Natalya Nesterova’s Great and Eternal Themes

Natalya Nesterova, Gogol's House, 1979
oil on canvas, 64" x 64"

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s largest museum, recently opened the first permanent exhibit in the country of twentieth-century Russian art. There are three paintings by Natalya Nesterova. Many other famous artists of various generations and directions are represented by only two or even one work. Natalya Nesterova holds a special place in the minds of curators and art historians. Beginning to exhibit only in the mid-1970s, she won the attention and interest of leading critics and the close scrutiny of museum people. Over the last fifteen years, the Tretyakov Gallery acquired a large and varied collection of Nesterova’s paintings, including landscapes, urban episodes, and metaphoric compositions imbued with hidden meaning and extraordinary energy.


Natalya Nesterova is the first and most powerful expressionist in Russian contemporary art. The emotional world of this modest and delicate woman is so rich, changeable and at the same time whole, that with every new work, the viewer is inevitably struck by the frankness of sincere and acute feeling. It is always expressed through individual, instantly recognizable and capacious plastic language, whose basic tools are color, texture, dynamics of composition and space, and unexpected points of view. Nesterova sees and depicts a strange reality, where the most simple object and the deepest stirrings of the soul are equally visible. The structure of material is magnified many times and subjected to ruthless analysis. But at the same time, her view covers a broad spectrum of phenomena that simultaneously exist in metaphysical space, visually identical to a cinematic panorama of dreams and elusive reminiscences of the unconscious. The surrealistic impulse is definitely present in Nesterova’s work. But neither it or any other terminologically defined influence predominates over the freedom and talent of the personality in choosing an independent style and organization of creative ideas.


Nesterova’s Old and New Testament cycles hold a special place in her work. When she first began handling this great and eternal theme, the artist found something new for herself and for modern art as a whole. Alongside the facile interest in religious subjects today, her interpretation sounded a protest against the superficial and the salon, against the treacly and hypocritical. The power of her images is related to Giotto’s frescoes and the rather crude naïvete of early Renaissance masterpieces. The artist’s restraint and profound understanding of beauty do not allow emotions to overflow the bounds of esthetic refinement. Inner temperament, a storm of emotions, and a trembling sense of touching the primary values of humanity are strongly controlled by the masterful organization of the painting’s surface, the confident brush strokes, and the far-seeing and responsible conception of the final result. In every painting, the inspired visionary works together with the demanding analytic who wields a brilliant mastery of artistic technique.


Natalya Nesterova, Waterfall in Novi Jafon, 1981
oil on canvas, 43" x 43"

Maria Valyaeva, Ph.D.

is Chairwoman of the Department of Soviet and Contemporary Paintings at The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow