Friday, March 9, 2018

On Mikhail Nesterov

"Holy Rus" Mikhail Nesterov. 1905.
(The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I sometimes feel foolish when I “discover” a wonderful artist. This, after finding out that I’m apparently the last to do so.

Such is the case with Russian artist, Mikhail Nesterov. I don’t rightly know what it is about Russian artists that makes them evade detection from the West. Perhaps it’s the Iron Curtain thing. Maybe it’s because they aren’t usually considered part of Western Culture, the foundation on which art survey courses are built. Maybe it’s because the West contents itself with its own wealth of talent. At any rate, Nesterov is worth bringing to light, either for the first time, or again for those who are already familiar with the artist.
"The Love Potion" Mikhail Nesterov. 1888.
(Radishchev Art Museum, Saratov, Russia)

Mikhail Nesterov was born in 1862. He was schooled in the academic style of the day, but surely influences of emerging movements, along with recently established styles had an effect on his view of art. He became part of a movement that challenged the academic style. Still, he was Russian, and his work contains a wonderful blend of his own culture, suffused with faint hints of the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionism. Stylistically, he has been relegated to the Russian Symbolist style, but there is also contained in his work a strong sense of illustration, a discipline in which he partially earned a living.

The subject matter of his work was also an eclectic mix. He was pulled to one side by religious Orthodoxy, but the deep cultural history of Russia, and its emergence as a modern nation, was pulling on the other side. Nesterov’s “Holy Rus,” for example, is a puzzle. My heart tells me that the subject of the painting is Jesus Christ, but my head and the title of the painting tell me that it leans more toward a personification of Russia as the holder of all things Christian, and not necessarily Christ Himself.
"The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew"
Mikhail Nesterov. 1889-90.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Many of Nesterov’s other paintings contain folkloric flavors so endearing that one can’t help imagining they are either missing pieces of childhood, or rich visions of which J.R.R. Tolkien could only dream. “The Love Potion,” and “The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew” are among these.

His “Taking the Veil,” on the other hand, almost sidesteps the fact that the procession is made up of nuns and novices, and the viewer meanders beyond the figures, past distinctive buildings and birch trees, to solemnities unfolding in the background. Taking the viewer on such a journey shows mastery of storytelling under the guise of fine art.

Unfortunately, Nesterov was made to ride the rogue wave of post-Tsarist Russia. His daughter was brutally interrogated. Nesterov himself was imprisoned for two weeks. His son-in-law, accused of being a spy, was shot. As strange consolation, the artist was granted the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his painting of Pavlov. Nesterov died the next year.
"Taking the Veil"
Mikhail Nesterov. 1897-98.
(State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

A career spent in such a crucible did not bode well for the man. It probably never can. His work however, tells a different story, and I am not ashamed to have found it, even if I am the very last to do so.

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