Transformation of the Image

Song, 1993
oil on canvas, 36" x 42"

Russian philosophical thought, from the discussions between the nestiazhateli and gosudarstvenniki to the work of Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berdyayev or the meditations of Vasily Rozanov, is characterized by an interest in the mysticism of the illuson of being, the ambivalent connection between life and death. That is why the gnosticism of Russian religious thought, in particular, is more eschatological than Western European thought. The metaphysics of the Kabbalah somehow echoes with the symbolic Russian eschatological feelings, and for the work of an artist like Natalya Nesterova, at the basis of whose artistic esthetic lies a religious-vision, an interest in the mysticism of the Kabbalah is a completely natural aspect of her artistic striving. The artist’s interest in the Kabbalah does not come from her background but her search for the metaphysical underpinnings of life. Nesterova turns to Jewish themes, seeking their roots in ordinary life and sensitively observing and registering the mysticism of contemporary life among the Hassidim, manifesting an interest in the spiritual development of Jewish culture and refracting it through the contemporary theories of the philosopher Martin Buber.
The inner spiritual life of Jewish culture is reflected in subtle ways in the artist’s work. The faces of almost all of Nesterova’s characters are hidden from the viewer, covered by a book, as in New York, Park (1993), or a hat, as in Dream on the Shore (Reading Buber) (1999), or the people are simply turned away from the viewer, contemplating an unseen fount of wisdom in the depths of the universe, as in The Wall (2000) or Dove (1997). The artist’s characters exist in their own, isolated world. Even when only part of the face is hidden—by the wings of a bird, for instance, like the Jewish woman in Dove, or by hats, like the woman in Hats (1996)—the gaze is less human than that of a wild bird that has flown from a mystical country into the world of quotidian reality.

Diner, 1990
oil on canvas, 48 1/16" x 48"

Nesterova’s drawing upon the European and Byzantine theological sources of Christianity as well as ancient Judaic pre-Christian sources is to be expected. More than three decades ago, the original impetus of the very young artist’s interest in the history of Judaism were the works of Russian Jewish writers and poets, the bearers of Jewish culture, particularly Sholom Aleichem, Osip Mandelstam, and Perets Markesh. Jewish culture for Nesterova is complex and multifaceted, and in a certain sense, the proto-ancestor of contemporary European civilization.
The search for the metaphysical sources of life for Nesterova is always tied to space and time. Fixed time or "found" time, which exists for instance in the traditional life of watchmakers, "collectors" of a sort of time (In a Watchmaker’s Workshop, 1997, Broken Clock, 1999). The artist creates an echoing of themes: on the one hand, the themes of ordinary life, of daily craft, and on the other hand, spiritual and philosophical themes, because the craft of the watchmaker incorporates the secret of time. Nesterova’s watchmakers correct time, conduct it, fix it, and study it.

Ship, 1996
oil on canvas, 30" x 40"

The "clock" series, the quintessential expression of the magic of time, is characterized by vivid stage farcicality, combined at the same time with Rembrandtian muted colors. Here clocks reign, with their esthetic voluptuousness and imperious beauty, appearing as the main characters in the paintings, while the watchmakers play the role of "servants in a dramatic production." In Clock on the Shore (1995) and Le Temps Perdu (1996), the human figures scattered on the sandy beach play the part of living numbers and hands of a clock, relating the Proustian story of time lost and the evanescence of life. In Man on Ball (1996), the harlequin balancing on the unstable ball of life counts out the human pulse like a pendulum. Considered as Nesterova’s characters, sand castles (Playing in the Sand, 1995, and Sand Castles, 1991) and sand animals (Sand Lizard, 1995) are just as ephemeral as sand clocks in this world. Nesterova creates the theater of life, which here turns into circus play from a lost or a found life. The personages of the artist’s life carnival become the directors of fate’s twists and turns on the friable, changing "sand clock" of history.

