‘Degenerate' German Art and the Russian Connection

Dr Peter Lowe examines the real and fabricated cross-cultural dialogue behind the art banned by the Nazis

 Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Names and labels are important. The Wiener Library reminds us of this in its current exhibition remembering the display of 20th-century German art that was held in London over the summer months of 1938. With more than 300 works included, this was an opportunity for British visitors to engage with developments in the European art world. The greater significance of the exhibition, though, lies in the fact that the artists whose work was admired in London were those cited by the Nazi regime as examples of ‘degeneracy’. Their works had been removed from German museums and in some cases destroyed while they were subjected to personal attacks resulting, in several cases, in the decision to leave the country to avoid further humiliation or danger. By proudly showcasing the work of 62 artists that had been labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, the 1938 London exhibition deserves to be remembered as a stand against prejudice and persecution.  

To put the London exhibition in context, as the Wiener’s display so usefully does, we must go back to the summer of 1937 when the state-sponsored exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ opened in Munich. This allowed the Nazi regime to display the works that it judged unfit for the public in such a way as to foreground their offensive nature and lead visitors to concur with the state’s assessment of their faults. The exhibition, which later toured other German cities, was free to enter (no one could be asked to pay for such an experience, the Nazis argued) and designed to be seen alongside the inaugural exhibition of ‘official’ German art that was taking place in the vast galleries of Munich’s new neoclassical House of German Art.

Once inside the ‘degenerate’ exhibition, held in the cramped rooms of the University’s Archaeological Institute, visitors were encouraged to marvel at the ‘insanity’ both of those who would produce such artworks and those who could be duped into praising them. In a case of manipulation worthy of our own ‘alternative fact’-based media, artworks were often displayed with their price-tags showing values in the hyper-inflated Weimar-era currency in order to secure maximum outrage from the German public at the money that museums had ‘wasted’ on such things.

By outlining the Nazi cultural policies that formulated the state’s twisted ideas of order and style the Wiener Library enables the visitor to see why the bold experiments of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde, and Max Liebermann were judged ‘unacceptable’. This was not, however, a purely artistic assessment. The application of the term ‘degenerate’ enabled the Nazis to suggest a direct link between artistic work and the artist’s social and ethnic suitability for a place in the German state.

From there, it was a short step to connect the artists and their work with a network of museum directors, critics, and dealers who could be seen as subversive elements in the German community. Tragically, the fact that many practitioners and patrons in the German art world were of Jewish origin enabled the Nazis to argue that modern art was a fraud perpetrated on the German people by ‘alien’ elements. It was a cosmopolitan conspiracy, made and sold everywhere from Paris to Moscow and, as such, it owed nothing to the twisted ideas of racial, nationalist culture the Nazi regime wished to promote.

 

"The inclusion of works by Kandinsky attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War"

 

Although the two may seem to have little in common, Nazi propaganda made sure that Communism was seen as a correlative to artistic ‘degeneracy’. Thus, when faced with a London exhibition that attracted praise for the works on show, the Nazi-run Völkischer Beobachter saw this as proof that the British had been duped by “Judaism and Moscow” into aesthetic judgments that had no place in the German Reich. The inclusion of ‘Moscow’ here reminds us that by this point Nazi art criticism was not only positioned against the ‘Jewish’ artistic community but needed to see that community as being in league with the other tangible threat from which it was claimed that Germany needed defending – the ‘Bolshevist’ menace in the East. Using the convenient catch-all term Kulturbolschewismus (‘Cultural Bolshevism’), Nazi art critics saw modern art as a plot hatched on two fronts, both designed to undermine Germany’s racial and political purity.

Like the many lies of Nazi propaganda, the linking of Judaism and Bolshevism enabled the regime to see coordinated threats everywhere while relying on a conditioned populace not to think at length about whether the link was real. Had they probed more deeply into the Soviet artistic sphere they would have found that by the late-1930s the state’s policy was firmly behind the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ that renounced ‘formalist’ experimentation in favour of a monumental depiction of ‘reality’ as it was in the USSR, or as the Party believed it would soon be. A regime that was prioritising monumental images of collective farm workers, factory personnel, and the cadres of its senior leadership all depicted with the emphasis on their being ‘life-like’ had no more time for the innovations of modern art than the Nazi Reich did. German attempts to link modern art with Moscow were by 1938 founded less in reality than in a desire to focus prejudices on perceived ‘threats’ to future German greatness.

