Natalia Goncharova's Bluebells is an important masterpiece of the early avant-garde, and its presence at auction marks an exceedingly rare opportunity to acquire one of the few Primitivist oil paintings still in private hands. The majority of similar and related works are held in the collections of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, while many others were destroyed in a fire that claimed the entire collection of Nikolai Ryabushinsky, Moscow merchant, artist, and also founder, financier and editor of the well-known journal, Zolotoe Runo.
This canvas dates to circa 1909, just five years after Goncharova first began to paint in oils and two years after she discarded academic painting in favor of new and radical means of expression. Her unique style was progressively more dramatic and structural, marked by a loud yet harmonious palette, thick impasto, bold outlines and a flattened sense of space. Goncharova had also developed her own motifs and characteristic choice of subjects, which included peasants, whom she painted at home on her family estate in the rural village of Negaevo, as well as still life compositions, which she laid out meticulously in the setting of her studio. Her peasant cycle remains the best known sequence in her oeuvre, and a fragment of one of her most famous pictures-Bleaching Canvas, 1908 (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)-appears in the background at upper left of the present painting (fig.1).
Goncharova's oeuvre from circa 1908-1911 has been labeled her Primitivist period, in large part because it drew heavily upon so-called primitive art forms. In general, primitivism is a term associated with the age of Enlightenment, relating to the material culture of peoples who were considered barbaric and uncivilized. By the early twentieth century, many artists and philosophers who were disillusioned with modern civilization found their discontents rooted in their antithetical relationship to nature, and so they found an alternative in the distant cultures of so-called primitive peoples, those not yet touched by modernity.
Primitivism was reinvented as a profoundly national phenomenon in the context of Russian avant-garde art, and even given its own Russian title, Neo-primitivism, as defined by Alexander Schevchenko in 1913. This unique title alluded to the perceived sources of this new painterly style, which were fundamentally and metaphorically Russian as well, for in creating their Primitivist works, vanguard artists-Goncharova, Larionov, and Malevich in particular-looked to Russian peasant culture and art (figs. 2 and 3), including the popular print or lubok and the traditional orthodox icon. Reinforcing the peasant as a symbol of national identity, they sought to revive indigenous Russian culture and rediscover their own national artistic origins.
The components of Neo-primitivism came to a head at the 1909 Zolotoe Runo exhibitions, where the public encountered contemporary works of Western European Modernism alongside those of Russian Symbolism, Primitivism, and earlier Russian folk art. The presence of traditional objects-including lubki, icons, lace works and gingerbread moulds-in an exhibition setting suggests not only that headway had been made in the World of Art community's struggle to establish Russian folk art as High Art, but also that certain visual similarities were expected to be found between the examples of folk art and the paintings displayed beside them.
Goncharova's Primitivist style was also linked to the recent trends of the exhibited Western European Modernists, who included Matisse and Cézanne in their ranks. Perhaps the earliest and most direct influence of Western European Modernism on Goncharova's career was channeled through her partner, Mikhail Larionov. In 1907, Larionov traveled to Paris and London with Sergei Diaghilev, future founder of the Ballets Russes, and there he witnessed firsthand a wide array of works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Denis, Matisse and others. The timing of this trip corresponds with a traceable evolution in Larionov's own style and in Goncharova's as well, which suggests his observations were significant for both of them.
A number of other events occurred in the early 1900s that allowed for cross-cultural integration in the fine arts, and thus Goncharova had several means of access to concurrent Western European imagery and ideas. Journals like Mir Iskusstva (1898-1904), Zolotoe Runo (1906-1909/10) and Apollon (1909-1917) reproduced various paintings and writings in Russia, and certain Western European artists became popular in Russia; two such artists, Maurice Denis and Henri Matisse, traveled to Moscow in 1906 and 1911, respectively. Meanwhile, Russian art critics were increasingly aware of Western European Modernist values and aesthetics; for example, critic Sergei Makovsky studied Western European trends and called for Russian artists to follow suit, expressing a desire for nation-wide evolution away from the critical and nostalgic art that had pervaded the national art scene since the foundation of the Peredvizhniki. Furthermore, a number of Western European works were brought to Russia, either for public display (in the case of the three Zolotoe Runo exhibitions, starting in 1908), or as part of the private collections of well-known art patrons Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, who opened their homes to art students by 1909 and eventually amassed a combined total of more than 350 French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (fig.4).
Bluebells underscores Goncharova's awareness of Matisse's Fauvism, especially as she experimented with vivid two-dimensional patterns found in fabrics (fig.5). Yet the work also exhibits a revolutionary and structural flair that was distinctly her own, and she chose to depict traditional Russian patterns, those worn by the Russian peasantry.
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