Mikhail Nesterov in Search of His Russia

Lydia Iovleva

Magazine issue: 
#1 2013 (38)


Sometimes it is impossible for the Tretyakov Gallery to arrange a commemorative exhibition precisely in the year (or month) when the artist concerned was born. Often circumstances (such as other exhibitions, or availability of venues) cause our main exhibition partner, the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, which has larger and more diverse exhibition facilities, to have its shows up and running before us, timing them to neatly concur with the anniversary date. That was the case with the Levitan show, as well as the Nesterov exhibition, which enjoyed a warm reception in St. Petersburg from summer 2012. In addition, it was necessary to present Nesterov in his native town, Ufa, at the splendid Bashkir Art Museum, of which the artist was a co-founder and which is now named after him. The official anniversary celebration (autumn 2012) took place in Ufa, at the National Theatre, and was attended by the President of the Republic of Bashkortostan.

Commencing such a series of commemorative events is an honourable duty, but it is no less important to bring them to a closure with dignity, all the more so as every exhibition, whether in St. Petersburg, or Ufa, or Moscow, was (for a variety of reasons) somewhat different from the others, lending a distinctive flavour to the overall interpretation of Nesterov's contribution to the history of Russian art. The show in Ufa, for example, introduced most interesting early pieces accomplished during Nesterov's student years, which are little known even among experts; another important consideration is that the same works in every new room and every new space always look different, thus enriching viewers' ideas about the artist. One cannot fail to notice that the organisers of each of the Nesterov exhibitions prepared publications specific to their shows, usually voluminous and bright catalogues in the form of albums providing detailed explanations of the goals and mission of the relevant exhibition.1

Speaking about exhibitions and publications focused on Nesterov, one cannot fail to notice that both in his lifetime and after his death the artist received his fair share of attention from experts and the general public alike. Nesterov is believed to be one of the most popular artists of his period: since 1907, he has been given more than 15 solo shows. Some were big exhibitions presenting Nesterov's legacy sufficiently comprehensively. One such exhibition, for example, took place in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Ufa 50 years ago, in 1962-1963 -on the centenary of the artist's birth. Some shows had an intimate character, and were hardly accessible to the general public at all, such as that at the Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) in Moscow, in 1935, when Nesterov was eager to show off to the new generation of museum-goers what he believed was his pivotal big composition ("In the Land of Russia (The Soul of the People)", 1914-1918, Tretyakov Gallery), but was prohibited from doing so by the censors, although the exhibition, originally open for a week, had its run extended by another seven days following a request from Soviet working peoples2.

Such limitations arose frequently enough whenever Nesterov's artwork was publicly displayed because the artist's Christian interpretation of Russia's history and the Russian people's mentality was obviously out of step with official historical research. Fortunately, such "discords" did not bring the artist misfortunes such as persecution or execution: Nesterov was allowed to live and work, unlike many of his associates and friends3, or even close relatives4. Moreover, in March 1941 Nesterov was even awarded the Stalin Prize of the first degree for his portraits of the acclaimed physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1935, Tretyakov Gallery; the 1930 version is in the Russian Museum). A number of Soviet cultural figures occasionally found themselves in such paradoxical situations. Many of Nesterov's compositions, such as the above-mentioned "In the Land of Russia (The Soul of the People)" and the earlier "Holy Rus" (1905, in the Russian Museum)5, which have so much in common with the Russian poetry of the Silver Age (Alexander Blok) and the ideas of the Russian philosophers of that period, or the St. Sergius series - compositions focused on the personality and work of St. Sergius of Radonezh, a Russian saint of the 14th century - began to be featured in the museums' permanent collections only at the end of the 1980s, and more accurately in the 1990s.