The irony is that there had been a time when German artists had enjoyed creative dialogue with their Russian peers, and the evidence of some of those interactions was to be found in the works singled out for attack in the late-1930s. The inclusion of eight works by Wassily Kandinsky in the London exhibition attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War, when the young Russian had made his home in Munich and, working with Franz Marc and others in the ‘Blue Rider’ group, forged a new visual language for the new century.

  Blue Horses , 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Blue Horses, 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Marc’s 1911 painting Blue Horses, which shows the influence of Kandinsky’s experiments with colour, provided the 1938 exhibition with its poster image. Three of the eight works by which Kandinsky was represented in the London exhibition were pre-1914 compositions, capturing on canvas the thrilling process by which he turned his borrowings from Russian folk art into the material for new experiments in colour and form. The outbreak of war had sent Kandinsky back to Russia, but after a spell teaching and working for the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment he had returned to Germany in the 1920s, teaching for some time at the Bauhaus, that creative laboratory for German modernism, before finally leaving for France in 1933.

Kandinsky’s cross-border career was by no means unique. El Lissitzky had exhibited his work in Berlin in 1923, showcasing the architectural designs he had originally proposed while at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk, and his former colleague Kasimir Malevich had visited the Bauhaus in the course of a highly successful exhibition tour of his Suprematist work in Germany in 1926-7. In the early 1920s, with relatively open borders making travel between Berlin and Moscow possible, cultural dialogue had been a defining feature of Russo-German life. In 1937, however, 57 of Kandinsky’s works were seized by the Nazis as part of their purge of German galleries, with 14 of them displayed in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition that year.

  Untitled Improvisation III , 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Untitled Improvisation III, 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Sadly, the high point of Russo-German cultural exchange had passed long before the Nazi regime decided that ‘Bolshevism’ was the enemy. Modern art fell from favour in the USSR as swiftly as in Germany, although whereas Hitler’s regime promoted its imperial pretensions through a revived classicism indebted to Greece and Rome, the Stalinist state reverted to a monumentalised version of the 19th century Realist tradition. In both cases, though, the bold Expressionist colours and abstractions of early-20th century art could only be seen as threatening in their exuberance and presented only as the ‘tricks’ that the state’s enemies wished to play on the populace. In suggesting that these ‘degenerate’ works had backing in Moscow the Nazis further deceived a populace already overwhelmed by years of manipulation, for they would have been no more welcome there than they had received in Munich. Happily, they were able to find an audience in London, and in doing so could rebut the lies spread about their ‘degeneracy’ and that of their creators.  

The Wiener Library’s excellent exhibition reminds us that there was indeed a Russian element in the world of Modern German Art, but it was not the state-sponsored subversion against which the German public was warned to be on guard. Rather, it was something mutually loathed by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes – a process of cultural exchange, not ideological confrontation. Fittingly, then, the London exhibition of 1938, as this thoughtful display shows, highlighted not the ‘degeneracy’ of the art but the innovation and daring that neither fascism nor communism could wholly subdue.

‘London 1938: Defending Degenerate German Art’ is at the Wiener Library, Russell Square, until 14th September. For more information, see www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/London-1938

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Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period

Finnish stereotypes in the works of Alexander Pushkin

Elisabeth van der Meer explores Russia's greatest poet's subversion of national tropes

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In 19th century Russian literature there is usually an abundance of stereotypes: rich landowners, unruly peasants, drunken and gambling officers, miserable clerks, but also reckless Cossacks, exotic Circassians, singing Gypsies, German tutors, French mademoiselles and the odd Finn. These stereotypes quickly set the scene for the reader and create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘others’. But Russian literature wouldn't be as good as it actually is if it just left it at that. It takes the stereotype and forces the reader look at it again, and at themselves - are we really any better? What would we do if we were in their position? To mark the just-passed 100th anniversary of Finland’s founding as a state, let us explore the links between Finnish national stereotypes and the work of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Russian - Finnish history

