For Natalia Goncharova, an artist who had emigrated almost by accident and who remained spiritually rooted in Russia, Spain was a revelation: ‘I love Spain. It seems to me that out of all the countries I have visited, this is the only one where there is some hidden energy. This is very close to Russia…’. The passion and mysticism of the ancient Moorish and gypsy cultures of Spain had much more in common with Byzantine Russia than secular France or the Protestant North.’
In the summer of 1916, Sergei Diaghilev was in San Sebastián for the Ballets Russes season when he had the idea to stage two Spanish ballets: Triana, to be set to the music of Isaac Albeniz and Espagne to Maurice Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole. At the end of the brief season he invited Goncharova and Larionov to remain and accompany him and the choreographer Léonide Massine on an exploratory trip around Spain while the remainder of the troupe set off for the North American tour. The party spent many evenings conducting research in the taverns of Seville, the birthplace of flamenco and the setting for both Albeniz and Ravel’s compositions.
Between 1916 and 1919 Goncharova produced numerous studies, costume and set designs for both ballets and some of the costumes were made up.Espagne made it as far as rehearsals in Rome in the autumn of 1916 but neither ballet was ever staged. This did not stop her from exhibiting the unrealised designs and they would cement her reputation as one of the greatest stage designers of the day. With the success of her designs for Le Coq d’or and the unrealised ones for Liturgie Goncharova had made a name for herself with imaginative interpretations of scenes from Russian folklore, using the stylistic characteristics of traditional peasant crafts and the lubok, but the Spanish ballet work was to broaden her appeal significantly.
Very few designs for the Spanish ballets are inscribed with attributions and for those without it is almost impossible to attribute them to one or other production. This is due in part to the fact that neither ballet was plot driven, rather centred on the theme of Spanish dances, but also because Goncharova’s method was to work on productions simultaneously with each project informing the other and elements of design would often resurface.
Goncharova’s Spanish costume designs are a successful marriage of her neo-primitivist style with a strikingly modern Cubo-futurist aesthetic. In Costume Design for Spanish Woman for Espagne or Triana (lot 202) she makes use of oversized fans, mantillas and lace shawls to build up the composition in overlapping layers. With the contrasting angles and dramatic stances of the three studies for flamenco dancers (lots 204 to 206), she manages to endow these flat, static figures with an undeniable dynamism. The floral embroidery adds decorative interest and contrasts with the geometric shapes and sharp, linear folds of the fans and pleats which create a repetitive rhythm and are suggestive of movement. Archival photographs of those costume designs forEspagne which were actually made up show that the rigidity of the studies was carried through into the finished dresses.
The motifs of the decorative Spanish lace and the oversized blooms in the dancers’ shawls are picked up again in the evocative set designs. The ham, wine barrels and guitars in Set Design of a Tavern (lot 201) are used as shorthand symbols for Spanish culture and bestow a sense of festivity on the scenography, which is in marked contrast to the striking solemnity of the dancers.
Spain was a catalyst for change in Goncharova’s art and the impression it made on her was to have a profound influence on much of her output over the next two decades. Despite the fact that neither ballet made it to the stage her work was not wasted, for the material she gathered over these three years was to provide an endless source of inspiration and inform her work for many years to come.
Natalia Goncharova, Sergei Diaghilev and the choreographer Léonide Massine worked on the ballet Liturgie in Lausanne in the summer of 1915.
The plot of Liturgie was based on the gospel narratives. It was to tell the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Sermon on the Mount in the form of a mass and the music was to be provided by an Orthodox choir. Many of the dancers involved had misgivings about performing a ballet based on a liturgical theme and Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Stelletsky, who had originally been approached to provide the score and designs, also refused on the grounds that such a project would be sacrilegious. In place of orchestration, Diaghilev experimented with Gregorian chants interspersed with periods of silence (as in an Orthodox mass), at times reducing the ballet to the sound of the dancers’ feet on a specially constructed double stage.
This extreme, anti-Naturalist approach to the music and choreography was reflected in Goncharova’s scenography. Designed within the confines of the very strict conventions of Orthodox iconography, her highly stylised, unusually static costume designs have the striking flattened perspective and symbolic attitudes familiar from Russian icons. These attitudes were the sole means of expression in a production which had no spoken text.
The costumes and the backdrop however were to be lavish, her annotations and the prevalence of metallic paints, as in the study for pochoir of St Mark (lot 215), indicate the use of sumptuous fabrics and gold and silver, as befitted the wearers. For the opening scene of the Annunciation, the magnificent stage curtain of an iconostasis was to be a riot of gold, scarlet and lapis lazuli (the finished version is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York). That this level of opulence would have been beyond Diaghilev’s means in time of war was probably another reason the production was never realised.
Even though the ballet was never staged, the costume designs were produced as a folio of 16 pochoirs in Lausanne in 1915 and a second edition of 18 was later published in Paris in 1927.
As an artist who worked so successfully in the decorative and applied arts, fashion design was a logical progression for Goncharova. She had first turned her hand to it in 1912 with a series of celebrated embroidery designs for the Moscow couture house of Nadezhda Lamanova and soon after established a reputation in Parisian artistic circles with her 1914 costume designs for Le Coq d’or.
