Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern


My meeting in London finished earlier than expected and as I’d booked an Advance ticket on the train I had a few hours to kill before I could set off back home. I wasn’t too far from Tate Modern and as I hadn’t been there for a while decided I’d wander over and see what was on.

Taking advantage of my Tate membership I decided to have a look at the temporary exhibition devoted to a Russian artist from the first half of the 20th Century, Natalia Goncharova. Not someone I’d heard of before and I don’t recall seeing any of her works previously. The exhibition has had good reviews in the press, so I was interested to find out more.

Self portrait

Goncharova came from a family of “impoverished aristocrats”, and grew up on the family estate in Tula, 200 miles from Moscow. I don’t know what the Tate mean by “impoverished”. They were certainly considerably better off than the peasants who worked on their estate. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that although her art was radical she wasn’t a supporter of the Russian Revolution. She’d left Russia and went to Paris on April 29, 1914 Goncharova came from a family of “impoverished aristocrats”, and grew up on the family estate in Tula, 200 miles from Moscow, but they moved to the capital when she was 11. I don’t know what the Tate mean by “impoverished”. They were certainly considerably better off than the peasants who worked on their estate. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that although her art was radical she wasn’t a supporter of the Russian Revolution. She’d she left Russia Paris in April 1914, stayed there during WW1 and didn’t return after the events of 1917.

The Tate’s website tells us that

Goncharova found acclaim early in her career. Aged just 32 she established herself as the leader of the Russian avant-garde with a major exhibition in Moscow in 1913. She then moved to France where she designed costumes and backdrops for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. She lived in Paris for the rest of her life, becoming a key figure in the city’s cutting-edge art scene.

Goncharova’s artistic output was immense, wide-ranging and at times controversial. She paraded the streets of Moscow displaying futurist body art and created monumental religious paintings. She took part in avant-garde cinema, experimented with book designs and designed for fashion houses in Moscow and Paris.

The exhibition spread over 10 rooms and featured a wide range of paintings, sketches, costumes and other items.

The 3rd room had a large number of works from a retrospective of her work held in September 1913 in the Art Salon in Moscow. There were more than 800 works in a vast range of styles. The Tate tells us

it was the most ambitious exhibition by any Russian avant-garde artist to date

and that

The term ‘everythingism’ was coined by Larionov and the writer and artist Ilia Zdanevich to describe the diverse range of Goncharova’s work and her openness to multiple styles and sources. 

These are just a small proportion of the works on display


In another room there were a number of lithographs – Mystical Images of War was published in autumn 1914 – created in response to WW1. To me they largely glorify the war (they’re certainly not critical images) and, at least to some extent, see it as a patriotic and religious “crusade”


She was clearly religious and another room was devoted to religious paintings. I wasn’t so keen on most of them, but did like these fourApostles

The Evangelists (1911) The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Gift of A.K. Larionova-Tomilina, Paris 1966 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Like many Russian artists in the early 20th Century, she was influenced by Futurism. She developed her own approach which was known as Rayonism . This painting was my favourite from this room and probably from the whole exhibition.

Cyclist 1913

Another room featured works created while she lived in Paris. I particularly liked this painting of a Spanish woman


The final room was devoted to sketches, costumes and set designs from several ballet productions. Goncharova had worked with Russian composers, dancers and artists for Diaghilev  Ballets Russes creating an ‘exotic’ vision of the east . I particularly liked the costumes on display that she’d designed for a production of Le Coq d’or


I enjoyed looking around the exhibition. Goncharova was a talented artist and although I didn’t like everything I saw, there was plenty to keep me interested. It’s always good to discover a “new” artist (well, new to me!) so I wasn’t disappointed that I had a few hours to kill before my train.

Later that afternoon I received a text from Virgin Trains to tell me my train had been cancelled. Fearing the worst – that there was major disruption – I was relieved to find that it was due to the train breaking down. Arriving at Euston a little early I was able to transfer on to the train before and managed to get home half an hour earlier than expected. So all worked out well in the end!

Revolution at the Royal Academy


Last Tuesday it was back down to London with work. I arrived mid-afternoon and had a few hours before I was due to meet up with a colleague so decided to take in an exhibition. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 had recently opened at the Royal Academy so I decided to go and have a look.

