Head on down to Southwark tube station and then stroll along to Tate Modern to take a look at the Natalia Goncharova exhibition that opened there a couple of weeks ago. And I have to admit that she’s not an artist about whom I know very much. I sort of vaguely recognise the name and am pretty sure that she’s one of those early Russian Modernists but I’m not at all familiar with her work, which is perhaps understandable since I doubt there can be any of her paintings held in public collections in this country. And, aside from a big thematic show at the Royal Academy held a few years ago, I think it’s fair to say that coverage of the general story of Russian art has been pretty limited, despite occasional glasnostalgic attempts to rewrite it into the history books that cover the art of the 20th century.
So, apart from Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky, who were only able to achieve their international fame and success by exiling themselves into the west, as far as I’m aware, the typical biographies of Russian artists of the period tend to be defined by much less happy stories. Indeed, it seems that while the early experimentalist works by the likes of Rodchenko, Tatlin and especially Malevich (who very famously painted the iconic black square and produced a whole series of other bold abstractions) initially seemed to be marching in step with the novel radicalism of the contemporaneous political situation, all changed when Stalin came to power. As is well known, Uncle Joe shared the same sentimental tastes as his dictatorial friend Adolf, who also seemed to feel threatened by anything non-traditional or non-figurational. Put simply, both of them felt very strongly that the role of the artist wasn’t to look for new ways to represent the world around them, let alone question or criticise what was seen, but simply and specifically to promote the aims, and propagandise the successes (real or otherwise), of the apparatus of the state. Which, for Russia, meant the production of all that dreary Soviet Realism with its ludicrous paintings showing happy bands of workers eagerly harvesting bumper yields of wheat or all pulling together in a factory in an attempt to exceed the monthly targets for tractor production or, even better, celebrating the magnanimity and wisdom of the dear leader as he explains some tricky point of Marxist dialectics to the dutiful appreciation of crowd of fascinated youths. And, of course, anyone who didn’t fancy producing such dreary stylised nonsense was given the very reasonably option of either stopping painting altogether or else committing suicide.
But if that’s the slightly stereotyped story of Russian Modern Art, at least as far as I understand it, where does Goncharova fit into things? Well, having scanned my way through the Tate gallery guide that accompanies the show, I can confirm that she was indeed one of the early Modernists who was inspired by the works of Cezanne, Picasso and all the other Continental avant gardists who were redesigning the conceptual framework of art at the start of the century. At which point it’s worth noting that prior to the Revolution, Russia, at least as it was found in the city centres of Moscow and St Petersburg (as opposed to the vast swathes of countryside that were still struggling along under quasi-feudal conditions) was quite Europeanised in its thinking and as interested in the fads and fashions of the new Modern world as London, Paris or Rome. Consequently, along with her colleagues in the pre-revolutinary artistic milieu, Goncharova experimented with painting in a sort of pastiche of the various contemporary styles that were causing such ripples of outrage and intrigue all those thousands of miles away to the West. But, to be fair to her, she does seems to have tried to add in a specifically Russian twist to the mixture. So, alongside elements of the Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism that get mashed up and squeezed into her canvases she also incorporates references to more localised forms of folk art, along with a sort of faux naif primitivism that presumably she must have felt was the appropriate way to try to convey the lives of that majority part of the population who were still struggling along in their medieval rural penury.
As the exhibitin progresses, it becomes clear that Goncharova never really seemed to be able to settle on any one definitive signature style but rather preferred to continue to mix and match different bits from different movements. The overall result is an odd sort of stylistic eclecticism that her partner, the artist Mikhail Larionov, termed as Everythingism. Unfortunately, the useful little gallery guide that relates this rather telling fact doesn’t offer an opinion as to whether the term was being suggested affectionately or sarcastically.
