass into an atmospheric flickering of surface, affirming the painting as fiction (representation), Goncharova’s paintings impress the viewer with the material culture – and presence – of the peasantry. Goncharova abandoned her “Cubist” mode of surface articulation in her painting over the course of 1910, a good year or two before she defended it theoretically in her writing.

The year 1912 witnessed the thorough assimilation of Futurist art and theory, which Goncharova had described that February as “a mixture of impressionism and emotionalism.”10 By the end of that year both she and Larionov had shifted focus, from mastering the theoretical tenets of Futurist manifestos to promoting the only “style” originally conceived by both artists – Rayonism. Neither created works resembling those of their Italian counterparts. Their primary concern was to identify the facture of painted pigment with the materiality of light, refracted as “rays” and as an inherent property of matter. Facture would no longer be significant as a surface effect (or as a marker of style) but would instead share in the authenticity of the world from which it materially derived, as faktura.11 This idea informed Malevich’s search and conviction that picture making – as form-creation – is a source of life, not self-objectifying but an open system generating (and sometimes predicting) new social and political conditions. “Coloured mass and texture” are motivated by life when divorced from their mimetic function. Any picture consists of a coloured surface and texture (the state of this coloured surface is its timbre) and of the sensation that arises from these two things…. Now it is necessary to find the point at which – having concrete life as a stimulant – painting would remain itself while its adopted forms would be transformed and its outlook broadened.12

This purpose was repeatedly, and eclectically, represented in the content of their exhibitions. For even as Larionov and Goncharova launched Rayonism in the Target exhibition and No. 4 (Futurists, Rayists, Primitive) of the spring of 1913 and 1914 respectively, they included all types of work. In the latter exhibition, the Futurist-inspired Woman with a Hat (Dama s shliapoi) and Electric Lamp (Elektricheskaia lampa) shared wall space with Electrical Ornament (four versions). Larionov presented work that pushed the boundaries of Futurism/Rayonism to embrace the primitive; in addition to Sunlit Day, he exhibited Boulevard Venus (Progulka [Bul’varnaia Venera] 1912–1913) which illustrates the figure in chaotic motion, as material as she is transparent – we see through her to the empty canvas. Despite the obvious debt to Italian Futurism, the painting as titled suggests that it might also be an addition to the series of Primitivist “Venus” canvases that Larionov had painted in 1911–1912 and shown in the Target exhibition. In Larionov’s Sunlit Day: Pneumo-rayist-painterly Structure (Solnechnyi Den’ [pnevmo-luchistaia-krasochnaia struktura]), a preoccupation with transparency gives way to material density as thick impasto is coated over other substances, papier-maché, plaster dust and sand, used liberally by Liubov Popova in her “Cubo-Futurist” reliefs a year later. He deemed this painting to be of such importance that he gave the work to poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire within the year.13

Yet such presentations did not simply demonstrate range as historical argument. Both Larionov’s and Goncharova’s writings revealed a thoughtful redirection of formal strategies associated with both Cubism and Futurism toward other pseudo-scientific and conceptual pictorial interests. Rayonism began with an exploration of medium as material, alluding both to the phenomenal world and our metaphysical contemplation of it. In the end, at its best, it proposed an opening up of formal concerns – linking art to lived experience. These works question the stability of the world we think we know while also affirming its substance. In Sunlit Day, the interaction of space and matter is manifest in the overlapping lines, colours and material textures, but the image is so fragmented that it becomes abstract – a representation not of things, but of the multiple (social and sensory) consequences of looking.

This approach to painting gave way to an emphasis on organization in the work of both artists. Larionov simply titled his last Russian works (shown in No. 4) Structured Constructions (Strukturnye postroeniia). By this time Goncharova had abandoned the brush-directed facture and fragmented compositions of her Rayonist work in favor of structure derived from ornament. She had argued in 1912–1913 that ornamental detail motivates the unique, national expressivity of traditional art forms, distinguishing the “deep cultures” of the East from the civilizing concerns of the West.14 The techniques she developed in Harvest (Feet Pressing Grapes) (Zhatva [nogi zhmushchie vina]) to animate the surface –  channeling in the present the effects of tempera in icons, or pigment saturated into fresco medium – reappeared in her post-Futurist images, “constructions based on facture” (Postroeniia osnovannye na razlichnykh fakturakh). In 1913–1914, at the height of their Russian careers, when both artists theorized Vsechestvo (Everythingism), their most radically inclusive approach to painting – and retrospective justification of all that had preceded – we see a process that, as in Chagall’s art, is motivated by dialogues across cultures, and by life’s tangential course.