It is these pieces that convey the key theme of Nesterov's art, which can be discerned, beginning with "The Hermit", in every one of his works: the large narrative compositions, and the lyrical landscapes of the heartland of Russia and the Russian North, and the portraits, almost none of which were commissioned, and the murals in churches, which were the artist's important contribution to the development of Russian mural art, however short-lived that proved. Even in the famed late portraits created in the 1930s, those of the "Soviet cultural figures" officially accepted and recognised by the Soviet authorities, Nesterov essentially remained loyal to his theme - in other words, to himself: his models were usually people from his social circle who were close to the artist in spirit, worldview and even, in many respects, way of life. His models were mostly representatives, not so much of the new Soviet intelligentsia, as of the old Russian one, figures who knew the value of human life and human work (was that the reason why this intelligentsia was able to survive such inhumane conditions of ideological and political repression?).

The new Nesterov exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, although essentially similar to the other recent Nesterov shows, differs from them somewhat in terms of its arrangement of exhibits and emphases. Even the show's title is different - "Mikhail Nesterov in Search of His Russia" - although the show starts off with early works, compositions produced while at school and soon after graduation, ordinary genre pieces in the manner of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers), which feature almost nothing of"Nesterov's Russia". The exhibition also presents the artist's early attempts at historical painting, which essentially do not stray far from what can be found in similar pictures of the young "Peredvizhniki" artists of the 1880s, like Sergei Ivanov or Andrei Ryabushkin. But already at the end of the 1880s the "Peredvizhniki" shows featured "The Hermit" (at the group's 17th exhibition, 1889) and "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew" (at the 18th, 1890). Both compositions were bought by Pavel Tretyakov. It was at that period that the young artist began to engage with his main theme and started his determined quest for "his Russia".

The other art on view is grouped into "clusters" focused on Nesterov's search for, and in-depth exploration of, his over-arching theme. Historical compositions centred around the most popular Russian saint St. Sergius of Radonezh, the "St. Sergius Series" is the starting point in the construction of Holy Russia; then follows the feminine theme as the embodiment of the spiritual and suffering element in the historical movement of the Russian people to "Holy Rus'"6, then on to the poignant lyrical landscapes of the heartland of Russia and the Russian North (Solovki) - images of a nature which is actively involved with the people's overall drive to a spiritual ideal; and finally, the high point of this journey, comes the major composition "In the Land of Russia (The Soul of the People)", as if capturing this march to the invisible Christ (or the march with Christ as its leader), bringing together all groups of Russian society, from hysterical women and holy fools to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The exhibition has a separate section ("On the church scaffolding") devoted to Nesterov's church murals, which once brought great fame to the artist: the St. Vladimir (Volodymyr) Cathedral in Kiev, where Nesterov worked together with, and under the guidance of, Viktor Vasnetsov, whom he deeply respected; the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ ("Saviour on the Spilled Blood") in St. Petersburg; the church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Abastumani in Georgia; the Marfo-Mariinsky (Mary and Martha) Convent in Moscow, and several others.

Many churches which originally had murals created by Nesterov were completely or almost completely destroyed, and Nesterov's compositions can now be studied only from photographs, sketches and miraculously surviving individual icons or preparatory drawings. The collection of such artefacts on view is quite comprehensive.

The exhibition has two portrait sections, one focused on portraits created in the 1890s-1910s, images of the age of "the modern", the other on portraits created during the last two decades of Nesterov's life (the 1920s and the 1930s). For all their common features, the Nesterov portraits from different periods feature different styles, which changed and evolved during the artist's long life, spontaneously absorbing the artistic tastes and preferences of different epoques, as well as different interpretations of the models' personalities and characters.

Overall, the exhibition presents more than 250 paintings, drawings and even objects of applied art on loan from 24 museums in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and from several private collectors in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Each piece selected for the show from a private collection, and in some cases from museums, was thoroughly inspected by the curators and experts and discussed at meetings of the Tretyakov Gallery's Attribution Council. Several findings, limited in scope but important for Nesterov scholarship, were made along the way: some of his signatures, superscriptions, date inscriptions, previously unnoticed, were discovered, and information about the time and place where and when certain compositions were created, as well as about their subsequent histories, was amended. Certainly, most of the pieces on view have been known to the regular viewing public of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum, but some featured items are little known or even completely unknown to art aficionados.

The most important piece among those is the large composition (214 by 187 cm) titled "Calvary". For more than 50 years - or, if we count from its first and presumably only public display at the 28th "Peredvizhniki" exhibition in 1900-1901, for more than 100 years - the painting was held by the artist himself, then by private collectors, before it was finally transferred, in 1957, from the State Fund to the Tretyakov Gallery7. It was in a very sorry state. Preparing the present exhibition, a group of the gallery's restorers, headed by the chief of the oil painting renovation workshop Andrei Golubeiko, put a great deal of work into strengthening and renovating the artist's original paints, bringing the picture "back to life" and ultimately making it fit for exhibition.

The exhibition for the first time offers viewers paintings and graphic pieces acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery in 2012 from the estate of Nesterov's granddaughter, Irina Viktorovna Shreter (who died in 2003). Another of Nesterov's granddaughters, Maria Ivanovna Titova, too, kindly agreed to loan some of the works in her possession. The items recently acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery and featured at the show include several drawings with sketches made in preparation for the murals at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent. The show presents other "novel" pieces as well, on loan both from museums and private collectors.

Yet another distinction of the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery is that the items are not grouped by medium (painting, graphics, etc), but rather thematically or, more precisely, based on the above-mentioned thematic sections, each including the most diverse preparatory materials. With the artwork thus grouped, viewers have ample opportunity to explore the artist's entire life in art and his evolution both in terms of contents and ideas and in terms of style, especially since both aspects were closely linked in Nesterov's art - style changed following changes in the contents.

The organisers of the exhibition "Mikhail Nesterov in Search of His Russia" hope that it will be of interest to the public today if for no other reason than that it presents truly Great Art by a Great Russian Artist who devoted all his life to his country and his people in a manner which he considered appropriate and necessary.

  1. At the Russian Museum: "Mikhail Nesterov". Almanac. Issue 325. St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2012.
  2. At the BashkirArt Museum: "On the Occasion of Mikhail Nesterov's 150th Anniversary. The Works of Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov in Russian Museums, Galleries and Private Collections. Paintings. Drawings. Catalogue of the Exhibition". Ufa. 2012.
  3. In 1935 the painting was in the artist's possession. The Tretyakov Gallery acquired it only in 1958 from the artist's heirs, but included it into the permanent collection much later, in the 1990s. Reference to the expulsion from Russia of many of Nesterov's friends - the acclaimed Russian philosophers whose portraits he painted: Sergei Bulgakov, Ivan Ilyin, and the priest Pavel Florensky (who was imprisoned and executed in the second half of the 1930s).
  4. 1938 saw the arrest and subsequent execution of Nesterov's son-in-law, the husband of his elder daughter Olga -the lawyer and professor of law, Victor Shreter; soon afterwards Olga herself was arrested, although she was spared capital punishment. She was released from the labour camps in 1941 after her father, by then a Stalin Prize winner, and his famous friends, whose portraits he painted late in life, pulled some strings. In 1925 Nesterov himself spent several months in Moscow's Butyrka prison, perhaps in connection with the "case" of Patriarch Tikhon, whom he held in great esteem.
  5. Regrettably, due to considerations of safety, the painting was "unable to travel" to Moscow and was not shown at the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery.
  6. Arguably, the key composition on this subject is "Taking the Veil", 1897-1898 (Russian Museum).
  7. The catalogue of the Nesterov exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1990 lists this painting although it was not displayed on account of its poor state; yet it was printed, without any restoration, in "The Tretyakov Gallery. A Catalogue of Its Collection. Paintings of the late 19th-early 20th Centuries". Moscow: Skanrus publisher, 2005. P. 254.





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