'Spring and its blossoms seem more important in northern Russia than in the central region of the country. The art of the north evokes this impression. The northern icons possess an indescribable lustre composed of pink, mallow-coloured, dull-green, blue and white hues' (Natalia Goncharova, quoted in exh. cat., Natalia Goncharova Between Russian Tradition and European Modernism, St Annen, 2009, p. 13)
A semi-abstract painting of an orchard or forest in bloom, Les arbres en fleurs is one of the very first of Goncharova's Cubo-Futurist paintings and a powerful and symbolic icon of Spring as a dynamic regenerative force at work in the Russian landscape. A pictorial metaphor of the vitalising primal forces she believed were also running through Russian art at this time and which she, along with her partner Mikhail Larionov and other young pioneers such as Vladimir Tatlin and Kasimir Malevich were seeking to invoke, this painting is an important early work both evocative and symbolic of the burgeoning Russian avant-garde.
Les arbres en fleurs was painted in the summer of 1912, after Goncharova and Larionov had publicly disassociated themselves from David Burliuk and the Jack of Diamonds Group with whom they had exhibited in the winter. Declaring their independence and embracing what was to become known as a Cubo-Futurist break up of form derived from the French Cubists and Italian Futurists whose work was simultaneously then becoming known in Russia, Goncharova and Larionov had led a radical group including Tatlin, Malevich and Shevchenko in a group exhibition known as the Donkey's Tail in March. Then, throughout the summer, Larionov pioneered the theory of Rayonist painting aimed at developing Cubo-Futurism beyond the realm of the visible world into a representation of the light-rays and hidden forces underpinning the perceptible world, while Goncharova, working almost in tandem, sought an art of synthesis between the primal art of Russia and the East and the latest developments in Western art. As she had pointed out in her bold and somewhat humorous rejection of the Jack of Diamonds and what she saw as their merely imitative program, 'Cubism is a positive phenomenon, but it is not altogether a new one, especially as far as Russia is concerned. The Scythians made their stone maidens in this hallowed style. Wonderful painted, wooden dolls are sold at our fairs. These are sculptural works, but in France, too, it was the Gothic and African figure sculptures that served as the springboard for Cubist painting. Over the last decade, Picasso has been the most talented artist working in the Cubist manner, whereas in Russia it has been yours truly. I do not renounce any of my works made in the Cubist manner. At the same time, I just cannot accept any kinship with the flaccid Jack of Diamonds group. The members of that venerable institution seem to think it's enough to join the apologists of the new art, including Cubism, to become an artist of the new persuasion, even if they lack tone in colour, the power of observation, and artistic memory. Their mastery of line is pathetic and it's not worth talking about their textures. Judging by their paintings, these artists have never thought about this or worked on it. In many cases they are hopeless academics, whose fat bourgeois faces peep out from behind the terrifying mugs of innovators. This simply confirms that pathetic snails will cling to any ship' (Natalia Goncharova, 'Letter to the Editor', 13 February 1912, quoted in exh. cat., Amazons of the Avant-Garde, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2000, p. 312).
In Les arbres en fleurs Goncharova has adopted what was to become one of the most frequent themes of the later, almost completely abstract Rayonist paintings she made the following year, to create a Cubo-Futurist work that engages with the primal and transformative force of Nature in much the same way that the Italian Futurists had celebrated the life and pace of the city or motor car. Goncharova, who had grown up in the rural estate of her grandmother and who, throughout her life, rooted her work in folk tradition and a deep understanding of the symbiosis between man and nature, was, along with Malevich, one of the few Russian Futurists to apply a similar sense of Futurist dynamism to both paintings of the city and scenes of nature. With the aim of creating an art that would be rooted in the fundamentals of nature, in forces and elements existing beyond the visual world that Cubsim and Futurism had to break down but which in themselves they could not reveal, Goncharova advocated 'drawing my artistic inspiration from my country and from the East, so close to us. To put into practice M.F. Larionov's theory of rayonism, which I have elaborated (painting based only on painterly laws). To reduce my individual moments of inspiration to a common, objective, painterly form' (Natalia Goncharova, quoted in J. Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, London, 1957, pp. 55-58).
