[If there is one easy segue from Serebriakova to the other Russian greats of her time in Paris, then this interview provides it. The so-called Parisian school comprised, among others, a galaxy of immensely talented Russian artists, many of whom are only recently returning to public consciousness. I shall use this piece here as a bridge to the next artist in my to-do list, someone who was acquainted with Serebriakova. Can you guess – after reading the following, of course – who it might be?]
Ivan Tolstoy: Today, we’ll talk about the so-called École de Paris – the Parisian school of artists, in other words, of those masters who worked in Paris, and were otherwise connected with Paris, at the beginning of the 20th century, until nearly the 1960s. They have since come into vogue, and some of their works have sold for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. (The more famous among them are Mark Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani.) But we’ll talk not of these stars, but of the lesser known figures, who for no fault of their own, didn’t receive their share of fame. In particular, we’ll talk about the Russian artists of this school. And to tell us this story is the London-based collector, journalist and cineaste Alexander Shlepyanov. Alexander Ilyich, please tell us how your collection of works in the genre began.
Alexander Shlepyanov: To begin at the very beginning – as soon as I reached the West, in 1988, during my very first days in Paris, I went to the Marché aux puces, the famous flea market, and I was astounded by how many paintings by Russian artists simply lay around on the floor there, or hung on walls, uncountable paintings, and so many by artists, wonderful masters, who were for all practical purposes unknown in Russia. I figured that if I hadn’t heard of them back in Russia (where I had been a collector), then it was unlikely anyone else had. But of course there were people who had investigated the history of the Russian diaspora, who were familiar with these names. All the same, the wider public was unaware of these artists.
There were names such as Lanskoi, Tereshkovich and so on. Tens, if not hundreds, of names. I had my own interests – I had been seeking certain of them for quite a while. For example, forty years earlier, Solomon Abramovich Schuster and I had been guests at Maria Ivanovna Mashkova-Danilova (the widow of Mashkov), and when we asked her about Mashkov’s students – whom did he consider the more interesting? – she replied his favourite had been Vera Schlesinger. She recollected her last name with much difficulty. We’d never heard of this woman, and we asked around – who is this Vera Schlesinger? – nobody knew. In Paris, I asked Alexander Borisovich Serebriakov (son of the painter Zinaida Serebriakova – he was a big expert of the Russian diaspora, and a member of an organisation conserving Russian cultural heritage), what’s this about Vera Schlesinger, where did she spring from? And he said, ‘What do you mean? That’s Vera Rockline!’ A wonderful artist, she committed suicide early in her life, a very skilled painter, her obituary had been written by Alexander Nikolaevich Benois. He took me to some gallery where some works by Rockline were available, but they were completely out of my reach then, costing about 5000 francs (£500 at the time): I didn’t have that kind of money. Today, to tell the truth, these paintings go for a hundred thousand to two million pounds. That’s the kind of prices Vera Rockline attracts. She is definitely a wonderful artist, deserving her own catalogue raisonné, deserving her own glory in Russia.
Later, I searched for Pavel Dmitrovich Shmarov, because somewhere I had seen reprints of paintings by Luksh-Makovsky, on which Repin’s favourite students appeared – Somov, Kustodiev, Murashko, Malyavin, Shmarov. I knew the former names, but who was Shmarov? Where was he? In France, I got onto his trail and consequently was able to purchase two of his wonderful paintings. He is definitely a fine artist. Why were we stumbling around, feeling our way with our fingers? It’s because at the time there was almost no literature about the Russian emigration; that wonderful directory, the heroic work of Leikind, Makhrov and Severyukhin, was still in the future, as was the illustrated book of Andrei Tolstoy; there were no monographs, not even exhibitions as were later put up by the gallery Our Painters. We were stumbling about in the dark to collect the art of the Russians in the Paris School.
