Lyudmila Vostretsova Natali Zemlyanaya’s Pastels

Natalia Zemlyanaya belongs to a generation of St Petersburg artists that expand

upon artistic practices rooted in the avant-garde tradition.

Zemlyanaya’s pastel drawings are complete works of art, just as her paintings.

Interest in pastel drawing resurged at the end of the 20th century, and the World

Fund of Arts launched its annual international PASTELIUM competition. In 1999, a

group of pastel artists formed an organisation in St Petersburg.

In her years of study at the Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Industrial

Design, Natalia Zemlyanaya was fortunate enough to encounter such great masters as

Lyudmila Kutsenko, Alexander Zaitsev, and Stanislav Mosevich. Lyudmila Kutsenko

formed “Parallel”, a group of young artists, in the late 1980s.

Natalia Zemlyanaya has contributed to every single Parallel show since 1989.

Zemlyanaya names Lyudmila Kutsenko as a major influence, particularly

instrumental in the maturation of her unique language of form.

Perhaps one of the most insightful thoughts her mentors had instilled in

Zemlyanaya was that art is not some fragment of reality. Art’s paramount purpose,

and its most attractive aspect, is finding the unusual in the familiar. Zemlyanaya’s

teachers had taught her how to discover new principles of understanding space and

form. But even more importantly, they taught her to never stop and never be afraid to

keep searching.

Pastel mixes the possibilities of painting and drawing. Pastel techniques are

highly diverse. You can apply pastels in lines or patches, rub them in, dry-wash them,

or spread them with a wet brush to get extra delicate colouration or blur the edges of a

patch of colour. Natalia Zemlyanaya has an excellent command of all these

techniques and uses them in her works, giving the image a unique velvety surface.

Like her paintings, Zemlyanaya’s pastels have no narrative, literary quality.

They speak in their own figurative language, in which gradation takes the place of

reflected colour, pictorial statements collide, and surface texture is enhanced.

The earliest works on display date back to the early 1990s. Among them are

several sheets with the same title: Labyrinth.

Natalia Zemlyanaya never mentioned Valentina Povarova among her teachers.

And yet Povarova and Kutsenko taught in the general painting department around the

same time and adhered to the same school of thought as regards the colouristic aspects

of the painting space. The subdued, minimalistic colour scheme of Zemlyanaya’s

Labyrinths from that time echoes Povarova’s own experiments. The dark, cold, and

sometimes dull brown, green, and blue hues assist in working with form, finding

pictorial symbols, and constructing a space that pulls the gaze directly into the depths

of the painting – as if into the depths of the universe. These Labyrinths are somewhat

like wells, with alternating patterns of vertical and horizontal strips of colour. Without

a doubt, these labyrinthine compositions are the work of an artist who is still

searching, and are rightfully a part of her Colour Forms series, which grouped

together Zemlyanaya’s experiments in the 1990s. The works in the series are abstract

compositions exploring, first and foremost, universal categories: the space of the

painting is the space of the cosmos.

The labyrinth symbolizes the world, the universe, the impenetrable, movement,

eternity, and, ultimately, immortality.

The unique properties of the pastel medium permit the artist to build up the

colour layer by superimposing colours one on top of the other. The underlying colours

shine through the top ones, resulting in an unusual velvety surface reminiscent of the

sfumato method. In the decades that followed, Zemlyanaya’s Labyrinth compositions

became imbued with more colour and began including supple, flowing lines.

Preparing for an interview for the magazine Avanscena, Natalia Zemlyanaya

said: “… a person will create when their mind is free and pure. And this is very

important for artistic people, because they are unusual. In my view, a pure mind is

art’s most important instrument. You also need education, craftsmanship, a school of

thought, and lots of difficult spiritual and intellectual work, of course. But these

aspects must all pave the way for freedom of the mind. Freedom of the mind is an

unavoidable precondition for a person to create anything of value. A person who lacks

freedom of the mind will be guided solely by their knowledge, their ideas, and their

interests. Such a person is only divorcing themselves further from the universal mind,

and this is the most important thing for art.” 1

One more significant element that would define Zemlyanaya’s painterly syntax

was also present in her works of the 1990s. She had inherited her interest in the

structural aspects of painting from Lyudmila Kutsenko. In the multiplying facets of

the labyrinths, the fragments work together to create the sense of a structure in

motion. The Large Structures compositions appeared among Zemlyanaya’s pastels in

the early 1990s. The artist pre-sents structure as a system of interrelationships.

Zemlyanaya seems to fully share Kutsenko’s fascination with the principle of

rhythmic distribution of colour across a surface, as it “provides an opportunity to

expose the colour as much as possible and give it the utmost intensity… to force these

structures to convey, on a flat surface, the semblance of large multicoloured crystals.”