Throughout Russian history Finns have been considered as a rather non-threatening nation, innocent bystanders in their constant battles with the Swedish empire. Before the Finnish War (1808-1809, between Russia and Sweden, but fought on Finnish soil) Finland had been under Swedish rule for 600 years. During the war Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia, leaving the Finns feeling betrayed. Although they were suspicious of the Russians, the predominant sentiment became pro-Russia, helped by the fact that, as a Grand Duchy of Russia, Finland gained autonomy and Finnish culture and language were able to blossom. These events are described in The Tales of Ensign Stål, an 1848 poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, known to every Finn:

The Russian host could vaunt the name

Of many a seasoned veteran

Recorded on the scroll of fame

Before our war began.

Barclay, Kamensky, Bagration,

Were household names to every son of Finland.

When they hove in sight,

We could expect a fight.

But Kulnev's name was new to all

Before the flame of war was blown

And he came rushing like a squall,

Scarce dreamed of before known.

He struck like lightning from the blue

So terrible and yet so new,

But ne'er to be forgot, we felt,

From the first blow he dealt.

 

Pushkin and the Finnish stereotype

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is still seen as Russia's national poet and his patriotic words still strike a strong chord of pride with many Russians. His legacy has contributed to the Russian identity, just as The Kalevala and the poetry of Runeberg have shaped Finnish identity. What may be more interesting is how his works have shaped the depiction of Finns. In his works we can find three very different examples of Finnish stereotypes in Russian literature. The first (the sorcerer) in the narrative poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820); the second (the dutiful worker) in one of The Tales of Belkin (1830) - ‘The Undertaker’; and finally the most famous of all (the fisherman), in the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833).

Ruslan and Ludmila

Ruslan and Ludmila is a fairy tale set in ancient Russia. Ludmila, the young wife of the hero Ruslan, has been kidnapped by an evil dwarf called Chernomor during their wedding night. On his journey to find her, Ruslan encounters an old man. It turns out to be a good Finnish wizard who helps him to find Ludmila. The old man, Finn, tells Ruslan his own story: when he was a young shepherd he fell in love with Naina, but she rejected him. To impress her he fought in wars abroad and returned to her with treasures, but again she rejected him. As a last resort he studied sorcery for years and years, but when he finally casts a love spell over Naina, he notices too late that she has turned into an old crone. He rejects her and now the old hag Naina hates Finn and takes sides with Chernomor. With the help of Finn, Ruslan is able to win his bride back and save Kiev in the process.

Pushkin's knowledge of Finnish mythology probably comes from the Russian historian and writer Karamzin, who Pushkin admired. Until Elias Lönnrot wrote down the Finnish myths in The Kalevala in 1835, they were passed on orally, and obviously some legends reached Russia. There are similarities between the good wizard Finn and the wizard Väinämöinen from The Kalevala. Ruslan and Ludmila confirms the popular belief in Russia that Finns “had a way with magic”. This is a story of good and evil, of struggles and unexpected encounters, of having faith that the good will eventually conquer, and of using your powers not for personal gain, but to help others: a typical fairy tale. But if we look simply at the names, it is literally Finn helping Ruslan.

But listen on: there in my homeland

among the lonely fisherfolk

there's lore mysterious and awesome.

Amid thick forests, wild, remote,

a guild of ancient sorcerers

dwells deep in the primeval stillness.

Their minds they constantly apply

to elements of highest wisdom.

Everything bows to their command -

what has been and what is to come.

They wield a terrifying power

over not only death but love.

The Undertaker

In ‘The Undertaker’ we find an ordinary, simple Finn. The story takes place in the first decades of the 19th century, when Finland was the Grand Duchy. A Russian undertaker (not to be confused with the jolly type of undertaker that Shakespeare and Walter Scott describe, warns Pushkin) moves to a different part of Moscow and is invited to a party by his new German neighbor, a shoemaker. At the party the gloomy undertaker meets several cheerful Germans and a Finn. This Finn is introduced to the reader by Pushkin in a rather curious and comical manner: “The Shoemaker’s small room was filled with guests, for the most part German craftsmen with their wives and apprentices. There was only one Russian official present, police constable Yurko, a Finn who, in spite of his humble calling, enjoyed the particular favour of the host.”

