Root Menu

Tatiana Filina

In conversation with Kate Schorr and Alexander

Spas (Saint Saviour), 30x40cm canvas on  board          Troitza (Trinity), 50x70cm canvas on  board

T: In many ways my character was shaped by my father. He was very logical and wouldn’t accept anything that went against logic. He didn’t allow me to get away with simply declaring my emotions, being a girl, saying things like “it’s not right and I don’t want to explain why. I just feel like that.” He forced me to think, to explain, and to put things into words. It was great training. I understand, of course, that perhaps you don’t always have to do this; it’s great sometimes just to be able to say, “I feel like it, full stop”. Still, it’s better if you are able to explain why. I teach my pupils, whenever they say, “I don’t like it,” they must be able to explain why. Not for me, for themselves – because they must know the answer – then you can build on it. If you don’t know why, it’s only emotions.

I don’t have parents any more, but we have Alexander’s parents and we’re very close. His brother is coming here next academic year. We don’t have children, but for me our marriage and family are very important.

A: I am sorry I haven’t met Tanya’s father, but I knew her mother very well; she was a fascinating woman. She followed in the footsteps of her older brother: became an engineer and worked on aviation engines. We had quite a lot to talk about: much of my research now is on civil aircraft engines. We had very interesting discussions.

T: They really got on, in the end.

A: Tanya’s relationship with her mother was very complex: there was a lot of love and affinity; her mother was well-educated and clever, in more ways than one. Tatiana benefited from this intellectual proximity. Tanya’s mother was also very smart and well-adjusted in very mundane terms of managing her life, working out quickly how best to do something practical, simple. But she was also a very strong person, and could be rather domineering. She had difficulty allowing somebody else’s freedom – particularly Tanya’s.

T: We were friends, of course, but we had difficult times.

A: Their family history is very interesting; we know it from Tanya’s mother. Her two older brothers were both quite prominent in the aerospace industry. Before the war one of them, Alexander Filin, became head of the military aviation research institute. He was a general, and had numerous medals and honours from the state. He was in charge of the development of the new generation of fighter jets in the run-up to the war. There was a general perception that there would be a war, even though the propaganda always insisted that there would be no war – there was a peace pact with Germany. What happened then was that Alexander Filin came to a meeting with Stalin and there was a discussion of the state of preparedness. Filin said that clearly we’re not ready; we’re not making progress sufficiently quickly. All was not good then. When he came home afterwards he said, “I will be taken in a few days. I know that.”

T: And he was.

A: But he never attempted to do anything about it.

T: To escape. If you understand what will happen, if you’re sure – to my knowledge, to my personality, I would try to escape and save my life. But he didn’t. He had a brother, my other uncle, Nikolai Filin, who was imprisoned as well, but freed much later. Afterwards Nikolai worked at a rather high level in the space industry, but would never discuss the years he spent in prison. He didn’t want to. He started to lead another life, very ordinary. He was a very normal person, without any sort of scars on his psyche, I felt. I’ve never noticed anything like that. It is amazing isn’t it?

A: People managed to block this kind of memories.

T: These people did not like what Solzhenitsyn wrote. They didn’t like the fact that he brought it back. They didn’t want to remember it like that. I understand how for each person it must be a different history because of their perception, because of their personality, because of their personal case, and their environment. Of course I realise that these small details can form different attitudes to these events; I realise that. But I understand at the same time there must be some general aspect that have to be described.

A: There was an explosion of writing. Solzhenitsyn was early, relatively. But towards the end of the eighties, there was suddenly quite a lot.

T: Much more, better stuff.

A: There is a number of very good books. What I thought very interesting was the mechanism of oppression, because it had the ability to send a message to people, making them really afraid at certain level. But at the same time, they believed in the system. What are the reasons why it happened? There’s an argument now about the scale of these repressions; how many people were actually imprisoned. It turns out that the numbers were not that huge, but a lot of the people who were taken were quite key figures. If you worked in a factory and didn’t matter much, than you were an unlikely choice – unless you did something outrageous, you know, wrote Stalin was so-and-so; otherwise you were unlikely to be touched. But some people could be perceived to be a threat, either because they were thinking differently, because they criticized the regime, because they could be potential contenders for some kind of influential position. These people could be removed, quite often by others creating intrigues against them. It’s very human, and was very easy. It’s very simplistic to portray this phenomenon by saying that it’s an evil system that just worked that way. It’s actually part of human nature, and if you create conditions for this side of human nature to come to the fore, it will. At least that’s my understanding of it.

