12 November 2022 Why is 'the last Soviet artist', which is how the young Russian Victoria Lomasko also defines herself in the title of the exhibition running in Brescia, until 8 January?'
'For at least three reasons. I belong to the last generation that lived in the USSR. I have a clear memory of it, I was a 'pioneer'. Then because of my father. He was a graphic designer who worked in a secret metal factory and was in charge of propaganda, he drew posters. Although he hated the regime, he was forced to draw for them, his house was full of portraits of Lenin. His free activity was, when it existed, clandestine. The third reason is that when I attended school after graduation, the teachers were those trained by the Stalinist regime, and this is not a judgement, but a simple observation'.
'Did you study at the Academy?'
'No, I attended a school in Moscow that can be translated as the Printing Academy, which was the same job my mother did.'
'Not exactly. They taught us how to make a beautiful book in the tradition of the Russian Big Book, the book as a work of art. It wasn't until our senior year that they told us the country was so bad that there were no more publishing houses to make these books.'
To make me understand, she searches with her mobile phone and shows me the great works of her childhood, by Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, Eric Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, who were not only great illustrators of children's books but also leading artists in 1970s Russia. 'I have with me a suitcase with these books and opening and leafing through them is one of my favourite activities.'
Painter Victoria Lomasko was born in 1978 in Serpukhov, an industrial town a hundred kilometres south of Moscow. After graduating, she began her career as an illustrator. 'I only did it to get by, it is not a job I like.'
'When did you feel like an artist, when did you start painting?'
'Ever since I was a girl, I liked to draw, but especially to write. Once I wrote a text, illustrated it with drawings of my own and showed it to my father who immediately started to correct the text. He was a despot and it was he who wanted me to continue in this career. If I hadn't had this father, I probably would have been a traditional writer. After all, he pushed me to be what he could not achieve in life. I would have been a poet perhaps. But in the end I managed to write a real book, a real literary essay'. She is publishing it in the United States.
'What is it about?'
'I set out my five main points. What it means to live in a closed and isolated country. What it means to escape from that country. What life in exile is. The shame of the attack, of being on the wrong side. And then my thoughts on humanity'.
'But you also wrote an essay on Jews in contemporary Russia. Are you Jewish?' 'Perhaps, my paternal grandfather probably was. But he hasn't talked about much at home.' Victoria, whose work is a successful combination of text and image, has also written and illustrated other books, the most famous of which is Other Russias (published in English by Penguin and translated into German, French, Spanish, Catalan and soon into Italian), which won her the Pushkin Prize, although it has never been published in Russia, and is now considered one of the most influential artists of her generation.
'Are you persecuted?'
'I am not because I no longer live in Russia.'
'But you live in exile.'
'Since March this year, I have left Moscow. I live mainly in Leipzig not so much by choice, but because there are very tolerant laws in Germany. My passport is worthless and all my movements are complicated.'
But she has travelled a lot. The Brescia exhibition was her first visit to Italy, but the artist has exhibited in Spain, England and travelled in the United States. The exhibition in London was entitled On the Eve, from a work by Turgenev.
'What is your relationship with the great Russian culture?'
'The curator chose the title, it is not inspired by the writer's work. Certainly our great cultural heritage influences all Russian artists. However, it consoles me to realise that it is in the great Russian tradition to be in constant conflict with power. How many writers and thinkers have been killed, or ended up in concentration camps. Persecution in Russia is very common'.
'Well, persecution is unfortunately very common...'
'But in Russia especially. And the perception abroad that I have heard is also the one, especially after the war, that sees Russia as a ravenous, bloodthirsty country, a Rabstan'. Which could be translated into Slavestan.
'It's sad, but I think it's true.'
'Your perception of the West?'
'In the US, I have found many of the flaws that are found in Russia. The divide between cities and the countryside is dramatic, the difference between wealth and poverty is incredible, shameful. In Europe, I feel that this diversity is more moderate.' 'United States like Russia? Isn't that an exaggeration?'
'A little, yes. The difference between rich and poor is similar, but in Russia there is a civil war atmosphere. A condition of chaos, conflict, anarchy. And this is very realistic. On the streets, one witnesses the systematic looting of shops by gangs of young people. Attacks on the police, robberies, violence. Partisan groups have been created that make real attacks on power, a sort of metropolitan banditry.'
'They have written that the subjects of your works are excessively polemical.'
'What I paint is the normal situation. The ex-workers, the young unemployed, the truck drivers you see in my pieces are what I see every day in Russia. The feeling is that in most of the country you don't live, you survive'.
'What do you mean?'
'No plans, no chance for the future, just a daily struggle to survive, to work, to eat, to sleep. I had friends in Serpukhov who took a two-hour bus ride every day in the morning and two in the evening because the only work they could find was in Moscow'.
After Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it seemed impossible to have to talk about Russian artists as dissidents again.
'I too prefer not to be considered that way. The risk is that as a dissident you are looked upon as a zoo animal. That's not what I want, I feel like a free artist. And I don't want to spend my life writing about Putin. I have more important things to do.'