Natalya Nesterova’s Envisioning Memory

House of Cards, 1988
oil on canvas (diptych), 36" x 32" each panel

Figurative painting in Russia during the twentieth century has had a long and complicated history. It is, indeed, a fascinating history that is submerged in a quandary of ideological struggles, theological concerns, and socio-economic chaos. As with any tendency in the history of art, the reasons and the impetus behind such representations can be evaluated from a multitude of perspectives, ranging from the purely aesthetic to the most ardent political events. As cultural theory has intervened into art history in recent years, one cannot ignore the social, geographical, and psychological aspects of any historical movement that deals with image representation of common people. In the history of figurative painting and sculpture in Russia, one can trace the emergence of late nineteenth century Symbolism, known for its anthropomorphic ruminations on metaphysical power, and examine how it influenced a reaction in what came to be known as Primitivism.
Primitivisma style that borrowed from Russian folk traditions by utilizing simple forms, exaggerated figures, and bright colorswas contemporary with the new expressionism in Europe, particularly the Die Brucke movement in Dresden, De Blaue Reiter in Munich, and the Fauves in Paris. Two of the leading exponents of this movement, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, joined briefly by Tatlin and Malevich, were looking for a greater freedom of expression through the genre of figurative painting. The peculiar figurative expressionist style of Primitivism, combined with its forkloric content inspired by the late nineteenth century painter Ilya Repin, is perhaps less known or understood outside of Russia than the other well-known avant-garde developments.

The Fountain, 1991
oil on canvas, 50" x 50"

In viewing the paintings of the contemporary painter, Natalya Nesterova, it is enlightening to see her works as having an affinity with one of the important early developments in the burgeoning of the Modernist era. This is not to suggest that Nesterova’s paintings are "primitive" according to the popular vernacular, but merely to suggest that she has something in common with an important cultural lineage. Educated in Classical painting in Moscow in the sixties, and elected to the Artists’ Union of the U.S.S.R. in 1969, Nesterova’s method of painting retains some of the directness, the tactile sensibility, the idiosyncratic playfulness, and the sentiment associated with the early Primitivists. As the critic and art historian Alexandra Anderson-Spivy has shown, Nesterova’s employment of this approach "deepens the melancholy mood of her images and increases their iconic and metaphorical impact."1
There is little doubt that Natalya Nesterova understood at an early phase in her career that in spite of becoming an "official" artist, she would continue to maintain a certain autonomy in what she chose to paint. When viewed from a political or symbolic perspective, the Artists’ Union is usually characterized as ideologically restrictive. According to Nesterova, who participated in the activities of the Artists’ Union during the seventies, this was not necessarily the case.2 On the other hand, she chose to understand her situation more in terms of aesthetics and perhaps less in relation to politics. Nesterova believed the Union offered her opportunities to explore and expand her concept of art – opportunities for travel that otherwise she would have missed. As a member of the "Artists’ Union" she felt that it was possible to express her concerns as an artist, specifically in regard to psychological, domestic, and social life in the Soviet Union. Although deemed official by the State, the Union was for the most part a bureaucracy that offered artists a necessary stamp of approval – namely, that they were employed within the context of a "working class" society.
Nesterova’s recent paintings are both an extension and, in many ways, a clarification of her earlier genre-style, at least partially within the evolution of Primitivist figuration. While she has persistently followed a direction that has ensured an assiduously self-directed style and thematic content, the artist has also in recent years focused increasingly on the metaphysics of everyday experience. She is envisioning a type of metaphysics that extend beyond the purely theological concerns that have stifled so much of Russia’s historical development in achieving a more open society. From a Post-Modern vantage point, her recent paintings not only refute the implicit anti-Semitism, sanctioned under Communism, but also broaden our vision of how Christian and Judaic codes of social behavior and self-understanding operate mutually beneficial to one another.3 To do so, she invokes themes from both the Kabbalah and Christian mysticism that establish a metaphysical link between what Alexandre Gertsman sees as "the sublime breath of immortality and the ordinariness of earthly existence."4

Fallen Angel, 1994
oil on canvas, 48" x 36"