Compared to the German tradesmen living in Moscow, Yurko the Finn is Russian. This shows different degrees in foreigners, clearly those belonging to the Russian empire were somehow less foreign. Yurko is described as honest, loyal and hardworking, typical Finnish characteristics, but he can eat and drink like a Russian. During the French invasion of Moscow in 1812, Yurko’s yellow sentry-box burned down and he had to build another one. Unperturbed, he has fulfilled his duties for twenty five years. However, the Germans and the undertaker befriend him primarily because he can be useful for them, not because of his good characteristics.

Yurko embodies the way in which Russia saw Finland: as a useful buffer between Russia and Sweden, the innocent bystander in Russia’s conflicts, and a potential ally in wartime, better as a friend than as an enemy. But Yurko has the last laugh as he jokes to the undertaker that he should drink to the health of his clients. This causes the undertaker to have a terrifying nightmare in which his dead clients come to haunt him and reprimand him for ripping off their next of kin in their moments of grief. Pushkin leaves it to the reader's imagination whether or not the undertaker shall better his life.

The Bronze Horseman

The most famous description of Finnish people in Russian literature, “nature’s poor foster child”, comes from Pushkin's well-known poem The Bronze Horseman. The poem is about the great flood of 1824 in Saint Petersburg. The protagonist Evgenii loses his fiancé in the flood, and soon he loses his mind too. He curses the statue of Peter the Great, and the statue suddenly comes to life and chases Evgenii through the streets of Saint Petersburg. Later poor Evgenii is found dead, washed up on some desolate shore.

It is one of the most influential works of Pushkin. In the introduction Pushkin describes Peter the Great as he envisions a new, splendid city on the banks of the Neva, a territory that was recently conquered from the Swedes. That area was at that time sparsely inhabited by mostly Finnish people. Neva is the Finnish word for bog, or swamp. The first impression is that in a place where Finns were merely fishing and making a poor living, the Russians succeeded in building a magnificent city. On the other hand there is the image of the humble Finn, in touch with nature and less impacted by natural disasters; he is timeless and can always continue fishing, whereas Saint Petersburg was not a complete success: it had a hard time fighting the elements and was regularly plagued by floods. One of the themes of the poem is man versus nature, something that Finns are perhaps better at.

A hundred years have passed. We see,

Where swamp and forest stood but lately:

The city, northern prodigy,

Has risen, sumptuous and stately;

Where once a humble Finnish lad –

Poor foster-child in Nature’s keeping –

Alone upon the low banks had

Oft cast his time-worn nets when reaping

The waters’ hidden harvest, – now

Great towers and palaces endow

The bustling banks with grace and splendour…

 

In his inimitable way gives Pushkin the old Finnish stereotypes his own twist, making them fresh and original: the old sorcerer becomes a friendly helper, the dutiful police constable turns out to like a little joke, and “nature’s poor foster child” is now fishing somewhere else, blissfully unaware of whatever disaster has struck Saint Petersburg...

Sources:

Alexander Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila, translated by Roger Clarke

----------------------, The Bronze Horseman, translated by John Dewey

----------------------, ‘The Undertaker’, translated by Gillon Aitken

The North in Russian Romantic Literature by Otto Boele

The many ways to read The Undertaker by Henri-Dominique Paratte

Imperial Rhetoric and the Finnish other in Russian literature by Tuomas Taavila
 

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I'm Elisabeth van der Meer, Dutch and recently moved to Finland. I have a blog on which I share my enthusiasm for (mainly 19th century) Russian literature and try to make others see what's so great about it. I enjoy digging into specific passages, subjects or characters, trying to find connections and meanings hidden behind the surface. I'm also fascinated by the lives of these great writers, that were often at least as interesting as their works. To me Russian literature is an inexhaustible source for subjects to write about. 

