Alena Pomajzlová

On the Real Author of the Cycle Parables of the Gospel, Previously Ascribed to Natalia Goncharova

Alena Pomajzlová

On the Real Author of the Cycle Parables of the Gospel, Previously Ascribed to Natalia Goncharova

This essay addresses a mistaken attribution of eleven gouaches of the cycle Parables of the Gospel by Růžena Zátková, considered to be the work of Natalia Goncharova from 1911–12.

The cycle first appeared with this attribution in 1991 at the exhibition Der Heilige Himmel (The Holy Heaven) at the Museum of Modern Art, Hünfeld, Germany, which is likely where the attribution was adopted from in the scholarly literature as well. In a book titled Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova by British art historian Antony Parton,1 three gouaches from the Parables of the Gospel cycle are reproduced2 and listed as works of Natalia Goncharova from 1911–12. Parton bases this attribution, supported by the exhibition mentioned above, firstly on formal qualities – with the primitivist style referring to Russian icons (simplified figures, the specific physiognomy of faces, oversized hands and puppet-like gestures), which was characteristic of Goncharova’s work in the 1910s, and secondly, on the focus on biblical subjects, paraphrases of which Goncharova often engaged in her work. From formal comparisons, Parton moves on to other possible connections. He offers several arguments for attributing the cycle to this painter, citing, for example, her ties to Franz Marc and the Munich group Der Blaue Reiter. Parton states that Goncharova’s religiously oriented paintings attracted the attention of the group’s circle, led by Vasily Kandinsky, so she was invited to the group’s second exhibition in 1912, and a reproduction of her drawing Vintage was also included in the Der Blaue Reiter Almanac published that same year.3 According to Parton, this is the beginning of the path which ultimately resulted in the cycle since, at that time, Franz Marc was preparing a project of Bible illustrations, among which he allegedly included works by Natalia Goncharova. Parton draws his information from Eli Eganbiuri (the pseudonym of Ilya Zdanevich) and his book Natalia Goncharova Mikhail Larionov,4 in which the writer mentions twelve works by Goncharova with the subject of the Parables, one of which he notes as being in possession of F. Marc. Parton infers that the eleven illustrations correspond to those in question. It should also be noted that Goncharova did not carry out the Bible illustrations because the outbreak of the First World War thwarted all Franz Marc’s plans and the painter himself was killed in the battle of Verdun 4 March 1916. Further leads have been lost, and any other information is missing.

However, all the connections offered by Parton, which imply the attribution of the cycle to Natalia Goncharova and its dating to 1911, are only hypothetical and not convincingly supported by any relevant period documents. Instead, the author works on his preconceived belief about authorship and dating of the works and thus only selects arguments that support his claim. These arguments are, however, not conclusive and cannot unreservedly confirm Natalia Goncharova’s authorship. After all, experts on the painter’s work have also later questioned her authorship of this cycle.

Why is it impossible to identify the Parables of the Gospel cycle with the works of Natalia Goncharova and the years 1911–12? At this point, it is necessary to broaden the field of the examination considerably, to look for other, even more recent, links. Naturally, coincidence also plays a role. Some time ago, I became interested in the Czech painter Růžena Zátková (1885–1923), whom I will briefly introduce here. She was originally from Bohemia, but after marrying Vasily Khvoshchinsky, a Russian tsarist diplomat working in Rome, she left for Italy in 1910 where she later came to be known as Rougena Zatkova. There, not only her life was transformed, but also her view of art took on a new, international dimension. She met the Italian Futurists Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla5 (she was probably also his pupil) and through her husband, who was also a collector and connoisseur of pre-Renaissance Italian art, she became acquainted with the work of Russian artists. She travelled to Russia (in 1910 and probably also in 1913), and while back in Rome in the winter of 1914 and the following spring, she met members of Diaghilev’s ensemble Les Ballets Russes, first with Diaghilev himself, then with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, with whom she attended the Futurist ‘Serata degli intonarumori’ (Evening of Futurist noise instruments) at Marinetti’s Milan apartment on 2 April 1915. Diaghilev then left for Ouchy, Switzerland, where he was preparing the programme for the next season with his ensemble. In the summer, he was joined by Goncharova and Larionov, and in the autumn, Zátková also arrived in Ouchy (as evidenced by a group photograph with Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Bakst). This moment marks the beginning of Zátková’s friendly relations with both painters and the great impulse she received through their work. Among other things, they strengthened her conviction that passively following current artistic trends is to be avoided and that art should be subjected only to the inner laws of creation. However, Zátková’s artistic career was interrupted by illness as she was treated in a sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland, from 1916-19. There, too, she gradually began to work again, mostly turning to a spiritualised primitivism, supported by her frequent correspondence with Goncharova and Larionov6 (it was also at this time that Goncharova gave her the icon-inspired watercolour Evangelists / Christus Pantokrator,7 to Zátková as a gift with dedication on the reverse).

