Novalis defined the Romantic in his Fragmente this way: ‘When I endow the commonplace with higher meaning, the everyday with the enchantment of mystery, the known with the dignity of the unknown, and the finite with the aspect of infinity, then I am romanticizing.’ His description of himself as a poet serves in essence as his theory of art. It presupposes a talent for transforming everything, even what at first glance is utterly commonplace, and as a result to bestow a fresh radiance upon it and make that visible and accessible. This capacity of the artist also plays a definite role in Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the objet trouvé. In this case the transformation is accomplished not at all by artistic modification of the forms discovered in the found object, but merely by the artist’s assertion. This nevertheless has, like Duchamp, the power to transform any quite ordinary object into something else, into something filled with radiance, in fact into a work of art. The debates surrounding that scandal have often come to the reproach that, if Duchamp had his way, works of art would be no different than ordinary objects and would fall into the category of the mundane. Arthur C. Danto in his essay The Transfiguration of the Commonplace made clear the idea that the artistic quality of an object or work of art does not depend on its expressive properties. ‘To see an artwork without knowing it is an artwork is comparable in a way to what one’s experience of print is before one learned to read; and to see it as an artwork then is like going from the realm of mere things to a realm of meaning.’ (Danto 1981: 124) It is essential for an observer of a work of art and of its context to perceive the Object as a work of art. This context enables interpretation of the work not only from the perspective of art history or formal history. Of course, not every form appears at the right time. But expressive or formal qualities may be selected by the artists themselves when they start their works, and the qualities will not necessarily depend on the spirit of the times, of which artists may be fully aware. In short, artists consult their intentions to determine the status.
Natalia Petrova’s oeuvre consists primarily of landscapes. They are devoid of people, like Creation still off limits to human beings, or as if they have just abandoned the world they have transformed. There are trees everywhere, some of them resembling stylized plumes, with a lone boat or house amidst them like pearls on a string. Pastels predominate in Petrova’s work. They are done en plein air and make the artist herself part of the landscape. Oil paintings in larger formats are done in the studio as prominent landmarks among the pastels. Monochrome fields of colour in the oils contrast with a laconic graphic style that mutes the form and colour brought out in the pastels. Instead they employ a palette with subtle gradations of colour that are felt as delicate and richly nuanced against the prevailing shades of red, violet and yellow. In each of her pastels Petrova often sets up an equilibrium between colours that at first seem to conflict with each other. The fragile equilibrium she creates impels the viewer to look at her next painting. This is how Petrova encourages the protracted viewing that the serial nature of her work requires. It is a series of harmonizing forms and colours blended together by the artist. Taken in a certain sequence, they form a single structure that emerges only as the paintings are viewed in order. This strategy of abstraction sets Natalia Petrova’s work apart and brings a sense of motion to it. The starting point is the artist’s view of a particular landscape. If viewers should happen upon that same place, they should be able to recognize it. However, the pastels certainly do not reproduce the landscape. They do not duplicate in detail a specific photographic perspective or lighting. The artist rearranges the separate elements - houses and trees, boats and churches - and makes a new combination of them. This constructive strategy is evident also in the use of colour. The intense reds and yellows alongside the pastels do not strike the eye as a realistic rendering of colour. The rules of perspective are also violated by placing the separate elements of the picture in a flat plane reminiscent of collage. From these abstractions of form and colour the artist constructs features of the landscape. This then introduces the serial rhythmic arrangement that creates a meta-form that transcends an everyday fixed viewing of the picture. It requires time and movement by the viewer to incorporate the separate pictures into a larger format that cannot be taken in with a single glance. Natalia Petrova demonstrates through her work both the impossibility of capturing a landscape and also registering it at a glance. The objects in her works are set into motion in such a way that the viewer encounters them in a completely different light. The form of her artistry resembles a musical composition that becomes clear only after viewing all the pictures in a particular sequence. That is the way to see the work as complete.
The relation of painting to music has long been debated in aesthetic theory, especially since the time of Poussin’s well-known letter on modes. Poussin maintains that the appearance of the object painted is not at all responsible for its impact and impressions. Sentiment - the mode - is the decisive factor in painting. That is evident in Natalia Petrova’s works too. In individual works she restricts the elements of form and colour to the point where they shed their meaning and a multi-dimensional equilibrium is attained. The work itself determines when this occurs, at the very moment when it discovers its ‘mood’ or sound. This is the extent of Poussin’s analogy between music and painting. He had expectations of a system in which each sentiment would be assigned precise characteristics, such as solemnity or pleasure. With Natalia Petrova these qualities arise from direct interaction with the landscapes themselves. At the same time the question remains open whether the mood of the landscape is visible and inscribed as such clearly in the picture, or whether the mood is the nature or essence of the landscape - outside the boundaries of artistic imagery - where the viewer’s intercourse with the picture takes place. That mood elicits an evocation of fading sound. This abstracting manoeuvre used to achieve something visible is a distinguishing feature throughout Natalia Petrova’s oeuvre.
Copyright: Boris Manner, 2018
Boris Manner is a native of Kärnten, studied philosophy and management of cultural affairs. He has curated many exhibitions in Moscow, Venice and Istanbul for the Stella Art Foundation. Since 2001 Boris Manner has taught at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. He has many publications to his credit.