Nestor Engelke: Art Gallery named after prof. Woodman

19 April - 30 August 2023

Hat position


"Do I need to add that costumes are no better than figures: if you don't even go into details, they look either pretentious, unnatural, or stiff, hindering free movements of the body? You might think that they don't know how to wear them. Helmets are worn clumsily, felt hats look strange and sit on the head without any grace. Scarves, however, are in place, but tied with an awkward hand".

Eugene Fromentin on Rembrandt's "Night Watch" (from the book "Old Masters")


The artist Nestor Engelke, a well–known specialist in working with wood and the inventor of the "axe painting" technique, decided that he mastered his heavy tools perfectly and could afford to take a swing at the "old masters". He is supported in this ambitious undertaking by Professor Woodman, a double and trusted representative of the author, an eccentric whose passionate interest in wood flesh and the objects in which it manifests itself is a sufficient reason for the appearance of new works, even if these experiments seem "not convincing" to others. At one of Engelke's first exhibitions, the professor showed "wooden television", which can be watched only by squinting; later he represented the bureau of self-destructive architecture; after settling down, Woodman conceived the idea of founding a museum of tree painting, the gallery presents the first part of the collection: "Night Watch" and other portraits of the "golden age of Dutch painting", cut down with an axe.

The artist comments on his practice very briefly. Declaring: "fewer words – more chips," he refuses to explain everything himself, but leaves a few hints, hoping that interpretations will multiply around his works, because only through this hermeneutic practice his splintery remakes can become the basis for a real collection of classical art. Two main clues: firstly, he is interested in interacting with painting; secondly, hats. Let's try to offer options for decoding the Enegelke project in order to encourage viewers to build their own. 


Let's assume that the author is not going to cut with the entire painting tradition at once, and not with the "classics" presented by Dutch masters. He takes aim at Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn and his status as a painter (and artist) par excellence, which secured him in the era of Romanticism.


Only one of the works presented at the exhibition is based on an absolutely recognizable painting – a group portrait of Captain Bannink Kok's detachment ("Night Watch"). This Rembrandt canvas, about the plot of which there was a lot of controversy, obviously Engelke is interested in, as an example of a work that provokes a search for a solution, although in the end it turns out to be "just a portrait". In addition, the picturesque properties of this work have puzzled many authors. So Eugene Fromentin, a French romantic artist who usually extols Rembrandt, faced with the "Night Watch", was disappointed, in particular, that painting and the objects depicted existed at odds with each other. However, it was this feeling that attracted many modernists in the future. For example, Albert Glez and Jean Metzenger, artists and authors of the theoretical text "On Cubism", stated that the genealogy of their approach to art goes back to Rembrandt. Much later, researcher Svetlana Alpers, reflecting on the famous impasto of the Dutch master – a deliberately multi-layered, sculptural overlay of paint, indicating his interest in the materiality of painting as such, suggests the proximity of his searches to the practice of Pablo Picasso. Engelke is also attracted by this possibility of "unauthorized" painting, who says that by chopping with an axe, he "releases" a tree dried and enclosed in boards, makes it so that the essence "gets out of it." Like many of his predecessors, he links the history of his art with the main painter. The prototype of one of his works – the image of a character in a hat and with a gun – was a portrait by Rebrandt, depicting Herman Domer, the creator of furniture and picture frames. The Dutch woodworker, whose son worked in the painter's studio, becomes, in the mythology of Engelke, the ancestor of the Woodmans.


Nestor chooses for himself the role of an artist who diligently tries to get to the origins of painting, interacts with this story again and again, but always chooses boards and axes for this work, either because of an irresistible attachment to these materials and tools, or because of the extremely limited possibilities of the closed world in which he exists. Engelke, of course, takes the comic effect of this obsession, which the escapist author he invented does not seem to notice: repeating the history of art, he at the same time "kills" every picture (or every author behind it). However, years of exercises in "axe painting" really made him a virtuoso, so the competition with Rembrandt is not only a joke, but also a statement about the maturity of the skill of the author-woodcutter.


Back to the hats. The second line of interpretation of the exhibition is related to hats and those who wear them. In the Dutch culture of the XVII century, hats were a symbol of social status. In the painting "The Lesson of Osteology by Sebastian Egbertszoon" (presumably by Nicolaas Eliaszoon Pikenoy or Thomas de Keyser), which Engelke reproduces, only the prelector is depicted in the headdress, the rest of the characters in the group portrait remain with their heads bared. Who's in the hat is the main one. Judging by this feature, most of the heroes of the exhibition are people of status. There are military men, prison wardens, healers, a cabinetmaker (though he took up arms) and other respectable citizens. They have the costumes of rich people, but if you look at them as faces, and not spots of expressive cutting, they often turn into creepy skull-grimaces or are broken through holes. All these venerable people are gathered in the red hall, its color is taken from real museum spaces in which old paintings are shown, but it hardly contributes to calm contemplation. Perhaps what Engelke offers to look at is a group portrait of modern fear, for hats, in front of hats, which he prefers to materialize so that it sticks out like a splinter from the boards, rather than hanging in the air.


Anastasia Kotyleva