T: It’s one thing if you know there is no point spinning any sort of intrigue in your workplace, because there is no chance for you to achieve anything this way. It’s quite different if you know for sure that there is this mechanism: if you act this way, you can get rid of this and that, and end up in a better position. Perhaps it is human nature, to use these mechanisms.

A: The nature of the society [in the Soviet Union during the middle part of the 20th century] was such that there was a very small proportion of people who were in charge and were distant from the rest, people in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, all that.

T: In fact you knew them by names, since it was really a small number of people. Now there’s a huge number of people living luxurious lives, but you can’t know their names because there is lots of them at the top: it’s a huge structure that rules business, the country, culture, everything. Not like it used to be in the Soviet Union, where it was very…

A: Much more concentrated.

T: The lifestyle of these few was so far from the rest, from the normal. But one wouldn’t bother about this tiny slice of society [the government] living different lives.

A: For the rest, it was pretty much the same in the sense that a lot was provided by the state. Everyone got their education free from the state. There wasn’t a practice of private schools. We all went to state schools and then to university, which was free as well. It all created a feeling that we’re all very much in the same boat. We don’t have much to fight over because we’re all not particularly rich, nor are we particularly poor. We can afford to help each other without hidden consideration: if I help somebody, they might overtake me in some kind of competition.

T: Now people can choose to spend their time on something different, an extra job that would bring more money – so one is forced to consider that perhaps that would be more profitable than helping somebody for free. This is very different from what it used to be. Since one hadn’t the chance to earn more than the state gave them as salary, people could be very helpful to one another. It was a very normal part of our lives.

A: What we are trying to articulate is that the nature of human interaction was very unusual. If you went there then, you would have realized that people held a very high regard for personal relationships and a very low regard for other social structures – because those were perceived to be corrupt and to be controlled. So there was an unwritten code that said essentially: you don’t steal from people, but you can quite comfortably steal from the state, because it’s faceless, it’s impersonal. It created a rather strange form of psyche that I think people in the west found quite perplexing.

I’m talking probably about the time from the sixties and right up until the end of the eighties. If you look further back into the Soviet history, I guess it would be difficult for us to judge what happened immediately after the revolution, and then during early Stalin’s rule, with all the repressions in the thirties. That was different again; there was a lot of enthusiasm, but there was probably some significant fear.

T: It was a very strange combination. I’ve been trying hard to understand how people felt at the time. Those people in my family knew they would be imprisoned in a short time, but didn’t do anything to escape; didn’t want to escape. They believed that it must be a mistake that might take some time to clear it up; but they chose to be very obedient. I still can’t find the right words to describe this. I’ve been thinking, and still do, about the psychology of people during this time in the Soviet history, but can’t understand how it worked. 

A: It is interesting how it affected the families. Tanya’s mother, after Alexander Filin got taken away, became a sister of an ‘enemy of the people’ and lost her job. She was given a message that he was imprisoned without the right of communication. That was the particular formula, for twenty-five years, was it? The formal verdict was twenty-five years without the right of communication. She didn’t know at the time that it essentially meant that he would be executed. It was only later on that people discovered that.

T: This phrase meant that there was no escape at all, but she could not know that. So she kept her name.

A: She got married, but she didn’t want to change her last name because she was hoping that if ever her brother Alexander comes out and looks for his family…

T: So that he might find somebody.

A: That’s the name that Tanya uses in her work.

T: That is the name I have taken for my artwork, not my actual name: I had the surname of my father, of course.

A: Filina is a woman’s name if a man’s name is Filin.

Tatiana grew up in the centre of Moscow and went to an ordinary local school. She liked math and physics, but she never got a chance to pursue that. She was always interested primarily in two arts subjects.

T: My father decided that science is not a good thing, not a useful thing to do for a woman who would like to be married and have family. He thought, and I totally agree with him, that if you decide to be a scientist, a real one, you have to be very focused on what you are doing. It is not then easy to divide yourself between family, children, all the stuff that goes on at home, and work. He explained this to me at one point, when I was a teenager. He said he didn’t at all think that I was stupid. But he thought that I had the luxury of doing music, art, so I should better choose from these – mainly because of the flexibility. If you like, you can devote your whole body and soul to these. But if you’d only like to put some time aside for this type of thing, and the rest for your family and personal life, you can do that, too.

A: The choice was really between music, piano more specifically, and art. Tanya liked both, but really couldn’t continue pursuing both with the same intensity.

T: At that time in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t actually have proper formal education in two different subjects; it wouldn’t count for both. I went to a special music school for talented pupils, and study took much of my time. It was a rather difficult program. When you are at school, working within a certain framework, there are things that you have to do by certain dates, and there is no escape. You are not as flexible as, for example, if you are taking private lessons. So I’d chosen to take my lessons in art privately. There were special school for art, too, but one couldn’t attend both!

A: It has a lot to do with the fact that education was very formal. With music, if you’re doing it to a higher level, you were expected to practice three or four hours a day.

T: Six, seven hours a day.

A: It demanded total dedication. Since coming to this country we have questioned the wisdom of such a position. Of course, it gives you a chance to create top professionals.

T: But nobody needs so many professionals.

A: Take somebody who is trained with the aim of becoming a world class performer. Perhaps he doesn’t make it because other people who trained along side him were better – then it’s quite a difficult position. Tatiana wasn’t really keen on performing – we’ve discussed this, haven’t we? You said you always really enjoyed teaching…

T: I never wanted to be a performer because I never wanted to put so much time and effort into just one thing. It’s so fragile. Imagine, for example, that you lose ability, physically. You know, it can happen with anybody. Then you can’t perform any more, you are out of the game. Of course you can then teach, but… If you were always so focused on this purpose in your life, on this achievement, then when you lose it, it can destroy you. It is really very serious. I never wanted anything like that. I’m very happy with what I have at the moment.

A: Tatiana decided to teach and went to a school, or college, a university level institute, called the Gnessin School, a famous school in Moscow that teaches music.

T: They have a college and also a chain of schools of different levels. You start at the age of six, for example, and you go through all these stages to the age of twenty-three.

A: You end up with a degree. I guess it’s a competing structure to the Moscow Conservatoire. Tatiana did that and started teaching piano, and had pupils of all ages from five to eighteen. This was in Moscow.

T: Everything was in Moscow before we came here.

A: But alongside that, because she always had an interest in art, she was painting and developing her visual ideas.

T: I took private lessons in art for a while with a very interesting artist, who was a normal, ordinary person. Then at some point he suddenly declared that he wanted to be a monk and left the world for a monastery. This event was really interesting for me: imagine this happening to somebody you know, somebody who, as you thought at the time, was used to absolutely understandable to you as a person. But then, of course, you can never really say that you know somebody very, very deeply. After he suddenly came up with this decision we still kept in communication. I would say it became even more interesting for me: I’ve never touched this side of the world. I’m actually one hundred percent atheist. I’m rather far from it all, and can’t be anything else, simply because I can’t believe in anything, except myself: I just have the outcome that depends on how much effort I put in; that’s my belief. So it was a very interesting experience. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the trace of monk Aphanassii now, because I’ve been away for fourteen years. I do come to Russia every year, but you know, when you come for a week or two, there are so many things. We still have family there.

A: What happened was that in 1990 I came to Oxford to do a doctorate, and Tatiana came with me. To begin with, I think it was rather difficult to find our place in the society; there’s the language issue, but also in terms of what Tatiana was going to do. Interesting questions arose because of the nature of education, the whole ethos of education being very different. In Russia it was always professional and very strict and rigorous; here, particularly in music education —

T: There are plenty of special subject schools [in Russia] to which you can apply, so there’s lots of choice. Here there are very few of them: you don’t have any music schools for kids in Oxford. In Cambridge I know there’s one. The most famous one is in Manchester. There are not many in London, actually. It’s mostly private lessons or after school teaching.

A: Also trying to understand the idea behind this attitude was quite difficult. So, during our first period in Oxford (we stayed here until ’94) I don’t think [Tatiana] taught.

