The 'unknown' artist who is now breaking auction records

IT WAS back in 1996, when the North East was hosting the Year of the Visual Arts, that a fabulous exhibition was mounted at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery.

dynamic panel: Natalia Goncharova, dr anthony parton
dynamic panel: Natalia Goncharova, dr anthony parton

IT WAS back in 1996, when the North East was hosting the Year of the Visual Arts, that a fabulous exhibition was mounted at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery.

It featured 250 pictures by the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova which had recently come to light down a Paris back street. Anthony, then working at the gallery, was ecstatic.

When people saw the exhibition they understood why. The pictures were beautiful, vivid and as good as anything even the most avid gallery-goers had seen.

Goncharova (1881-1962) was a lively lady who came to be acknowledged as the leader of the Russian avant garde. As you can see from the old photo here, she used to paint her face decades before it became the thing for every tiny tot to do

But she was also a wonderful and versatile artist who was much in demand for theatrical set and costume designs.

Back in 1996 Anthony said he was writing a book about Goncharova.

And here, 14 years later, is the proof that he actually was. And what a handsome volume it is!

In Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova, Anthony explores every facet of an artist whose work is now fetching mega-sums at auction, largely due to Russian oligarchs who have been vying with each other to secure her paintings of rural peasant life which make them feel nostalgic.

“Just before the book went to print Goncharova set a new record at Christies,” says Anthony.

“It was for an oil painting called Espagnole which was done in 1916 and fetched £6,425,250.

“It was a record for a painting by a female artist sold at auction and Goncharova has held that record consistently for the past four years.”

In fact, on the Christies website (www.Christies.com) you can see the dramatic moment that the auctioneer’s gavel fell.

The auction house had described Espagnole as a “spectacular picture executed during the First World War, and an outstanding example from a series which saw Goncharova merge painting and theatre design”.

They added that it had been offered at auction for the first time having been owned by a private Swiss collector since the early 1980s.

No doubt that private collector was celebrating a tidy profit.

All of this augurs well for Anthony’s coffee table book, a handsome labour of love which includes no fewer than 635 colour illustrations.

Now lecturing in art history at Durham University, Anthony recalls how he first encountered the work of Natalia Goncharova.

It was while he was writing a book about her long-time partner and fellow artist Mikhail Larionov. Inevitably her name and her work kept cropping up, along, it seems, with stern Russian matrons who asked why he was wasting his time on Larionov when he should be focusing on his much more talented lady friend.

But Anthony, at that time, was focused and his book duly got finished.

Then one day he got a call from a friend in Paris, a retired art dealer called Yvette Moch.

She had discovered a huge cache of unknown work by Goncharova at an old Paris pigment factory. It seems that in the old days the factory had been happy to take pictures from hard-up artists in lieu of cash.

Yvette Moch urged Anthony and his wife Janice to fly to Paris to see the work . But when they turned up at the factory, the elderly lady in charge was not best pleased to see them.

Not surprisingly, Anthony has a vivid recall of the exchange that took place after she had brought out some bulging files of pictures.

“She said, ‘You have 10 minutes’. Yvette said, ‘But that is impossible. Monsieur Parton has come all the way from Britain and he wants to catalogue the work’. But she wouldn’t budge, insisting: ‘Ten minutes or nothing’.

“There was a terrible argument and in the end she gave it to us and told us to take it to our apartment.”

The visitors all suspected that the work in the folders was worth at least £1m but the old lady was not in any mood to compromise so Anthony, Janice and Yvette left with folders of work and, most probably, an elderly Parisienne’s glare burning holes in the back of their heads.

The Hatton Gallery exhibition followed some months later and the work was then entered for auction by its rightful owner – not the old lady – and dispersed to the four winds.

And ever since then Anthony has been piecing together the life and work of Natalia Goncharova, although he admits the project did get put on the back burner for a while.

“I wrote and researched a bit and in 2002 an art expert and dealer in Paris called Jean Chauvelin gave me the push to get the book under way.

“He had quite a lot of Goncharova’s work in Paris and Janice and I went to see that.

“We came back very excited by what we’d seen in his gallery and I started writing properly after that. It has taken eight years to come to fruition.

“During that time Janice and I have visited private collections all over Europe and spent a lot of time in archives.

“Because Goncharova was a theatre designer we have looked at costume and theatre archives.

“We have seen paintings in hotel bedrooms and some brought out of bank vaults. We have seen work that was previously thought to be lost.”

The major Russian art galleries all have work by Goncharova and it is also to be found in the collections of the Tate, the National Gallery of Wales, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

During her lifetime Goncharova was a supreme innovator whose talents were appreciated by, among others, the impresario Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.

But early in her career she was taken to court in Russia for displaying “pornographic” pictures. In fact she had attended life classes, painting nude artists’ models when women were banned from doing so.

Goncharova was, says Anthony, “caught out by historical circumstances”. She went to Paris in 1914 to work with Diaghilev and was advised by friends to stay there after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Anthony says Goncharova’s best work is up there with the masterpieces of Picasso and Matisse and he believes she would be more famous if she hadn’t spent so much time in her studio.

“She never had a dealer and she was a very self-effacing woman, and deeply religious. She felt that art shouldn’t be related to money.

“In her last years in Paris she lived off bowls of soup which were the leftovers from restaurants. She died in utter poverty.”

Anthony’s book, which is published by the Antique Collectors’ Club at £49.50, will be launched at 6pm today at Waterstone’s, Saddler Street, Durham. All are welcome.

 

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