This was my first visit to the RA, which is housed in the rather grand Burlington House just off Piccadilly in Mayfair, probably the poshest part of central London.


The building is also the home to a number of other societies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Linnaean Society.


This year is the Centenary of the Russian Revolution when the workers and peasants rose up to overthrow their oppressors (there are other interpretations of the events, but that’s my take on them). Unfortunately the promise of a better society was undermined by events and dictatorship of the proletariat was replaced by the dictatorship of Stalin.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and reflects what’s going on in wider society. At the turn of the 20th Century society was in turmoil and this led to the emergence of many ideas including avant-garde approaches to art. In Russia, artists including Kazimir Malevich (of the notorious Black Square, the founder of Suprematism), Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall had produced ground breaking works before 1917. But with the Revolutions of that year, Society was turned upside down with the old structures and ways of doing things being overthrown – and this was reflected in the explosion of experimental and avant-garde art.

Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism Supremus

Kazimir Malevich,Dynamic Suprematism Supremus,  1915

Malevich wrote in 1919

‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’

And what was true of painting was true for other art forms – photography, poetry, literature cinema, drama and architecture.

Many of the avant-garde artists at the time were active participants in the Revolution, producing posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains.  Artists were encouraged to make art for everyday life that would reach a wide audience.

The Bolshevik. Boris Kustodiev, 1920

Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik, 1920

Unfortunately, this was not to last. In the 1920’s, in the face of counter-revolution and hostile intervention from the West, the regime began to turn against radicalism and the abstraction, and with the rise of Stalin, the avant-garde was considered to be anti-Soviet, the dictatorship preferring Socialist Realism which glorified the Proletariat, the State, the Party and it’s leader

– using realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life (Tate website)

And in 1932 Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union.

The exhibition at the RA

explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its groundbreaking art


the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, encompassing Kandinsky’s boldly innovative compositions, the dynamic abstractions of Malevich and the Suprematists, and the emergence of Socialist Realism, which would come to define Communist art as the only style accepted by the regime.

It includes paintings, drawings, photographs, film, textiles, ceramics and even a reconstruction of a Constructivist glider.

The curators have chosen a thematic rather than a chronological approach for the exhibition but, for me, that wasn’t appropriate. I don’t think that exhibitions have to be chronological,but this is meant to be a survey of art during a period of turmoil and how it changed, so it would have been logical to follow the timeline.

Not only that, for me,  it started on the wrong foot. The first room was entitled Salute the Leader and featured portraits of Lenin and Stalin

Isaak Brodsky, VI Lenin and a demonstration 

Isaak Brodsky,V.I.Lenin and a Demonstration,1919.

To me this set the tone for the exhibition, suggesting, incorrectly, that right from the start the Revolution was about the leader, when this wasn’t actually the case;. the cult of the leader really began as the Revolution began to degenerate. Was this approach deliberate?

The second gallery was also out of sync with the timeline. Man and Machine displays works  mainly from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when the new Soviet Union, having defeated the White counter-revolutionaries, was expanding its industrial production. 1928 saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans which led to a massive increase in production. The works in this room included photographs, paintings, film clips and ceramics, all focusing on industry and workers.

Blacksmith. Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1921

Reconstruction of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, Blacksmith, 1921 

The photographs were particularly interesting especially as I’d only been to the exhibition of Modernist photographs from Elton John’s collection at Tate Modern just a few weeks ago. The photographs by Alexander Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, Arkady Shaiket, Georgi Zelma and Georgy Petrusov were outstanding examples of Modernist photography. Figurative images but abstract in the way they were composed – use of light and shade, unusual and unexpected angles and viewpoints

Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station

Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928

Presenting humdrum industrial objects in unexpected and interesting ways.

Boris Ignatovich

Boris Ignatovich Tightening the Bolt: Lever Controls for Tramways, 1930

Control levers, 1930

Boris Ignatovich ,Control levers, 1930

This was realism – “but not as we know it Jim”

A similar approach was taken by film makers during the period and clips were showing on an overhead screen of films by Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin.

