In December 1909, a group of artists around Goncharova launched neo-primitivist art at the third exhibition of the ‘Golden Fleece’, in which they affirmed a national identity in a similar vein to the artists of Abramtsevo. They explored Russian roots as found in the country’s ‘primitive’ pagan, as well as medieval, Orthodox past and continued to propagate the rural myth of ‘obshchina’, as well as the spiritual notion of ‘sobornost’. In line with the Slavophiles and Abramtsevo artists’ circle, the neo-primitivists cherished their peasants and saints, their land and their religion as symbols of a national identity. Their art was another, twentieth-century attempt to put Russia on the map, and promote Russian cultural memory in its symbolic folk and religious images both ‘at home’ and abroad.
Russian Folk and Religious Identity in Goncharova's Neo-Primitivism
In the footsteps of Polenova, and in an attempt to escape and neutralise the enormous influence of French art, Goncharova called for a domestic preservation of Old Russian art and Russian arts and crafts, and the articulation of a distinct national art, as formulated in the following excerpts from her Press Statement of 24 December 1911:
'As concerns the preservation of ancient art (icons, broadsheets) and artistic industry, it is essential that some measures be taken. These things are too valuable. […]'
'Great and serious art cannot help but to be national. By depriving ourselves of the achievements of the past, Russian art is cutting itself off at the roots. […]'
To this end, Goncharova and Larionov organised a major exhibition entitled Original Icons and Lubki in 1913 in Moscow, promoting these indigenous sources for modern Russian art. In her own work, Goncharova widely incorporated peasant and Russian Orthodox imagery. On one hand, she presents peasants as the rural ‘primitive’ other in her paintings, whilst they also operate as an expression and construction of a national identity. They are seen as representatives of a common past, still unspoiled by the influences of the capitalist and industrialized West. Living and working with Mother Nature, they were regarded as closer to the Russian soil and thus considered more authentic Russians than urbanites.
Goncharova’s artistic practice was not only informed by prevalent philosophical conceptions surrounding peasant and orthodox culture, but also by her own observations of the agricultural life cycle as well as church life. During her studies in the city, she suffered nostalgia for the countryside and its seasonal rituals which she witnessed in her youth. In reaction to modern urban life, she stressed the self-evident religiosity as well as a sense of community in the countryside in her images of rural labour. Although she perhaps idealized peasant life, she can not be regarded as a reactionary modernist peasant painter, as she almost simultaneously responded to modern technology and industrialization by depicting airplanes, trains, electric light and factories, the increasing speed and dynamism of her age in the modern idiom of Futurism.
In her modern neo-primitivist works, Goncharova fused a folkloristic idiom as naturally as ancient mythical and religious imagery and transgressed the traditional techniques and pictorial qualities associated with them. This will be demonstrated in some examples of her oeuvre:
First, in the depiction of her Grape Gathering/Vintage: Dancing Peasants (1911), the artist not only referred to folk dances, but suggested notions of purity and tradition by imitating peasant woodcuts in paint. She further portrayed the peasants with faces like in icons, which produced the effect of a saintly status.
Another marvellous picture in the Grape Gathering/Vintage series, Men carrying Grapes, can now be seen in the Bonnefantemuseum in Maastricht (See image above).
Secondly, the entourage of the seated naked woman with dark eyes Rusalka (1908-09) testifies to Goncharova’s familiarity with pagan folk beliefs. The fishes underline the woman’s personification of a water spirit (rusalka) who had just come ashore, and the young branch decoration her hiding place in the woods at the end of winter. Traditionally feared and revered by peasants who tried to win Rusalka’s favour for the fertilization of their soil with new crops, she is depicted in a modern idiom of a fusion of cubist and fauvist elements.
Thirdly, in Goncharova’s costume of The Mother of God (1915), she portrays the Mother of God Orans, (whilst another depiction of Mary, Madonna with Child (1905-07, TGM) demonstrates her familiarity with the Hodigitria icon type.
The above excerpt is based upon my PhD thesis "Abramtsevo: Multiple Cultural Expressions of a Russian Folk and Religious Identity", 2008.
These quotations are taken from a letter Antokolsky sent to Mamontov inMarch 1874, cited in Э.В. Пастон, Абрамцево, 2003, c. 383. В.M. лoбанов, Виктор Васнецовв Абрамцеве, 1928, с. 44. Although it is outside the scope of this thesis, it can be questioned as to whether the early twentieth century Russian modernists should be called avant-garde at all. Did their style not emerge as a continuation of the historically specific emancipatory waves of the nineteenth century, the political failure to deal with them adequately, and the short-lived seemingly liberating political breakthrough of the October Revolution of 1917? John E. Bowlt, ‘Neo-primitivism and Russian painting’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 116, no. 852, Modern Art (1908-25), March, 1974, p. 140, note 14. Griselda Pollock, ‘Van Gogh and the poor slaves: Images of rural labour as modern art’, Art History, Vol. 11, No. 3, September 1988, pp. 404-432. For an illustration, see Camilla Gray, Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922 (1962), rev. and enl. by Marian Burleigh-Motley (London: Thames & Hudson, 1986), p. 98.