Don’t Axe Me Why

Nestor Engelke, 37, born into an artistic family in St.Petersburg, the self-anointed cultural capital of Russia. He received classical art/architectural education and set up the art group NORTH 7.

I love this guy. He smells of wilderness and the curiosity of stone-age hunters. If the Russian North still had unassimilated indigenous people, their art should be like that. Wood, axes, occasional raids to Moscow – ransacking cities, taking slaves and ransom and then using Rembrandt’s Danae as a door-flap for their log houses until a brilliant local talent is born that suddenly recognises its aesthetic value.

Nestor Engelke Wooden Danae from the series «Wooden Walks in the Hermitage», 2020. Source.

When I saw his work for the first time, it was this huge Gothic window.

A misty silhouette of a mystery forest man emerges on the other side of it, and the church-like window turns the encounter into a mystic experience because everything that’s Gothic is loaded with mysticism even if you are not religious. This experience is further enhanced by a contradictory visual conflict – you expect the silhouette to be dark; instead, it is emanating light like Christ in a Caravaggio or ET in a Spielberg.

ca.3 metre high Gothic window, sold at 5,500 Euro. Source

It is wood to which an axe was applied repeatedly, and for quite a long time at that.  It is a product of something rude being hacked by something even ruder. But the result is ephemeral and light.

I know that a comparison to God creating the lovable Eve out of a bone (not to mention Adam and dust)  would be really stretching it. Still, the transformation of something so rough into the sublime is a bit of a miracle, isn’t it?

Then I saw his hewn map of Russia with sawdust on the floor beneath it. Were it not that huge, I’d buy it on the spot.


Wooden Map, 2018, sold for 5,500 Euro, 3.3 metres long! Source


Even if you don’t axe ask me why I wanted it, I’ll tell you anyway. Russia is famous for its furs, honey, wood, oil, gas, and people that are treated much the same way as natural resources: “spend it, spend it, spend it”, but make sure the population stays renewable.

There’s a Russian proverb, “When trees are felled, sawdust is flying” (it does have a Shakespearean ring to it). The meaning of this phrase is not as poetic as it sounds – it means that when the all-powerful state is straining its muscles to achieve something great, who cares how many people are ground to dust in the process. The Russian State is neither inherently cruel nor merciless – it is the inevitable consequence of putting the end above the means for as long as Russian history is recorded, and no Dostoyevsky with his tear of a child blah-blah-blah can help it.

This is how you come to appreciate the sawdust on the floor – a mass grave of fallen Russians who have built, defended and kept maintenance of this vast country.

Coming back to Danae – instead of Jupiter as golden shower impregnating the princess, a bat is flying away there… Is it a reference to Coronavirus? I have no idea, but if it is, it’s cute. If gods of the classical past intended to screw people, they’d turn into beautiful bulls, swans, or golden showers. Today, it’s bats, pigs, and baby-kissers with a tiny flag pinned to their lapel and massive security detail.

PS On some Saturdays, I just need a break from art history, but the next chapter on Europa is coming.


  1. Hello KP and all…
    I think the piece is good although I would have liked to see more of his works and learn more about him –guess I can google it…. :)) However I believe it is really cool that you share your experience and knowledge of Nestor Engelke as 1. I did not know of him and 2. I think he is brilliant.
    To SWO8, I do not know if you are Russian or not, I wanted to add:
    – “I’m sorry but I can’t share the Russian concept of the people being mere disposable sawdust.” I am sorry but this is not about YOU. The concept is there. How many men died building Peter and Paul Fortress? And, in Russia, (come on, you know this…) ‘le peuple’ is definitely disposable if you one is the contemporary Tsar (or called by any other title) or Tsar from past times.

    2. I suggest you look at this artists work again (particularly the MAP) and give it a chance. The MAP is a brilliant piece and I suggest that KP does a piece comparing this Russian piece with Johns’ FLAG. That would be an interesting article and exercise –and it places this work of art in context of other works of art! I would buy it too –whether I had the wall size or not!
    In fact, the more I think about it the more I am certain, the sawdust is truly brilliant and poignant. And I also find that dust very emotional!

    1. Never saw it, but I know what you are talking about – there was an exhibition of Spanish wooden sculpture a few years back… at the National Gallery – have you been to it?

  2. Oh, I understand you all too well! Poignant pieces – both the art and your post. And that yesterday was 9th May also plays a part in it, I am sure.

  3. I’m sorry but I can’t share the Russian concept of the people being mere disposable sawdust. Also there’s a certain lack of beauty in the creations of Nestor Engelke. It neither inspires me nor delights me.

    1. Well, I don’t share the Russian concept either, but it’s there, it exists, and I value art that reflects on it. As for beauty… I don’t want to go with the eye of the beholder line, but – I see the beauty in his ability to provoke the viewer to reflect on issues he or she may not be aware of otherwise. There is plenty of stuff around that’s pleasant for the eye, but a definitive lack of art that makes one think. And for me, the imagery is beautiful too, but that’s just me, no problem if you happen not to like it )

      1. I can see where art sometimes is there to make a statement – even a painful statement but that belongs more in a national gallery. In this case I hope it makes the powers that be cognizant of the troubles of the people.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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