The next two rooms concentrated on avant-garde art from the early days of the Revolution

Radical innovations in Russian art had already occurred a few years before 1917, when artists such as Kazimir Malevich developed styles based on pure geometric form and colour. But in the heady days after the Revolution, Vasily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Pavel Filonov, Lyubov Popova and many others seized their chance to shake off the past and produce brave new art.

The existing cultural infrastructure collapsed. Trains brightly painted with slogans and images, distributing propaganda materials, travelled throughout the country spreading Bolshevik ideas and art. 5 Avant-garde artists took on official cultural roles and gathered around the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (known as NARKOMPROS), led by Anatoly Lunacharsky, which recognised their status and secured them state commissions – an important source of work in the absence of a commercial art market.

The freedom and euphoria of the Revolution produced some of the most remarkable talents in art, theatre, music, literature and architecture.

There were a number of discoveries for me including the propaganda glass paintings by Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaya 

Dymshits-Tolstaya’s propaganda paintings were unconventional in their use of glass. They link images of workers’ tools with fragments of slogans from the early revolutionary years.

Ivan Puni’s Flight of Forms (1919)

Ivan Puni Flight of forms 

and the intricate, multi levelled images of Pavel Filinov


Pavel Filinov  Formula of the Petrograd Soviet (1920-21)

Gallery 3 also included photographic portraits of Russian artists from the period, including a portrait of Mayakovsky by Rodchenko

Mayakovsky by Rodchenko

Moving on the next room, which included

an almost exact re-creation of that display. ‘Red Square (Pictorial Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)’ and ‘Black Square’ (a later version of the 1915 original) occupy the centre.

Complex Suprematist canvases are exhibited with Malevich’s later, more figurative paintings, in which blank faces hauntingly evoke lost identity on the collective farm. These were Malevich’s attempt to conform to the Soviet dogma that required art to be representational.

So we can now see how artists were having to adapt their works to the demands of the Stalinists while, as Malevich did, attempting to maintain a Modern approach to art

Malevich Peasants 1930

Kazimir Malevich,Peasants, (c. 1930)

Discoveries in this room included the paintings of Ivan Klyun

and the Suprematist designs on pottery by Malevich and Nikolai Suetin

Moving on through the galleries the art began to become more conventional reflecting the pressures of conforming to the directives of the State to produce more conventional Realist work.

However there was something of a surprise in the central gallery. A reproduction of an enormous bird like glider designed by Vladimir Tatlin. Reminiscent of a flying dinosaur, dramatically displayed,  suspended from the ceiling, revolving and casting shadows from spotlights directed towards it from the ceiling.


Image result for letatlin

It was worth the price of admission to see this astounding work.

I was less interested in the second half of the exhibition which traced the changes in artistic expression as the Stalinists consolidated power, with changes in output and style reflecting shifts in policy such as War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP)

Much has been written about how the Stalinists forced artists to abandon their avant-garde approaches and favour more traditional approaches to art. But I found it interesting to see the works produced by artists who were

nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses

and who

pleaded for the retention of the Orthodox faith and argued for the preservation of churches and the traditional peasant culture threatened by collectivisation. In lyrical paintings and beautifully decorated art journals, artists expressed their longing for a country that no longer existed

Little is said about the backward looking art of the counter-revolutionaries by those who criticise the Communists for preferring more traditional forms. Malevich would not have prospered if the Whites had been victorious.

The final room – Stalin’s Utopia – represented the final victory of Stalinism and Socialist Realism. Despite this some of the works revealed an undercurrent of innovation and originally


Alexander Deineka, Race, 1932

And it’s hard to completely suppress true talent, so the work of some artists, like Alexander Rodchenko still shone through

Aleksandr Rodchenko. Pioneer with a Bugle. 1930. Gelatin silver print. 9 1/4 x 7 1/16" (23.5 x 18 cm). Gift of the Rodchenko family. 789.1998. Photography:

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pioneer with a Bugle, 1930

After 1932 avant-garde art was suppressed. Within a year, it had vanished. The Union of Soviet Artists was the sole arbiter of Soviet art,and  Socialist Realism became the only approved style in the Soviet Union.