Later: Marie Vassilieff. She is a legendary figure, a giant in the history of Russian art, who also deserves greater fame. She was a contemporary of Picasso, Matisse, a head of the Russian academy, she did a lot for Russian art in exile. By the way, all the artists who exhibited their works at the salons – the Independents, Autumn salon – they always indicated their address as Vassilyeva’s studio on the Avenue du Maine. Today of course that’s where the Musée du Montparnasse is. Most people thought of her as somewhat impractical because much of her art had been scattered and lost, because she had no talent for self-promotion, and she didn’t have a capable dealer. And to her last days, her art remained in the shadows. But then, praise be, came auctions that sold art by Russians of the Paris School. The first loud noise was by the auction house Macdougall’s, after which followed the bigwigs, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and also the Parisian auction houses. And at last, in recent years, appeared the cubo-futuristic art of Marie Vassilieff, and this was a simply enormous discovery. A couple of years ago, there were probably twenty pieces by her at an auction, which immediately put her in the rank of the great Parisian painters. I managed to purchase one painting.
Ivan Tolstoy: Is it correct to give the name of ‘school’ to some random collection of Russian artists, who themselves didn’t organise themselves into any school at all? Do we not commit the sin of anachronism when we do so? I asked this question of the St Petersburg art expert and author of the recent book École de Paris, Mikhail German.
Mikhail German: I’ll take the liberty of making a correction or two in your question. Why do you say ‘Russian artists in Paris’ or even ‘Russian art in France’? In the Parisian school there were French artists as well. There was the Romanian Brâncuş, who became known as Brancusi; the Italian, Modigliani; the Czech, František Kupka, of course; and Russian artists, exiled from Russia; and Frenchmen, too. Picasso, of course, is Spanish; Gris, also a Spaniard. Therefore, it was the first big international artistic school, which had one quality (which prompted your question): polystylism, that is, an acceptance of different artistic and sculptural techniques, without the rejection of any artist by any other. Rather, it was a collective constructed on a negation, that is, on the rejection of something, during the quest for new forms of absolute differences. I thought a lot about this, and I wrote about these artists in my little book, about Parisian artists and of the Parisian school in the classical meaning of Paris School, that is about those artists preceding the Great War. All the same, this was the last union of artists who hadn’t been caught up in ‘art as business’. They achieved fame, of course, and they wanted to be wealthy, but they still hadn’t become part of that ‘business’, and weren’t driven only by commercial success.
God forbid that I say it was much better earlier, and everything is bad now. There has never been a period that hasn’t considered itself out of time. Still, we need to consider it seriously. It was a milestone, undoubtedly, that these artists all passed from the 19th century to the 20th together. The definition of this movement only came about in 1925, by the famous art critic André Warnod. But the words ‘École de Paris’ can exist independent of such definition. Paris school, Munich school, these were everyday terms that only later crystallised into particular meanings. In general terms, I could offer a precise definition. I can even propose to our listeners a cite from my book, because it wasn’t easy to come up with one for the reader. From my point of view, the Paris school is a unique manifestation, a happy synthesis of international roots and traditions with French art, which, on its part, obtained a new energy from interaction with the works of visiting masters. That is, the Parisian school is a period of positive acceptance of polystylism as a unifying principle. In other words, the first union of equals among artists, which then became characteristic of the High Modernism.
Ivan Tolstoy: Can we then say that Paris was a centrepiece in time and mind, a kind of reality that we can’t necessarily express in words, but which was experienced by those people who then united into the so-called school?
