MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 25-27 November 2019

25 November 2019

Artist Index / Full Catalogue


212. GONCHAROVA, NATALIA (1881–1962)

L’Espagnole, signed, also further signed and titled on the reverse.

Oil on canvas, 167 by 58.5 cm.
800,000–1,200,000 GBP

Provenance: Collection of G. Gourivitch, London.
Impressionist and Modern Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s New York, 16 February 1989, lot 39.
Important private collection, Europe.

Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert Yu. Rybakova.

Exhibited: Russian Paris, 1910–1960, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 28 April–21 July 2003.

Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Russian Paris, 1910–1960, St Petersburg, Palace Editions, 2003, p. 178, illustrated.

The painting L’Espagnole belongs to the series that can without exaggeration be called the symbol of Natalia Goncharova’s œuvre, the constant hallmark of her work at large international exhibitions and in private collections. The first exhibition at which Goncharova’s works on the Spanish theme were shown was the Twelfth Venice Biennale of 1920, and, a year later, the artist again displayed her Spanish ladies at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The canvas now presented may well have been shown in London. Since then, the remarkable images of Goncharova’s passionate southern women became a fixture at every large-scale show of her works — in particular, at the artist’s solo exhibition at the Claridge Gallery (London) in 1926, at the Russian art exhibition (Brussels) in 1928 and, at the Galerie d’Alignan (Paris) in 1931, at the major Retrospective Exhibition of Russian Painting (Prague) in 1935, at an exhibition in the Galerie d’Art le Cadran (Paris) in 1939 (with the characteristic name “Spanish Ladies–Magnolias”), at the Paris exhibition of 1945, organised by the Comité France–URSS, at an exhibition at the Galerie de l’Institut (Paris) in 1956 and at many others. Throughout her artistic career, Goncharova constantly reinterpreted the images of her Spanish ladies, which become deeper and more dramatic as she gained more experience in life.

The Spanish ladies constitute the main theme of Natalia Goncharova’s easel work between the 1910s and the 1930s — the “Goncharova plainchant” (also called plainsong), as Marina Tsvetaeva admiringly called them. These fictitious images, which sprang from Goncharova’s imagination and gradually displaced “real” portraits from her range of interests in the 1920s and 1930s, combined the best features of her artistic talent — a tendency towards monumental grandeur and a refined, consummate decorativism. The latter is expressively displayed by the large-scale canvas L’Espagnole, now offered for sale, which is one of the best variations in a series.

The Spanish theme first occurred to Goncharova in 1916 while she was working on designs for the ballets Triana to the music of Isaac Albéniz and Spain to Maurice Ravel’s Spanish Rhapsody for Diaghilev’s company. In preparation for the production, the whole troupe, accompanied by Goncharova and Larionov, set off for Spain, where, after a six-month stay in San Sebastián, the artists, together with Léonide Massine and Sergei Diaghilev, went off on a car tour. Subsequently, Goncharova was to recall: “We visited Burgos, Seville, Avilés and Madrid. Cathedrals, monasteries and magnificent palaces, striking in their expression of a certain grave severity that comes across even in the most sumptuous, exuberant baroque architecture, overloaded with detail. All this was combined with limpid air, the red earth of plains stretching out among grey, rugged mountains, and a deep-blue sky.” Although the artist’s “Spanish” ballets were not destined to materialise, it was while working on them that she found the main theme of her future work.

Interestingly enough, Goncharova was drawn to work on her Spanish images not so much by the ethnographic element as by the architectural aspect and by the feeling of “latent power” and energy that struck her in that country. Goncharova models the figures of her Spanish ladies as edifices in which their nature is nearly fully concealed and transformed into a structural frame that is geometrical or, later, woven and lacy. Quoting the well-known comment by the poet Valentin Parnakh, who said, referring to the Spanish ladies: “But they aren’t women; they’re cathedrals!” (Mais ce ne sont pas des femmes, ce sont des cathédrales!), Tsvetaeva writes: “Everything comes from a cathedral — the stately folds, the vertical sweep, the stony poise and the lacelike tracery. Goncharova’s Spanish ladies really are cathedrals beneath the lace, in all their uprightness underneath it and in their separateness from it. Your first impression is that you won’t conquer them. They are lacy citadels...”

The celebrated “great Spanish ladies”, which are painted on canvas in vertical formats of considerable scale and earned Goncharova worldwide fame, first appeared in the late 1910s–early 1920s. The best variations on this theme from the 1930s, such as Spring. White Spanish Ladies (1932, The State Tretyakov Gallery), Two Spanish Ladies in a Garden (early 1930s, The State Tretyakov Gallery) and Spanish Ladies (first half of the 1930s, The State Tretyakov Gallery), are now exhibited in one of the world’s major museums.

The simplification of forms, the drastic shifting of planes, the reduction of figures and faces to geometrical shapes, the sharp outlines and the bright colour combinations — all of which are typical of the paintings of the 1920s — give way to a naturalistic compositional structure, a smoother and more delicate pictorial surface and, most importantly, the extraordinary density of a complex ornamental floral pattern that literally grows through the fabric of the canvas.

In L’Espagnole, the painting presented in this catalogue, as well as in many of the best examples of the artist’s work, Goncharova rejects any division of space into planes. Geometrical convention has given way to a metaphysical, ghostly mirage of a garden, along the paths of which beautiful, enchanted maidens move in a stately procession or just singly. The pose of our Spanish lady, seen in profile and as if frozen, with her right hand raised towards her chest, seems to echo that of the central figure in the White Spanish Ladies, except that our maiden is holding an open fan, an attribute that is so characteristic of many of Goncharova’s compositions.

Behind the finely-moulded sculpture of a female figure wrapped in precious fabrics, the delicate interwoven boughs of a blossoming garden can be seen — grasses and bushes in the bottom section and magnolias at the top. The flowering of these trees came to be one of the most important motifs in the artist’s work. Images of growing or lopped-off branches can be found in many landscapes and still lifes between the 1920s and 1950s. The combination of two favourite subjects — the Spanish element and the blossoming of magnolias — is first clearly encountered in the famous Spanish Ladies panel produced in the first half of the 1920s for the Paris mansion of Serge Koussevitzky. In the huge (3.5m) horizontal frieze, Goncharova placed semi-figures of Spanish ladies in white robes amid flowering magnolias against the background of a conventional space of white-grey walls and a deep-blue sky, looking out of windows; she thus compositionally linked female figures and a floral landscape.

This artistic device is maintained in later works, where the task of producing an interaction of textures is coming to the fore. So, in the present canvas, Goncharova structures the composition on a highly complex combination of at least four different textures that are almost entirely created by intricate floral ornamentation. The actual figure is created as ornamentation and simultaneously dissolves into it. The fantastic floral motifs adorning the shawl and the lace mantilla seem to be placed in layers on the garden’s floral carpet, and the pastose painting of the ornamentation resonates with the fanciful organic patterns of the landscape.

The balanced composition, statuesque posture and inner peace make up a harmonious whole in this chromatically exquisite work. The juxtaposition of the dense, carefully crafted fabrics of the dress and shawl with the thin web of lace and the transparent openwork of the feathery branches makes the image decoratively planar.

However, the linear stiffness of the silhouette frame is hidden beneath the rich folds and layers of material and melts away in the plethora of details and features. Here one can clearly see how the sensation of strictness and severity that struck Goncharova in Spanish art “despite the most luxuriant flowering of decorative forms” (as the artist wrote in her memoirs) was close to her own human and creative nature.

Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.