  1. Natalia Goncharova, “Tvorcheskoe Kredo,” manuscript signed in the author’s hand, Russian Archives of Literature and the Arts, Moscow: Fond 740/1/4. For an English translation, see Jane A. Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West: Natal’ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde, 19051914 (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 276. All Russian exhibition dates cited in this essay conform with the old (Julian) calendar (13 days behind our current (Gregorian) calendar).
  2. “Cubo-Futurism” retroactively and uniquely designates Russian art and poetry created from 1910 to 1913 by artists associated with the Union of Youth, Jack of Diamonds and Donkey’s Tail exhibitions, and as a result of the collaborative activities of avant-garde poets who published under the imprint Hylea and who had assimilated the theories and visual examples of a wide range of (French) Cubist and (Italian) Futurist art. Nikolai Khardzhiev’s writings on the early career of painter-poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, now in English translation, clarified some of these early collaborations and poetic techniques. Dmitrii Sarabianov attributes the elaboration of a period style to him.
  3. As Charlotte Douglas pointed out in the 1970s, part of the difficulty in using temporal perimeters to designate Cubism and Futurism in Russia as period styles lies in the legacy of earlier theoretical interest in the writings of Henri Bergson and other formative texts to which Russian artists and writers had access in French and Russian: “New Russian Art and Italian Futurism,” Art Journal 34, no. 3 (Spring 1975): 229–239.
  4. Important French works were shown in the first two Golden Fleece shows (Moscow, 1908 and 1909); major pre-Cubist and Cubist works were shown in the first and second Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow (December–January 1910; and January–February 1912). The second exhibition (which Larionov and Goncharova boycotted) included Le Fauconnier’s study for L’Abondance, and work by Léger, Friez, Derain and Robert Delaunay.
  5. Anonymous, “Beseda s N.S. Goncharova,” Stolichnaia Molva, no. 115 (April 5, 1910), p. 3.
  6. The second issue of the journal Soiuz molodezhi (June 1912) contained a translation of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters (February 1910) as well as texts by Le Fauconnier and Van Dongen. Gleizes and Metzinger’s Du Cubisme was discussed and partially translated by Mikhail Matiushin in the third issue (March 1913). Details on the dates of translations may be found in Charlotte Douglas, Swans of Other Worlds: Kazimir Malevich and the Origins of Abstraction in Russia (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1976), and Russkii futurizm: theoriia, praktika, kritika, vospominaniia, ed. V.N. Terekhina and A.P. Zimenkov (Moscow: IMLI RAN, 2000).
  7. For a summary of the debate, see Sharp, Russian Modernism from East to West, 134–135. Goncharova’s “Letter to the Editor of Russkoe Slovo” is translated into English on p. 272.
  8. Russian texts on Cubism (often published after they were delivered as public lectures) tend to translate “passage” as “sdvig” which implies contradiction and dynamic movement of forms – though a discussion of its meanings and applications is beyond the scope of this essay. Among the first analyses published by an artist was David Burliuk’s “Cubism (Surface – Plane)” of 1912 (Kubizm: Pokhverkhnost’ – ploskost’).
  9. The critical reception of Goncharova’s work abounds with such associations; for Alexandre Benois, though redemptive, reading the distorted forms of her Cubist and Futurist paintings “required suffering,” while for others – Valentin Songaillo epitomizing the most hostile responses – her work heralded revolution. See Sharp, Russian Modernism, pp. 232–238 for reviews by both critics of Goncharova’s 1913 Moscow retrospective.
  10. N.S. Goncharova, “Letter to the Editor of Russkoe Slovo,” Sharp, p. 272.
  11. Based on a comparison of the artists’ writings, it is likely that Goncharova co-authored the Rayonist manifestos, though they are attributed to Larionov. In particular, the essay entitled “Rayonist Painting” (Luchistaia zhivopis’) published in the miscellany of Oslinyi khvostiI mishen’ (Moscow, July 1913), details the characteristics of painting that Rayonism seeks to exploit. See Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism, pp. 93–100.
  12. From its first appearance in avant-garde texts by David Burliuk (1912), but especially in the writings of Vladimir Markov (Waldemar Matveijs) (1912–1914), the term faktura is distinguished from its use in Europe in that it signifies the material character of the work – the indexical nature of texture itself rather than the individuality of the author.
  13. The reverse of the painting bears a dedication to Apollinaire inscribed in Larionov’s hand. See Nathalie Gontcharova, Michel Larionov, ed. Jessica Boissel (Exhibition Catalogue, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1995), p. 92. The painting appears as cat. no. 95 in the exhibition No. 4 (Futurists, Rayists, Primitive) in Moscow (March–April 1914).
  14. Natalia Goncharova, “The Hindu and Persian Broadsheet” (Induskii i persidskii lubok) translated in Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West, p. 273.

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