Mikhail German: I’d say, Ivan Nikitich, that our listeners won’t believe that your question is an improvisation, because it says exactly what I wanted to say. But believe me, we are not really trying to fool anyone. Because, for me, the chief artist of the Paris school is Paris itself. It’s not just that when we speak of the Munich school, we are speaking of the atmosphere among the artists who worked in Munich. But when speak of the Parisian school, we are speaking of something that’s difficult to put into words. I wrote a whole book about it, because I love Paris, but was still unable to answer that question to my satisfaction. But still there are courageous ideas for me that I could have dealt with concisely. Paris is at the very heart of that movement to which it lent its name. Interestingly, though, the artists of the Paris school almost didn’t paint. Remember Modigliani, Chagall, Picasso – what a Paris that was! But for them it was either champagne in Paris, or the bright Parisian sky that reflected a centuries-old freedom, or the experience that Paris offers even to those who are unfeeling of it. In Paris it is very difficult to survive, Paris does not forgive idleness. Paris can ruin the weak, but it offers strengths that no other city can. Because it is infused with the spirit of a millennium of freedom, and it is where the revolution occurred that allowed art to become independent of mere reflection of life. When Impressionism came on the scene, announcing that art is comparable to life but is not just a reflection of it, that it is co-eval with nature and human emotions, with human reason, Impressionism then became a kind of royal entry to the new art. Everything came through Impressionism. It’s difficult to believe this now given there were people who specifically didn’t involve themselves in the genre, but all of them, Duchamp, Malevich, Kandinsky, and many others, began with Impressionism, it being a kind of examination of freedom. And, having gone through it one way or the other, art obtained the sort of freedom of style and expression that only Paris could have given it. Impressionism is also Parisian, after all. Even if it is held that Impressionism is the banks of the Oise, or sails in the Argenteuil, I maintain that Impressionism is Parisian. It is the poetry of the new Ottoman Paris – the poetry of a newly active and vigorous life; it is rather cynical, but with an ironic perception of that cynicism, with understanding of new rhythms and, most importantly, acceptance of motion; not filled with passivity, from which art has always suffered.
Ivan Tolstoy: Who else can we name from among the Russian masters, famous in France, and forgotten in Russia?
Alexander Shlepyanov: This is also a big list. I don’t even know whom to start with. I can talk of several people who are legendary. For example, Ryabushinsky.
That same Riabushinsky, Nikolai Pavlovich, editor of the “Golden Fleece”, who organized the exhibition “Blue Rose”, who organized three exhibitions “Golden Fleece”, which were attended not only by Russians but also the French. He was a passionate man, profligate, losing at cards, lost all his possessions, and then lived out his life is an antique dealer. I tried to find some trace of him in Paris, but this was not easy at all. Nevertheless, he was a fine artist himself, which was somewhat overshadowed by his organisational skills. It suffices to say that the foreword to his catalogue raisonné was written by Kees van Dongen. All his life, he continued to engage himself in painting, and I tried for many years to find some trace of his art. Finally, I was able to get in touch with the family of his former wife from whom he had separated in 1930, and they had some pieces. I said that I would like to buy them. They had no idea that he had been such a major figure, but like many heirs, were very suspicious. They said, “You collectors, you all like to fool inheritors. We’ll put up the lot for auction.” When I went to the auction in Paris, I was the only one who knew the name and worth of the artist. It was well documented – who had done it and when. And I bought it cheaply at the auction. So the family fooled themselves. I’d have paid them much more, with pleasure. So now I have a wonderful picture by Ryabushinsky, in the spirit of Pavel Kuznetsov and Blamirsky.
Then there are people who are not forgotten, but are not remembered as artists. For example, Evreinov who was a famous playwright, director and theatrical figure. Who remembers now that he was also a painter? He did take part in many exhibitions. I was successful – I located a beautiful landscape by him. Many artists were forgotten in Russia because they had French pseudonyms. Struggling to survive, they would change their names. For example, Sergei Nikolaevich Yastrebtsov became Serge Férat. He had a weakness for pseudonyms. In his own journal that he published ‘Les Soirées de Paris‘, he signed as Cérusse (from ‘ces russes’); he also was known as Roudniev. He held a salon with the Russian baroness Yelena Oettingen that attracted the cream of the world of art; his journal was edited by no less than Apollinaire. Besides that he was a fine artist, participating in all the famous exhibitions. In later years, when his work began to appear at auction, he was remembered in Russia. I too was able to own him from one auction.
