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Palazzo Strozzi celebrates Natalia Goncharova
Palazzo Strozzi celebrates the life and work of the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova (1881 – 1962), a leading figure in the 20thcentury European avante-garde, in a major retrospective. Open until 12 January, 2020


Curated by Ludovica Sebregondi in conjunction with the Tate Gallery in London, this exhibition presents the creative genius of this remarkable artist, who in her unconventional and interdisciplinary approach to her work was something of a modern Renaissance woman and one who believed that the beginning of modern art could be found in the traditional and religious art of the east.
‘A young woman of great intelligence, not beautiful, though very attractive, tall, bohemian in dress, indolent, reserved, mysterious, Russian to a T,’ is how she appeared to the Italian artist Ardengo Soffici when he met her in 1914.
Goncharova was not only a painter, but also a costume designer, illustrator, graphic designer, scene-painter, decorator, stylist, movie actor and dancer.
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Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies (1907-8)


The 130 works on display are a fraction of the output of this prolific artist and take us on a journey from the Russian countryside where she spent her formative years on her family’s country estate, to Moscow and finally Paris, where she settled after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Natalia Goncharova’s family fortune came from the manufacture of textiles and although the family had to move to the city when she was only 11 years old, her love of the countryside and interest in peasant costume and embroidery never left her. Her exploration of peasant art made her keenly aware of its vibrant colours, its
embroideries and woodcarving, wood painting and ceramic design and of course Russian icons She was keenly aware of artistic developments in Western Europe and was influenced by the works of Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso as well as by the dynamism of Balla and Boccioni. However, she never denied her Russian countryside roots and blended her knowledge of these techniques with native Russian influences, producing a unique style. Goncharova demonstrates boundless creative energy in her work and draws as easily from the bold colours and decorative patterns of the rural Russian folk culture of her youth or flattened Byzantine icon paintings as she does from the primitivism of Paul Gauguin.

Like her father before her, she studied at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and it was at this time that she met fellow student Mikhail Larionov, who became her life partner and collaborator and the chief promoter of her work. Unconventional for the times in both her life and work they lived together
for decades as an unmarried couple, finally marrying in 1955, to ensure the inheritance of their works.
The Moscow uprising of 1905 led to many changes in society, including the forming of the state Duma and a relaxation of censorship. The economic and social changes, not just in Russia but world - wide shaped the development of new styles of art. Artists began to question and experiment with themes of reality, perspective, space and time and representation.
In Moscow, several creative groups were formed and new talents emerged in a variety of Art genres; the Russian actor, director and theatre practitioner, Stanislavsky had already co - founded the Moscow theatre and went on to develop his own ‘method’ system of acting, using his ideas of actors ‘feeling the part’ when staging Chekhov’s plays at his theatre. Young poets and authors also emerged and Goncharova collaborated with many of them, providing illustrations and lithographs. There were huge changes too in Russian music, with Nationalist composers like Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov moving away from the Romantic sounds of the west and turning to folk tunes, dance rhythms and harmonies to write Nationalist music that was essentially ‘Russian.’


In 1909, Goncharova left the institute to help form the Jack of Diamonds, an avant-garde group that focused on combining Russian folk art with developing styles like Russian Primitivism. She and Larionov were prominent figures in this pre-Revolutionary Moscow group, a circle in which women were respected and given an unusual degree of freedom. She became leader of the Russian and international avant-garde in the tumultuous pre- and inter-war periods of the 20th century. Larionov was very interested in tattooing and he and Goncharova would paint on their own faces and bodies and those of their friends, images, or offensive words or phrases for a performance — and then parade through the wealthiest and most elegant parts of the city, or sit in cafés, the performance having been advertised by the press.
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Goncharobva, with face painted by Larionov

They invented their own unique style, that of Rayonism, illustrating the way light intersects and breaks around objects, distorting an image. But Goncharova was interested in exploring all forms of art and worked tirelessly to that end.


