Freeze, Die, Revive

Petrodvorts, 1986
oil on canvas, 39" x 36"

It’s more than twenty years now that I have been watching the development of the work of Natalya Nesterova. And such is the fate of a museum curator whose collection contains the artist’s works, parallel with the corpus of interpretations that accompany this development. Parallel, because Nesterova is a unique event: her art is created absolutely independently of critical discourse. So it was in Soviet times, when the critics expressed the official opinion (then one simply had to take it into account) or the liberal intelligentsia’s view (to which one also had to pay attention). And so it is in the Post-Soviet period, when the artistic process has been more or less normalized and the critic is no longer the mouthpiece for non-artistic forces. However, on the professional plane the critic is an interpreter and is also as a rule, a curator, and has even greater influence: the representation of the artist depends on him, he is more than a co-author. This may be so, but throughout her career, all these figures of power had no influence on Nesterova. The corpus of interpretations of her work is interesting as a reflection, a documentation of changing social and artistic situations, that is, edifying in its own right. In that sense, it deserves a closer look.


From the moment of her appearance on the Soviet art scene, Nesterova was given heightened attention. The attention per se was a sign of success, but of a special success, related to possession. Official art, "vegetarian" in the words of Anna Akhmatova, immediately tried to appropriate her work: the subject matter—meals, festivities, parties, relaxation—was interpreted as traditionally Soviet, a return to the archetype of "culture and relaxation of workers," formulated in the 1930s by, incidentally, first-rate masters. The manner naturally did not please the adepts of academic naturalism, but it could be tolerated: after all, it was figurative, and the obvious primitivism could be viewed as based in folklore. The liberal opposition camp also claimed Nesterova as "one of theirs": the same motifs were interpreted as being moderately critical. The primitivism was seen not as a bow to folklore sources and popular joy, but a reflection of the lack of spirituality and impoverishment of the Soviet lifestyle. They also noted the tension and forced sense of the parties and holidays and the clear unhappiness of the people’s faces and the readiness to hide a person’s face behind a theatrical mask. The masquerade was seen as masking: first of all as a passive rejection of the surrounding "Soviet" reality. In Post-Soviet times the former hierarchies and the whole official-nonofficial juxtaposition lost their meaning. Conceptual artists were best at integrating into the transnational artistic process. It would seem that Nesterova with her figurativeness, passe-ism, and unhurried development of painterly representation was doomed to marginalization. But no – conceptual and post-conceptual artists, to whom Nesterova was not close either in spirit or blood, treated her with great respect. They include her in joint project, readily exhibit with her, and in general, show their reverence. No, they do not try to interpret her "to the end," "to the core" – that goal does not exist within the framework of conceptual discourse. However the obvious "indecipherability" of her art and uselessness of all previous interpretations is close to the work of actual art. It seems that in the persistent repetition of themes, in the growing illogic of depicted situations, they see if not esoteric practice, then at least a reflection of metaphysicality. In every sense, a presence of a potential conceptual project.


Well then, it would appear from all I’ve said that Nesterova has had an exceptionally successful life. She suited the court in every period, has been of interest to several generations and the most varied audiences. But I would dare to note that all these things are only parallel to the creation of her life’s project in art. They have no impact on her art. The project would have developed in exactly the same way whether Nesterova had been part of the marginal artists or the stars of the mainstream. I doubt she ever thought about the strategy for survival in art, never positioned herself vis-a-vis the power points: tendencies, groups, or the curators’ establishment.


Arbat, 1984
oil on canvas, 48" x 54"

She positioned herself in terms of other, more substantive and existential things. In essence, very simple things. For instance, the ceremonial flow of time.


I believe that it was this regimen of embodying time that has absorbed her from the start, first elementally and then with much more reflection. This is the most important part of her project. Endless flashes of the passage of time—stopped, found, lost, rewound, discrete. Flash: and the highlight on the nose of a cafe regular has been captured forever. Flash: and the spaghetti being sucked into a mouth takes on the duration of almost geological time. Flash: and the shadow falling on a Moscow side street becomes as inexorable as the appearance of the shade of Hamlet’s father in the Shakespeare play. Let me note: the flash is only a method of vision, of illuminating the flow of time, a way of working with it. It has nothing in common with the captured moment. Rather, stopped time is a rare incident in her work with ceremonial time. As a rule, her work is more complex: Nesterova tests time by taste, by weight, by color, biting down on it. She can access the most complex temporal processes. For instance, multidirectional, discrete time: in the works devoted to the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg, the antique sculptures may seem more animated, "younger," more flexible in the joints that the old-fashioned urban dwellers dressed in baggy suits.


In fact, the regimen of time is what interests Nesterova most. The metaphysics of white, traditional for the Russian avant-garde (Greetings to Malevich! A bow to Bulatov!), is "externalized" (using Mikhail Bakhtin’s word) in the painting: it is her trademark whitewash, whitishness for which official academic painters berated her and which is in the mix of her colors. And yet, it is the ferment of time, the method of her color. And one more thing. I think that Nesterova is not very concerned about her works being lifelike. I noted this long ago. In Russia in the first period of her work, she loved the South-resorts, the Caucasus, fiery, southern types. This showed her reliance on the famous Georgian primitivist Pirosmani, especially since her themes harked back to his feasts. Then the same types began appearing in situations set in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Czechoslovakia, and so on…even New York and the Holy Land. So that ethnic texture is universal. By the way, the readiness to put masks on her characters is also a sign of the secondary nature of the national aspect and of her distance from its concrete manifestations. A certain universality can be observed in the geographical situations: it is not important where the fountain plays—in the Nalchik Central Park of Culture and Rest or in New York’s Central Park. What is important, is that the fountain plays inside time, that the ceremonial flow of time takes place in the rise and fall of its jets. The rest is not so important. A somnambulistic self-immersion into the flows of time—that is Nesterova’s poetics. It cannot help but attract viewers: dream, delirium…awakening? What could be more universal and personal? By the way, this applies for all viewers, often those who have no idea of the life that is the genesis of Nesterova’s art.


Children just mastering reality deal with the regimens of time flow much more freely than adults. Russian children have a game that fits amazingly well as an overlay on Nesterova’s poetics: freeze, die, revive! I’m certain that children all over the world have comparable games.


Dr. Alexander D. Borovsky

is Head of the Department of Contemporary Art at The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia