Erik Bulatov: free to decide.

Erik Bulatov’s father always believed his son would become an artist, on what basis he would think so it is not known but the prophecy has come true: at almost eighty-five years he is one of the most famous russian artists worldwide. Russian or Soviet: difficult to say, because since he was forty Erik has been living outside his native country. Today Bulatov prefers to live in Paris, which he says his wife likes for its calm and balanced lifestyle in line with their current attitude. While the country was struggling to recover and rebuild itself after the terrible events of the 1940s, young Erik completed his studies in the most prestigious artistic institute of Surikov and soon after, twenty-five years old, he looked for a paid job. He had two special friends: Oleg Vasiliev and Iliya Kabakov, future “giants” of contemporary art.

Erik Bulatov

Their relationship became a long and happy friendship, allowing them to make a common front against the grey servility of the regime. They were not rebels, but they fought their “quiet war” in their ateliers, where few trusted friends could have access to see the “fruits” of their clandestine work. Ilya Kabakov as a result of his studies in the publishing field, collaborated with the few state publishers, and it was him who invited Vasiliev and Bulatov to enlist as illustrators for children’s literature. Distant from the Communist Party and its ideology, they were not considered fit to deal with educational books, so they were assigned to illustrate fairy tales for children or folk tales of the many ethnic groups of the Soviet Union. In thirty years of work as editorial illustrators, the two friends have decorated more than a hundred books: Bulatov was responsible for the drawing part and Vasiliev for colors. Working a bit for the State (but avoiding propaganda) and a bit for themselves (without any hope of being able to present their works to a large audience) the artists remained almost immune from the reality that surrounded them and from the Diktat of the regime.

Erik Bulatov, Farewell Lenin

Erik Bulatov, Horizon, 1971-2

They belonged to the so-called “Sretenskaja” group and at the end of the Sixties they sometimes performed in the café “Siniaya ptitza” (The Blue Bird). The artist Grisha Bruskin told the anecdote of when Bulatov, suffering from a backache, had to have massages in a clinic in Gursuf, and while lying on the bed tried to admire the beauty of the Crimea coastline just outside the window, but a bright red handrail in the background stopped him to fully enjoy the landscape. After numerous failed attempts to crawl on the bed sheet, in hope of getting a better view, the resignation arrived in the sacred sentence “That is our life too!”. On this episode he got insipiration for the painting “The Horizon” in which a red ribbon of solemn festivity blocks the landscape covering the horizon. What Bulatov wanted to express is that Soviet people are blinded by ideology: to become a work hero, a worthy son of the Soviet homeland, a man does not see the true purpose and beauty of life and the world around him. Bulatov achieves emotional contrast using the most lyrical landscapes of his motherland as a background and aggressively covering them with parade banners.

Erik Bulatov Freedom is Freedom II

Erik Bulatov ,Train

The big characters of the slogans which are displayed everywhere, in Bulatov’s works are similar to the bars of a prison: in the painting “Glory to the Communist Party of Soviet Union” (СЛАВА КПСС) the gigantic letters look like fresh blood almost completely covering the blue sky, ultimate symbol of freedom, letting the message of eternal slavery shine through. The message was so clear that even the most insensitive were able to perceive its anti-Soviet quality to the point that in 1975 the work was forbidden in the USSR. In 2008 the same work was bought by Philips for 2.5 million dollars, making Erik Bulatov the most evaluated Russian painter. The works of Bulatov demonstrate to the viewer the coexistence of different worlds and their interaction: the real world, the tangible world, opens up in the imaginary realm and the painted world. The gate between them is invisible.  The effect is one of participation and confusion of boundaries. It is reality free from impositions where one approaching enters an illusory world, but just getting away will make one free from any infatuation. Freedom of choice: this is the main motive of the art made by the “last of the Mohicans” of the Sixties, of the first delicate protest of these artists friends sharing destiny and closeness of thought.

Vlada Novikova