Love story in pictures: Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova
The relationship of this extraordinary couple was really sublime. As Goncharova put it, ‘since me and Larionov once met, we’ve never parted.' Two luminaries of Russian Avant-Garde, two like-minded associates, two painters, a man and a woman, who wedded their fates in their green years and got officially married half a century later.
They came into this world in the summer of 1881,
their birthdays being a month apart — Mikhail Larionov
's on June 3, Natalia Goncharova
's on July 3. This coincidence is not the only one noted by their biographers. Their families moved to Moscow the same year,
and in the same year,
the two young people went to the School of Painting,
and Architecture. It was there that they met — to fall in love with each other and stay together for the rest of their lives.
Natalia Goncharova studied under the sculptors Sergei Volnukhin
and Paolo Troubetzkoy
, Mikhail Larionov under the painter Konstantin Korovin
You cannot speak of Goncharova without speaking of Larionov. The first and the main thing is that it was Larionov who first told her she was a painter. He was the first to reveal her eyes— not nature,
which she could see herself,
but — those very eyes of hers. 'Yours is an eye for color, but you are too preoccupied with form. Open your eyes to see your own eyes!
' That is how the celebrate Russian poetess Marina Tsvetayeva described the paintress’s transition from sculptural images to the painted ones.
Goncharova made quite a scene — but heard him,
opened her eyes for colour. After the tiff,
within the three days they stayed apart,
the sculptor transformed into the painter. She filled her room with loads of pictures,
but painted on and on,
and an opportunity to immediately express her thoughts and feelings.
‘Suddenly, I understood that something I wanted in sculpture was, actually, to be found in painting… and it was painting.' Only three days — but they determined all her further life. Both hers and his. When he visited her and saw all those drawings and paintings, he asked her in admiration who had done them all, and heard the answer, ‘Me!'
Consonant in art, they found consonance in their private life. Despite the protests of Goncharova’s parents, the couple rented an apartment and started living independently. They did not get married officially — whether in protest against bourgeois morals, or, perhaps, Larionov, indeed, was penniless after his father’s death, and the young people were in no mood for any weddings. Later, Goncharova labelled it this way, ‘My love affair and leaving home,' — full stop.
When the Tretyakov Gallery bought Larionov’s painting, it reconciled the Goncharovs to their daughter’s choice. The couple took their residence in a three-room apartment in Trekhprudny Alley, in the Goncharovs' house, and lived there until they left Russia in 1915. Larionov and Goncharova legalised their relations only by the end of their life and only for practical reasons: they both wanted their common legacy, all their works, collection, and papers, to be preserved and returned to their motherland.
Almost all time they spent together. But there were periods they only devoted to their individual experiences and work on their own. In summer, Larionov would go to his native town of Tiraspol, and Goncharova would prefer the Crimean coast or go to the country she had loved since she was a small girl. In autumn, the two would meet in Moscow again and reunite, body and soul, to plunge into artistic life. There was everything: scandalous escapades, arrests of Goncharova and her paintings for pornography, Larionov’s expulsion from the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, Avant-Garde societies, friends with future-oriented minds always seeking innovations in art.
Following her partner,
Natalia tasted all the charm of unconventional art that allowed full self-expression. Larionov was the founding member of the artistic group Jack of Diamonds
that brought together the cream of Russian Avant-Garde: David Burlyuk
, Kazimir Malevich
, Pyotr Konchalovsky
, Robert Falk
, Ilya Mashkov
, Alexander Kuprin
, Aristarkh Lentulov
. His vigorous character,
emotions that ‘rebuilt the viewer’s eye in a new way'
carried Goncharova away,
gave freedom to her own creative ambitions and vision.
Natalia Goncharova in futuristic make-up. 1912
In the pre-revolutionary Moscow, there were but few women artists, and they needed to be quite bold and strong in character to be groundbreakers. Goncharova said about her husband, ‘Larionov is my conscience in work, my tuning-fork. Some children know everything from the cradle. My touchstone for whether I do false. We are very different, and he sees me from inside of me, not of him. Like I see him.'
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova (detail of the photo). 1910
The Jack of Diamonds exhibition was a scandal and a great success. The tickets were sold out, the press abounded in critical reviews. However, Larionov did not stop there — he kept manifesting at new and new levels the path-breaking trends of art. Rayonism, the representation of the physical world by means of colour and light eradiated by objects and living beings, became one of the most popular theories that Larionov invented and showed to the public, sweeping his wife along, too, by the new ideas.
Goncharova did not remain aloof and spoke out her own opinions in tune with the time, ‘The art of my country is far and away deeper and more powerful than anything I know in the Western world <…> The West finds its inspiration in the East and in ourselves. I am reopening the way to the East, and I am sure, others will follow it.'
Goncharova was not the only enthusiast of Larionov’s Rayonism. The style laid the basis for the appearance of abstract painting in Russia — it became, so to say, the first abstract ray in the realm of thingness.