 

Making a Soviet Murderer: The Case of Moscow Serial Killer Vasili Petrov-Komarov

Dr Mark Vincent investigates a scandal that shocked 1920s Russia

 Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.),  Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy  (Moscow, 1924).

Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy (Moscow, 1924).

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By 7th June 1923, anticipation had reached fever pitch in Moscow surrounding the imminent sentencing of Vasili Komarov and his wife Sophia, accused of murdering a combined total of 33 people between February 1921 and May 1923. These victims shared a number of common characteristics in that they were all male, all had a semi-rural background with an expressed interest in horse trading, and were all found in the vicinity of the city’s Shabolovka district with their limbs tied tightly together and packed into small sacks intended to disguise their size and shape.

In an early feuilleton, young writer Mikhail Bulgakov recalled how the case had captured the imagination of the public by describing how rumours circulated of pillowcases packed full of money and how Vasili would feed his pigs the victim’s intestines. Away from street-level gossip, the case also received the attention of the international news media through future Pulitzer Prize winner and controversial apologist of Stalin’s collectivization policies, Walter Duranty, a little over a year into his post as Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. Over the course of the twelve day trial, Duranty vividly detailed the protracted nature of the deliberations, moved from the regular court chamber to the Polytechnic Museum due to an ‘extraordinary interest’ in proceedings, and how the crowd broke into applause as Vasili and Sophia were sentenced to execution.

Proceedings depicted by Bulgakov and Duranty came at the culmination of a prolonged police investigation which narrowed in on the carriage driver after a large number of victims were found close to a twice-weekly horse market. Given that bodies were often discovered in the days immediately following trading, and that the sacks contained traces of hay or oats, further enquiries increasingly turned the spotlight upon Komarov who was identified as a regular attendee who appeared to do little business at the site itself.

Entering his property at 24 Shabolovka Street under the pretence of searching for an illicit brew house, detectives unearthed a corpse partially buried in a stack of hay in Komarov’s outside stable. Although the suspect was able to flee the scene through an open window, he was apprehended a few days later. Under interrogation, Komarov confessed without remorse to a total of 33 murders, 22 of which had already been accounted for. Five more bodies were discovered with the aid of his testimony and the remaining five had sunk to the depths of the Moskva River.

(Warning: The following paragraph contains a graphic description of murder; please skip to below the photos if you wish to avoid this.) An article published a year after the trial further detailed Komarov’s modus operandi, revealing how he would look to entice ‘peasants’ from the market to his apartment under the pretence of selling them a horse or other equestrian-related products. Upon the victim's arrival, Vasili would offer his prospective ‘client’ alcohol before producing a document for them to read while sat on a chair positioned in the centre of the room. While distracted, Komarov produced a hammer wrapped in a tablecloth and, approaching from behind, arched his arm around to strike them violently on the forehead. Suffice to say, this would knock his victim unconscious and, after letting their blood drip out into a bowl, finished the murderous act by strangling them with a noose. After initially stashing the bodies in a large chest inside his wardrobe, the corpses were later carried to a number of different locations on Shabolovka Street, including the derelict building next door and the grounds of a nearby mansion. Komarov’s pressing need to move the bodies further afield meant that he began transporting them to the nearby side street Konnyy Pereulok, then, using a horse purchased with money stolen from his victims, deposited them both on the embankment and in the Moskva itself.

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The aforementioned article originated from an edited volume produced by the Moscow Bureau for the Study of Criminal Personality and Crime, an organisation originally instigated by a delegate of the Moscow Soviet and headed by leading criminologist Mikhail Gernet. Operating under the control of the Moscow Health Department, the Bureau rejected elements of Lombrosian-based atavism in favour of understanding criminality through conditions of time and space.

