Ukraine, 2023. Russian soldiers pose with their Kalashnikovs in front of a city in ruins. In front of them, the light highlights a young woman with a large flag and a bulletproof vest with a “Z”, a symbol of support for the offensive.
This collective portrait, which aims to be epic, opens the new exhibition “We are Russians, God is with us”, which brings together in Moscow imposing patriotic paintings in the tradition of realism from the tsarist, and then Soviet times, and aims to galvanize the spirits in full conflict in Ukraine.
“Stay there, next to that painting that shows that our victory will be final,” a man with a mustache exclaims to about 40 children in black uniforms, students from a military school who are visiting the exhibition on a school trip.
In the midst of the students is Vasily Nesterenko, 56, a Russian contemporary realist painter honored by Vladimir Putin. He is the author of the painting.
Before taking a photo smiling with the future soldiers, the white-haired painter with a serene face talks to the children and tells them: “Being in the military is for life, just like for artists.”
Until June 25, the great hall of the Manege, close to the iconic Red Square, will exhibit a hundred paintings by Nesterenko, including several monumental paintings celebrating the exploits of the Russian army throughout the centuries.
As the military fights in Ukraine, the Kremlin strongly encourages artwork exalting warlike heroism and the idea of defensive conflict against kyiv and its allies. At the same time, it represses dissident artists.
Directors of public cultural institutions, who had chosen not to comment on the conflict, have lost their jobs in recent months. The state now requires proof of loyalty.
– Eternal wars –
Nesterenko has given abundant proof.
Born in 1967 in the Ukraine, he became known for his religious paintings. He decorated part of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and, more recently, a large church dedicated to the Russian armed forces, opened in 2020.
Nesterenko has held the title of Russian “People’s Artist” since 2004, an honor dating back to the Soviet era, and has important official functions in the cultural arena.
“When the guns start talking, you can’t keep quiet,” Nesterenko told AFP.
The painter spent time alongside the Russian forces in the Ukraine and Syria to nurture his paintings, full of details. In his exhibition, some works show the ruins and civilian victims, while others exude a certain simplicity.
An example is the “Letter to Russia’s Adversaries”, which depicts hilarious Russian soldiers writing a letter during the intervention in Syria, a pastiche of a famous painting by the Russian master Ilya Repin (1844-1930) in which Cossacks write to the ottoman sultan.
“My historical military paintings are benevolent, optimistic, they don’t show the blackness of darkness, like Goya’s,” Nesterenko said.
Even if that means showing the war as a blessing for Russia?
“All the wars have forced our country to unite, to concentrate and to respond. We have no other history. We have always had war, be it against the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, the French and many times against the Germans,” he replied. .
As the Kremlin indicates, the exhibition shows Russian history as a necessary succession of glorious military episodes. One of the paintings on display celebrates the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Others are of landscapes or biblical scenes.
Nesterenko defends a classical European figurative painting that he considers seriously threatened, a view that recalls the discourse of Russian power on the supposed decline of Western culture.
“I think the time will soon come when their culture, their art and their religion will only be loved here (Russia),” says the painter, who frequently travels to Europe to visit museums.
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