Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern review *****

Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern, 26th August 2019

Right cards on the table. If I don’t start getting a move on I am never going to catch up in terms of documenting my cultural adventures on this blog, Which would render it even more pointless and too much of a chore. So focus Tourist. Focus.

Cards on table again. I had a vague idea who Natalia Goncharova was before I pitched up to this. But I knew she was “important”, the reviews said go and Tate membership needed justifying.

Wise call. My guess is that I had seen some of her work in the Russian Art post the Revolution at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Mind you as someone who never fully signed up to any art movement, in fact quite the reverse as she plundered from everywhere and everyone, I can’t be entirely sure. What I can be sure of is that NG was an artist in the very top rank in the first half of the C20. Which is a pretty crowded field.

Quick bio. She was born in 1881 into an impoverished aristocratic, but academic, family, (shades of Chekhov), with money coming from textiles, in a village 200kms south of Moscow, to which she moved with her family in 1892. Studied sculpture at Moscow Art School at the turn of the century and met life long partner, and tireless advocate, Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov. European modernism, direct from Paris was an early influence on NG, but her early work actually drew more on traditional Russian folk art, most obviously the lubok, a popular coloured print format with simple graphics. Yet the works that she contributed to the first exhibition of the radical Jack of Diamonds Group in 1911, whilst still portraying folk art subjects, offer an abstracted, fragmented perspective clearly in debt to Cubism.

In 1912 NG and Larionov did found a school dedicated to traditional Russian art formats but this was quickly followed in 1913 by their so-called rayonism which took the geometric forms of futurism and vorticism but with subjects lit by prominent rays of light. In September of that year NG held her first solo exhibition in Moscow, comprising over 800 works, in a jumble of styles that peers dubbed vschestvo or “everythingism”. You get the picture (forgive the pun).

She then moved with Larionov to Paris where she fell in with the beau monde and specifically Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for whom she designed costumes and sets most notably for works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. She was the go-to designer when Russian folk stories graced the bill whilst still continuing to paint, teach and illustrate books . Contributions to exhibitions in London and New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s extended her renown but commissions dried up through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 she and Larionov married and there was sufficient interest in their work to mount a major retrospective by the Arts Council in London in 1961. NG died in Paris in 1962.

This varied practice was fully represented in this extensive exhibition with 170 contributions from numerous private and public collections, especially her native Russia, and specifically Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. It kicks off with early works and her own collection of objects that show, for all her affinity with up to the minute modernism, her life long connection to Russian folk art. One word people. Colour. For this is what leaps out across NG’s work. Take the electric orange she sprays around. Or the cobalt blue. Straight out of the tube with no attempt to dull then down or change the tone. Just delicious.

The second room takes pieces drawn from the collections of turn of the century Moscow industrialists, Ivan Moroznov and Sergei Shchukin, which mixed the best of post-impressionism and early modernism with traditional Russian folk art. Alongside NG’s own syntheses, seen in the work taken from the her 1913 exhibition, it is the bold colours, simple forms and flat surfaces which links everything together. The nine part (seven are brought together here) series of large scale oil paintings, Harvest, dominated by bright blues, oranges and purples, are probably the most striking examples of this synthesis but it is there across all the pieces from this period, whether prints, drawings, textiles, wallpapers or designs for theatre and clothing. It might look like a Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse or Picasso, but the feel is recognisably NG.

This individual style wasn’t just in her art but also in her self. NG strutted around as a full-on boho, face painted, showcasing her own designs, which led to commissions from the trendiest Moscow couture houses. Remember this was still the streets of Moscow not Paris, at a time of massive social upheaval. The 1905 Revolution may have loosened things up a bit in Russia but this was still the most conservative country, give or take, in Europe. When WWI opened the couple were in Paris but had to return to Moscow in August 1914 when Larionov was called up, though it wasn’t long before he returned, wounded, from the front line and was then demobilised. NG’s response was a series of lithographs, Mystical Images of War, which combined the national symbols of the Allied Powers with images from Russian liturgical works and medieval verse. Angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary morning the fallen, Death’s Pale Horse.

These are tremendous, and served to broaden NG’s reach, but they are surpassed by the selection from the Evangelists series in room 6. These large scale, powerfully direct images were based on the tradition of icon paintings but proved too much for the Russian authorities who had them removed from the 1912 exhibition. and again in 1913, this was not just because NG was a woman co-opting an exclusively male artistic tradition but also because of their astonishing modernity. (This wasn’t the first time the Russian “taste” police took offence: her 1910 painting The Deity of Fertility was confiscated and she was charged with some “corrupting the public morals” bollocks). The label “Neo-Primitive” is sometimes applied to NG’s work, including these, but, like the term Flemish Primitive to describe the early Northern Renaissance, it is misleading. Lines may be simple, forms resolutely modernist, colours flat, but these induced a similar reaction in the Tourist to the jewels of the early C15.

