When Natalia Goncharova’s painting Picking Apples (above, from 1909) sold for £4,948,000 (or $9,801,988 USD) at Christie’s London in 2007, setting a record for a female artist, the New York Sun, along with a lot of other people, asked “Who Was Natalia Goncharova?” Born June 16, 1881, Goncharova mixed with some of the greatest figures of the avant-garde of early twentieth century Russia and Paris not only in painting and sculpture but also in visual arts and ballet set design. Unfortunately, as some of those names lived on in popular memory, such as Pablo Picasso and Sergei Diaghilev, Goncharova’s name faded, slipping into the shadows as just another Cubist or just another Futurist not worth top-tier status by talent (or, perhaps, by gender). For once, the fact that money talks does some good, giving Goncharova a voice once again to be heard. The beautiful blues, violets, and greens of Picking Apples along with the primal, Cubist modeling of the women announce Goncharova as a unique visionary of that vibrant period.
Like so many others, Goncharova lapped up the new Cubist ways of seeing reality. Her decorative bent, however, kept her from the dour browns of Cubism ala Picasso and Georges Braque. That love of color and energy led her to Cubism’s child—Futurism. The Cyclist (above, from 1913) holds up nicely with the best work of the Italian Futurists such as Umberto Boccioni . Goncharova and the Russian Futurists shared a fascination with the new world of mechanized speed that, sadly, led the Italian Futurists into the gaping maw of World War I, which literally killed off the movement in Italy. Along with her husband Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova organized the 1912 Donkey's Tail exhibition that brought modern European art to Russian and returned the favor by exhibiting with countryman Wassily Kandinsky and the Der Blaue Reiter in Germany that same year. Such internationalism makes Goncharova a pivotal figure of the period.
Between the wars, Goncharova and Larionov continued to pursue their unique brand of abstraction, which they called Rayonism. In Composition with Trees (above, from the early 1920s), Goncharova straddles the worlds of Cubism and pure abstraction, not yet ready to let go of reality entirely. While in Paris, Goncharova’s talents helped set the stage for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, providing visuals to accompany the ground-breaking ballet repertoire. Americans Gerald Murphy and Sara Murphy sought out Goncharova and asked to assist her in painting sets, which soon became the springboard from which Gerald developed his own take on Synthetic Cubism (see more about him here). In the long, overly masculine history of modern European art, it’s nice to see some space finally given to Natalia Goncharova and her work. Now that some tastemakers have noticed her (and put their money where their mouth is), it’ll be interesting to see if they can’t resist more than one bite from the apple.