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
Two books on the Russian Avant-Garde artist, NATALIA GONCHAROVA, were the focus of attacks in the Russian on-line magazine, Art Investment, on 27 April under the title, “A Rigged in Art: Russian Experts to Protect Creative Work by Natalia Goncharova”. It covered a TV press conference broadcast the previous day in Russia.
Highly respected and well known Western art historians are the authors of these scholarly publications – Anthony Parton’s, Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova, published by the Antique Collector’s Club, England, in October 2010, and Denise Bazetoux’s volume 1 of her catalogue raisonée, Natalia Gontcharova: son oeuvre entre tradition et modernité / Natalia Goncharova: Her Work Between Tradition and Modernity, published by Arteprint, Brussels, in March 2011.
The apparent reason for the attacks was to claim that “60-70% of the works” reproduced in these volumes “are fakes” or are “counterfeits”.
None of the individuals who are recorded as having made these accusations has published on this painter, nor can any of them claim to be a specialist or expert of the art of Natalia Goncharova on any other grounds.
To have an opinion about the authenticity of an artist’s work one needs to have seen and studied as many works as possible. In fact, those quoted in Art Investment have admitted that they have not seen this amorphous and unidentified “60-70%” – around 2,000 works altogether,
We set out the accusations of the speakers as Art Investment reports them and reply with the actual facts of the matter.
The art historians “never came to the Tretiakov Gallery” to consult their large collection, said two spokesladies from the Tretiakov Gallery, Irina Lebedeva and Irina Vakar.
REPLY – FALSE
All the works from the Tretiakov Gallery reproduced in Anthony Parton’s book were given reproduction rights by official and formal permission from the Tretiakov Gallery who were fully aware of his project.
Denise Bazetoux was in correspondence with Mrs. Derevianko of the External Service Department of the Tretiakov Gallery in March 1999, receiving but very little of the information as requested. She also attempted to have telephone conversations with Madame Mia at the Gallery from whom she received no responses to her inquiries. Conversely, she had full cooperation with the Kandinsky Library at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris whose extremely important and extensive Goncharova archives were made available to her as were works by the artist housed in the reserves of the museum.
Many of the paintings come from “private collections”, according to speakers as reported by Art Investment. “We don’t know who they are.”
REPLY – TRUE
Collectors like to keep their anonimity, including Petr Aven. There is nothing new in this and is a practice followed by Russian publications.
To “verify the authenticity of fake paintings will not be difficult: they are all painted in our time and any technological expertise can immediately identify it.”, Petr Aven is quoted as saying.
REPLY – FACT
Mr. Aven obviously does not know that a large number of the paintings reproduced in each of these two publications – apart from the paintings in the “legitimate” Russian museums (and why not?) – have “technological” expertises accompanying them by known and reputable scientists which reveal without a shadow of a doubt that the works were not “painted in our time” but were executed at least 60 years ago. In addition, a high percentage have gone through several well known auction houses.
“A call to publishers who have published these books” was initiated, said James Butterwick, “in order to inform [them] about the situation but the reaction was: they trust Professor Parton.”
REPLY – THANK GOODNESS
And why wouldn’t they, given his fine reputation? On the basis of the facts, then, there are no concrete reasons to doubt that of the over 3,000 works reproduced in these two publications together, 100% of the works are by the hand of Natalia Goncharova.
ART INVESTMENT ASKS
“Why [is the West] not afraid of the reaction from Russia?”, says Art Investment (which is financed by Petr Aven)? “Because the credibility of our expertise in the West is not perfect.”
The lack of credibility of the Tretiakov Gallery on a number of grounds has been documented in the Russian and Western press over the past few years. Nor is there a published and qualified art historian and expert dedicated to research on Natalia Goncharova’s work in Russia. The artist came to the West in 1915 and she lived in Paris until her death in 1962, never to return to Russia. The largest part of her work and archives have remained in the West. Anthony Parton and Denise Bazetoux, having devoted decades to the study of her work, remain the most highly qualified and scholarly authors and experts on the art of Natalia Goncharova.
3 May 2011
Anthony Parton’s book, GONCHAROVA The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova, was reviewed in THE ART NEWSPAPER, “PAINTERLY PROTESTS – The many faces of Natalia Goncharova’s prolific career”, March 2011, by Averil King.
Denise Bazetoux’s book, NATALIA GONCHAROVA Between Tradition and Modernity, was reviewed in THE ART NEWSPAPER, “The real Natalia Gonchaova”, April 2011, by Claudia Barbieri, who also addresses some of the related issues.
The International Chamber of Russian Modernism, InCoRM, was founded in Paris on 14th April 2007 by independent art historians and scientists who specialise in Russian Modernism. InCoRM was registered as a non-profit organisation in Paris in February 2008. The aim of InCoRM is to provide a platform for dialogue amongst all those interested in Russian Modernism, while its website is a research source in the making. It publishes scholarly work, both art historical and scientific, in the Journal of InCoRM, which is found on-line as well as in print.