Karl Kempton

Reading The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharovai

                This essay, which should really be called A New Reading of Natalia Goncharova’s The Four Evangelists, came about from my research into the contribution to modern visual text arts made by the Russian Futurists. I felt that what I had recovered was unique; so continued reading other writings on her tetraptych to see if my intuition was correct.
                These other discussions mainly concerned themselves with the usual contemporary focus on how the work was painted and the appearance of the apostles holding scrolls, but did not uncover all of what was painted and implied. Such discussions were a looking at, not a reading of. The first individual I tested my reading on was Gerald Janecek, who over the previous months had been my sounding board on the Russian Futurists.ii In fact, his generous initial responses showed me at the time how little I knew, that I still had to study and research until much of the material became conversational. He responded that my reading was new to him. After more intensive research, other individuals I contacted also agreed that my reading is new, an overlooked understanding. So, for those unfamiliar with the Russian Futurists and Natalia Goncharova, the following provides an overview to illustrate the wider significance of what many consider her most famous icon work.

The Evangelists (in Four Parts) . 1911
1) In Blue, 2) In Red, 3) In Gray. 4) In Green
Oil on canvas. 204 x 58 cm each
State Russian Museum. St. Petersburg

                Had the Russian press not been lazy, paid attention to the differences between the Italian Futurists and its own avant-garde by noting the constant change of groups and members, by noting the divide between Western leaning St. Petersburg groups and Russian focused Moscow groups, and studied the manifestos and exhibition literature, more probable than not the term Futurists would never have stuck. After the media’s constant shallow comparison with the Italians, members of the Russian avant-garde grudgingly decided to accept the term, but to their advantage by provoking controversy in hopes of increasing notoriety and income. The cave-in took place first in St Petersburg with the announcement of the Ego-Futurists followed in early 1912 when members of the Neo-primitivist group, Hylaea, published A Slap in the Face of Public Taste announcing the Moscow group, Cubo-Futurists. The Cubo-Futurists, however, quickly fragmented into two groups, the Cubo-Futurists and Donkey’s Tail. Among those who formed the Donkey’s Tail, a name soon changed to Target, were Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich.iii
                Natalia Goncharova was a significant provocateur for the Moscow avant-garde. She instigated controversial fashion and fermented even higher decibels of critical media and general public outrage through face painting. These public relations antics by her and others raised their profile thereby increasing income at paid events, a primary goal. Before these so-called outrages, she was already a notorious figure. In 1910 she had been arrested on charges of pornography for publicly exhibiting nude paintings, the first woman artist to have done so in Russia. She was found innocent in the trial. These and other activities by the Russian Futurists raised the level of controversy to scandal. Then, her icon based works were removed by the censors from the 1912 Donkey’s Tail Exhibition. The charge was that her icon work could not be associated with an exhibition with such a title. Included in the removal was the work regarded by many of her peers as the most important of her icon works and by negative critics as the most outrageous and scandalous, The Four Evangelists, portraits of the Four Apostles holding scrolls of their respective Gospel. Out of frustration, rage or other unknown reasons, she destroyed several icon based works without which the story of her religious works will remain incomplete forever. There were plans for her to illuminate a new church that did not take place, probably because she left Russia before the concept could solidify. The political environment was obviously dark; liberal reforms set in motion by the revolution of 1905 were rapidly eroding.
                Goncharova’s mother came from a family of priests, her grandfather had taught at the Moscow Theological Academy, and her father was an architect and mathematician. Until the age of eleven she lived in a rural setting on an estate south of Moscow where she experienced peasant life and their arts and crafts. She attended a church filled with bright ritual objects and decor. Such richness informed her work throughout her life. She was not just working and reclaiming objects to render anew; she was a practicing mystically inclined Orthodox.
                Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova met at university in 1901, quickly becoming life long partners. Though Natalia was a student of sculpture, Mikhail urged her to pick up a brush. Together, they became an exponential force altering Russian and Modern Art across various expressions and geographies. They probed deep into Russian cultural history, folk and icon art to formulate Russian inspired and rooted avant-garde movements. They collected and promoted icons and luboks (peasant woodblock printed chapbooks of Chinese origin). They wrote manifestos with definitive, supporting theories. Their skill allowed quick absorption of West European art movements and techniques that they just as rapidly subducted into their own Russian forms. They illustrated books with other avant-garde artists, writers, and poets. They designed sets and costumes. They organized and brought together important avant-garde art and literary figures that gave birth to Neo-Primitivism, Rayonism and Everythingism. They organized exhibitions that included Golden Fleece, Knave of Diamonds, Donkey’s Tail (the last Neo-primitive exhibition), Target, and the Exhibition of Icon-Painting Originals and Lubok Prints. They also exhibited in Kandinsky’s Blue Rider shows and elsewhere in Europe.
                Natalia Goncharova was the first Russian avant-garde artist to have retrospective exhibitions; over 700 works (averaging one work per week of creative energy), shown in Moscow, 1913 and St. Petersburg, 1914. Being a woman made this all the more tradition breaking and irksome to the conservatives. Soon afterwards, she left Russia with Larionov to work with Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes in Paris. They died in poverty in Paris. In 2008 a work of hers sold in London for nearly 11 million dollars.