All her ideas are also reflected in the collection of book illustrations, catalogues and other promotional material that NG produced in the 1910s and 1920s when she was at the centre of artistic life in Moscow and then Paris. Following this are works from NG and Larionov’s response to cubism and futurism and specifically their rayonist manifesto. Now the subjects are machines and urban, not rural, life and movement and energy are the forces she seeks to capture. Landscapes, plants and people still appear but NG quickly veers to abstraction. Remember this was still 1913, pre WWI, making NG, in her prolific abundance, one of the first major artists of the time to embrace specifically non figurative art. Mind you the years just before the outbreak of WWI might just have been the most fertile in the history of Western art and ideas circulated so quickly it is tricky to know who influenced who. Anyway the point is that NG and ML were right in there.

Now in some ways, given all this outpouring of beauty, that NG got somewhat hijacked by the commissions for fashion, costume and interior designs that flooded in as her work became widely known across Europe and into the US. Teaching also took up her time. The 1920s and 1930s revealed a fascination with Spanish culture and the iconic Spanish Woman is featured in much of her non-theatre work in those years. The final room is devoted to the set and costume designs for the Ballet Russes and others, accompanied by early film performance footage and music. The “exotic” vision of the East has been a staple of C19 and C20 Western performance art, and NG’s physical representations, for the likes of works such as Le Coq d’or, the unperformed Liturgy, Les Noces, Sadko and L’Oiseau de feu are as much a part of the aesthetic, if not more so, than the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky.

There isn’t much other work from the 1940 and 1950’s as NG turned to a more neo-classical style, maybe harking back a bit too much to her younger self, and rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. NG may be one of the most “valuable” woman artists in the auction room but I can’t help feeling her career, after the massive creative outpouring at the beginning, and even allowing for the beauty of the theatrical design, got pushed towards design and away from “fine” art. The world is catching up with the brilliance and diversity of women artists at work prior to the second half of the C20, though it has taken long enough, but, I would contend, NG stands somewhere near the forefront, for who she was as well as what she created. Modern and traditional and overflowing with life. Apparently she once punched a bloke for calling her “Mrs Larionov”. And not just because she was by far the more famous, and talented, artist.

As it happens this is only the second exhibition dedicated solely to her work outside of Russia. Mind you although she left all her work to her native country it didn’t appear in state museums until glasnost and even then it was only in 2013 that the collection was presented en masse in Moscow.

Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****

Otto Dix Skull from The War (1924) - http://www.moma.org/collect

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain, 29th August 2018

Historians abhor teleology these days. It’s a tricky business identifying events that “changed the history of the world”. For us simple layfolk though the First World War must surely mark a defining shift in the human experience. The scale, (over 10 million dead and 20 million wounded worldwide), the use of technology, the commitment of capital, the ideological fallout, the death-knell of empire. Take your pick. Things really changed after that.

We are approaching the centenary of the end of that War. Time to contemplate. And, here, a time to review the interpretation that artists put on this period. Well specifically the period after the war, (the works span 1916 to 1932). A smart idea. There are innumerable works of art that document the war itself, the exhibition kicks off with many of the most striking, but exploring the aftermath allows for insights into the different ways artists responded to the war’s legacy and to the, maybe, new beginnings. It also means the curators, led by Emma Chambers, were able to extend beyond British art and into Europe, primarily Germany and France (London, Paris and Berlin to be more exact). There are some stunning works on show here, a valuable history lesson, and more diversity of message than you might expect. You’d be daft not to take a look. Particularly if you have any interest at all in this period of history. Which, inevitably, you should. Art helps us to remember and understand in a way that words something fail to convey.

Room 1 looks at the devastation wrought by the war. Many of the artists here were participants in the conflict, either as soldiers, or in an official capacity. The polity back home generally didn’t want to know, nor did the authorities want them to see, the full horror of war. The depictions of battlefields, mud, pitted with craters, shorn of vegetation other than twisted tree stumps, eloquently made the point. Before the war many artistic movements, (Futurism, Vorticism), grappled with the impact of fast changing technologies on society. This impulse found its way into their war art.

The experience of war drained their optimism. Some artists could not contain their shock and anger at what they saw and went beyond symbolic representations of death, such as the abandoned helmet, to show actual bodies. The room also contains some fascinating early footage of the devastation in Flanders, filmed from an airship, and, intriguingly, guide books to the battlefields to help those who visited to pay their respects.

The most devastating works of Paul Nash (Wire), CRW Nevinson (Paths of Glory) and, most interesting here, the long neglected and once vilified Irishman William Orpen (Zonnebeke and Blown Up), may be familiar but are still striking, as is Luc-Albert Moreau’s shocking Chemin des Dames Assault. Richard Carline’s painting of a battlefield from the air (Mine Craters At Albert Seen From An Aeroplane) is intriguing but the most prominent works are the two sculptures, Jacob Epstein’s machine man Torso in Metal and Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man, maybe the most famous loaned artwork here. Lehmbruck never escaped the horror of war: he killed himself in aged 38 in 1919.