Nesterova’s paintings are full of angels, as in Fallen Angel (1994) or Fountain (1991) or birds that suggest a kind of metamorphosis as in Couple with Pigeons and Feeding Pigeons. In the latter case, the face of the subject is covered by a descending white pigeon. While the subject is apparently feeding the pigeons, as the title indicates, he also appears to be holding his palms open in the position of the stigmata. This transforms a simple everyday theme, i.e., a day in the park, into a metaphorical exegesis on the descent of angels and the stigmata of Christ. One may also cite paintings of descending angels by Chagall as having a strong metaphorical significance. In the case of Nesterova, her angels are either directly rendered in an imaginative, celestial manner or they are implied through the presence of birds, thereby suggesting that birds are metaphors of a divine intervention or an existential encounter. An example of the latter would be a series of paintings completed by Nesterova in 1994-95 in which a man wearing a white suit and hat appears alone on a beach. In one painting, entitled Bird that Flew Away (1995), the figure falls down on his back as the tiny bird flies out of his hands into freedom. In another painting, entitled Starling, the same figure falls in a prone position as the bird again escapes. The existential frustration of trying to capture life or freedom (as birds and angels both have wings) has an intense aura in these paintings. They are both nostalgic and sentimental, yet there are also profoundly symbolic and culturally specific. They represent the enigma to which Gertsman refers – the struggle for immortality within the realm of earthly existence.

Balcony, 1994
monotype on paper, 18" x 24"

Many of Nesterova’s paintings are of people, often on the beach as in Badminton (1998) –where instead of angles or birds there is the symbolic shuttlecock that is existentially being pushed back and forth between two players, their wicker chairs empty in the foreground. In another beach scene, called Flying Fish (1999), two men, perhaps sailors, greet one another on an isolated beach where golden-winged fish fly around them. Verging on the surreal, Nesterova will often create bizarre circumstances that retain the power of her metaphors.
In the painting Birds (1999), a person’s head is cropped at the bottom of a painting. There is a tree with stark branches filled with birds, but we do not know if the tree is sprouting from the person’s head or whether it is situated directly behind the head. It is ambiguous and therefore impossible to resolve in certain terms. In a second painting from the series, entitled Tree, an identical personage is represented in exactly the same space – the difference being that the tree is filled with flowering blossoms instead of birds. In a third painting, entitled Pears, the same format exists, but this time the figure stands up, revealing herself as a woman in a blue dress. She is holding a large silver tray filled with ripened pears that obliterates the appearance of her face. The same flowering tree as described in the previous painting is behind the tray of pears. It is intentionally ambiguous as to whether the tree has grown over the woman’s head or whether it is behind her. This series of paintings plays with the pictorial space as did many of the surrealists, particularly Magritte and Max Ernst.
What sets Nesterova apart from the surrealists is the paradoxical humanness of her subjects. Indeed, the artist represents simple people in simple situations, but there are always conditions that go beyond the fact of their existence. Sometimes these conditions express the ordinary world, the mundane activities and recreative preoccupations of people. Yet within these diurnal situations there is the persistent Proustian legacy that the desire to hold the moment is impossible because the moment is always fleeting. The obliteration of faces by trays of fruit, by the wingspan of birds, or by blossoming flowers suggests the human frustration with timethat precious moments will not stand still. Time is fleeting. Consciousness is relentless.
Natalya Nesterova’s paintings are essentially about this fleeting consciousness, this diurnal frustration to hold time still, to keep the romantic interludes from fleeting away. In typical Russian form, there is a deep nostalgia in Nesterova’s paintings, a profound desire to hold memory in check, and to somewhat recount the memory of the past, both personal and political. In Russia, it has been difficult to separate the two. What is personal is also political, or so it would seem. Yet there is a certain layering of depression within this nostalgia, a certain preoccupation with desire that is recalcitrant, that will not let history move forward. There is forever the ascendancy into one’s past, the cultural nostalgia for the past, the memory of the old ways, old songs, the traditions that seem to have slipped away.

Castle on the Mountain, 1999
oil on canvas, 50" x 52"

In some ways, Natalya Nesterova is seeking an alternative. In her depiction and representation of the simple conditions of life and the ordinary people who inhabit them, there is a desire to discover to new heights of understanding, to come to terms with a new world that is filled with diversity, and to hold a suspension of opposites in relation to one another. Nesterova appears to be asking questions about time and space, questions embedded with memory, both pleasant and unpleasant. Her paintings are specifically addressing the conditions and the fantasies of memory, her recounting of the present in relation to an often convoluted and imposed sense of history—a history possessed by tumultuous conflict, yet to discover its equanimity in the emerging global landscape.


1. Alexandra Anderson-Spivy, Natalya Nesterova: Cautionary Tales, Natalya Nesterova. Montreal, Quebec: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1992; p. 30

2. Louise D’Argencourt, Interview with Natalya Nesterova, Ibid; pp. 16 - 19.

3. Alexandre Gertsman, Natalya Nesterova: Russian Wanderings (Press Release)

4. Ibid.

Robert C. Morgan

is Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York