                Neo-primitivism was a blending by Goncharova, Larionov and others of Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism from the West and Russian art influenced by the East. Blended as well into the new Russian avant-garde expressions were forms and colors found in the peasant arts such as embroidery, painted wooden trays, signboards, lubok, etc. Goncharova extracted decorative forms from these models for which she was both commended and condemned. The aspect in the new palette that cannot be underrated came from the study of icons, beginning with the traditional story of Christ washing His face in a towel upon which His image appeared. This towel was given to Ananias with a letter to give to his king of Edessa who was healed by the image. This is known as The Image Not Made By Hands. Icons were always highly symbolic, spiritual, and stylistic.
                After centuries of abuse by an annual ritual application of linseed oil that unintentionally added another layer of darkness while preserving the original image, they began being cleaned by the growing number of collectors. Once the icons’ original brilliant colors were recovered, interest soared. Goncharova was very familiar with the evolution of icon style over the centuries and the major changes once Moscow became the third Rome in Orthodox terms. She was mainly influenced by the master works of the Novgorod and Moscow high periods.
                Orthodox Church cosmology differs from that of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox being closer to Eastern mystical traditions and experiences concerning Essences and their Energies descending from the Unspeakable into the material plane. The Orthodox Church also remained open to ongoing revelation by its mystics, including its seer icon painters whose highest works were considered equivalent to revealed scripture. The Catholic and Protestant Churches hold the cosmological view, and hence the Western European inheritance which flows into the arts, that the Trinity is a single Essence not distinct from its Energy. Such is not the view among the Orthodox which informed the Russian avant-garde. For the Orthodox, all Essences and Energies flowed forth from the Creator, That Which Is. The Essence and Energy of the Son, Holy Ghost and Sophia (Wisdom) each exhibit their own specific, inaccessible Essence. Each definable, accessible Energy flows from their own inaccessible Essence. This cosmology is closer to those of Vedic India, Taoist and Zen Buddhist China, and Islam.iv An Essence’s Energy lacks the subtlety of its Essence; being ‘grosser’ the Energy is available for direct human experience, Theosis, by those with cleansed mind and body. Theosis, the transforming Beatific Vision of the Energy, was rendered by icon painters. Another way to explain the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox views is that there exists no distinctions between the Divine’s Essence and Attributes in the Catholic’s Cosmology while the Orthodox view that the Essences and Attributes are different. An Attribute would be in Christian terms, one of the Names, divisions of the Trinity or in Islamic terms, one of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah. An Attribute, then, is a named Essence through the experience of its Energy.
                Not an uncommon icon subject was Taboric Light, the Light manifested during Christ’s Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. The use of light, flatness of the entire image and reverse perspective became useful to Russian avant-garde individuals interested in what became Neo-primitivism followed by Rayonism, Everythingism and out of which came Malevich’s Suprematism in 1915 that ended Russian Futurism.
                Natalia Goncharova painted The Four Evangelists in 1910 and 1911. For me, these portraits of the four Apostles were painted by an individual steeped in religious traditions intellectually and emotionally informing her Orthodox mysticism. A woman painting icon based work was revolutionary directly confronting tradition and upsetting its conservative self appointed defenders. She was, in my opinion, a seer, in her case a seer painter, in the truest sensibility and historic tradition many Russian Futurists consciously pursued but few achieved. Neither these characteristics nor the atmosphere and teachings of Theosophy, especially the works by Peter Ouspensky, The Fourth Dimension and Tertium Organum, have been applied or suggested in commentary on The Four Evangelists. The only comments approaching what I consider accurate were by Jane Ashton Sharp.v I bought her book after concluding, during my research on icon history, that there are many levels associated with these four portraits. One of these levels is the location where the Orthodox place the Apostles’ icons in their churches, on the Iconostasis central doors. She also discusses the gestures of the Apostles seen in The Four Evangelists and those in icons being similar. Goncharova’s critics missed both of these important features. There Sharp stops. Separating the nave from the sanctuary, the Iconostasis is a wood screen sturdy enough to hold many icons. The four Apostles appear on the two central doors through which only the select may pass into the inner sanctum, the sanctuary. Other doors provide access for the less select.
                Art criticism in general evolved after 1939 went to process, application of paint and object. It rejected symbols with their layered meanings. It embraced materialization of meaning and content at the expense of the intuitive and beyond that were of primary interest to the avant-garde prior to the WW1 whose influence waned during the 20s into the 30s for many reasons. From what I have read thus far, comments on Goncharova’s The Four Evangelists to date have been contained to discussing brush strokes, figure appearance, and finger gesture. Even with such limitations, it remains curious to me the lack of commentary on the central topic of each portrait, the scrolls exuding light identical to the Evangelist’s halo. Most striking for me is that no one seems neither to have read these scrolls nor compared them with other icons with open books or scrolls to determine whether or not such scroll illumination existed prior to her textual statements.
                Painted letters and symbols began appearing on publicly displayed modern art works in 1909 by Cubists in Paris and by Neo-primitivists in Russia. In Russia a year later full text appeared integrated with image on canvas by Larionov.vi He seems the first to have painted full text rather than letters or symbols the same year Goncharova began the The Four Evangelists. When gently turning revealed sacred text over on its side, one discovers three layers of meaning: literal, psychological and spiritual. One does not see, but can experience, what the text maps and is afloat upon: the Energy formed by the Essence of its Divine revealer. This is what silently roars out of each of the Evangelist’s scrolls. After researching and studying 100s of icons with open Bible books and scrolls, I could not find one that shares or is a forerunner of the experience painted by Goncharova. For me, this is an ultimate spiritual expression of modern painted visual text art echoing older mystic poetic lyrics of merging flashes and floods found in Islam’s Sufi poets, India’s Bhakti poets and teachings using blank paper as correspondence found in Ch’an/Zen Koan traditions.
                Two years later in 1913 a new poetic was announced and, independently, two groundbreaking works appeared moving poetry and art to the Zero Zone. This is the year Russian Zaum (transrational) was coined by Alexi E. Kruchenykh in his Zaum manifesto, Declaration of the Word As Such, and his first Zaum poem, “DYR BUK SCHYL” appeared. One of the two works was written by Vasilisk Gnedov, Death of Art. The other was a sketch by Kazimir Malevich, Black Square. Gnedov’s book was a collection of what can be called monostitch poems, single line poems with title. Most discussed is the last page, empty except the title, “poem of the end.” The painted Black Square appeared publicly in 1915. Malevich exhibited it in what is known as the icon corner. He painted a minimal icon expressing the Unknowable surrounded by knowable Light. These two works remain the center of attention as declarations that move art and literature to the limits of expression some label as zero. This zero, though, is not an empty nothing but a nothing that is something. Of zero, Malevich’s often quoted phrase goes, “I have transformed myself in the zero of form and through zero have reached creation, that is, suprematism, the new painterly realism — nonobjective creation.”vii
                Goncharova not only painted a work belonging to this discussion in 1913, Emptiness,viii but The Four Evangelists belong as well. The wavy form in Emptiness to me can be ‘read’ as follows: blue is a symbol for Divinity Itself and white, Its Divine Light. The painting creates an optic effect if stared at, a resonating of the Divine Mystery out of which Emptiness becomes full of manifested essence followed by energy and then its densest forms, material.
                Three years later the wordless visual text work that should be added to a wider discussion would be painted by Max Weber, Slide Lecture at the Metropolitan Museum, 1916.ix Another addition to such a discussion I suggest would be the 1908 Shroud of Christ by Malevich in which we see a gold circumference halo line framing a blackness that surrounds the head of Jesus. Here, black underscores mystery, its original meaning.x This is an ‘x-ray’ or two dimensional representation of what would be spherical, that only the outer golden light layer representing the radiant light of the Divine would be visible, not the black symbolizing the unknowable inner layer, i.e. suggesting the unknowable essence. This detail has not been part of the Black Square and his final White Square (1917-1918 ) painting discourse I am aware of. Malevich mentioned neither the Shroud of Christ nor The Four Evangelists when writing about his Suprematism icons.
                Goncharova, the seer painter and mystic, presents the four Apostles as if we, the viewers, meet one or all four in a natural setting. Perhaps we meet them alone. Perhaps they are talking to a crowd, small or large. Haloes identify them as holy. They offer not words. They offer an experience beyond words found in the Gospels where John the Baptist speaks of baptism by Holy Spirit. They offer not to the select belonging to a theological pecking order, but to poor and rich equally. They offer Theosis, the transforming Beatific Vision. This experience has names in other religious traditions discussed in passing or detail in literatures familiar to the Russian Futurists as well as imbedded in the traditions of the Russian mystics.