The article therefore wove the Komarov case around the main themes of the volume, which emphasised the primacy of the urban environment, to the point of excluding any mention of the outside stable, and argued how Komarov’s relationship with alcohol (influenced by his parents and older siblings) was seen as ‘preparing the soil’ to be further cultivated by the ‘legalized murder’ of warfare. This was in reference to Komarov’s involvement in the First World War, in which he reportedly rose to the rank of general and authorised his own battalion to shoot a spy while also taking part in a vote to execute a captured enemy soldier. When later detained himself, Vasili had the foresight to change his surname from the original Petrov to avoid being killed (he is referred to as ‘Petrov-Komarov’ throughout the Moscow Bureau chapter but only ‘Komarov’ in reports elsewhere).

This issue regarding Vasili’s name shows one of the ways in the Moscow Bureau ‘Sovietized’ the Komarov Case to align it with their attempt to shift focus away from ‘celebrity’ individuals and toward a study of the unnamed criminal masses. Referring to the subject as Komarov-Petrov and excluding his nicknames (formed using bestial epithets such as the ‘Wolf of Moscow’ or the ‘Human Wolf’) took away a degree of Vasili’s individuality and played down the more sensationalised aspects of the case. This was also achieved through a discrepancy in the number of murders, with the Moscow Bureau chapter revising the number down to 29 as opposed to the 33 cited elsewhere.

Alongside this, the virtual absence of his wife Sophia despite the focus in the Bureau’s wider writings on the increase of female crime, and that she was also sentenced to the death penalty as his accomplice, remains a curious omission which can only be explained in that her inclusion would suggest the existence of traditional, patriarchal structures and dispute the arguments expressed elsewhere. While their approach shows that the Moscow Bureau were adjusting their language in an attempt to speak ‘Bolshevik’ this clearly came into conflict with the details of the case. Unlike the seemingly irrefutable evidence pointing toward Komarov, unravelling some of these wider contradictions may bring us closer to understanding the role of criminologists and the study of crime and punishment in the early Soviet state.

 

Dr Mark Vincent

School of History, University of East Anglia  

@VincentCriminal

cultoftheurka@gmail.com

Other Russias: Author Q&A with Victoria Lomasko

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Commended by the judges for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, and given a special award for 'Best Book in Translation', Victoria Lomasko's 'Other Russias' is propelled by the idea that everyone has a story worth telling. For the past eight years, graphic artist and activist Victoria Lomasko has been travelling around Russia and talking to people as she draws their stories. She spent time in dying villages where schoolteachers outnumber students; she stayed with sex workers in the city of Nizhny Novgorod; she went to juvenile prisons and spoke to kids who have no contact with the outside world; and she attended every major political rally in Moscow. The result is an extraordinary portrait of Russia in the Putin years - a country full of people who have been left behind, many of whom are determined to fight for their rights and for progress against impossible odds. 


Tell us about your background: why did you become a graphic artist?

I never made such a decision consciously.  It just happened to be this way.  One day I started doing graphic reportage (I prefer this term).  There wasn’t a discussion in my family about me becoming an artist – my artist father had decided on that even before I was born.  I was never though attracted to easel painting – if I needed to draw, I would rather draw in the graphic design format.  I wanted to become a book illustrator when I was a teenage girl.  I graduated from Moscow State Print University as a “book artist”.  After that I spent several years as a commercial magazine illustrator, also trying to do something in the sphere of contemporary art.  I felt happy, everything fell into place, only when graphic text appeared in my work.  With each work text acquires a more and more important role – it is not just some commentary to drawings, as it used to be the case in the beginning, but the drawings themselves become illustrations to the text.

Who are the artists who have inspired you?

Firstly, they are Russian-Soviet artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Unfortunately, Russian-Soviet Fine Art, even though it is of a very high standard, is practically unknown abroad.  Simply because Russia is not the First but Second, or even Third, world.  This is why I appreciate this material so much – who but an artist living in Russia now can continue the tradition of these artists and endeavour to bring themes of the contemporary Russia to the attention of foreign audiences? Perhaps, the biggest influence on me has been an artist called Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), especially his books, also illustrated by him: “Khlinovsk”, “The space of Euclid”, “Samarkandia”.

Do you think the graphic novel format helps communicate social issues more effectively or to a wider audience?