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Cats – a Rayonist perception (1913)

In 1913, she was given her first retrospective show at one of the larger Moscow salons and was able to exhibit an astonishing 800 works. The exhibition was a huge success with Russian society and the term ‘everythingism’ was used to illustrate her multifaceted approach. She, like many other great artists borrowed freely and developed and built on the arts of the past and the present, but she also moved freely between formal painting and fully involving herself in performance arts. She was as at home creating for the stage as she was for the art gallery.




The curator Evgenia Iliukhina wrote in the exhibition catalogue that she showed a ‘young artist’s rapid evolution from impressionism to post-impressionism to expressionism’ and she was labelled the ‘leader of the Futurists.’
‘Where white acacia blooms, houses are yellow, pink, blue, red, and are repainted every year. Amidst the trees, near the houses, the sky is blue, blue. Tahiti can also be found in Russia’ (Goncharova)
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Peasants Picking Apples (1909), Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. 

Picking Apples (1911)
is one of the first paintings in the Strozzi exhibition and stands out as a vibrant masterpiece. The influence of Cézanne and Matisse is apparent and Natalia’s cubist-inflected Peasants Picking Apples have been given mask-like faces with those slanted ‘fish’ eyes, reminiscent of Scythian stone figures. Much of the exhibition is given over to her textiles, costume and stage designs.


In 1909 the Russian impresario, Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes in Paris with a company of the best young Russian dancers, including Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky. Their first performance was a huge success and It was Goncharova’s involvement with Diaghilev in this enterprise that first introduced her genius to the West.
Diaghilev was already familiar with her work and said, ‘Goncharova’s designs are simply fabulous…..they are exceedingly poetic and very interesting in terms of colour.’
Diaghilev had the vision to bring together young artistic talents to create original and exciting performance art and Goncharova was an integral part of this vision.
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Design with birds and flowers. Study for textile design House of Myrbor, Paris (1925-8)


In 1914 she went to Paris where she was invited to design the sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes’ production of ‘Le Coq d'or,’ based on the Russian fairy tale by Pushkin with music by Rimsky-Korsakov and choreographed by Michel Fokine. The production was a great success
Her best theatre designs were inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s score for this ballet and later by the music of Stravinsky, who still used folk idioms but was moving away from traditional tonality and composing an exciting style of music that has been labelled ‘Neo Classical.’ His first ballet score for Diaghilev in 1910 was The Firebird,’ based on a Russian folk tale with music that uses energetic Cossack rhythms and folk melodies and was heavily influenced by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. When it was later revived, Goncharova was the obvious choice for set designer and produced this wonderful back drop for the final scene.
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Peasant woman – costume design for Le Coq d’or


Her best theatre designs were inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s score for this ballet and later by the music of Stravinsky, who still used folk idioms but was moving away from traditional tonality and composing an exciting style of music that has been labelled ‘Neo Classical.’ His first ballet score for Diaghilev in 1910 was The Firebird,’ based on a Russian folk tale with music that uses energetic Cossack rhythms and folk melodies and was heavily influenced by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. When it was later revived, Goncharova was the obvious choice for set designer and produced this wonderful back drop for the final scene.
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Natalia Goncharova, Set design for the final scene of The Firebird, 1954.© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Tate.


She remained involved in theatre for the rest of her life. and today is recognised as one of the giants of theatre designs as well as a great artist.
Videos form an important part of the Strozzi exhibition and evoke the atmosphere of Goncharova’s Russia and present her work with Diaghilev. To create the three videos, Natalia’s RussiaNatalia and the Ballets Russes and The Orthodox religion at the turn of the 19th century (video montage by Francesco Faralli), archive materials dating from the first part of the 20th century, from French, Russian and Australian institutions and private archives were used.
At once deeply rooted in Russian heritage and always reaching outwards and forwards to new realms of creativity, Goncharova comes across as a key figure of the 20th century, ripe for discovery and reappraisal. Her appetite for making art is tangible: ‘I feel free and full of courage,’ she wrote, ‘that is to say I am painting and that is how I express my joie de vivre.’
A truly unique opportunity to discover a nonconformist artist who tried and succeeded in combining the traditions of Russian culture with the modern


Written for Tuscan Grapevine by Paula Chesterman, from Tuscan Talent
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