Two outstanding 20th-century female artists finally get their due in these enthralling London retrospectives
It would be hard to think of a more optimistic self-portrait than that of the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, smiling with candid warmth at herself and us. The year is 1907. She is 26 years old and the rising star of Russias avant garde. Her works have already been shown abroad, but back home she will soon be tried for having the temerity to paint female nudes. At 32, she will retort with a show of almost 800 pictures in defiance of her censors, right in the middle of Moscow. Here she stands, before a wall of her own works, justifiably holding up a triumphant bouquet of yellow lilies.
It is a stirring start to this inspirational show at Tate Modern, the first survey of Goncharovas art ever to be mounted in Britain. And it gives you, straight away, the painter and her persona zestful, energetic, with a direct and exuberant touch. In her long life, Goncharova (1881-1962) worked her way through so many different idioms that contemporary Russian critics sometimes wondered who she was exactly and where to find her. But it seems clear that they only needed to look at the sheer strength and joy of her brushwork.
It is there in the oars of a rowing boat, setting the blue waters flashing around them; and in the brilliant green parrots, bright-eyed on a branch. It is there in a tremendous painting of stocky legs, treading the grapes in a barrel, already wine-dark with juice. Above all, its in the staggeringly robust scene of two wrestlers in trunks, headlong in the impasse of their solidly interlocking forms, Goncharovas paint rising at every level to their full-strength force.