Due to her poor health, Zátková did not return to Rome permanently but first lived in the Italian Alps in the village of Macugnaga in northern Piedmont. At that time, perhaps curiously, two tendencies, which she had already known previously and alternated unorthodoxly, collided in her work – Futurism, vehemently supported by Marinetti, and Neo-Primitivism with references to Russian roots.  Futurism was related to her intense (primarily written) contact with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and her friendship with his future wife Benedetta, the sister of Zátková’s second husband, Arturo Cappa. A unique and daring cycle of abstract material assemblages with a kinetic element (Light Paintings) dates to this period. On the other hand, Primitivism is represented by her illustrations to the Parable of the Gospel. Both of these aspects of her work stemmed from the same spiritual background: the avant-garde compositions of the Light Paintings focused on basic natural phenomena and were instigated by her reading of the poetry of St. Francis of Assisi and spiritism of the 1910s, while the primitivist works, which turned to biblical subjects, were based on the painter’s popularised religious sensibility.

It was the archaeologist, philanthropist and cultural activist Umberto Zanotti Bianco (1889–1963), whom Zátková met during her treatment in Leysin, who suggested she create illustrations for the Parables of the Gospel. Zanotti Bianco, as a member of the National Association for the Interests of Southern Italy (Associazione Nazionale per gli Interessi del Mezzogiorno d’Italia), tried to raise social and cultural awareness, especially in Calabria. Among his many activities was the publication of books, in which the visual component was essential in conveying a clear and emotional message. Although the Parables were never published, the entire process of their creation is documented in detail in Zátková´s letters to Zanotti Bianco, dated from July 1919 to the spring of 1920.8 At the outset, Zátková thanked Bianco for the opportunity to work on the illustrations for the Gospel (21 July and 5 August 1919), and in subsequent letters, she gradually specified their appearance, number and dimensions, which were finally set at 42x32cm.  In a letter dated 5 November, she wrote: “I have now completed all the drawings for the parables …Eleven illustrations altogether. I am waiting for you to let me know if I can leave this slightly wider format, as I wrote to you already.“ She also indicated which parables were to be represented, although other letters reveal that she eliminated and replaced some of the illustrations with new ones. Most significant, however, is a letter dated 18 January 1920, which contains descriptions of some of the illustrations, including two sketches (The Parable of the Mustard Seed and The Parable of the Sower), indicating the chosen composition. The letter reads: „I have studied Gospels closely, and I am glad to have such freedom, for it is significant for achieving a unity of style in the work. I have transferred the stories to the present time, so they would be less historical and, on the contrary, be more contemporary, more effective. This is why I chose an overall form suitable for such a purpose. To preserve the literary character of the stories, scenes follow one another sequentially. I have divided the pages with harmonious lines, which structure the scene in such a way that the next scene can follow right away in accordance with the spirit of the story. Thus I was able to render, for example, the parable of the mustard seed which grows until it ´becomes a tree, so that birds come and make their nests in its branches´. Let us say I have interpreted it thus: in the first field there is a seedling, in the next a stronger plant, and in the third the treetop with birds (Mat. 13.31). For the psychological moment of the parable is growth.

Fig. 1: Růžena Zátková, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, from the cycle Parables of the Gospel, 1920, guache on paper, 42x32 cm, private collection. Source: private collection.

The others are rendered in a similar fashion, for example, Mk. 4.3. The Sower scatters the seeds, and in the individual panels, the different fates of the seeds are depicted.  Other parables – Luke 18, about the widow who keeps pleading with the judge until she gets what she wants. The judge is only an immobile figure, and around him, across various panels, the widow´s pleading face is depicted until it becomes so troubling to the judge that he gives her the requested document. Here the entire psychological moment of the story rests in that incessant, tireless pleading.

I do not think that this interpretation is somehow too modern or complex for the people. On the contrary, through my work with the villagers, I have learned that their imagination is far richer than ours and that their passions are full of fantasy.“

Zátková was trying to combine the symbolic meaning, i.e. the main idea of the Parable, with a story, which is able to convey the idea through by its factual nature. She decided to depict the stories without an accompanying text, in a concentrated form, and only by connecting and dynamically arranging the key moments of the storyline. However, she did not apply the narrative principle, which she knew well from Old Masters and folk art, in a linear way through a series of successive scenes (as if the viewer read the story). Instead, she used the method of so-called simultaneous or synoptic narration, combining the individual episodes of the story into a single image. The figures may or may not be represented repeatedly, and the plot unfolds in partial scenes with no direct sequence. The viewer must be familiar with the story; otherwise, they will not be able to piece it together from the partial images. Succession in such works is presented as a pictorial simultaneity; instead of applying sequential reading, the image forms a whole from which the individual episodes must yet be identified. In opposition to reading, this approach represents a distinct mode of reception, in which the context and storyline do not unfold in succession but simultaneously. For this type of narration, Zátková chose the modern „collage principle“, separating individual, temporally remote moments of the story with dynamic diagonals. Zátková also applied this method in her following Futurist artworks (e.g. Roosters from Bricco, 1922), this time, however, without any narrative and tied more closely to the idea of speed and simultaneity, which she knew from the work of Futurists and some of Goncharova’s pieces. She thus combined the old and the new into an original whole.