i Bowlt, John E. and Matthew Drutt, eds. Amazons of the Avant-garde. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000. Available as a low-res pdf: http://monoskop.multiplace.org/File:Exter_Goncharova_Popova_Rozanova_Stepanova_Udaltsova_Amazons_of_the_Avant-Garde_low_res.pdf

ii Janecek, Gerald. The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
_____. from Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Fururism. http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/kruch/lkrucht1.htm Nov., 2005, & July 2015.
_____. A Report on Transfuturism. http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/janecek/janecek2.htm Nov., 2005, & July, 2015.
_____. Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Fururism http://monoskop.org/images/2/2c/Janecek_Gerald_Zaum_The_Transrational_Poetry_of_Russian_Futurism.pdf

iii Including Marc Chagall, Lyubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, Kiril Zdanevich, Alexandra Exter, Vasily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Ivan Pouni, Alexsandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova, Vatvara Tatlin, Nadezha Udaltsova, and others.

iv Islam’s Sufi Science of Letters goes into detailed experiential poetic esoteric riffs describing numerous Essence and Energy arrays. All these, and others as well, cosmologies explain the decent and ascent of consciousness and their stages.

v Sharp, Jane Ashton. Russian Modernism between East and West: Natal'ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde. London, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. p245

vi These are pale attempts however compared to the now publicly known works by Hilma af Klint.

vii Bowlt, John E., ed, and trans. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902-1934. New York, NY: Viking Press, New, 1976. and http://monoskop.org/index.php?search=russian+futurism&title=Special%3ASearch&go=%E2%8F%8E, p133

viii http://thecharnelhouse.org/2015/02/10/women-of-the-russian-and-soviet-avant-garde/natalia-goncharova-emptiness-1913-mixed-media-on-canvas-80-x-106-cm/

ix http://www.wikiart.org/en/max-weber/slide-lecture-at-the-metropolitan-museum

x http://www.wikiart.org/en/kazimir-malevich/veil-1908

Oceano, Ca.
Good Friday, 2016

Karl Kempton lives happily with his beloved wife Ruth in Oceano, California, consciously removed from literary centers.

His lexical & visual poems have been widely published with 45 titles, appearances in 40 anthologies and with numerous group exhibitions since the early 70’s. He edited and published the international journal of visual poetry Kaldron between 1976 and 1991. It has been available on the web since 1996. He conceived & co-founded LANGUAGE OF THE SOUL, a poetry festival in San Luis Obispo in 1983, and a monthly reading series, Corners of the Mouth in 1984; they continue without him.

He is an environmental activist working since 1977 for and with the local First People, the Chumash, attempting to save sacred sites. He stopped agricultural pesticide spraying in his neighborhood after 13 years of effort leading to farmland being converted to an organic vegetable farm now serving the neighboring area. His 25 years of ocean protection work currently is in the hands of a skilled and talented committee pursuing national marine sanctuary status: http://chumashsanctuary.com/.

His new book, poems about something & nothing, is now available through Amazon.
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