It would be hard to think of a more optimistic self-portrait than that of the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, smiling with candid warmth at herself and us. The year is 1907. She is 26 years old and the rising star of Russia’s avant garde. Her works have already been shown abroad, but back home she will soon be tried for having the temerity to paint female nudes. At 32, she will retort with a show of almost 800 pictures in defiance of her censors, right in the middle of Moscow. Here she stands, before a wall of her own works, justifiably holding up a triumphant bouquet of yellow lilies.
It is a stirring start to this inspirational show at Tate Modern, the first survey of Goncharova’s art ever to be mounted in Britain. And it gives you, straight away, the painter and her persona – zestful, energetic, with a direct and exuberant touch. In her long life, Goncharova (1881-1962) worked her way through so many different idioms that contemporary Russian critics sometimes wondered who she was exactly and where to find her. But it seems clear that they only needed to look at the sheer strength and joy of her brushwork.
It is there in the oars of a rowing boat, setting the blue waters flashing around them; and in the brilliant green parrots, bright-eyed on a branch. It is there in a tremendous painting of stocky legs, treading the grapes in a barrel, already wine-dark with juice. Above all, it’s in the staggeringly robust scene of two wrestlers in trunks, headlong in the impasse of their solidly interlocking forms, Goncharova’s paint rising at every level to their full-strength force.
Goncharova was born in Tula province to a family of noble lineage. Her father’s family connected directly back to Pushkin, whose novels she would one day illustrate. At art school in Moscow, she met her partner Mikhail Larionov, and they worked together through upheavals in Russia, exile in Paris, ill-health and intermittent poverty until the end of their days. Goncharova once punched a man for calling her Mrs Larionov, and not because she was the more famous. In Russia, as in practically no other art scene before the first world war, men and women could be equals.
That scene was exceptionally international, modernism flowing east and west in both directions. The large painting called The Smoker, from 1911, obviously takes off from looking hard at Cézanne but sends the subject straight back to Russia. With his ochre face and oval eyes, hammer hand holding the pipe, this man has overtones of traditional tray painting. And in Goncharova’s early paintings, the eyes are often like fishes; fishes as religious as the loaves stacked on harvest tables beneath groaning apple trees in a kind of Russian Eden. Even when Goncharova paints a fauve-bright orchard, with yellow trees above a green and orange ground, there are peasants in traditional Russian costumes waiting to catch the fruit.
Goncharova and Larionov moved to Paris in 1916 to work for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. There they met Picasso, Braque, the dadaists and surrealists. Even before that, in an exhilarating picture of a cyclist hurtling through a blizzard of signs – pointing fingers, buzzing numbers, Cyrillic writing – Goncharova shows her excitement with futurism. But she is just as likely to be painting quasi-mystical scenes. In a painting of deep winter, peasants lugging firewood, the fir trees – or is it the skies; or is it Mother Russia herself – are all exploding in starry white flowers.
There is a characteristic overlap of past and present. Scything, harvesting, dancing, Russian Orthodox candelabras: all may be mixed up with high modernism. And then Goncharova will paint a Moscow street scene – women in modish new hats, early biplanes hovering overhead – with an almost regressive primitivism.
In Paris, with money growing tighter, she designed clothes, posters, apartment interiors. This show rightly sidesteps the late repetitions of her early radicalism, with nothing but ballet costumes from the 1930s onwards. But even those costumes speak of her marvellous verve – and the jubilant cadmium orange that she made her own colour.
It always comes straight from the tube, as if she hadn’t time to fiddle about mixing hues. You see it in the massive and ultra-modern Bathers, from 1922, flaring up the canvas; in the apples and oars and the parrots’ tails. There are hints of it in that bouquet of lilies. It is as expressive as the firm strokes of her brush, full of joy and integrity.
One of Goncharova’s best works entered the Tate collection during her lifetime. Linen is the sparkling celebration of a laundry window, men’s shirts to one side, women’s underwear to the other, a brilliant blue sharpening the pervasive whiteness. Which other artist would make the laborious work seem vigorous, tonic, even heroic, signing her own initials on the iron, all through the crisp beauty of the painting?
But almost every other picture in this show comes as a surprise, not least because Goncharova left all of her remaining paintings to Russia. Not until glasnost were they actually accepted into state museums, however, and not until 2013 were they given a full-scale showing in Moscow. Go and see them in this country if you can, a rare chance to witness her radiant and explosive art – always asking the viewer to wake up!
The Lee Krasner retrospective at the Barbican is also long overdue, but far better late than never. It is more than half a century since this pioneering American abstract expressionist (1908-84) had a show in Britain. Like Goncharova, Krasner is resilient, industrious, courageous; her powerful skeins and whorls writ large on vast, balletic canvases that compel the eye and seduce the mind, swooping and leaping like live conversation.
And like Goncharova, Krasner makes no special plea about gender. Born Lena, she changed her name to the androgynous Lee and refused to participate in Peggy Guggenheim’s famous Women show in 1943. Take her art for itself, from the compelling Little Images, where she works with a billion tiny marks to build up panels of twinkling darkness and light, to the late, great traceries of delicate ochre and sepia, perfectly calculated in scale and movement to give the effect of hazy distances brought in and out of momentary focus.
Rip it up and start again: that was her evergreen method. Literally. When nothing sold at an early show in New York, Krasner returned home and tore up all her drawings. Next day, she began to reassemble them in some of the magnificent collages shown here. Bird Talk, with its fabulous paper patches of fuchsia and orange against a shining blackness, keeps its lyricism up in the air, and all over the canvas, like avian music. Desert Moon reconfigures the elements to carry the thrill of hot lunar light.
Krasner’s range is immense. Many people love the so-called Night Journeys, made when throbbing insomnia sent her to work through the small hours on large canvases tacked to the wall. These enormous paintings, in nocturnal umber, whip up arc upon cartwheeling arc like an oncoming tornado. Others prefer the teeming evolution of her abstract alphabets, what she called her “mysterious writings”. Or the gorgeous white water rushing through the torrential masterpiece Another Storm.
What she could do with paint is both calligraphic and meteorological, certainly cathartic. Through Blue, one of the most enthralling works in this beautifully presented show, has some kind of mysterious rain spattering through it: perhaps grief, perhaps the relief of a downpour. Asked how she could keep on painting, after the sudden deaths of her husband and mother in succession, Krasner replied about as perfectly as any artist ever has: “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking – do I want to live? My answer is yes – and I paint.”
Star ratings (out of five):
Natalia Goncharova ★★★★★
Lee Krasner ★★★★★