What must be mentioned as well are the paraphrases and references used in Zátková’s cycle.  Antony Parton’s monograph mentioned above compares one of the Parables (The Parable of the Prodigal Son I) with a seventeenth-century reproduction printed in the Zolotoe runo magazine in 1906. The composition is adopted entirely, only insignificant details are omitted, and the whole is broken into three separate scenes. Parton associates the composition with Goncharova, but given Zátková’s Russian contacts, it cannot be ruled out that she knew or had the magazine, although in this case, it is probably impossible to trace a definite connection to the model. The second example of compositional similarity and „appropriation“ (The Parable of the Faithful Servant) is more conclusive and concerns Mikhail Larionov’s study Quarrel in a tavern.9 In a letter dated 1 January 1920, Zátková even apologises to Larionov for using his motif directly, which she did because of the dynamics of movement: „I feel guilty towards you because I have adopted your group from the Quarrel in a tavern (the movement) for my Gospels […].  Please do not be angry with me for saying it like this every time. As you can see, I have carried the Gospel to the contemporary era, and I am rendering it very simply so that it will serve the people. Thus far, only the drawings are ready”.10

Other examples of references and appropriations can be found in Zátková’s work. They are certainly no coincidence, but the reasons behind them are still a question of conjecture. Can it be the kind of repetition used, for example, in folk art, where the question of authorship is irrelevant? Or is it an attempt for a new, modern take on an older subject? Could it possibly be a deliberate reference that relativises the modernist concept of originality? Zátková not only adopted various motifs and compositions but also unorthodoxly alternated styles. In addition to her unique and innovative solutions to material assemblages, she simultaneously returned to the past or distant inspirations such as Persian miniatures or Russian icons. Her best-known and most documented works are those associated with Italian Futurism, while the other strands of her work have not been sufficiently recognised. If they showed up, they were misdated and, as has been shown, also misattributed. This is presumedly why the Parables of the Gospel cycle has been considered missing. However, it was exhibited at the first solo exhibition of Růžena Zátková at the Giosi Gallery in Rome.11 Selected pieces from the cycle were also presented at her second solo exhibition at the Casa d´arte Bragaglia in Rome.12 Until recently, only six black-and-white photographs of the works were recognised (currently included in the Marinetti papers at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and at the Archivio Marinetti, Milano: The Parable of the Unjust Judge, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Friend at Midnight, The Parable of the Prodigal Son I, The Parable of the Prodigal Son II), three of them (from Getty Research Institute) accompanied by Italian-French captions. They were to be a part of a larger pictorial supplement for a planned monograph on Růžena Zátková, which was being put together by Arturo’s brother, the journalist Alberto Cappa, in 1925–26, i.e. already after the painter’s death. He intended to include not only his own study of Zátková’s work but also an introduction by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Unfortunately, none of the attempts to publish the monograph came to fruition, and the two expositions planned in 1923 for Prague and Berlin also failed to be held. All this caused Růžena Zátková’s name to disappear from the art world for a long time. In recent years, however, her name is being recognised again, as evidenced by the Parables of the Gospel cycle, for which the authorship of Růžena Zátková can be safely established based on quoted letters, catalogues, photographs and sketches, thus expanding the number of her known works. As Zátková’s cycle was considered lost, it is gratifying that the work has finally been found and can now be properly ascribed.

The contribution was presented in a broader and somewhat differently focused version at the Petr Wittlich 90 – Symposium Czechness and Worldliness of Modern Art in Bohemia (1848-1948). Ideas – Personalities – Institutions at the Institute of Art History CUNI on 24/05/2022.

  1. Antony Parton, Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova, Woodbridge, Antique Collectors Club, 2010.
  2. On the page 229, plate 265, 266, 267.
  3. Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich: Piper, 1912, page 107.
  4. Eganbiuri /I. Zdanevich/, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Moscow: Ts.Minster, 1913.
  5. See my essay “Růžena Zátková: An Unortodox Female Futurist”, in International Yearbook of Futurism Studies. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. 136-167.
  6. Her letters are deposited in the Archive of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. All the letters were published in: Alena Pomajzlová Růžena. Příběh malířky Růženy Zátkové / Story of the Painter Růžena Zátková, Arbor vitae societas, Porte, 2011.
  7. Natalia Goncharova, / Christus Pantokrator, 1916, gouache, watercolour on paper mounted on cardboard, 96.8×73.5cm. See Marina Giorgini, Natalia Goncharova – A Discovery. The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine 2, 2019, pp. 134-143. https://www.academia.edu/40557729/Natalia_Goncharova_A_Discovery.
  8. The letters are deposited in the archives of the Associazione Nazionale per gli interessi del Mezzogiorno d’Italia (ANIMI) in Rome.
  9. Mikhail Larionov Quarrel in a tavern, 1911, oil on canvas 72x95cm, now Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid.
  10. Letter to Mikhail Larionov, 1 January 1920, the Archive of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
  11. Mostra di pitture e plastici dell´artista boema Rougena Zátková [Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures by the Czech Artist Rougena Zátková], 6 April-6 May 1921, cat. No.65–75.
  12. Mostra personale di Rougena Zatkova [Solo exhibition of Rougena Zatkova], November 1922, cat. No.40–46.