I first came across one of Natalia Goncharova’s paintings thirty-five years ago. What struck me was the quality of her painting, and, even more, the power that came out of it. It was both surprising and uncommon for a female artist.
I was amazed, but the feeling was cut short by my surprise that such an artist was not more famous. This drove my curiosity further. I carried out some research during my frequent visits to libraries and museums, since I was preparing, at the time, French painters’ catalogues raisonné. I therefore managed to collect a significant amount of documents, photographs, and exhibition catalogues among other pieces of evidence. This happened little by little and over a long period of time. I soon had a nice surprise: Goncharova started to place her work on exhibition at the beginning of the 1900s. In particular, a major retrospective exhibition took place in Moscow in 1913 and displayed almost 800 works.
As I began to understand how prolific the artist was, and still driven by my own curiosity, I seized every opportunity I could to gain more knowledge and to examine and understand Goncharova’s paintings and her artistic path especially. I first approached the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in Saint-Petersburg. I managed to obtain some limited information. Very quickly though, the exchanges turned out to be problematic. Either the museum staff did not reply at all or they didn’t answer my questions. I therefore decided to approach the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which gave me access to its large archive. More to the point, it gave me the opportunity to examine all the artist’s paintings at the Musée national d’Art moderne, without any restrictions. Little by little, I continued my research and my observations, consulting other museums in France and abroad.
The first thing I needed to do was to set the artist’s career back into its historical context. This led me to understand why Goncharova had been forgotten for such a long time. The outbreak of World War I left Goncharova and her companion Larionov with a very short period of time during which to work and carry out her research. After 1915, she devoted herself to creating decors and costumes for the Russian Ballets, at Diaghilev’s request, and she became famous in the West, especially thanks to this new dimension in her work.
Moreover, under the Soviet regime and after World War II, Russian artists who did not follow party line were boycotted. The authorities did not hesitate to confiscate the possessions of many opponents of the regime and of Jewish collectors. The paintings were listed and put away. They were doomed to oblivion for a long time, except those that some collectors managed to hide and save in spite of the political context.
This explains why, until the fall of the Soviet Union and the “opening” that followed, the only pieces by Goncharova that we knew of were the ones displayed in museums. Yet, this historical rupture offered new prospects. I thought it would be interesting, and thus conceivable, to find unknown pieces. I could prove their existence, mainly (but not only) thanks to the 1913 and 1914 exhibitions. Even if I had to admit that they could have been destroyed or that they could have “vanished” during the wars, I thought that they should definitely be somewhere, in Russia or elsewhere. I decided to get in touch with galleries, auctioneers among other stakeholders.
I was not disappointed. Since the beginning of the 1990s, paintings began to be publicly traded or sold by dealers who took advantage of the political evolution to take a closer look at the Russian Avant-garde.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of these pieces came from Israel, where Jewish families brought them when they decided to leave Russia and other satellite countries. Indeed, many people fleeing from Russia managed to take some or all of their belongings with them. These collectors – or their heirs now – would gladly the paintings they owned in order to cope with more pressing needs.
This is why several unknown paintings (or paintings that were thought to be lost) have emerged in Western Europe over the past years. This has caused some problems due to the lack of knowledge of history or to its deliberate concealment by key stakeholders who are usually close to the art market and whose goal is to limit and restrict the arrival of pieces on the market so as to protect their quasi-monopoly for their own benefit. The well-documented problem of the origin of the objects then emerges. It is currently – and paradoxically – tending to act as an authenticity certificate.
But how can we know the origin of a painting whose sale often did not give rise to any official purchase certificate (which is not surprising considering the circumstances)? The absence of origin is also a result of Goncharova’s and Larionov’s accumulation of a significant amount of pieces they brought from Russia and housed in their Parisian apartment – another part of this production was sent to them by a friend from Moscow in the beginning of the 1920s. The dissemination of these artworks or their storage in a furniture warehouse when Alexandra Tomilina died happened in very obscure circumstances. Similarly, how can one prove the authenticity of pieces that were given as gifts by the artist to shopkeepers of the neighborhood for instance? This was the means of payment that A. Tomilina continued to adopt after Larionov’s death.
But in the absence of “origin”, can we provide evidence that the piece was displayed in an exhibition during the artist’s lifetime?
The exhibition catalogues at the time are not helpful at all because they do not contain any reproductions of paintings or dimensions of the works. The numbers written by the artist on their backs did not always correspond to the one attributed to them when they were placed on display.
The collector’s name, which is mentioned at times, is not an irrefutable piece of evidence either because it is often very difficult to clearly identify the actual painting among several other pieces that have similar or far too vague titles – like “landscape” or “still-life” for instance. With the exception of a few reproductions, only a few titles can be identified with certainty even on Eganbury’s 1913 list.
However, we know for sure that Goncharova was a hard worker who painted relentlessly day and night. In order to have a realistic idea of her work, we cannot forget that she made a first selection and she often realized several preparatory pieces of work – sometimes very finished ones – before choosing the paintings for an exhibition.
In her book published in 1972 (page 108), Mary Chamot explains that even after leaving Russia, Goncharova kept making easel paintings (even though she devoted herself very largely in Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet costumes and decors), in particular still-lives and flowers, which she sold easily during the War and the occupation, but also landscapes which are very close in style to her impressionist beginnings. So it is not surprising that the paintings that she did towards the end of her life were attributed to the beginning of her career, although they are in reality just “replicas”, made from memory.
This confusion has allowed for dishonest or uninformed minds to contest the authenticity of these pieces. These individuals would do better to consider the statement that Goncharova once made in front of her students: “It has been years since I painted this, but I’m modifying it today. I am working again on it. Do not ever destroy your paintings, you will be able to work on them again afterwards.” (page 230 in Tatiana Loguine’s book)
One should read and read again Tatiana Loguine’s book: “Natalia Gontcharova et Michel Larionov – 50 ans à Saint-Germain-des-Près – Témoignages et documents”, Paris, Klincksieck, 1971.
Translated from the French by Anita Hayem-Ghez