After the exhibitions made by the Jack of Diamonds, and later, by the Donkey’s Tail, Larionov and Goncharova were swamped with commissions. They illustrated books, designed patterns for textiles and wallpapers, Goncharova designed women’s clothes, Larionov painted pictures… Prior to World War I, they took part in decorating the artistic cabaret Pink Lantern and appeared in the first Russian futuristic film The Drama in the Futurist Cabaret No. 13 directed by Vladimir Kasyanov.
Group of artists (M. F. Larionov, S. M. Romanovich, V. A. Obolensky, N. S. Goncharova, M. A. Fabbri, A. V. Shevchenko) at the Donkey’s Tale exhibition. 1913
In 1913, Goncharova and Larionov took part in filming The Drama in the Futurist Cabaret No. 13 premiered on January 26, 1914. The only shot that has survived features half-naked heroine, covered in bright paints, carried in Larionov’s arms. In the story, she was supposed to be then thrown into the snow.
The war broke out,
and Larionov was drafted into the army. Severely wounded,
he spent months in hospitals and was then demobilised. About that time,
and Alexandre Benois
came to Moscow to get to know Goncharova and Larionov’s art. It was Benois who suggested Goncharova as a stage designer for Diaghilev’s ballet The Golden Cockerel
. This meeting was a crucial event for the two artists' family.
The choreographer Michel Fokine wrote in his memoirs, ‘After all those horrid things I had heard of the Moscow Futurists, I found myself in the company of pleasant, modest, and serious people. I can remember how enamoured Larionov looked when speaking of the beauty of Japanese art that was then his passion; remember how seriously Goncharova discussed every detail in the coming production. How quiet, thoughtful, sincere she is in everything she says.' Diaghilev bet on the right horse — the painters worked on the set together, and painted it themselves. The costumes were a delight, and the patterns were then repeated by Parisian trendies in their garments. The Ballets Russes were a great success again.
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova working on the stage setting for the ballet The Golden Cockerel. Workshops of the Bolshoi Theatre. 1913
In his article on Goncharova, Larionov wrote, ‘The so called Russian style of Goncharova’s Cockerel had never existed before her. Everything, from a smallest ornament on a costume to the comical palaces in the final act, was invented by the artist.'
Planning his Ballets, Diaghilev was sure they were to be fascinating, breath-taking, and shocking, so he needed the boldest choreographers, the superb dancers, and, of course, the best artists to create costumes and sets never seen before.
Diaghilev organised the two artists' exhibition in the Galerie Paul Guillaume in Paris. Again, it was a great success and received excellent reviews in the press. The ‘Rayonist Theory' was now a matter for discussion throughout all Europe, and Goncharova and Larionov got fame and international reputation. Following the triumph in Paris, the couple returned to Moscow to work for the Kamerny Theatre on the production The Fan after Carlo Goldoni. The artists were enthusiastic about the job: Larionov supervised making the set, and Goncharova painted it.
The summer of 1915 came. At Diaghilev’s invitation, the artists went to Switzerland to prepare the sets for a new Ballets Russes tour. They did not suppose to be away long — in their Trekhprudny Alley apartment, they left on the tables some sketches for pictures to be painted. By a miracle, they escaped all the dangers while crossing warring Europe. They never returned to Russia again.
Léonide Massine, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Igor Stravinsky (sitting), Léon Bakst. 1915
The artists accompanied the ballet company to Italy, then to neutral Spain. Loads of impressions, museums, new faces… Larionov appeared to have a taste for choreography, and Diaghilev entrusted to him some ballet productions. Goncharova, who designed them, found her husband to like not only choreography, but also some girl dancers. However, their artistic and family union was still strong.
Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev (at the piano), Léonide Massine, and Natalia Goncharova. Drawing by Mikhail Larionov
In late 1917, the artists were to return home, but did not venture the trip because of the October Revolution. A year later, they rented an apartment at No. 43 Rue Jacques Callot in the Latin Quarter of Paris. At the corner, there still exists the popular café La Palette where the artists usually had meals, because Goncharova was not into cooking.
When the war was over, Goncharova and Larionov travelled a lot — Norway, France, Italy, England, Switzerland again, Spain. They never stopped working: dozens of ballets decorated, lots of exhibitions held.
On taking their residence in Paris, each of the two artists started their own relationship. However, they kept their family hearth unruined, and remained faithful to each other in their artistic union. They had respect for each other’s independence, kept seeing and talking to each other, and in their correspondence, they never forgot to give their regards to each other’s partners.
Goncharova’s new soul mate became Orest Ivanovich Rosenfeld, Orya by the pet name Natalia called him. She met him as early as in 1917. A Menshevik emigrant, he was the military attaché at Kerensky’s Government in Paris. Besides, he served in the French Foreign Legion. Belonging to the Union of Russian Lawyers in France, Rosenfeld contributed to the newspaper Populaire, and in 1932—1939, he was its editor-in-chief. He was a faithful friend of the artists' family, and helped them in their hard times. In particular, Rosenfeld commissioned Goncharova to draw pictures for his newspaper.
