“BLASPHEMOUS works in the exhibition must be immediately removed: the deliberate disfigurement of holy persons for ridicule among green dogs, ‘rayonist’ landscapes and similar ‘cubist’ drivel must be prevented.”
When the works by Natalia Goncharova housed in Room 3 of this retrospective at Tate Modern were exhibited in 1913 in Moscow, more than 12,000 people visited, and 31 works were sold, totalling more than 5000 roubles. When a scaled-down version of the same exhibition was shown in more conservative St Petersburg the following year, on the basis of the anonymous review “Futurism and Blasphemy”, written for the journal Peterburgsky Listok and quoted above, the chief procurator of the Holy Synod sanctioned a police raid that impounded 22 paintings, including The Evangelists. Surprisingly, the religious censor did not detect sacrilege, and the works were returned to the show.
The 800 works in the 1913 exhibition were not simply a sign of Goncharova’s prolific output, but also of the breadth of her interests. Goncharova utilised abstraction, cubism, futurism, neo-primitivism, orphism, performance, and rayonism. She was either an instigator or early adopter for most of these movements, and this reflected her ability both to innovate herself and to absorb quickly and apply the innovation of others. She was a painter, print-maker, illustrator, fashion and set designer: a Renaissance woman — a polymath — in an age when the focus of the art world was on the next new thing rather than the continued exploration of the last new thing. Her partner Mikhail Larionov described Goncharova’s ability in terms of “Everythingism” and wrote: “We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today.”
© Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)An installation view of Natalia Goncharova’s The Evangelists
Goncharova’s everythingism meant that she was as connected to the styles and practices of the past as to those that were new. Although modernist, Goncharova’s religious works derived their inspiration from icons and lubuks — popular prints that often had religious subjects — and it was, in part, Goncharova’s reverence for these traditions of religious iconography which brought acceptance of her own more challenging work. It was her ability to bring the two together and find points of connection which meant that those who accused her of blasphemy were ultimately confounded, as her approach was always to bring the past into the present, not to see the present as eradicating the past.
In Goncharova’s tetraptych of the Evangelists, monumental contemplative figures hold long blank scrolls, their lack of text, on occasion, interpreted as critique of the Gospels. Although she mixes and matches elements of traditional iconography, these are standing saints such as were commonly found on an iconostasis in an Orthodox church. In creating this work, Goncharova was inspired by ancient frescoes and the iconography of Old Believers. The Old Believers were fiercely independent dissenters from the structures of Orthodoxy, while remaining traditionalists who emphasised apocalyptic symbolism and metaphors. Goncharova’s polyptych Harvest drew on those beliefs to create a vibrant expressionist group of paintings in browns and oranges using Revelation imagery to depict the end of time as a harvest of souls.
Gonchorova’s religious works were displayed in a separate room as part of the 1913 exhibition, creating a sense of a fantastic church. The curators here also make use of this same approach. Yet the religious inspiration in Goncharova’s work cannot be contained in this way, and extends throughout the exhibition — most notably, perhaps, in the room dedicated to her theatre sets for Sergei Diaghilev, where magnificent designs can be found for an ultimately unrealised ballet on the life of Christ.
In their book Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New perspectives, Louise Hardiman and Nicola Kozicharow suggest that “a narrative of Russian artistic modernism in which the engagement of artists, critics, and scholars with the religious and spiritual tradition” was fundamental is characteristic of this period of Russian art. That engagement was, they contend, “the driving force behind some of the most significant artistic innovations of the period”, including the neo-Primitivism of Goncharova. Goncharova believed that her religious works, based on her study of early icons and frescoes, connected her to the heart of Russian culture. That belief, and the reality of its execution, is clearly demonstrated by the heights and depths of this revelatory exhibition.
“Natalia Goncharova” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1, until 8 September.