This is not an exhibition of specifically war art though and, with so much to choose from both in the Tate’s collection and down the road at the Imperial War Museum, the curators have shown admirable restraint. They make their point though.

Room 2 intelligently moves on to how the WWI has been remembered, specifically through war memorials. Cenotaphs in Paris and London, dedicated to just one of the countless unknown dead, created a focus for remembrance from their inauguration two years after the armistice to this day. No national memorial appeared in Germany until 1931 but, like Britain and France, local memorials were commissioned. These memorials combined the abstract with, often, detailed figurative representations of the men who served. We were struck by Charles Sergeant Jagger’s dramatic, realist figures and by Eric Kennington’s more cubist maquette for the Soissons Memorial. BUD, my accomplice for the afternoon, was also impressed by the monumental lines of Marcel Gromaire’s famous War portrait and I had my first dose of the master Stanley Spencer with Unveiling Cookham War Memorial.

However it is hard not to drawn to Ernst Barlach’s extraordinary angel The Floating One. Barlach’s sculptures, along with Lehmbruck’s, were largely destroyed by the Nazis, who viewed them as “degenerate” but a mould of this piece survived. There is also, in a similar “Expressionist” vein, a sketch for The Parents monument by the genius Kathe Kollwitz (the model for The Floating One we see more of her later in Room 5). Barlach initially supported the Great War: his participation changed this.

Take a good look too at another Orpen painting, To the Unknown British Soldier In France, apparently a coffin draped with a Union Jack at the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, commissioned at the time of the Treat signing. Read its history though. It didn’t start out this way. Lack of respect, censorship, class division. Decide for yourself.

Room 3 offers yet another perspective on the years following the War. In our world, for those of us lucky enough not to live amongst conflict, images of war appear commonplace but the reality of its human impact is still largely concealed. In the 1920s, in Europe, this was not so, as the plight of damaged war veterans, in economies still disordered, was visible to all. The works here are some of the most poignant, and most angry, in the exhibition. In Britain artists were employed to create a medical record of the injuries suffered by the soldiers. The pastel sketches of Henry Tonks from the Hunterian Museum were not originally intended as “art” but they create a powerful impression. In Germany the veterans were the subject of far more explicitly political paintings and drawings from the hands of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Kathe Kollwitz.

This is the most powerful art in the exhibition, especially the prints from these artists and Georges Rouault in Room 5. Beckmann’s Hell series of lithographs from 1919, the Der Kreig etchings of Dix from 1924 and Kollwitz’s similarly titled etchings from 1922 and Rouault’s sacred Miserere et Guerre photo-etchings from 1927 demand your attention.

Whilst some of the Dadaist work in Room 4 fails to leap out at me, and the Surrealist painting from the likes of Max Ernst and Andre Masson can be safely ignored in my view, do seek out John Heartfield’s photo-montage, After Twenty Years: Fathers and Sons, and then delve into this astoundingly modern artist’s output (and life) inter- and post- war, but especially from the 1930’s.

In Room 6, “Return to Order”, the curators show how the geometric and mechanised avant-garde forms and processes which dominated Western art before the war gave way to more realism and naturalism and a return to the traditional genres of portraiture, landscape and religion through the late 1920s and early 1930s. This despite the still chaotic economic and political backdrop, Pastoralism and classicism were reborn. I am not entirely convinced by this argument but it does give an opportunity to show off another Spencer, Christ Carrying the Cross, Old Military from Franz Lenk and soothing landscapes from the Nash brothers in sharp contrast to their war paintings.

Room 7, in contrast, shows that all was not necessarily well in inter-war society linking back to the political art of the immediate post war period and highlighting the deep divisions between rich and poor. Artists unsurprisingly sided with the left in the profound idealogical arguments that characterised the period. George Grosz’s Grey Day, which contrasts, once again, a veteran with a privileged capitalist, is one of the best paintings in the exhibitions.

The final room then goes a little bit off-piste by bringing together a diverse collection of responses to the rise of the “New City”. Mind you it does make you think about just how quickly the nascent optimism on show here would be snuffed out again by an even more devastating global conflict.

Overall this is an ambitious, powerful, valuable and often still shocking survey of the artistic response to the “Great War” made especially interesting for me by the rage, fury, sorrow and despair contained in the loans from various collections in Germany, (and the George Economou Collection in Athens). There are more than enough unexpected contributions amongst the big hitters and much genuine, if occasionally, unfocussed insight into the artistic response to the impact of war. If you have any interest at all in this period or subject then I would be mightily surprised if you haven’t already gone, or intend to go. That would be the right thing to do.