abstract  "Nesterov and Blok: Feminizing Russian Landscape Around 1900"


One of the paintings recently displayed at the Russian Landscape exhibition in London (2004) is Mikhail Nesterovs On the Hills (1896). This canvas, inspired by Melnikov-Pecherskys novel of the same name (1875-81), shows a woman in traditional Russian clothing standing in front of rolling hills, a forest and a river. Thematically, On the Hills can be grouped within a series of paintings that Nesterov made in the 1890s of women in typically Russian rural landscapes. If one were to write a description of these paintings, the following terms would repeatedly occur: красавица (beautiful woman), платок (Russian headscarf), храм (church), избы (wooden huts), даль (distance), туман (mist), простор (spaciousness), леса (forests), сумерки (twilight), снег (snow).

This word chain links the paintings of Nesterov with the metaphorical representation of Russian landscape as female beloved in a number of Russian modern literary classics. Russia or Russian nature is personified into a beloved woman in some key works of Russian literature throughout the twentieth century. In these works, Russian landscape functions as a metaphor for the allegedly female principle of the historical, authentic Russia of the people (as opposed to the male principle of the westernized intelligentsia and state).

This article discusses the correspondences between the conceptualization of Russian landscape as a female category in the literary sphere (with particular attention for Aleksandr Blok's play Song of Fate) and Nesterovs visual representations of women in a Russian setting. It proposes that the similarities are not coincidental, but that they can be explained from a common literary source: the association of the heroine with Russia in the plot of the nineteenth-century Russian realistic novel.

picture: fragment from mikhail nesterov's painting on the hills (1896)