“I love pastels,” Zemlyanaya says, “because they offer a way to quickly express

an emotion. Oil painting is a long process, but I love it, too… Any picture is like a

flower: first there is a seedling, then the leaves come, and eventually the flowers or

fruit. At some point, the work becomes a living being for the artist. And it itself tells

the artist how to complete it, tell him what to do and what not to. If I can see that my

painting is not complete, I will keep working. This is not an endless process, but it is a

lengthy one: you keep changing things, adding more depth, improving…” 3

Zemlyanaya’s interest in the spatial structuring of the image inspired her to

explore the rhythm of lines, forms, and colour patches. In her pastel series of the

2000s, Lines (paralleled by an identically-named series of oil paintings) – and

particularly in the works Spring Lines – 1, Bamboo and Lotuses, Music, Dance, and

certain others – there is a rhythm created by the streaming lines, which are easy to

associate with musical sounds.

In a testimony to the relevance and significance of the concept of structure in

contemporary art, the Russian Museum hosted the exhibition Structures in 2017. To

quote the exhibition’s press release: “The purpose of this exhibition is to highlight the

undiminished relevance of the art of ‘pure form’. It showcases models or matrices for

some of the compositional structures that have dominated art in this century and the

last, which have now consolidated into established form-based motifs: the grille/mesh,

the crystal, the chain, the spiral, and so on.”

Pavel Kondratyev, who learned from the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, was

in the 1960s one of the first to begin explaining to the new generation of artists and art

historians how the masters of the avant-garde viewed changing ideas about painting.

He recorded his thoughts on the use of space and form, not only recalling what had

already been ascertained, but also adding something new – that which he had

discovered in the works of the European artists of the previous decades, including the

idea of structure. Valentina Povarova was a close associate of Kondratyev in the

1970s, and their artistic pursuits had much in common. It was through Povarova’s

interest in structure that Kutsenko became intrigued by it as well (the artists were on

friendly terms and worked together). Ku-tsenko, in turn, shared this understanding

with her students and the members of the Parallel group.

Pavel Kondratyev also reflected on the idea of structure: “What goes into

creating the structure of a work?

(а) Relatively separate and relatively indivisible elements of form.

(b) Interconnectedness and relationships between those elements.

(c) The cohesive properties of those elements, defined by a dominant additional


(d) The spectrum of different states of the dominant additional element.

(e) The unity of conservation and change of the dominant additional element

and all other elements of form in the artwork…

To the artist, this law manifests itself in “deviations”, “changes”, and

“disfigurement of the visible world”. 4

Zemlyanaya believes that nature submits to certain fundamental laws. The artist

arranges the composition with a balance of colourful shapes, looking not for an

external likeness to reality, but an internal one.

Zemlyanaya named one of her solo exhibitions The Unreal Real.

In her work, Natalia develops the “plastic idea-formula”, born from direct

impressions of nature, which generates a picturesque harmony in form and colour.

Zemlyanaya’s works are not improvisation; everything therein is subject to a certain

system. The seemingly unreal is created from concrete emotional experience. The

artist is interested, above all, in feelings, in the rapture of the world in bloom. Her

artistry manifests in the extent to which she is able to universalise emotions extracted

from reality.

Zemlyanaya believes the primary mission of art is “to help people see the world

with new eyes. A person who comes to one of my shows has to leave a different

person”. 5


1From a conversation with Lyudmila Vostretsova. 2021.

2Lyudmila Kutsenko (1930–2011). Album of Illustrations. From the Series

Russian Avant-Garde. A New Century. St Petersburg, 2012, p. 3.

3Valeria Eliseyeva. “Natalia Zemlyanaya. Iskusstvo zhivoe i myortvoe”

[Natalia Zemlyanaya. Living and Dead Art]. Avanscena. 2001, No. 3, p. 176.

4Lyudmila Vostretsova. “P. M. Kondratyev – uchenik i uchitel’” [Pavel

Kondratyev: Teacher and Student]. Russky avangard. Lichnost’ i shkola [Russian

Avant-Garde. Personalities and Schools]. Almanakh. St Petersburg, 2003, issue 38, p.


Pavel Mikhailovich Kondratyev (1902–1985). From 1925 to 1929,

Kondratyev was a member of Masters of Analytical Art, a group of Pavel Filonov’s

students. He took up painting under the tutelage of Konstantin Rozhdestvensky and

Lev Yudin in 1932. In the 1960s he began looking for new “plastic systems”.

5Valeria Eliseyeva. “Natalia Zemlyanaya. Iskusstvo zhivoe i myortvoe”

[Natalia Zemlyanaya. Living and Dead Art]. Avanscena. 2001, No. 3, p. 178.
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