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Erik Bulatov: 'I Just Live in the Now, and I’ve Vowed not to Turn My Back or Lie'

In an interview with the Higher School of Economics organised by the HSE School of Philology, the artist Erik Bulatov discussed his life and artwork. 

On Language in Art

People often ask me why I put words in my artwork. Language is a mediator between our creation and the outside world we live in. So if an artist wants the observer to be not just a witness, but also a participant in a piece of art – if the observer is to become a part of the artwork – then language will really help here. Contemporary art uses language all the time.

Words are mostly used as commentary on images; that is, the image and the words are their own separate things. I’m against using language in this way because in this situation, the commentary itself becomes the main focal point, while the image starts to play a secondary role, serving simply as an illustration for a comment. In essence, this becomes something literary. The images take on an applied role for a certain text that is seeking to have an independent meaning of its own. For me, language is a character. It’s just as qualified as any other element in a piece of art. A word is not just meaning or sound; words are also worthy of visual representation. And it is this visual representation in particular that makes a word an equal character in a picture. The behaviour of a word – its movement in space, its relation towards the other elements of a picture – becomes the contents of the artwork and the expressive purpose itself.

Erik Bulatov is a Russian artist and one of the founders of Sots Art. Born in Sverdlovsk on September 5, 1933, Bulatov graduated from Moscow’s Surikov Art Institute in 1958. He began exhibiting his work in Moscow in 1957 before going on to work at the children’s publication Detgiz two years later. In 1989, after many successful exhibitions abroad, he moved to the United States to work, and in 1992, Bulatov moved to France, where he has lived and worked ever since. Bulatov was awarded the Order of Friendship for his large contribution towards strengthening cooperation with Russia and popularising the Russian language and Russian culture abroad. A characteristic and recognisable aspect to Bulatov’s artwork is the collision of poster text with a figurative component, usually a landscape.

On Freedom

Freedom is Freedom II
Freedom is Freedom II
‘Freedom is. Freedom is. Freedom is. Freedom is. Freedom is. Freedom is. Freedom is freedom.’ This is a famous phrase by the Russian poet Vsevolod Nekrasov. In the painting, I expressed two meanings of freedom. The first is freedom as a declaration, as a political slogan, a confirmation that ‘there is freedom.’ But in reality this freedom is fictitious. In the painting, we see poster text that is closed off by a space (the sky). A deep conviction of mine is that no government or civil society can truly have freedom. In one way or another, everything is like a dictatorship, either of the market or of an ideology. But in the middle of the picture, we see something breaking through this plane – a breakthrough into a dark blue space. For me, the sky symbolises a space for freedom. True freedom can only exist outside of the social space. And this freedom, which goes into the depths of the picture as if breaking through fake slogans, this is true freedom for me. And the true meaning of human existence, as I understand it, lies outside the social space.

Bulatov's Influence on Other Artists

Over the course of my very long life, I have been influenced by the work of many artists, especially in my youth. But Robert Rafailovich Falk, a Russian painter who, in his work, united the Russian avant-garde with Russian modernism, most seriously impacted my work. I was also influenced by Vladimir Andreyevich Favorsky, a Soviet graphic artist and portrait master. Really, I am indebted to Favorsky for my artwork in regards to my understanding of space. I consider him my teacher. As for my contemporaries, I feel close to Kazimir Malevich, Oleg Vassiliev, Anselm Kiefer, and Edward Ruscha. I was also heavily influenced by American pop art. 

On Foreign Viewers

For me, language is above all visual imagery, while meaning and sound come second. And as strange as it is, foreigners in particular have an easier time seeing this visual image, and as for the meaning of the word, someone can translate it for them if necessary. But a Russian viewer sees the meaning right away and is often limited by this. The viewer sees letters in a picture, like CPSU, and instantly thinks the picture is about politics. The meaning of the picture is much deeper, though. This is why foreigners are even at a slight advantage when they look at my artwork. 

On Working at a Children's Publisher

 began illustrating children's books to make a living. At the time – the 60s – you could only paint what your superiors told you to paint, which I categorically didn’t want to do. But my work at the publishing house didn’t go very smoothly either. My name even ended up in a Pravda article called ‘On Formalism in Children’s Illustrations.’ After this article, no one gave me work for six months straight, which was completely unexpected. I really wanted to make money illustrating, but it wasn’t working out. But I gradually worked it out and arrived at something that suited both my editors and me. After some 20 years as an illustrator, I understood that the work wasn’t nearly as cumbersome for me anymore. I was happy to illustrate, especially when I got good stories. I’d already have ideas about what the story should be like and how the child’s mind worked. What should a prince or princess look like from a child’s point of view; after all, you won’t fool them – they know for sure if a castle is real or fake. I liked this work, but when I got the opportunity to make a living as a painter, I gave up illustrating. 

On Our Time Has Come

Our Time Has Come
Our Time Has Come

It means a lot to me that young people are noticing Our Time Has Come and finding it to be an accurate portrait of our time and ourselves today. The picture is of an underground walkway near Moscow’s Kurskaya railway station because I believe we’re in an era of transition. A transition from one era to another, and we are right in the middle. I’m directing the words ‘our time has come’ straight at the viewer. It’s in the sense that the time for self-determination has come. It’s necessary to be aware of where we are, where we’re going, what will happen tomorrow, and what to do. Go back to the past or step into the future. That was the idea. Really, I spent a lot of painstaking hours on this picture, and it means a lot that people are touched by it.

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