Larionov’s heart was won by Alexandra (Sashenka) Tomilina. A Sorbonne graduate, before meeting Larionov, she had worked as a librarian. She became the painter’s secretary, model, and lifemate for years. After some time, she moved into the house where Larionov and Goncharova lodged, and rented there an apartment below theirs. Larionov would spend a lot of time at Tomilina’s, but always returned home for the night. Well, a form of family life like this was not too extraordinary for Paris.
Mikhail Larionov, Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Diaghilev at a rehearsal of the ballet Chout. Drawing by Mikhail Larionov. 1921
Natalia hated doing household chores. Deep in work, she left them to Tomilina and even joked, ‘If there are more than one woman in the house, the eldest can afford to do nothing.' Sometimes, the artists had holiday trips all four together, with their ‘dear friends', sometimes they were only two.
Goncharova and Larionov were always in great demand and gladly jumped at any interesting jobs and commissions. In the twenties, though, the public in Paris were far less interested in their art. Larionov’s health grew worse, he had rheumatism. Goncharova lived splitting time between the two homes. Anyway, the masters never failed to find a job.
In 1924, Natalia collaborated with Maison Myrbor, a famous design house of that time run by Marie Cuttoli, a French senator’s wife. For Myrbor, the paintress drew some designs. Her colleagues, who also worked on the collections, were such celebrities as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger. Another fact of interest: in 1924, Goncharova and Larionov designed puppets for Yulia Slonimskaya Sazonova’s puppet theatre. Larionov even wrote a libretto, staged one of the acts, and besides, created the curtain and set.
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. Photo from: portal-kultura.ru
Despite all her creative activity and the success of the Spanish Women series and other projects, Natalia Sergeevna felt very lonely. Larionov later remembered: when Goncharova once exhibited at the Salon a simple view of fields and small gardens, Picasso said to him, ‘Here you are — another good way of jumping out of a window.' In August 1929, Sergei Diaghilev died, and it told on both painters, for they had formed a strong attachment to the maestro and his associates who had become for them a sort of family.
In the 1930—1940s, the painters went on designing theatrical sets. In particular, Goncharova collaborated with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ida Rubinstein’s troupe. In 1938, following Germany’s annexation of Austria, Rosenfeld wisely advised them to think of naturalisation. Goncharova and Larionov filed for French citizenship, and soon received it. When France was occupied by the Nazi, the artists' lifestyle hardly changed. They kept decorating theatrical productions, Goncharova would take part in the Salon des Independents.
In Goncharova’s studio. 13 Rue Visconti, Paris. August 1939. From: nasledie-rus.ru
In 1940, Orest Rosenfeld was taken to a concentration camp. On February 4, 1941, Goncharova wrote a letter she gave the title Letter of Verification. In it, she argued that, as his father had been a general in Tsarist Russia, for that reason Rosenfeld could not be a Jew by birth. However, the letter is unlikely to have helped — Rosenfeld stayed in the Lübeck camp till 1945. After the war, he married, and in 1948, became the director of the Socialist newspaper Populaire dimanche. Later, he made a brilliant career in politics. Up to the end of his life, Rosenfeld remained Goncharova and Larionov’s friend and maintained correspondence with them.
Goncharova and Larionov were quite unaccustomed to challenges of housework. In the war years, they only survived due to Shurochka Tomilina who managed to get foodstuffs and cook plain meals out of them. There was hardly any money, and no ties with the motherland. The hardships of war greatly affected the artists' health. In 1946, Mikhail Larionov fell seriously ill, was operated on in London, but four years later, he had a stroke.
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova with their Rayonist paintings. Paris, 1950—1952. Photo by Alexander Liberman. From: icp.org
Goncharova plunged into business life, worked as much as before, and nursed Larionov. However, if not for Shurochka Tomilina, she would hardly have managed all of it. In one of her letters to Larionov, Goncharova wrote, ‘I am not jealous of Al. Kl. (Alexandra Klavdievna Tomilina), she is a good person, and I respect her greatly for her serious work, and for her attitude to you. Actually, she has a very specific charm. <…> She does not have enough of her share of happiness, and it grieves me. <…> I think that Alex. Klavd. should not be jealous of me either …'
Natalia Goncharova at work. Photo by Denise Colomb. 1950
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova at home. Paris, 1950—1952. Photo by Alexander Liberman. From: icp.org
The couple only legalised their relations in 1955. Three years later, Natalia Goncharova fell seriously ill. Suffering from arthritis, she, now and then, fell down, got arm fractures. Nevertheless, she kept working. In the years 1957—1958, she created about 50 canvases. Her last picture is dated 1960.
Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. 1956. From: Imagno/Getty Images
Natalia Goncharova died in her sleep on October 17, 1962. The following year, Larionov married his lifemate Alexandra Klavdievna Tomilina, and made her the heiress of his and Goncharova’s archive. He entrusted Shurochka to have their entire legacy taken back to the USSR. Larionov passed away on May 10, 1964.
Title illustration: Natalia Goncharova. Pierrot and Colombina (Self-Portrait with Mikhail Larionov). 1906
Artists mentioned in the article