Eyeing the City: The Early Work of Elena Guro and Natal’ia Goncharova

Juliette Stapanian Apkarian, Emory University

Visions and revisions of the empirical city and of the city as concept often underlay artistic investigations of Western and Russian modernists. In the conflicted physical and emotional boundaries of the urban experience, the city came to be understood as a protagonist of modern life, as well as a fluctuant setting and metaphor for the complexities of modernity. Unlike their Italian counterparts, Russian Futurists often voiced strong ambivalence toward the city. Traditionally the city was viewed to be a decidedly masculine construct, and avant-garde writing in Russia was dominated by men. But women painters and writers of the period also addressed the theme of the city, and their approaches help define modernist expressivity. Although Natalia Goncharova (a sculptor-turned-painter) and Elena Guro (a painter-turned-writer) often focused their art on the countryside, their work is deeply informed by their experience of the city. Much can be learned about the nature of modernist urbanism through the artistry of these women, and this study proposes to examine their early work in tandem. Employing an interpretive strategy through artistic analogues, this interdisciplinary study draws upon existing scholarship on Goncharova (including Chamot, Bowlt, Sharp, Sarab’ianov) and on Guro (including Banjanin, Jensen, Povelikhina, Kovtun, Ljunggren, Gourianova), as well as studies of urban historians.

Differences between Guro and Goncharova can readily mask important commonalities. Goncharova had early achieved notoriety in the early years of Russian avant-garde, her daring painting attacked as blasphemous and pornographic. In contrast, the Guro seemed a shy anomaly among the brash ‘hooligans’ of Futurist literature. Both in her writing and in her painting, Guro’s work generally evoked a gentle charm, which seemed more traditionally feminine than the visions of Goncharova. And yet, Guro herself sensed a strong bond to Goncharova. Shortly before she died in 1913, Guro sent her books to Goncharova and noted that “they both see one and the same thing in the city—contemporaneity (sovremennost’).” (Cited by N. Khardzhiev, Poeticheskaia kul’tura Maiakovskogo, 194.) Guro also dedicated one of her poems to Goncharova, but connections between the two women have received very little scholarly attention. That Guro appears to choose the locus of the city as a juncture of affinity with Goncharova is intriguing. Close examination of the early paintings of Goncharova with Guro’s early writing of the city reveals striking analogues between the two in terms of imagery and techniques. The parallel grounding of Guro and Goncharova in the visual arts offers fertile ground for analyzing these analogues, but their work can be shown to be highly inflected too by their views of the city in terms of changing gender roles. While implications of their work can serve to refine our understanding of modernist diversity and dynamics in the early twentieth century, they also may provide insight into later urban art. As women like Tat’iana Tolstaia continue writing and un-writing the Russian city, the work of these older, artistic “sisters” gains renewed and new meaning.