To be honest, I am not that concerned with this question.  Firstly, I do my work for myself.  Of course, I am pleased that other people like it, that it gets exhibited, printed and published as books in many countries, but I think, this is not because of the format.  It is impossible to compare what is more effective – an article or some graphic series.  There are comics - accessible in their form and presentation - which none the less are not viewed by anyone, and there are long articles which have been read by millions.  It all depends on the standard, on the level of a concrete work of art.  And the level depends on the ability of the author to produce things which are really interesting to herself or himself and on the depth of her or his understanding of the interconnections, interrelations in the world.

What made you decide to research “Other Russias”?

In 2008, when I began making a reportage series accompanied by text, I had hardly left Russia, so I did not have a lot of choice in selecting the object of my studies; almost all the series were drawn in Moscow or the areas around Moscow.  It seems obvious to me that it is impossible to produce relevant work from different countries without having properly understood your own country.  I did not have the initial idea that all the reportage series would be gathered and published under one cover.  I was simply and gradually answering the main questions that I was preoccupied with in those years: “Why is Russian society so divided?”, “Why do we respect neither ourselves nor other people?”, “Who can be modern, contemporary heroes in this country? What are they like?”, “Where is my own personal place in this overall picture?”

What was the most surprising experience for you during your research?

They are two chance meetings, which happened to me in one day.  At first, I was drawing an Orthodox prayer service in the centre of Moscow and one Orthodox activist, who was being drawn by me, declared: “The West want to ruin the beautiful and brave Russian people”.  Then I went to a fashionable bar around the corner, where a typical representative of the Moscow intelligentsia sat next to me and dropped into our conversation: “Russians are shit! But Me, I am an intellectual in the seventh generation!” So the diptych from the “Black Portraits” series was born.  I was struck by how these concrete people represented at the same time real archetypes.  Then I also thought about how, in the contemporary Russian reality, these two individuals didn’t have even the slightest chance to start a dialogue – that’s how strongly these two social groups hate each other.

Given the bleak opinions expressed by many of the people you portray, are you optimistic for the future of Russia?

I don’t believe in a normal future for the contemporary Russia.  And this is not only due to the economic crisis, wars in Ukraine and Syria, sanctions, the absence of developed manufacturing, the destruction of the last remaining infrastructure of the Soviet system of medicine, science, education, pensions.  The worst thing of all is that people in this country are used to being so humiliated that they don’t even notice it.  To notice it one must become an independent researcher, to have one’s own developed environment, to travel abroad often.  But this is inaccessible to most of the population.  In comparison to the Western World the people have very little understanding about their rights and the responsibilities of the state.  And the increasing persecutions decrease their chances to learn, to unite and demand their rights.

Have your critical views caused any criticism or problems for you within the country?

At least not until now.  I simply have hardly any opportunities for my work to be exhibited and printed inside the country.

What is your next planned project?

I am working on two new topics at the moment.  The first is a research trip around the Post-Soviet space.  I started the project in 2014, I have made a graphic reportage series from the Russian Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia) and from Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan.  These are spaces where the Russian language is still more or less maintained, it means that I can fairly freely take an interview.  I am interested in documenting the drawn-out process of the last links inside the post-Soviet space disappearing.  I want to make my next book about that.

The second topic is a book about my native Serpukhov, a small town 100 kilometres away from Moscow.  I recognise Serpukhov less and less with each visit.  I want to describe things which are still connected with my Soviet childhood and Perestroika youth. 

 Victoria Lomasko at the opening of her recent exhibition 'On the Eve' at Pushkin House

Victoria Lomasko at the opening of her recent exhibition 'On the Eve' at Pushkin House

Victoria Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978. She works as a graphic artist and has lectured and written widely on graphic reportage. The co-author of the book Forbidden Art, nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in 2010, she has also co-curated two major art exhibitions, The Feminist Pencil and Drawing the Court. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows in Russia and abroad. She lives in Moscow.

 

 

'Other Russias' is published by Penguin (and first by n+1 in the United States) - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Victoria Lomasko was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack and and translated from the Russian by Olga Utrivanova.

A Pushkin House podcast, recorded with Victoria to accompany her recent exhibition at Pushkin House can be downloaded here.