Natalya Nesterova: Vision and Transformation

Natalya Nesterova, Sand Lizard, 1995
oil on canvas, 56" x 64"

Natalya Nesterova’s extant oeuvre encompasses over two decades of work, originating during the Soviet era, continuing into the period of glasnost and now reaching beyond as Russia develops a Post-Soviet destiny. Never characterized as a dissident artist in the Soviet era, Nesterova nonetheless painted a world which pushed insistently, if quietly, at the boundaries of officially sanctioned work. Increasingly, her vision is marked by aesthetic and intellectual freedom, and her paintings are filled with quirky touches that are as distinctive as they are familiar. Her use of primitive techniques brings an immediacy to her subjects which disarms with its directness and challenges with its subtle yet powerful emotional content.

Nesterova’s streetscapes, along with the people who inhabit them, are oddly textured. Cloudlike cornices festoon stucco structures plastered in a creamy palette of pastels. Strangely muted sunsets linger, evening skies softly streaked with clouds create a quiet backdrop, and even the night sky broods with the subtle possibility of an advancing storm. Gargoyles and statues inhabit many of her settings with a presence that is markedly different from that of her buildings and her human figures. Statues seem to stir with energy, eerily lifelike. In contrast, human figures stand as statues, shrouded with an apparent enervation that is difficult to translate.

Nesterova’s juxtaposition of people and buildings in her landscapes creates an evocative contrast. People blend softly into the background. Buildings, on the other hand, are crisply delineated and elaborately decorated. Nesterova’s message seems clear enough: in post-modern Russia, human beings, as small as they are quirky, tend to disappear into the background while neoclassical structures stand as a reminder of the irrepressible continuum from one era to the next. States come and go, oppressive regimes eventually crumble, and people certainly diminish and die, but sublime human creation persists. A clue to this message is revealed in the title of one particularly sterile view, Lifeless House (1987, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), in which humans exist only as tiny dark forms encased in glass phone booths. It might be too simplistic too suggest that Nesterova, the daughter of two architects, harbors a romantic view of the built landscape that can be understood in terms of personal nostalgia. Yet her treatment of the structure is consistently and significantly straightforward when considered in the context of her rather ambiguous portrayal of the human figure.

Natalya Nesterova, Two. Shore, 1996
oil on canvas, 34" x 40"

Food is a recurring theme in Nesterova’s work, as are Russians’ recreational pastimes. Nesterova’s work frequently blends these motifs. Yet the humans in Nesterova’s work don’t seem to hunger for either food or pleasure, and their stiff, almost lifeless poses indicate a fundamental disconnection with emotion and sensuality. In Castle on the Mountain (2000) a man and woman appear indifferent to an elaborate and sophisticated spread, a motif which occurs earlier in Restaurant (1999). Certainly Nesterova’s food looms larger than life, sometimes obscuring the faces of her subjects as in the disquieting Mirror (1995) and Dinner Time (1999). Admittedly, food is not merely an ornamental element for Nesterova, nor does it maintain a distinct metaphorical role. Several paintings suggest the possibility of gustatory pleasure. Fish (1995) surprises with its visceral portrayal of fish night, and the unexpectedly charming Lobster (1992) records a quiet moment of contemplative anticipation.

Whether her themes tend toward the whimsical or the darkly satirical is best left to each viewer’s interpretation. Surely works such as Circus (1992), Buffoons (1991), and Flying Fish (1999) suggest that humans are somehow missing point of a cosmic joke being played out right under their noses, very likely at their expense. Apparently unconcerned or oblivious to the oddities unfolding before them, people carry on with no discernible expression. In these works the theme of unresponsiveness or passionlessness takes on a more disturbing dimension.

Nesterova’s angels, masked figures, and forms covered, Magritte-like, with small eyes tell of a new perspective based in metaphysics. What seemed to be a preoccupation with the mundane becomes an emphasis on the unexplained and mysterious. Once dominated by the formality of the urban streetscape, in City People, People on the Shore, and Dancing People (1990), Nesterova’s fantastic figures now incorporate the very buildings that once subsumed them. These works are overt allegories of struggle and redemption. Going Down (1991) seems an easy reference to the plight of the Post-Soviet Russian, but perhaps the work is suggestive of a condition common to all humanity. Judas Kiss (1992) and The Crucifixion (1991) challenge us with theatrical, empty-eyed presentations of traditional Christian themes. Fallen Angel (1994) and Cast Out (1996) take the brooding tendencies of Nesterova’s earlier work to a new place, in which a bolder mood prevails. The earlier ominous and foreboding atmosphere, with its dominant feeling of impending doom, is transformed into something that is disarmingly dark. Her Faces (1999) and The Two (1997), with their ironical portrayal of the human-as-character, remind us that changes of subject and context are as inevitable as the peregrinations of the creative muse. It is tempting to wonder where her powerful will lead her – and us – next.


Laurel Spencer Forsythe

Curator of Exhibitions, Education and Collections,
Paine Art Center and Gardens, Oshkosh, Wisconsin