When half way through the journey of our life,
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.
And ah, how hard it is to say just what
this wild and rough and stubborn woodland was,
the very thought of which renews my fear!
So bitter ‘t is, that death is little worse;
but of the good to treat which there I found,
I’ll speak of what I else discovered there.
I cannot well say how I entered it,
so full of slumber was I at the moment
when I forsook the pathway of the truth.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy.
The first artworks from Marina Fedorova’s Botanicum series appeared at the same time as her COSMODREAMS project. In a way, the bright and vibrant paintings dominated by forest landscapes and female nudes counterbalanced the endless cosmic expanses, detached ambiguity and weightlessness of the ‘space dreams’.
As in other painting series by Fedorova, the female principle is front and centre here. The woman is in harmony with nature, which is integral to her power and primeval purity. At the same time, by revealing the slender shapes of her characters the artist emphasises their delicacy and vulnerability. In Marina Fedorova’s work, a woman is like a flower: it is easy to break a young stem despite the great natural force that feeds it.
The strong link between the natural and the female is evident in the painting titled In the Roots with its two focal points: the tree’s robust root system and the shape of the girl snuggled up to it. The character’s pose reflects her inner state: she is relaxed and in her element; closeness to the roots is an essential part of her life. The desire for such closeness, especially during difficult moments, is expressed in Roots. The protagonist looks chilled through and through, as if frozen in the embryo position (it is widely believed that humans assume this pose when in need of support and protection, because it takes us back to the prenatal state when we felt safe in the mother’s womb). The girl looking for such protection is seen from the back. The roots that she faces seem to have a personality of their own: they appear withered and mangled, possibly even dead. We have no way of knowing what caused this, let alone what awaits the female protagonist in the future. It is exactly this vulnerability and yearning for support that the artist accentuates. It is also worth mentioning that Roots is not the only disquieting work in this series: the artist’s concern for the future of our planet and conservation of the Earth’s natural resources is evident throughout Botanicum.
In this series, the forest not so much provides the background for the events surrounding the main characters as directly reflects their emotional state. For instance, each protagonist of the Better than Us triptych finds herself in her own gloomy wood, as if following in the footsteps of Dante in The Divine Comedy. Female characters are centre stage in all three parts. The central painting appears to be the most intense of the three. The very motion of the girl bracing her stomach as if in pain shows that what we see is not a Renaissance forest nymph but rather a lost soul chilled with loneliness in the dense of a forest. The tension pervading this artwork reflects the predicament of a woman in the turbulent modern world: quite often she is surviving rather than living, destined to strive and to seek, and, having found, not to yield.
The character in the third part of the triptych is reaching for protection to a gnarled old tree: her naked body, defenceless and vulnerable, fully exposed to the world, is clinging to the roots. Just like the girl, the roots are naked, with no ferns or moss to cover them. The cool blue-black hues in the background create a glimmering effect and a sensation of mystery, adding vagueness to the canvas. This is why, despite the warmer tones also used by the artist – green, ochre, and brown – the main protagonist seems to channel coldness. The forest nymph is looking for warmth and consolation from a reliable old friend who can keep her secrets, provide necessary support and ease her pain.
The series also reflects the archaic perception of the forest as an otherworldly realm. This is most evident in Autumn; or, Golden Dreams that seems to lull the viewer into half-slumber. Unlike in many other paintings of the series, the female character is pictured clothed, clad in a dress as in armour. She is lying on the floor, close to the border between two worlds drawn by an unseen hand. Her body is tense, reflecting her anxiety: thoughts paralyse her, preventing her from drifting off to the dream world. Everything about the girl’s body signals that she is stuck between the realms. The little fawn acts as the symbol of nascent spiritual purity trying to make its way into the real world. It stares at the viewer, as if attempting to get across some important message, but the impenetrable border physically outlined by the girl’s outstretched legs separates us from it. Purity and innocence have no chance of crossing over from the illusory space into reality. We do not know whether the protagonist will be able to make it to the other side and come back renewed. However, the water approaching her body holds the promise of purification.
Another recurring motif in the series is that of flowers. We see their large petals in Flowers and Blue Poppy. Marina Fedorova found inspiration for these artworks in the oeuvre of the mother of American Modernism, Georgia O’Keeffe, who sought to create art that would not mimic or copy nature. She used natural forms to express the unknown depths of the subconscious. Her flowers are not particular plants, delicate and vulnerable, but rather something eternal and monumental. These generalised images represent the absolute, ever-blooming, and ornamental permanence of form.
O’Keeffe’s philosophical message chimed with Marina Fedorova, encouraging her to observe the beautiful and the transforming. Flowers are not immortal, but every spring they are born anew within the large ecosystem. Multifaceted and mysterious, Fedorova’s works leave the impression of understatement. There is no obvious story behind them: the artist aims to share with us the natural beauty that inspires her. This inspiration comes from the unfathomable natural force that fosters everything around us.