Or, consider Peské, Jean Peské. Who knew him in Russia? In reality, he was Ivan Mstislavovich Paskevich, a totally Russian man, even if with some Polish blood, but what is Polish blood in the Russian empire? He was Russian, studied in Kiev, in Odessa, ended up in France and became one of the first Russian Cezannists, shall we say. He painted trees mainly, and there are many books about him in France. He is considered one of the greatest painters of trees and forests.
Let’s see, who else is forgotten? Completely forgotten is Leon Zack. And who is Leon Zack? He is one among the greatest Imagist poets of Russia, like Shershenovich, Marienhoff, Kusikov. But when he travelled to the West, he realised that he couldn’t make ends meet with Russian poetry, so he began to work seriously at painting, which was only a hobby earlier. And this Leon Zack achieved great heights, became a famous portraitist, for whom people queued for years; he also wrote prose and memoirs. He was the brother of the philosopher Semyon Frank. He wrote under the pseudonym Rossianskiy. That was his mother’s surname. He published books of poetry. And besides all that, just like Marie Vassilieff, he was an organiser of Russian artistic life in France.
Ivan Tolstoy: Mikhail Yuryevich, what did the Russian artists take from Paris, and what did they contribute? How much of their work is comparable in quality with the work of other masters of the Paris School?
Mikhail German: Firstly, I’d say that these figures are comparable, because Soutine, Chagall, these are world-class artists. I didn’t take these names by accident, because for artists from Russia, this was an entry into an completely real social freedom. There’s a story – it might even be true, there are a lot of myths surrounding the Paris School – that when Russian Jewish artists were asked: you came here, to this country, where Dreyfus was sued, where there’s so much injustice, and anti-Semitism? They replied – if in this country, a Jew could become an officer in the General Staff, where he was accused and then acquitted, and Zola jumped to his defence, then we are happy to live in this country. I think this was key for many, because in Russia, Jews faced all sorts of humiliations. And this was the first feeling of freedom for many emigres from Russia.
Secondly, and this is also a partial answer to your question, the notion of the classical French school, about which I wrote, this conglomeration of artists before World War I and shortly thereafter, could then be extended more broadly, of visiting artists who had as much right to exist as their French counterparts. We, just as much as those who are interested in the cultural fate of the Russian diaspora, are interested in Russian painters, and they are tied intimately with that first generation. Other than Soutine, Chagall, Kikoin, not all those artists of the first generation could sustain their struggle in Paris; think of Larionov or Serebriakova who couldn’t continue at the same level of success as in Russia. Benois retreated to the theatre, as did his son. There were many problems, but then a new generation arrived, with fresh destinies, wonderful artists who, sadly, are not as well-known.
Here I cannot not remember the people dear to me: one whom I didn’t know, but to whom I’m close, and another, whom I do know. I refer to the Arnshtam family. Alexander Martinovich Arnshtam arrived in France in 1933 after having lived in Germany for ten years, a Miriskusnik, a great draughtsman and painter, who did much work in the cinema. When I say he is close to me, I mean that he wrote a great memoir in French – stern, humorous, wise, filled with self-irony, where he beautifully described his life in Russia, without complaint, but with a subtle smile of a French thinker and the deeply thoughtful Russian intellectual. I am fortunate to have translated parts of it; one part was published in the journal Neva, and another in the anthology The Diaspora.
And Alexander Martinovich’s son, Kirill Alexandrovich is already an elderly man, whom I have the honour of counting among my closest friends. His work continues brilliantly, and preserves in itself a fluid admixture of French irony, French clarity, and delicate understanding of French mores; it incarnates the fate of the Russian artist in France, because he was a contemporary of all those people that we are remembering today.
What introduced the Russian culture and Russian painting into the French, I do not undertake to say. I think that when the Russian art established itself in France, no one had as yet introduced anything there. Take Picasso. Can we say that he introduced something into French art from Spain? Of course not, it was merely that the time of world art had come. And this was the first experience of life for Russian art in world art. They didn’t introduce anything, they created art of High Modernism, they were weighted and blessed by that heightened sense of emotional responsibility that had always existed in Russia, which Soutine and Chagall especially possessed, although Chagall’s was more joyous, more theatrical, whereas Soutine’s was tragic, because he was after all, the number one Russian artist in France. This might be my own personal taste, as it was exactly on this subject that I wrote my first big book, which is available, as far as I can see, not only in Russia. And the painters becoming well-known now, such as Mintchine, for instance, they are barely three steps behind Soutine or Chagall, it’s just that they aren’t as famous. So we need to rebuild our knowledge, and there is a desire, so far completely abstract, although I don’t think it’s hopeless, to create a memorial to Russian emigres in Paris. This thought spins somehow in the minds of the people who can accomplish it, and I plan to speak about it to these people, who can make it happen in Paris. I think such a monument can be established. And independent of what kind of monument exactly – whether to memorialise painters, or poets, or some abstract figure – the spirit of Russian art and Russian culture was, of course, well-established there.
Ivan Tolstoy: Who will be the next star in the constellation of Russian artists of the Paris School?
Alexander Shlepyanov: I would venture to mention several people who have just now returned to public consciousness: Chelishev, Marevna, Tarkhov, Alexander Yakovlev. This, by the way, is entirely due to the enormous efforts of the gallery Our Artists in Moscow, who have exhibited these artists.
Next, in my opinion, would be Abraham Mintchine, a super-artist, who too, like Vera Rockline, died very young, and so was not sufficiently famous during his life, but afterwards, when they began to collect his works, they found that this artist easily ranked along with Chagall and Soutine, who, incidentally, were his friends. At the time, Falk, who used to be quite stingy with praise for his fellow painters, wrote to his wife: ‘Spent the week with Mintchine. I observed how he worked. He has every chance of developing into a significant artist. A great temperament, a colossal love for art.’ Falk was so taken up with Mintchine that he painted a wonderful portrait of him. He is mentioned in all of Falk’s monographs, and in general, everywhere else. Recently, three volumes of Mintchine’s catalogue raisonné have been published, and a fourth volume is in preparation; he is absolutely of the same rank as any Chagall. And he deserves every kind of fame in the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough.
Ivan Tolstoy: Alexander Ilyich, for a non-specialist such as I, it’s very difficult to understand what’s happening with prices in art. What’s going on with all this inflation: yesterday a hundred roubles, today a hundred thousand?
Alexander Shlepyanov: What’s going on with prices? If we go back a hundred years and see how much Morozov spent on paintings – for a Renoir, he paid 20 thousand. At the time, a rouble was dearer than a franc, this was big money. 10 thousand for a Monet, seven thousand for a Gauguin, fifteen thousand for a Malyavin, and so on.
That is to say, these artists were on the same price scales as Western artists of their time. Then during the Soviet rule, everything went to the devil. Russian artists were forgotten by everyone and they cost mere pennies while Western artists of their class became more and more expensive and cost millions today. So when the frontiers reopened, there was an immediate effect of equalisation as Russian art began to pull towards the prices of their erstwhile colleagues, the western artists. The one who rose the most and obliterated many other records was (Kazimir) Malevich, who recently sold for 60 million dollars in New York, financial crisis be damned. Also Boris Gregoriev came up: at the same auction, three of his items were sold for a million apiece. Mashkov, Shukhaev, Yakovlev have come up; I’ll not even speak of Larionov and Goncharova. But they too were involved in the Paris School, and their value rose more or less equivalently in the West. As for others, unknowns from the school, as they are rediscovered, their prices will also climb rapidly. Chelishev, Marievna, all are rising. I’ve mentioned Vera Rockline; she is being sold for millions. Mintchine’s last sale was for sixty thousand euros, but I can assure you that he will soon go for hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And the price rise is incredible. Férat who was worth two thousand francs (£200) at a flea-market now goes for 30, 40, or 50 thousand. Andrei Lanskoi, who also was once worth kopecks, now sells for £120,000. I needn’t even mention de Stael, who for long has been selling for hundreds of thousands. Or Poliakova who also goes for big sums. That is to say, Russian Parisians, to the extent that they are remembered and supported by relevant documentation, that is catalogues raisonnés, biographies, exhibitions, they too are catching up with their peers.
Ivan Tolstoy: Mikhail Yuryevich, to what extent does Paris retain its attraction for artists? After all, it’s been said for a while that the status of Paris as a world capital of art has been diminishing.
Mikhail German: You know, as Stendhal liked to quote, sometimes ending his novels with an English expression borrowed from Goldsmith – ‘to the happy few’. I think that if a person arrives in Paris, as Soutine arrived in Paris, knowing only a word or two, and immediately fell into the sparkling atmosphere of Montparnasse, then today’s artist arriving from Moscow, and not seeing the brilliance of Moscow’s restaurants, nor the wild night life, nor the quality of the art galleries, might just turn right around and go back to the glamorous Babylon of Moscow. That is to say, to experience all that today, one needs to have a certain intellectual and emotional courage. But I think that the artist who lived in Paris for some time and didn’t feel all that, which admittedly is covered with dust… In Paris, there is such a deep store of emotional and intellectual capital that one can live off a mere fraction of it. Today, we’re at a moment like that between two heartbeats. But if the artist lived there for some time and didn’t understand, didn’t feel it, well, he’s an idiot. But if he’s an artist, then he’ll want to go there like some of my artist acquaintances, who say, ‘I don’t understand, there’s nothing there, but I want to go back.’ It’s that mysterious thing, that essence of Paris, and I think of that phrase by Hemingway (which translates clumsily) which goes ‘There is never any end to Paris’, and sounds like ‘there is nothing in Paris which can come to an end.’
I rarely get into quotations, but there’s one I’d like to quote, a phrase by Gertrude Stein: “Paris was the place that suited us who were to create the twentieth century art and literature…”
And Jefferson, who was not just a political figure but also a wonderful litterateur, wrote ‘Every man has two homelands – his own, and Paris’. If an artist is unable to understand this, then it means that God didn’t kiss him, might be even spat on him. The fact that there are artists in Paris who don’t love Paris is very unpleasant. One should always be grateful to Paris, but for this one needs to absorb oneself in Paris, learn to speak French, learn to think like the French. It is possible to speak the language brilliantly but still not understand the Parisian code; one would have to recognise a different approach and philosophy of art; one would have to realise that the Russian consciousness would never really get true postmodernism, because for us every ‘Picnic on the roadside’ is Labour day, while for the French it’s art and only art. One would have to understand that for the Frenchman art is truth, while for the Russian, it is morality. This is all a difficult science. And having given my whole life to French culture, I still consider myself a novice. Maybe that in itself is the biggest achievement.
Ivan Tolstoy: Alexander Ilyich, you speak so sweetly and convincingly of your purchases of Russian art, as though it’s a small matter to open a suitcase stuffed with money and pay for it. Allow me an indelicate question – do you own a mint? From where do you get all the funds for it?
Alexander Shlepyanov: I have no money. Where do I get it from? Every time it is a difficult problem. Twenty years ago when I started to buy art, it was a simple question: either I have dinner or I obtain some painting or the other from a flea market. And this question was easily resolved in favour of the painting. But today the question is – do I buy a painting or an apartment? A dacha or a painting? So when I feel the urge to acquire a painting for my collection, then I have to get a mortgage; truth be told, it’s difficult for me to purchase these paintings now. But I have been focused on forgotten artists, and praise God, I have managed to buy them very cheaply. For example, who remembers Landshevskaya or Anna Staritskaya? The brothers Berman are more or less known, it’s difficult to buy any Evgeniy Berman, but his brother Leonid, also a wonderful artist, I can still acquire quite inexpensively. Zalshupin, who used the nom de plume Serge Choubine, he’s also unknown. The last Sharshun I bought was quite expensive and I can’t afford any more by him, but I have his best. In general, it’s difficult to buy art. But how many more to acquire? My paintings are mostly in storage, I can’t hang them up at home, and I am getting old, it’s time to think of my soul. Enough collecting already.
Ivan Tolstoy: This is a speech not of a boy, but of a man. Every wise collector sooner or later starts to think of the fate of their collection. This is, after all, their own creation. Do you have any thoughts about opening up your collection to the public?
Alexander Shlepyanov: I think about this, of course, but to create a proper catalogue costs a lot of money. I guess someone will sponsor a Museum of Russian Art of Exile, just like the private Museum of Russian Iconography in Moscow. Wonderful museum. And there are many other similar private museums. I think the idea of a museum for Russian emigre art is one whose time has decidedly arrived. If such a museum were established, I would very happily donate to it a major part of my collection.
Ivan Tolstoy: My final question would be to Mikhail German. Mikhail Yuryevich, how do the French themselves perceive Russian artists? Is there any definition of nationality?
Mikhail German: I fear generalisations. This is like saying that the French are miserly, or that they are insincere, as some of my Russian friends who live in Paris say: if you ask them how they are, they’ll say they’re fine when in reality they are not doing well at all. May God grant us such insincerity that we don’t feel the need to share the state of our stomachs at every opportunity. And I think that the French are by nature somewhat contrary. I have never heard, after a presidential election, of anyone admitting to having voted for the winner. The French are a fairly sceptical lot, but if they see art that they find interesting, then they take interest in it irrespective of where it came from. At the end of the 80s, they appreciated Oscar Rabin not just for his art, but also because he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship. That is natural. Today, I think, they don’t expect anything of Russian art that they don’t expect of Spanish or Mexican or French, and so on. The vogue for Russian art is over, of course; the word ‘Russian’ is neutral, unless there’s some special theme to it. But there is no theme nowadays. We live these days according to the same laws, except for the servile Russian consciousness, but this is rarely expressed in art. But those artists who live in Paris – we’ll not mention any names – and carry on wearing a crown of thorns, which they might find helpful, or probably out of habit; well, it’s been so long, over twenty years [since the Soviet times], and art begins to be valued only for art’s sake and for its commercial viability. I might have said that in this situation, an artist needs courage, because our artists got used to not fearing the Cheka, but did not learn to overcome the fear of poverty and the fear of lack of recognition in Paris. I cannot blame them for this, being a timid type myself, but I have to say that artists who live in attics and paint for the sole reason that they need to paint, well, I don’t know any such people either among the French, or the Russians, or among anyone.
Ivan Tolstoy: You spoke of today’s Paris as a moment between two heartbeats. When and under what circumstances, in your view, will that second heartbeat take place?
Mikhail German: I don’t know, I am wary of prognoses. But inasmuch as Parisians, as far as I have read and overheard and discussed, used to once think of the 60s as a romantic, multicoloured and merry time, of Juliette Greco and Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, cobblestones hurled at the police, an overall romantic period, I now think that there may be return to similar values. In the 70s, as far as I recall, it was all about broken telephone booths and graffiti. The French always talk of how bad everything is with them, how they are facing a crisis, that they are impoverished, yet at the same time, the restaurants are packed, even the expensive ones. I think this is just the ebb and flow of consciousness.
When I wrote my book on Paris, which I love very much, and it was translated into French, one smart fellow said to me, ‘The French will not agree that you have written so well about Paris, but they love it when they are loved.’ And I think that this is just the ebb and flow of love as well, and maybe the dustiness of the old brasseries will, in the end, turn into something else…
[This is a rambling translation of an interview conducted by Ivan Tolstoy, published on Radio Svoboda’s website, 9 November 2008.]