Paris had been in thrall to all things Russian ever since the spectacular success of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade in 1910. When Goncharova and Larionov settled there permanently in 1917 they found themselves very much in vogue. Goncharova had already indirectly influenced fashions with her highly stylised costume designs for the Ballets Russes when she was approached by Marie Cuttoli to design for her couture house Myrbor.
Myrbor, which took its name from a conflation of the Arabised form of Marie and Cuttoli’s maiden name (Myriam Bordes), had originally started as a hobby but became official in July 1922 with the opening of a boutique in Paris. According to her contract, Goncharova was to submit one design a month. Not only did she produce shawls, dresses, coats and carpets for the couture house, but she also designed the company logo, letterhead and advertisements.
In keeping with her socialist beliefs Goncharova herself dressed very modestly, even austerely, and yet she was an unexpected arbiter of taste amongst the beau-monde of Paris. Her fashion designs also display a keen understanding of the different demands of fashionable attire from theatrical costumes. The dropped waistlines and full skirts are designed to flatter; asymmetry is used to distract and highlight different areas; and the heavier areas of appliqué are restricted to hems and trains to create movement without adding bulk.
Goncharova was typically involved in the entire design process and scaled up her initial designs into finished, annotated patterns for the seamstresses.Embroidery Designs for an Evening Coat (lot 243), studded with gold, red, green and blue creating a jewel-like effect, were destined for a magnificent white evening coat, trimmed with ermine and their execution in large format on tracing paper probably indicates that they are one such template.
With its palette of coral and black and appliqué decoration shot through with silver and gold thread, Dress Pattern for Myrbor (lot 244), is typical of Goncharova’s designs for Myrbor from the mid-1920s. Redolent of Byzantine mosaics, this pattern shares many similarities with the finished Myrbor dresses now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is undoubtedly from the same season.
In addition to Byzantine mosaics, an equally important source of visual inspiration for Goncharova were the brightly coloured clothes and headscarves of Russian peasant women. This is particularly evident in textile designs such as lot 242, where a pattern which at first sight appears to be composed of bold geometric shapes, on closer inspection turns out to mask delicate motifs of flowers, birds and butterflies, providing a visual analogy of Goncharova’s very characteristic marriage of neo-primitivism with Parisian high sophistication.
In the 1920s, following the success of her work with the Ballets Russes, Goncharova was commissioned to design interiors for several private residences, most notably for Serge Koussevitzky and Mary Hoyt Wiborg in Paris. Little is known about the Wiborg commission but the details of the Koussevitzky project are well-documented and the present catalogue includes Goncharova’s designs for furniture in addition to two charcoal studies for the panels La Princesse Cygne and Spanish Women.
Koussevitzky left Russia after the Revolution, moving first to Berlin and then Paris, where he founded his own publishing company and orchestra. Soon after his arrival in Paris in 1920, he commissioned Goncharova to design the interior of his newly-built house at 8 Rue du Conseiller Collignon. As well as designing the furniture, Goncharova executed ten panels for the entrance hall with characters from the ballets Le Soleil de nuit and Le Coq d’or. She was paid 2,000 francs for La Princesse Cygne – the panel at the top of the stairs – and 1,000 francs for Spanish Women – a panel destined for the dining room.
From 1923, when Koussevitzky was appointed conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, he spent less and less time in Paris, so much so that in a letter to Larionov on 15 September 1935 Goncharova lamented the fact that she did not even know in whose possession they were and that they were probably not even on view (Manuscript Department of the State Tretyakov Gallery, photo 180, 110). In 1957 Olga Koussevitzky, the conductor’s widow, sold the villa and its contents. All but one panel from this project were sold at Sotheby’s New York on 6 May 1970 and subsequently bequeathed to the McNay Art Museum in Texas.
According to Evgenia Ilyukhina, a leading specialist on Goncharova, the artist completed the charcoal studies before painting the figures in colour so as to help her decide on the colour patterns (E.Ilyukhina, ‘The Mansion of Serge Koussevitzky. The Story Behind a Commission’, The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine,no.1, 2014). She then transferred the full-sized figures onto canvas using tracing paper, gradually adding landscape or architectural details to the background. Few sketches for the Koussevitzky villa are known to exist and all four of the charcoal studies shown at the seminal Natalia Goncharova. Between East and West exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2013 were once in the Lefebvre-Foinet collection.
Also in the early 1920s, the well-known socialite and art patron Mary Hoyt Wiborg commissioned Goncharova to design the decorative scheme for her house in Paris. Although an American, originally of Norwegian extraction, Wiborg spent much of her life in France, even receiving the Légion d’Honneur for her aid to the French war effort in both world wars. According to references to this commission in Goncharova’s letters, Wiborg provided her with stories of her family history to illustrate on panels. One such story was of her grandfather, who had been a sailor and it is for this particular panel that lots 265 and 266 are studies. In addition to these decorative panels, it was for Mary Hoyt Wiborg that Goncharova produced her famous folding screen with Spanish women which was to end up in the collection of Sophia Loren, and for which lot 267 is a preparatory study.
We are grateful to Evgenia Ilyukhina for providing additional catalogue information.