Cyclists, 2000
oil on canvas, 52" x 46"

Nesterova’s people, strolling on the beach, are not only taking a voyage in time, but also a stroll in space. The idea of the metaphysics of space is associated by the artist with the image of the boundless, of the sea and of the shoreline. The peripatetic walks of Nesterova’s characters, with their meditative and philosophical dialogues, as in Sea (Dedicated to L. M. Kh.), (1997) dedicated to an old family friend (the late Jewish architect Lev Moiseyevich Kholmyansky), Two on the Shore (1997), and Poetry (1995), take place parallel to life and sports collisions, as in People (1983) and Badminton (1998). Interestingly, the artist creates the illusion that her characters feel cramped within the framework of the paintings, that they are not given enough space of water, sand, and sky, and therefore they encase themselves in the shell of individual abstracted space. In almost every work we feel the isolation of her characters from their environment, their profound self-contemplation and loneliness. This feeling reaches its culmination in Nesterova’s ambiguous Morning (1995), where her hero is either embracing himself in the morning cool of the beach or is embraced by the hands of an unseen but desired partner.
Birds, sky, sea—these are images associated in human consciousness with contemplation, and here the elements of nature take on a symbolism, moving from live natural image into an ornamental symbolic character. Nesterova’s angels of faith flying into the pure sky of heaven (Golden Angel, 1990, Victoria, 1991) and her angels of lost hope being thrown down to the sinful earth or the depths of hell (Pursuit, 1994, and Cast Out, 1996), illustrate the ambivalence of existence. In Birds (1999), doves become thoughts "growing out" of the character’s head. In Song (1993), written notes of an old Russian love song Golubka are set on staves like birds in branches, on the verge of taking flight. Nesterova’s birds do not simply hide the faces of people in Feeding Pigeons (1992), Couple with Pigeons (1992), and Dove (1997), they actually become "faces," creating mystical human birds. The artist’s characters easily give up their individuality, preferring the mystery of Alexander Blok’s Unknown Woman.

Cards, 1993
oil on canvas, 36" x 41"

The artist’s externally indifferent characters, no matter whether she places them in a park, restaurant, store, or garden, always contain a mystical breath of the prevalence of the immortal over the quotidian. Nesterova’s ability to see the great in the simple and the simple in the great reaches its apogee of spiritual tension in The Wall (2000): contemplation of the history of the nation of Zion coexists with the artistic simplicity of the depiction of events at the Wailing Wall. This painting is a unique culmination of the artist’s search for lost time. One can find metaphysical signs, mystical symbols in all of Natalya Nesterova’s works. Her characters have a special mystery, their faces hidden by masks-gilded masks conquering life’s carnival, card masks of games with life, or white masks of life’s failure. Reality is hidden behind these masks of the circus of life, as in Buffoons (1991), Circus (1992), Faces (1999), and Argument (1995). In the "card" heroes, mysticism and theatricality achieve special power. Playing cards and tarot cards becoming human faces – the eternal game of mankind with life and fate, past and present.

Fruit, 1993
oil on canvas, 36" x 41"

Recounting time turning into space, Nesterova meditates on the basis of human existence. Her paintings are imbued with the air of never-ending flight of history, meditations on the eternal and passing. These ideas are the main leitmotif in the series dedicated to people close to her heart: her son in Boy (2000) and Paris View (Memorial to Holocaust Victims, 1996) and to her friend in Ship (1996)— and in Nesterova’s recollections of those now gone: her father (My Father, 1999), grandmother and grandfather in Hammock, (1999) and Cyclists (2000). As in a play, characters—some sleeping, some awake, some living, some dead—pass before the viewers. Engrossed in Bakhtin’s carnival ideas, Natalya Nesterova, unlike Henri Rousseau, who turned his artistic images into living personages, turns real people into mystical images.
An element of nostalgia, longing for a lost world, is Nesterova’s post-modernist search for the mystery in the ordinariness of constantly changing life. In Going Down (1991), Fruit (1993), Cards (1993), After the Game (1996), Hoopla (1996), Flying Fish (1999), shades of the past create the special state within which the artist creates her surreal theater: fish and fruit flying through the air, collapsing houses of cards, badminton played with birds, wandering mannequin people. The space of the artist’s paintings always plays the part of a theater backdrop, scenery, before which an endless bacchanalia of emotions unfolds. The temperament of Nesterova’s "games" is intentionally static, somehow located inside her artistic culture. This is not "pure" play, but a metaphysical analysis of the situation of the game, where the artist studies the sphere of eternal human passions and the infinity of time. In recalling the past, Natalya Nesterova tries to look into the future and predict it.

Alexandre Gertsman

is an independent scholar and curator of contemporary Russian art and President of INTART—The International Art Foundation of Former Soviet States, Inc., New York