Mikhail Nesterov plaque, Moscow

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Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) seems to have belonged to two different eras entirely. He was a major painter before the 19th century had run out. His paintings were being acquired by the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) as early as the 1880s. And yet he lived until the early 1940s, well into the Soviet period. (He even won a Stalin Prize a year before he died, while two years before that, in 1938, he was arrested and held for two weeks before being released, while his son-in-law was shot and his daughter was sent to the labor camps.) If you love Russian mysticism and the Russian fairy-tale style (not only in fairy tales, but in mainstream culture as well), Nesterov is for you. I am a huge fan. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary collection of original Nesterovs just a few blocks from where I live. He provided the paintings and decorative art for the Marfo-Mariinskaya Convent whose address these days is 34 Bolshaya Ordynka Street. I stop by and admire his work there whenever I happen to be walking by, and at some point I’ll get around to making a post out of what I have seen. If you have never encountered Nesterov, you can get a crash course thanks to Google, which has collected a lot of his stuff in one place (with some other artists thrown in for no reason). Some might see similarities to the work of the pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They share a certain reverence for the world, a religiousness that might have pagan undertones, and a love of rich, deep colors. As a rule, before the Revolution Nesterov painted genre scenes, often with religious implications. After the Revolution he tended to paint more portraits, although they were as full of spirituality as anything he had painted before.
Although Nesterov was born in the far-flung city of Ufa, just west of the Southern Urals, he lived much of his adult life in Moscow. He traveled a lot, including Kiev and European capitals, but, still, Moscow was his primary home. He lived in the building pictured here – 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane – from 1920 until his death in 1942.

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Sivtsev-Vrazhek, on which Nesterov’s former home stands, is surely one of Moscow’s most culturally rich streets. It is connected with dozens and dozens of writers, artists, novels and such, from Leo Tolstoy to Mikhail Bulgakov, from The Master and Margarita to War and Peace. The name of the street is a combination of Sivets or Sivka, the name of a small river that used to run through this region of Moscow, and the word vrazhka, coming from the word ovrag, which means ravine. Nesterov lived at 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in an imposing building erected in 1906 by architect Grigory Oltarzhevsky. It looks like a home made especially for an artist, with its white columns, fanned window over the entrance and its bay windows here and there. As you can see in the final photo below, the building now stands in the shadows of the Russian Foreign Ministry, one of Moscow’s so-called “wedding cake” Stalinist buildings. The shadow cast by that building is long and heavy. It is an alien growth in this otherwise beautiful old neighborhood. It reminds me a little of the stills from Godzilla, with the Japanese monster towering over a modern metropolis. I’m not being facetious and I’m not trying to be metaphorical. I mean this all quite directly. Look again at that photo below and you will see how a wonderful old yellow, one-story building, probably from the late 18th century, fairly cowers in the shadow of the Ministry Monstrosity. Oh, I shouldn’t have allowed myself that last word…
“I avoided depicting the so-called great passions,” Nesterov reportedly said. “I preferred our quiet landscapes, an individual living a [rich] inner life. Here is a little Russian river; there a church. Everything is in its place, familiar, beloved. Ah, how I always loved our pitiful, senseless and great motherland!”

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