Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter. Two Female Icons of the Eastern European Avant-Garde in the Collection of MoMA

Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter were among the most iconic figures of the revolutionizing force of the Russian avant-garde in the 20th century. Works of these female artists project a relevant and timely correlation between art practices within the country and international designations of modern painting. In Russia, art started to revolutionize society even before the actual political revolution of 1917. Already in the early 1910s, these artists tried to break the chains of tradition and social conventions. In doing so, they were greatly inspired by the modernist movements of Cubism and Futurism. In Russia, the stylistic revolution was more radical than in Western Europe but, at the same time, more local. These two female artists never disregarded their sentiment towards the traditional innocence of folk art. MoMA has around 250 works by these artists, from collages to oil paintings. Ever since from 1936 to nowadays, both Goncharova’s and Exter’s oeuvre has been exhibited in the museum in the context of Russian avant-garde as well as in a broader, international frame. 

For most of history, artists tried to represent reality as it appeared. This approach has changed at the beginning of the 20th century whenthey abandoned realistic representation for the sake of producing art that is completely untethered from the world of recognizable patterns. Modernist artists still embraced the subject matter of the surrounding reality, but translated it into the visual language of abstraction. Russian artists engaging with abstract art such as Natalia Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Wassily Kandynsky, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko or Kazimir Malevich, were fascinated with the ever-changing world, with our perspective of it, as well as the speed and anxiety of life that came as a result. However, abstraction was never monolithic as it employed all sorts of influences;– in this case, the influence of Russian female identity in the European avant-garde scene. Among the greatest were Natalia Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsovai. The narratives of contemporary art history have slightly underestimated their extravagant and original input into our understanding of the Russian Avant-Garde, among the acclaimed male masters, from Malevitch to Chagall and Lissitzky. 

Natalia Goncharova 1881- 1962

The West has shown me one thing, everything it has, comes from the East. 

                                                                                                                Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova
Natalia Goncharova

An iconic female figure among the European avant-garde and the first Russian woman to have a monographic exhibition. The dynamic career of Natalia Goncharova dominated and challenged the modern art scene in Moscow and Paris for more than half of a century. At the age of 32, Goncharova, as the first Russian female artist, exhibited her 800 works in a monographic retrospective exhibition in  Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. This was the first solo exhibition of any member of the Russian avant-garde, which established Goncharova among the most successful and radical artists in Europe. Prior to the exhibition, the artist organized a performance on the streets of Moscow. She and some fellow artists marched in the streets with their faces painted as Goncharova’s colorful, vivid canvases. She took care of publicity, inviting journalists and photographers in advance to the performance. The exhibition was visited by an estimate of 12 thousand people, making it a success, which was one of a kind . Goncharova’s determination enabled her to defy artistic and social conventions, and to become an icon of the 20th century. 

The artist was born into an impoverished upper-class family, who emigrated from Russian countryside (Tula) to Moscow, to seek financial benefits. Goncharova, who was only a teen at the time, has been greatly influenced by this shift, on which she will elaborate in the motifs of her lifelong occupation with painting and decorative arts. The urban reality outgrew the artist’s expectations and gradually became her fascination. 

Natalia Goncharova, Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest, 1913, MoMA © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Natalia Goncharova, Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest, 1913, MoMA © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Goncharova mixed her folk sentiment to nature with the fascination for the industrial landscape of Moscow. This interest can be seen in one of her works from the collection of MoMA, Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest from 1913, where Goncharova explores the motif of abstraction in landscape painting. The painting is a small (54.6 x 49.5 cm) oil on canvas acquired by MoMA in 1983. Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest is an extraordinarily dynamic composition of blue, green and white lines painted vertically, horizontally and diagonally. Every line of the composition is an expression of the artist’s energetic, spontaneous brushwork. The tonal distinction enables us to recognize some features of the landscape, but it is undoubtedly an abstract painting. Both the title and the composition guide our attention to Rayonism. Rayonism was an avant-garde style exploring the ways in which light intersections stimulate and affect our vision of objects and how the rays of light distort our image of reality. The linearity of composition in Goncharova’s 1913 painting is inspired by the postulates of Rayonism. She was not only a leading representative, but also a founding figure of the movement in the early 1910s. The collective of Russian Rayonist artists was greatly influenced by Western art movements such as Futurism and Cubism. 

We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today.
— Natalia Goncharova

The elaborate oeuvre of Natalia Goncharova blends all sorts of modernist styles, making it impossible to locate the artist in one distinctive stylistic or theoretical movement. However, what may be regarded as a defining characteristic of Goncharova is her strong belief that the beginnings of Modern Art, especially its Western branch, find its source in the ancient Eastern tradition. Preaching the uncompromising parallel her whole life, the artist located her status quo among those who claim superiority of Eastern artistic tradition. Apart from Goncharova’s independent success, she was greatly respected by the ‘establishment’ of the avant-garde masters, exhibiting along with Wassily Kandinsky, Kazemir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. 

Alexandra Exter (1982-1949)

Alexandra Exter isyet another unquestionably iconic figure of the artistic revolution in Europe. Her oeuvre originated from local Russian folk and decorative art, combining features of modern styles such as French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Living in both Paris and Kiev, Exter became a key figure in uniting European artists at the beginning of the 20th century. She managed to establish her position among the avant-garde art scene as an independent and fully emancipated artist, gaining respect from the historically acclaimed masters of modern painting. Exter’s feminine touch projects a certain charm and intimacy into her compositions, making them one of a kind examples of avant-garde art. 

Alexandra Exter grew up in Kiev in a very cosmopolitan and West-oriented society. Shortly after her formal education, she moved to Paris to study modern painting among the Montparnasse artists. Paris opened artistic and social prospects for young Exter. She encountered Cubism and Futurism, which inspired and shaped her lifelong stylistic belonging. Drawn to the postulates and visual language of the movements, Exter confronted them with Russian folk art. Her Cubo-Futurist paintings fuse geometric representations of reality, dynamically capture the scene from several perspectives and embrace dimensionality as well as the flatness of the canvas. One of such examples is in the collection of MoMA, a painting acquired by the museum in 1983. What makes this painting particularly intriguing is both the subject matter and the stylistic belonging. Cubist Nude from 1912 is a considerably big (149 x 108.9 cm) oil on canvas representation of the female body. 

Alexandra Exter, Theatrical Composition, 1925, oil on canvas, 149 x 108.9 cm, MoMA, © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Sackner

This courageous composition, of which the vast surface is covered with geometrical representation of female nude, is, indeed, a study of the body. However, it also explores issues such as fragmentation, movement, perspective and tonal attachment. The female body emerges from dark blue and brown – traditional tones of Russian folk. We can feel the materiality, the several layers of paint on the surface of the canvas, as if it was a decorative textile. The contours of the female body dance within the geometrical surrounding. The figure is not looking at us – her gaze is focused on the space reaching beyond the canvas, which enables us to see her noble ancient profile. The placement of the abstract elements contrasted with the firm contours of her body makes the composition dynamic, as if the body and the figurative background were to become one, or perhaps were one, and have re-fragmented in front of us. . The contours of the female nude appear emerging from the background as if she was the New Venus; this time, however, born not from the waves, but from the geometric vastness. In such a way, Exter challenges our consciousness of the canonical representation of the female body in the history of art.

Both Goncharova and Exter became iconic figures in their own times. This article aimed at reintroducing the two Eastern European female icons of the 20th century into our comprehension of the history of Russian and Western Modern Art. It also attempted to bring attention to the oeuvres both in addition to Western tradition as well as in their very own right. 

Written by Alicja Stąpór 

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