Natalya Nesterova

Waddington & Gorce

Like the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland, which hurried to paint the living white roses red before the queen’s arrival for fear of having their heads cut off, Russia’s official artists cling to Stalin’s social-realist dogma though it has lost any real ideological function. As expressions of the awkward state of self-denial that pervaded Russia before and after the collapse of communism, Natalya Nesterova, a former official artist, documents in her paintings as grotesque a social farce as one could imagine.

In her retrospective show in 1992 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, earlier works such as Carrousel at Vladivostok, 1972, had an Henri Rousseau–like naiveté and delight in painting for its own sake, while in other works like The Summer Garden, 1982, Nesterova’s sense of quiet satire was in full evidence. The neoclassical statuesand the pedestrians wandering into and out of this unprepossessing park-scene were all painted in pallid modeled tones. As benign compositionally as a blank menu in an empty restaurant, these lifeless people and monuments seemed interchangeable, mere objects in a history lesson. Other subjects—people crowded together in parks, on beaches, walking in the street, or dining voraciously—alluded to a life in which past, present, and future must somehow be denied.

In her latest show of works from 1990–92, Nesterova deals with the same underlying political and social tensions as before, but in the ideological vacuum of post-perestroika Russia. In Red Lobster, 1992, a woman sits at a table drinking from a stemmed glass, surrounded by tables with checked cloths and conical napkins, while a red lobster rests on a plate, waiting to be eaten. Circus, 1992, has a masked woman who holds a plate above her head on which tiny KGB-type men in black dance around a blindfolded man painted white, like mice engaged in a saturnalian game of blind-man’s bluff. Circus tents balance the two sides of the composition.

Painted since Nesterova’s recent baptism into Russian Orthodoxy (seemingly chosen by many Russians to replace communism as the ideological raison d’être), many of these works take their inspiration from the Bible. Peopled with masked corn-media dell’arte figures whose gestures and nuances lack the sense of collective isolation of her earlier neoprimitive pieces, they are lively expositions of familiar scenes. In The Last Supper, 1990, the empty expressions of Christ and his Apostles are offset by a tiny bird who flits towards a bowl of fruit and an anonymous hand clutching the air. Crucifixion, 1991, shows a monochrome Christ, his face hidden, being gently lowered from the cross while two haloed figures pray below. The background is opaque and flat, the view close-cropped and fragmentary. One of the most powerful of these pieces, Thrown Down, 1991, shows four winged figures (ex-communist-party bureaucrats?) whose expressions are unredeemably desperate as they falter and fall through space. While they seem outwardly less morbid than her earlier work (candid depictions of a society in a state of political gridlock) Nesterova’s biblical narratives are less like sublime revelations than wounded caricatures of an allegorical style of painting.

John K. Grande