Artist Dossier: Natalia Goncharova
Artist Dossier: Natalia Goncharova
Last June at Christie’s Impressionist and modern evening sale in London, the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) made auction history when her circa 1909 oil Picking Apples, a vibrantly hued depiction of Russian peasant life, fetched £4.9 million ($9.8 million), more than tripling its high estimate of £1.5 million ($3 million). This sale made Goncharova the most expensive female artist at auction—a title that, at press time, she still holds. (The American painter Joan Mitchell is in second place with Sans Titre, 1971, which earned €5.2 million ($7 million) at Christie’s Paris in May 2007.)
“It’s clearly the arrival of Russian collectors on the auction scene overthe past three years that has changed her market,” says Olivier Camu, the head of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department. He points to the fact that the steep ascent in Goncharova’s prices began with the house’s February 2006 sale of her energetic, slightly abstracted oil Les Rameurs, 1912, for £1.2 million ($2.1 million)—against a high estimate of £250,000 ($442,000)—coinciding with the revival of the Russian economy.
Since then, four lots by the artist, including Picking Apples, have surpassed Les Rameurs at auction. One of these was Bluebells, circa 1909, “painted around the time when she began to discover primitivism,” says Jo Vickery, Sotheby’s head of Russian art. It brought £3.1 million ($6.2 million) at the house’sRussian art evening sale in London in November 2007.
A central figure in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century, Goncharova was born in Nagaevo, Siberia, to a well-educated, politically liberal family. In 1901 she enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where she met the man who would be her lifelong partner, the artist Mikhail Larionov. (They married in 1955 for estate-planning reasons.) During the next decade, the two held several scandalous exhibitions of their work in Moscow and showed with the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter in Munich. Goncharova gained notoriety for her personal displays as well: She painted her face then paraded topless through the streets of Moscow, and she staged a one-day exhibition of her nude paintings in 1910, prompting her arrest for pornography, although she managed to avoid jail.
This early chapter in Goncharova’s career—known as her Russian period, before she moved to France, in 1917, and began to work as a stage designer for Sergey Diaghilevs Ballets Russesis considered her most creative and most attractive to collectors. Her work during this time reveals many influences, but she is known for her contributions to three concurrent art trends: Rayonism, a landscape-based abstract style characterized by linear forms that derive from rays of light, which she and Larionov invented; Cubo-Futurism, a fusion, as the name suggests, of Cubism and Futurism; and Neoprimitivism, a consciously naive style, born in turn-of-the-century France, that drew inspiration from traditional religious and folk art. Goncharova’s record-setting lot is a prime example of the last category.
How often does a canvas of Picking Apples caliber hit the block? “Once every 10 years,” says Camu, who adds that the artist’s early oils are incredibly rare and that Picking Apples impeccable provenance enhanced its appeal. “It was completely fresh to the market and had been with the family of the artist until her death, when it was bought by the sellers, who are American collectors.”
Goncharova was prolific throughout her lifetime; in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied her 1913 Moscow retrospective, she bragged, perhaps falsely, that she had already painted some 700 canvases. The majority of her oil paintings, however, are housed in museums throughout Russia, Europe and the United States. The largest collections belong to the Centre Pompidou, in Paris; the Russian Museum, in St. Petersburg; and the State Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow. Among the U.S. institutions with examples of her work are New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
As for the works from that purported 700 that reside outside institutions, it’s impossible to account for all of them. What is clear, though, is that the paintings that were purchased by private Russian collectors over the years are unlikely to resurface soon. The Russian government is known to withhold export licenses for major works by native artists to ensure that the nation’s proudest artistic achievements remain in the motherland. The few significant pieces by Goncharova that are sold each year—and snapped up by eager Russian buyers—typically come from Western European and American collectors.
Because her early oils are so rare and sought after, a number of fakes attributed to Goncharova have surfaced, confusing dealers and connoisseurs—and at times even the scholars and curators who know her work well. Ana Maricevic, a managing partner of the Moscow-based Maricevic Fine Art & Antiques, which specializes in blue-chip Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries, says that although her gallery would love to carry paintings by Goncharova, it hasn’t been able to in a long time because “all the works we’ve come across were, in our opinion, not right.” That includes a Neoprimitivist village scene that a Belgian collector recently sold for a reported €5 million ($7.9 million) in the private market, which Maricevic says she “wouldn’t touch with a stick.”
The London dealer James Butterwickwho several years ago sold two of Goncharova’s Russian-period oils, the 1914 Rayonist Flowers and the 1906–07 Lilacs, to an anonymous Western European collector for between $500,000 and $1.5 million each—has encountered more fakes than authentic works by the artist. “Recently a bank asked me to value a collection in Liechtenstein with five major Goncharovas in it,” says Butterwick. “They were all fakes.”
Despite such authenticity issues, the market for Goncharova’s oils remains hot. In contrast, her works on paper command comparatively little interest, especially among Russians. “Works on paper are, in general, underappreciated by Russian collectors—people here don’t think graphic works are that prestigious,” says Maricevic. Goncharova’s graphic pieces consist largely of sketches and studies done in pencil, gouache or watercolor for the many ballet performances she worked on as a stage designer from 1914 to the end of her career—the roughly five decades known as her French period. During these years, Goncharova also executed several pencil and charcoal portraits of the cultural luminaries she met in Paris, such as the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and a number of highly realistic gouache still lifes and landscapes, the latter often inspired by her travels to the south of France.
Anthony Parton, a professor at Durham University, in England, who is at work on a monograph on Goncharova, believes it’s a shame that her theater designs are less highly regarded than her oils. “She was one of the best stage designers the 20th century ever knew,” he explains, adding that “there is an organic link between her balletic work and her painterly work.”
Of her ballet material, the brightly colored sketches of settings and costumes that she produced bythe dozens for a handful of Diaghilev productions, notably the 1914 triumph Le coq d’or, are more prized than the designs she did in the ’30s and ’40s for less well known companies. The London dealer Julian Barran estimates that a Diaghilev decor illustration would fetch close to £150,000 ($299,000) and a costume sketch probably between £70,000 and £100,000 ($140–200,000). At press time, all that Barran had in his inventory was a pen-and-ink study Goncharova did for a ballet staged by the Paris-based Russian dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar in the 1930s. The work, produced after Diaghilev died, in 1929, “doesn’t have the same cachet,” observes Barran, who has priced it between £6,000 and £8,000 ($12–16,000).
In October 2007, Galerie 1900–2000, in Paris, presented a show of 400 of Goncharova’s works on paper representing the full range, from her still lifes to her costume designs to several book illustrations she produced in 1920, priced between €2,000 and €60,000 ($3,200–94,800). The exhibition traveled in December to Martini & Ronchetti Gallery, in Genoa, Italy. European collectors, principally those who attended the show in Italy, purchased many of the pieces, although a number remain with the Paris gallery unsold.
During her French period, while focusing primarily on her theatrical commissions, Goncharova also worked as an easel painter. “She went through a very interesting phase in the early ’20s where she was influenced by Parisian purism—by the ideas of Léger and Le Corbusierso we have a remarkable series of geometric abstract paintings, quite large-scale works with robotic figures,” says Parton. “And we have an enormous number of paintings of Spanish themes, which reflect how her stage designs actually influenced her paintings.” In 1916, Goncharova visited Spain, where Diaghilev commissioned her to design costumes for two productions. They ultimately went unproduced, but they provided creative fodder for several of Goncharova’s later works.
The artist’s French-period oils have begun to creep into her top-10 lots: The 1918 Danseuses espagnoles sold for £2.8 million ($5.6 million) at Christie’s London in the same June 2007 sale as Picking Apples, and the 1919–24 Lady with a Parasol brought $1.7 million at a Sotheby’s New York sale of Russianart in April 2007. Camu, of Christie’s, says that Lady made “a good price for a ’20s work, indicative of the fact that [Goncharova’s] market is rising overall.” Danseuse espagnole, a gouache from 1920, is her 10th-highest lot, having earned £300,500 ($591,400) at Christie’s London in February 2008.
Still an auction backwater are Goncharova’s paintings from 1930 on, which are considered to be far less innovative. “You do see her late still lifes coming on to the market,” Sotheby’s Vickery notes, “but they are in the price range of $100,000 to $200,000—they’re really not on our radar.” The artist’s last oils were painted in the 1950s, as her health began to decline, and she lived her last seven years in poverty.
This month the latest chapter in Goncharova’s market is unfolding, as several grand Russian-period oils hit the block in London. Sotheby’s is offering two, from private French collections: Still Life (Melon and Grapes), circa 1911 (est. £2–3 million; $4–6 million), and Still Life with Peaches and Flowers, circa 1910 (est. £1–£1.5 million; $2–3 million). Bonhams is selling The Sailboat, circa 1910–20 (est. £1.5–2 million; $3–4 million)—the first major piece by Goncharova that the house has procured since it began its sales of Russian art in 2005—from the collection of the family of the late Sir John Rothenstein, the director of London’s Tate Gallery from 1939 to 1964. And not to be outdone, Christie’s has a large circa 1912 oil, Les fleurs (est. £3.5–4.5 million). The lot’s high estimate is just shy of Goncharova’s record price, and one can’t help but wonder if, given the robust Russian economy, it may even eclipse that sum.
"Artist Dossier: Natalia Goncharova" originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2008 Table of Contents.