Alexandra Tomilina, Paris
Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1973
Sotheby's London, Russian Art Evening, 26 November 2007, lot 40
Goncharova's peasant cycle and still lifes with flowers form the core of her early work. They are perhaps her most instantly recognisable works, signature pieces which show her at the forefront of the Russian avant-garde's exploration of Primitivism and Post-Impressionism. The present work is a rare synthesis of both series, and one of the most sophisticated and significant paintings by the artist ever to be offered at auction. Relatively few examples from this crucial period exist beyond museum collections; many were lost, and some destroyed in a fire that claimed the collection of Nikolai Riabushinsky, the founder of Zolotoe runo.
The fragment in the top left corner comes from her 1908 masterpiece, Bleaching Linen in the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. This trope of a 'painting within a painting' appears most famously in Matisse's Still Life with The Dance at The Hermitage and the present work is a superb example of the ease with which Goncharova assimilated and developed the techniques of the Fauves. Matisse's painting had been purchased by Ivan Morozov in 1909 to complement, or perhaps outdo, his rival collector Sergei Schukin, who had commissioned The Dance from Matisse earlier that year to hang in the stairwell of his Moscow mansion.
The rapidly expanding collections of both men allowed for meaningful dialogue between Russian avant-garde and contemporary French artists. Moscow suddenly became a crucible of cross-cultural integration in the fine arts, which was accelerated by Mikhail Larionov's dynamic organisation of exhibitions and the publication of journals such as Mir iskusstva (1898-1904) and Zolotoe runo (1906-1909/10). In 1908, Zolotoe runo published a special edition on the Matisse exhibition (nos 7-8) and reproduced thirteen paintings and three drawings in a 1909 edition, together with an essay on Matisse by Henri Mercereau, and a translation of Notes d'un peintre. As Alice Hilton notes in her article Matisse in Moscow, 'this was the most complete single work on him published anywhere before 1920' and is a reflection of the serious reception his art was given in Russia.
Still Life (Bluebells) must therefore be seen in the context of Goncharova's self-professed dialogue with the Fauves. 'I, like the latest Frenchmen, seek to achieve solid form, sculptural distinctiveness and simplification of drawing' (Beseda s N.S.Goncharovoi Stolichnaya molva, 5 April 1910, no.115, p.3). A comparison with Matisse's Still Life with Aubergines (fig.1) is useful in showing which elements Goncharova engaged with: a combination of dark red, purple and pink tones, a near-geometrical division of the painting into sections, a strong use of line, aerial still life and ambiguous geometry. In Still Life with Aubergines various designs extend through the composition; in Goncharova's still life, we find a similar complex use of various printed patterns: on the floral motif of the tablecloth and wallpaper, on the painted representation of peasant's clothing, and the natural patterning of the flowers. In both works, the limits of the fabrics are not clearly defined; even less the planes.
Gauguin was also an important influence, and his use of flat planes and warm palette in The Flowers of France for example (fig. 2) clearly had a bearing on Goncharova's work. Even so, La Jardinière is notable for the distinctively Russian aesthetic that it generates. It has been rightly stressed that although her mode of expression at this time ran parallel to that of the Fauves and Expressionists, it was not entirely dependent on them as models. The tablecloth and wallpaper designs in the present work may have been inspired by the decorative backgrounds of Fauve works, but they are entirely Russian and entirely her own.
When Matisse visited Moscow in 1911, his first published statements are full of a sense of discovery of the inspiration to be drawn from Russian icons and folk art: 'This is a genuine peoples' art. Here is the primordial creative striving. Contemporary artists should draw their inspiration from these primitives.... Russians don't even suspect what a wealth of art treasures they own... And here, what clearness and display of great strong feeling. Your young people have here, in their own home, far better models of art than abroad. French artists should come to study in Russia: Italy offers less in this field' (Matisse quoted in Utro Rossii, No.247, 1911).
Goncharova is famous for turning to the simplified and reduced techniques of ancient Russian art forms and culture in her 1908 canvases Bleaching Linen and Gardening (The Tate Gallery, London). A device shared between icon painters, Matisse and Goncharova is the incongruity of space in their art - the dominance of the surface and the relative equality of all that is on the surface. Goncharova and Malevich in particular sought to reinforce the peasant as a symbol of national identity, revive indigenous Russian culture and rediscover the artistic origins which Matisse so admired. In his characterisation of the Russian avant-garde, Diaghilev described Goncharova as the 'the most celebrated of these advanced painters' .
Still Life (Bluebells) showcases the techniques which had earned her this accolade. Her painting became progressively more structural, characterised by a bold palette, thick impasto and strong outlines. The flattened sense of space in the present work is felt with equal strength in her Still life with Chessboard (1907, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), again drawing on the abstract designs and vivid greens and pinks that can be found in Matisse's Spanish Still Life (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), Goncharova has moved away from the pointillism and diluted colour that can be found in her early oil paintings; instead both these works show a sumptuous juxtaposition of pinks and greens and curious patterning on the drapery.
Goncharova was preoccupied with the aesthetic possibilities of integrating these designs not only in her paintings but on her person as well, as Diaghilev describes in 1913: '... you will be interested to know that 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. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks'.
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