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Erik Bulatov’s Paris

Soviet non-conformist artist shares his daily rituals and discusses the city of changing light.

“Since I was a child, I’ve dreamed about Paris, and loved everything French. Especially, of course, contemporary French art. All I wanted and thought about was getting to Paris – I believed it would never happen. But somehow fate decided that I should end up here,” explains Erik Bulatov, meeting me in his studio apartment. He is now 84, and for the past 26 years, he has been living in Paris with his life partner and most unwavering comrade-in-arms Natasha, in the 2nd arrondissement near the Boulevard de Sébastopol. 

He fled to Paris from noisy New York in 1991, remarking that “New York really is a harsh city – it’s not made for people.” He had lived in Soho for one and a half years beforehand. Bulatov explains that the move happened by accident: having been invited over by the French Ministry of Culture, they came here for a year, and stayed forever. 

His studio is very bright – all the windows face the sun, and the spacious room with its tall ceilings is flooded with light. But on an easel lie the first sketches of a huge painting of a snowy scene. “This winter we were in Moscow for the New Year. It was a beautiful winter – very snowy – and I wanted to preserve it for myself. This year there wasn’t any snow here in Paris and generally, in 26 years it’s only ever snowed two or three times per winter, if that, and the snow would melt straight away, before it even reached the ground.” 

This work is going on at full speed – his study from the Moscow apartment, with people passing by, will definitely be finished by the end of the year if not sooner. When I ask why he likes painting window views so much, he smiles: “It’s easy. You paint what you know, what you see. After all, that’s very important; an artist should depict that which he has experienced.” 

Today Bulatov is wearing blue overcoat, which is his favourite work uniform. Natasha jokes that it makes him look like a Soviet-era shopkeeper. Despite his age, Erik is full of energy and he details to me with enthusiasm how he spends his days. He gets up between eight and nine o’clock, has breakfast and begins to work. His studio is filled with the sound of music, and the neighbors don’t complain as they’re all at work during the day. “I always work with music. It’s important to me to listen to certain composers, they give me an internal rhythm which is in keeping with my own, so much so that sometimes I can hear nothing. When I put on Mahler, Bach or Shostakovich, it always works for me, not against me. It’s very important.” 

With a break for lunch, his work can continue until late evening. Then, Bulatov goes up to the second floor of his apartment, the first being his studio and the upper for living, to read. “I recently enjoyed rereading the complete works of Aksyonov, and I also like the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and Akunin.”

As befits an artist, Erik can often be found at exhibitions and in museums. “My favourite, naturally, is the Louvre. My favourite artists are all there: Angelico, Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt. I don’t stay in the museum for long – an hour or an hour and a half, no more. I get tired – it’s also a kind of work for me. I usually look at two to four works which I need for my future paintings. My last visit I looked at the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but I haven’t thought about how to depict her yet. I love the staircase she stands on and the beautiful arch over her. That’s my favorite spot in the Louvre.”

While we’re talking, Bulatov makes a lot of jokes, smiles wryly and tells me fun stories about his Parisian life. It turns out that he hardly speaks any French and that Natasha always acts as his translator. “I can’t even swear in French; I only know ‘ooh la la!’ In the summer there were repairs being done in the courtyard, the windows were open and it was hot. The workmen were calling out to one another; one at the bottom, the other at the top. And suddenly there was a terrible crash. I popped out – ran, even – thinking that I would at last hear some real French swearing, and I heard ‘ooh la la.’ That’s when I realized that that really is the main French curse word.”

As surprising as it is, Bulatov’s lack of French has never stopped him from surrounding himself with French friends, about whom he talks about with particular feeling. In his social circle, there are a lot more French locals than native Russians, and almost all of them are friends of his from the Soviet era. For example, Bulatov met his best friend Jean, whom he affectionately calls “Jeano,” in Moscow in 1956, when he came to the USSR to learn the Russian language. There are also a lot of diplomats in Bulatov’s group – French people who, back in the Soviet era, would invite him to the French Embassy to watch French films and theater productions. 

A year ago, he collected all his friends together at the Pompidou Centre, where he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The place was chosen with purpose; Beaubourg, where the Pompidou Centre is located, became his magic talisman and his key to the heart of Paris. In 1988, at the invitation of the museum’s management when UNESCO named Bulatov the Artist of the Year, he was given the right to have a personal exhibition at the Pompidou Centre where he was met as a star. That’s how he came to Paris for the first time, during which he lived with his French friend Dina Vierny.

“I feel very good in Paris – natural and free somehow. I love Paris, but I’m still a Muscovite. It’s just that Moscow is in me. I can’t escape it.” Bulatov refuses to be called a Parisian, but he also can’t imagine his life in any other city. Despite the fact that he travels a lot, he’s always happy to return home. “I never get tired of Paris. I’m always discovering something new, and even the things that aren’t new – I see them in a new light. For example, there are always unexpected things with the light here. It changes depending on whether it’s an overcast or sunny day. That’s probably why I like walking to the river so much. There’s open sky there, and you can see what’s going on all around you: one time there might be a layer of clouds, another, some very bright clouds, or some kind of fog. Each time, this changes everything around you.” Bulatov loves to stroll along the banks of the Seine – it’s a fifteen-minute walk from his home – and to look at the sky.

“I always feel indebted to Paris. I still haven’t quite depicted what I want to depict, what I ought to depict, because it’s an amazing city. The Impressionists – Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – depicted their Paris wonderfully. When you walk around the city, you recognise them. But nonetheless it’s a different now. Paris has certain features which didn’t exist then – its character has changed a little. And I, of course, haven’t quite managed to depict this change. But I hope I’ll be able to.“