Frankly, I kind of think that it may well have been the latter. For the rather sad punchline to the story and the exhibition as a whole is that for all the dozens of paintings of peasants and farmers, landscapes and flower studies, nudes and cats and saints and archangels – and the fact that all of these are rendered in all manner of different competing presentational modes – very few strike me as being very successful as artworks. They just all seem a bit clunky and amateurish and the show, as a whole, really rather dull. It’s a situation not helped by the fact that there are nine rooms of exhibition to trudge through whereas, without wishing to be too cruel, I think a comprehensive re-evaluation of Goncharova’s contribution to the history of art could have been very adequately arranged into two fairly small rooms, with one to spare. And if, in the past, the artist has generally been considered to be a fairly minor footnote figure then this show confirms that earlier assessment to have been reasonably correct.
Incidentally, it seems that Goncharova was one of those very few fortunate Russian artists who, through the vagaries of fate, happened to find themselves outside the country when the turmoil of the First World War erupted and then twisted and evolved into the Revolution and subsequent Civil War that prevented them from returning home. Presumably a subsequent growing awareness of the horrors of Stalin’s limited artistic tastes and overall brutal leadership made the decision to remain in exile, and settle in Paris, a relatively easy one to make. For some unexplained reason the Tate show comes to a fairly abrupt end at some point in the early 1920s and it’s not clear whether her painting style evolved further during the remaining forty years of her life or if she just put away her brushes and gave up entirely. She does, however, seem to have developed her interest in costume design, in particular making works for ballet productions (examples of which are displayed in the final exhibition room) but to my untrained eye these also look fairly unexceptional and so provide a fairly disappointing conclusion to a fairly disappointing exhibition.
Where Tate Modern leads, Tate Britain follows. For down at Pimlico is another comprehensive nine-room retrospective of an artist who has perhaps been slightly marginalised by the hidden forces that determine the status and importance of those who would inhabit that strange unforgiving land known as the artworld…and who are yet occasionally pulled back briefly into the spotlight by the determined decision of some heroic team of curatorial rescue mission enthusiasts.
And so it is that the 85-year-old Frank Bowling has been honoured by an impressive gathering together of the output of a life’s work dedicated to the noble art of pushing and pulling paint around on ever larger expanses of canvas. Again, I have to confess that while I’m familiar with Bowling’s name, was aware that he was born in Guyana, that his favoured mode of production tended to fall within the realms of abstractionsism, and think that I must have bumped into his work over the years with definitely more regularity than I would have encountered the paintings of Gonceherova – I’m not sure I would be able to pick out his handiwork from a group show of other contemporaneous non-figurational expressionists. And I would certainly have to admit to being utterly unfamiliar with the productive arc of his long professional artistic career, let alone being cognisant of any of the more detailed evolutionary aspects of his personal stylistic practices.
Well, thankfully, now the Tate Britian show provides the opportunity to fill in all these many lacunae, starting with an acknowledgement of early influencers that seem to start with Francis Bacon and move on to Ron Kitaj, who clearly for a while tempted Bowling to detour into a form of Pop Art figuration. But then a move to New York seems to have induced the Damascene conversion whereby the possibilities of Abstraction were revealed, ramifications of which fill the remaining galleries with dozens and dozens of colourful creations of varying levels of interest.
The best of Bowling’s work, for me at least, comes with the series based very loosely on a sort of cartographic theme wherein the vague outline of countries and continents seem to emerge like random stains subsumed within a general mass of blurry tonal shades. The worst works are those created by allowing streams and streaks of paint to simply run down the canvas and mix together with the kind of aimless random abandonment that prefigures, but are as equally otiose as, those dreadful Hirst spin paintings.
There are a lot of other works that come between these two extremes – a few that really seem to work and grip the attention, but too many that seem too bland for my own aesthetical tastes. Then, again, it seems that Bowling was personally befriended and championed by the great American theoriser and proselytiser of all things Abstract: Clement Greenberg. And whenever someone complained of having difficulty in liking a work that Clem had personally ordained as being worthy of approbation, apparently the great critic would simply say they should keep looking. So maybe I’m wrong and just need to go back and look a bit longer.