For Goncharova a still life was never a hat or a broom, but something living...For Goncharova there are no still lifes
Marina Tsvetaeva, essay entitled Natalia Goncharova.
Natalia Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov were at the very heart of Russian Avant-garde art and greatly influenced its development. They were the forebears of at least two important styles; Primitivism and Rayonism. Goncharova's own style was called Vsechestvo by her contemporaries. This word, derived from the Russian word vse, everything, underlined the fact that while Goncharova maintained her own bright individuality, she attempted to comprehend all the new artistic developments that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the foreward to the catalogue for her personal exhibition of 1913, Goncharova wrote about her goals: Not to put any limits and restrictions upon myself in the area of artistic achievement. Always to use all of the attainments and discoveries in art.
Contemporaries were delighted by her multi-faceted and industrious character. In her canvases she consistently analysed Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, not just by assimilating their discreet styles but by getting to the essence of each phenomenon. She became acquainted with those evolving styles thanks to the collection of the shrewd Moscow art connoisseur Sergei Shchukin and through a series of combined Russian-French exhibitions, one of the organisers of which was the irrepressible Larionov.
Goncharova quickly outgrew her Western contemporaries and began to define her own artistic path. In the same foreword for her catalogue we read I have studied everything the West could give until today...now I shake off the dust from my feet and move away from the West...my path to the source of all art runs towards the East. The art of my country is incomparably deeper and more significant than anything I have found in the West. From this point we see a profound interest in Russian folk traditions, primitive art and the East appearing in her works, as well as the complex intertwining of various '-isms'.
In Russia, during the mid 1900s, the same influences can be seen in the work of many artists, often from different groups with conflicting styles. However, true understanding of these various artistic threads can only be found in Goncharova and Larionov's works. Subsequently, other artists developed Goncharova and Larionov's principles into a movement and turned the tendency into a trend.
Thus one of the brightest trends in Russian art of the 20th century, Neo-primitivism, emerged. The most important characteristic of this movement was its relationship to the primitive in the broadest sense of the term; from Polovtsian stone women to market lubok. Russian folk art, including peasant icons, toys and embroidery, quickly became the subject of intense study, with the only condition being that it belonged either to native or to Eastern cultures. In an attempt to understand the depths of the traditions involved, Larionov organised exhibitions of Chinese pictures and Russian lubok, while forming a collection of folk art along with Goncharova.
The larger part of Goncharova's creative evolution in Russia took place under the banner of Neo-primitivism. Her Primitivist canvases were born out of a synthesis of ancient stone sculptures, the naivete of lubok, multicoloured signboards and the latest styles of contemporary Western artists. Her search for new art stood at the intersection of the most significant achievements of West and East.
Still Life with watermelons with its wide colour range, accentuated contours and textured brushstrokes is one of the best of Goncharova's still lifes from the latter part of the 1900s. Her 'fauvist component' had become more apparent by then. Her contemporaries referred to her as 'the artist with the richest paints', and one can certainly see how she explored the decorative possibilities of colour in this firework-like composition. This still life is painted brilliantly, sweepingly, and is based on a clash of contrasts - orange and light-blue, red and green, black and white. The main contrast, which influences our perception of the composition, sees the warm yellow of the background visually approaching the viewer, while the dynamic blue of the foreground adds depth to the work. This too is how the unity of the foreground plane is achieved, pushing the round watermelon towards us and thus making it especially voluminous.
In Still Life with watermelons Goncharova creatively moulds the artistic principles invented by Matisse and Cézanne to her own ends. The artist shows the objects from above, a device commonly used by Cézanne in order to underline the volume of their forms, however, Goncharova manages to transform this into contradicting decorativism. In spite of this, the Cézannist tradition is still present in Still life with watermelons in its rhythmical integrity and in the idea of universal unity. In this work her ideas are quite close to those of the Jack of Diamonds group of artists which appeared in 1910 but, despite those similarities, Goncharova refused to join the group, cherishing her creative freedom above all and remaining determined that art should not be restricted by systems or manifestos.
Goncharova liked to spend her summers in the South, where she avidly gathered ideas for her compositions and made numerous sketches. As Marina Tsvetaeva described it, the artist went 'hunting'. In winter she worked relentlessly in her studio. She readily included exotic fruits into her still lifes, and adopted a palette reminiscent of the hot colours of Matisse and the Tahitian paradise of Gauguin. In Still life with watermelons Goncharova arranges fruits and berries around a bright tablecloth that is printed with a large leaf pattern, which gives the impression that this is not a still life, but an actual watermelon growing in a vegetable patch. The work is a feast of colours and exotic forms with an interlacing web of liana vines in the lower section and voluminous, symmetrical flowers at the top. As in works by Matisse, the dynamic brushstrokes and the distorted perspective break with the traditional rendering of the space so that all the objects, colours, spots, and lines are merged into an unique plane, a colourful surface in turmoil.
The main 'character' of Still life with watermelons is a graphic work depicting a theatre scene, with the initials 'M. L.' as Mikhail Larionov marked his works. Judging by its simple forms and choice of palette, this is one of his earlier works, probably part of a series of theatre graphics or, less likely, a sketch of a set decoration. The present whereabouts of the work are unknown. The sheet occupies the whole of the central part of the painting; it is shown in its entirety and with no distortion of the perspective. It is so important that the rest of the still life could easily be considered to be a frame for it.
The inclusion of a piece of art into a still life is characteristic of Goncharova. For her this is a way of understanding the heritage of the past and the achievements of her contemporaries. In Still life with a pineapple (fig. 1) the artist contemplates both the meaning of primeval stone sculptures by placing a Polovtsian stone woman in the centre of the canvas, and also classical traditions, through the sketch of women bathing on the wall. In Still life with a portrait and white tablecloth she is attracted by Gauguin's heritage while Chinese still life explores the possibilities of Eastern art. In Still life with watermelons Larionov plays the role of the classic. His beloved theatre subjects bring a playful element to the work, like a prompter giving lines to an actress on stage.
Even though on the reverse of the canvas we find the inscription 'Larionov', the work is undoubtedly by Goncharova. It is impossible to confuse the still lifes of these two artists. Larionov provides every object with its own character and mood, to the extent that the fruits in his paintings are like live creatures. As Gleb Pospelov noted accurately, in one of his works 'a whole 'flock' of green pears is grazing on a garden table'. Larionov's interests are completely different in that he is not attracted by sharp contrasts and brightly expressed compositional constructions, but instead feasts his eyes on sunlight and on the simple nature of things.
In contrast, Goncharova prefers to create still lifes in an interior. Her favourite wallpaper with three flowers, the background for Still life with a watermelon, can be found in at least three of her still lifes. The tablecloth with the wild leaf pattern also appears in some of her other works. Goncharova's still lifes are also 'alive', but in a wholly different way to those of Larionov. For Goncharova, the interaction of colour and texture, the replacement of the real by drawing and her dynamic brushstrokes are all a part of her natural expressiveness and creative strength.
We are grateful to Anna Grigorieva, from Moscow State University, for preparing this note.