Anticipating many of the stylized stage designs and abstract patterns rooted in nature that she would produce in Paris in the 1920s, in this work Goncharova has used the formal technique of Cubo-Futurism to reduce the shapes of the forest into a semi-abstract patterning of form segregated into three distinct parts. Ranging from the earthy brown ground and roots of the trees, to the rich green meadows and the muted, grey-pink floral patterning of the blossoming treetops, each area seems to speak of a jagged interlocking of forces or different energies combining to form a zig-zagging composition infused with an overriding sense of dynamic energy and growth running throughout. Perspective has been flattened, so that the form and the dynamic energy between the colours and sharp angles of each remain paramount. Rich, dark, earthy and green colours are seemingly dissolved in the top half of the painting into a kind of collective near-abstract floral field of muted pink and grey.
It is in this respect that the compositional development of this painting seems to visually echo a letter Goncharova wrote to the Russian artist Boris Anrep in 1914, in which she outlined the central importance for her of indigenous art and its key role in determining the great collective art of the future. 'The material of the work, and beyond that, its creative spirit, lies not in the individual,' she wrote, 'but in the people, in the nation to which the individual belongs, in its earth and nature. It is part of the common popular soul, like a flower on a huge tree. True, the flower may be torn form the tree and planted in an artificial growing environment, and at first it will perhaps begin to bloom still better, but even so, it would have been nicer had the flower remained on the tree. For the Russian artist, this tree is Russia and the East, but not Europe, from whence she can and must take military ships, aeronautics, methods for attack and defence. The artist, however, needs to devote his life to indigenous places, to take life from indigenous places' (Natalia Goncharova, 'Letter to Boris Anrep', 1914, quoted in exh. cat., Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ibid.).
Les arbres en fleurs is, in this context, more than a simple Cubo-Futurist landscape, being also a symbol, or perhaps more appropriately, an icon, of the entire direction in which Goncharova saw, in the second half of 1912, both her and her fellow Russian artists' work developing. An anticipation of the many forest scenes with which she would experiment with Larionov's Rayonist techniques, it is for this reason,no doubt, that she included this painting in the major retrospective of her work that took place in Moscow in September 1913.
Having also worked recently with the Futurist poets Vladimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh by this time, Goncharova, like Larionov, was well aware of the burgeoning potential of the Russian avant-garde and was hopeful of further breaking down the barriers between all art forms and creating a new universal form of expression. The light explorations of Rayonism, the sound poetry of Khlebinkov and Kruchenykh, the extraordinary developments in theatre and the pervasive talk about the fourth dimension from Ouspensky and other sources, all pointed the way towards a major and perhaps decisive change. Goncharova's vast one-woman exhibition in Moscow in 1913 was one of the most significant, formative and influential events on the subsequent generation of Russian artists who would effectively make this breakthrough to a collective synthesis of all the arts, among them the female artists Popova, Exter, Stepanova and Rosanova as well as Tatlin, Rodchenko and Malevich. An unprecedented honour for a avant-garde female artist at this time, and serving as a major retrospective of her work, exposing the many different styles - Neo-Primitivsim, Cubo-Futuirism and Rayonism - that she simultaneously employed in her work throughout this period, it served both as an important survey of the latest developments in Russian art and as a springboard to the future. In the preface to this exhibition Goncharova defiantly announced: 'I have passed through all that the West can offer at the present time, and all that my country has assimilated from the West. I now shake the dust from my feet and distance myself from the West' (Natalia Goncharova quoted in J. Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West Natal'ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde, Cambridge, 2006, p. 1). She had previously added in an unpublished note that 'I remain well disposed to all my futurizing and rayist followers... and I greet all those who are prepared to go forward on the path... Appearances at debates, lectures, and all activities of this kind I reject as devices that have outlived themselves. It is necessary to appeal directly to the streets, to the popular masses in general' (Natalia Goncharova, Spring 1913, quoted in J. Sharp., ibid., p. 276).