The Art of Everythingness

‘Self Portrait with Yellow Lillies’ by Natalia Goncharova, 1907-1908

Natalia Goncharova was the agent provocateur of the Russian avant-garde. Ella Slater explores the significance of four costumes for the Ballets Russes’ production of Le Coq d’Or, sold at Kerry Taylor’s recent ‘Passion for Fashion’ sale.

Ballet has never been more fashionable. As the Barbican exhibits Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, which runs until January 3rd, Kerry Taylor Auctions parts with four costumes designed by the avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) for the Ballets Russes. They were bought in the recent December sale by a Russian collector for prices which stretched to £11,000, although Taylor tells me that “for anyone interested in Goncharova’s work, the costumes are slightly more affordable”- her painting ‘Les Fleurs’ (1912) sold at Christie’s in 2008 for a little under $11 million.


The garments, previously acquired from a 1968 Sotheby & Co sale, were made for the 1937 revival of the Ballets Russes. The dance company originally opened in 1909 under the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), whose impeccable taste would go on to influence aesthetics in every area of the arts, and continues to do so today. Constructed from original designs, Goncharova’s costumes appeared in the opera-ballet Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel), a politically satirical tale based on the 1834 poem of Alexander Pushkin (her great-uncle). 

The female subjects of a bumbling Tsar wore blood orange kokoshniks (traditional Russian headdresses) and billowing appliquéd sarafans (pinafore dresses), weighted by heavy cotton underskirts and petticoats which would have needed immense strength to dance in. On photographs the ensembles seem floaty and light; in reality they are the opposite, just as Goncharova’s designs would depict stocky, rural women instead of the sinewy grace of ballerinas. Although exhibitions and retrospectives would display her futurist paintings and teach her reputation as an agent provocateur, what it did not show the visitor was the brilliance and vibrancy of Goncharova’s costume. “The wonderful colours, patterns and shapes are designed to grab attention on a large stage” Taylor says. “They're a visual feast.”


Appliquéd cotton smock with red kokoshnik headdress (£11,000), and, pinafore and screen-printed cotton skirt with peach kokoshnik headress (£10,500), both designed by Natalia Goncharova for the Ballets Russes’ Le Coq d’Or – Kerry Taylor Auctions

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A Ballets Russes production of Le Coq d’Or, photographed by J. de Strelecki – Library of Congress, New York

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Illustration by Goncharova of the orange cotton smock for a female subject of King Dodon in Le Coq d’Or - Natalia Goncharova/© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019


From left, Massine, Goncharova, Larionov, Stravinsky and Bakst at Lausanne in 1915 – Sotheby & Co, 1969

Diaghilev once said that "it was [Goncharova] who made the shirt dress fashionable" in Russian bohemian society.

Goncharova was born to a family of impoverished aristocrats in rural Russia, an upbringing which would continuously influence her art. Her self-portrait shows a traditionally dressed woman with meek features; Goncharova’s appearance was a stark contrast to the boldness of her work, which saw the East as “the original source of all the arts” – otherwise known as the art of vsechestvo (everythingness)


Despite her disregard for the West, shortly after a 1913 exhibit of 800 works amidst Imperial Moscow, Goncharova and her lifelong partner Mikhail Larionov would move to Paris, both to work on sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. This was a natural transition; in Moscow, Goncharova’s influence on style had been tangible- Diaghilev once alleged that “it was she who made the shirt dress fashionable” in Russian bohemian society. 


In fact, both Goncharova’s and Diaghilev’s influences extended far beyond the circles of society in which they circulated. Although productions of Diaghilev’s are now few and far between, the allure of Goncharova’s costume lingers; preserved in the auction houses with collections just an appointment away. And it is here that the legacy of Natalia Goncharova is most evident; Old Russia stays alive through her designs.

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer runs until January 3rd 2021 at The Barbican, London.

See past and upcoming auctions at