“This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet…she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange…She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will paint on their cheeks, foreheads and necks.” — Sergei Diaghilev
Natalia Goncharova welcomed a good scandal. A rich girl from the country, she would move to the city, and set up court among the rebels, primitivists and shrieking anarchists. Natalia would become the dismissive queen of Moscow’s avant-garde empire, and at 33 years old she would leave it behind.
Natalia arrived in Moscow in 1898, at age 17. Enrolled at the Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Natalia cut a strong line between herself and her peers. Growing up in the country left Natalia outside of the urban expectations — the pervasive language of the city. She painted peasants and rural scenes, borrowing from the fauvist styles of Cezanne and Matisse. Natalia would describe her early years saying “At the beginning of my development, I learned most of all from my French contemporaries.”
At the Moscow Institute Natalia met her lifetime lover, collaborator and co-conspirator, the troublemaker Michael Larionov. Michael had been expelled Institute numerous times, and in 1900 the two artists left together — Natalia having only completed three of the expected ten years of study. The next decade was a whirlwind for Natalia and Michael. Natalia had reduced her style to its simplest primitive forms, seen in Peasants Dancing, and The Evangelists, which was confiscated on grounds of blasphemy after hanging in an exhibition titled The Donkey’s Tail. The duo took their art to the streets, painting each other’s naked torsos with hieroglyphs and profanities and marching through wealthy neighborhoods. In 1910 Natalia was charged with creating pornography after a show of nude works, and in 1913 and 1914 she held her own solo exhibits. Together with Michael, Natalia fronted the ‘Rayonism’ movement of their own invention — further abstracting cubism in to shards of painted light. From 1900-1914 Natalia reigned supreme as Moscow’s aesthetic agitatrix.
And then, in 1914, Natalia and Michael moved to Paris. Invited by gallerist and friend Sergei Diaghilev — the pair were introduced to the world of stage and costume design. With Natalia’s history of body art and transgressive style, she brought the bright colors and moral contrasts of Russian folk art to life for Diaghlev’s Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Les Noces, Cinderella and dozens more productions in Paris, Lausanne Switzerland, and London.
I condemn without hesitation the position of the Knave of Diamonds, which has replaced creative activity with theorizing.
I shake off the dust of the West, and I consider all those people ridiculous and backward who still imitate Western models in the hope of becoming pure painters and who fear literariness more than death.
Art for life and even more—life for art!