T: I didn’t paint at the time, either, because I didn’t have enough space. It took several years for us to get established. Not in the sense of having a place to be, of course – Alexander was in Merton at the time, that is a superb college; rather rich and very nice to be in — so we were comfortable. But still it was a completely different culture. Of course, in many ways humans are humans anywhere, their problems are common; it doesn’t matter if you’re from Soviet Union or England or America, people are the same. At the same time, talking now about the culture of education, the key is in deciding why you start doing something; at what level; what would you like to achieve? For example, for us it’s absolutely essential to know from the [young] age what you are going to be. It can be changed; you could change it, circumstances could change it, but at the same time it’s quite usual to have an idea about future. Here people, even after A level, often still try to decide what they want to do. That’s really different. In some sense I think it’s good, of course.

A: We spent some time seeing how people go about their lives and how they structure their progress, and then started to understand the benefits of the system. The original reaction, naturally, was very critical.

T: To my understanding, often they are simply losing their time! How could you just wander around doing nothing? I understand it is a luxury, I understand maybe it’s very useful, I understand maybe it’s very helpful for a young person to find his or her right way to develop. But at the same time, I’m still pretty sure that you must have a very strong, well founded education – because you must have a base on which you can build whatever you want. To a certain point still I think so. You must be forced to do proper things, to study all these different subjects, all this huge variety we used to have in Russia. Simply because it’s better to be equipped with this basic knowledge, to touch upon different subjects, so you can judge for yourself. Some people here decide that they would like to skip maths and physics and all sciences for literature and arts. Maybe it’s right, but for me it’s better to follow a safer way of developing, having this very strong base and wide knowledge.

A: So we spent these years in Oxford. I was busy with my work; Tatiana was busy essentially helping me settle and making sure that we figure out what to do next. Then we moved to Cambridge for a couple of years, and then I got my first teaching position in Newcastle. We came back to Oxford about five years ago. I think a rather interesting point is the concept of continuity; we had a feeling that once we returned to Oxford (and we’d always wanted to return to Oxford), that this was more or less final. You see, in the Soviet Union, if there was one very prominent luxury that people had, it was continuity and a certain confidence about tomorrow, about the future. Once we established that for ourselves, that’s when Tatiana really started doing lots of things. She started teaching [piano] again. That was very useful and very interesting. She has a number of pupils that she has a very good relationship with and they’re friends. She can actually pick up from them how they feel, how they see the world; some of them are quite grown-up.

T: Well, they are friends, so you can ask questions. Because, being Russian, still I’m very interested in how they see me, what I do in the right way, as they see it, or the wrong way. We discuss things. It’s a very useful thing to have here, because I finally relaxed about being foreign. I started painting again, and developed my art. I hadn’t painted for a long time because I actually didn’t feel comfortable doing this sort of thing. I would like to sell my work; I would like to exhibit, not just create for myself. I would like to have, through paintings, some communication with people, some feedback. It’s not about making something just for hanging up on my walls, or giving to friends, or just keeping it. It is about experience; absorbing something, and sharing. When I am not comfortable, not settled, I’m not happy doing art at all. I didn’t realise this at the time; why?

A: I think I can understand that as well. It’s interesting that you then started again in France. We have long standing links with some friends in France; we were friends with them in Moscow. Tanya had this friend, Vera.

T: She was French, but used to live in Moscow for thirty years, working as a choreographer at the Bolshoï Theatre. Then all this happened: glastnost’, perestroika… She decided to leave because she didn’t like that new life at all. She liked the life in Soviet Union. She kept saying that you could never have friends like that in the West. Now I understand what she meant; it’s not because people are worse here, not at all. But because in the Soviet Union, in Russia, they were so careless about their time. If you need help, I’ll give it you; it might take much time, so what? So you are very comfortable asking for help. Here, on the other hand, you would think several times if it is appropriate to ask, or if you could do it yourself.

A: This view was very common for people: if you’re friends with somebody, you do not simply rely on their help; it becomes implicit. You live in absolute confidence that it will be provided. So this friend of ours moved to Paris. We visit her regularly, quite a lot. She has connections with fine art circles, being a choreographer.

T: She knew people, and it was easier to start there, because I felt very comfortable. I can’t say that I sell many there; but although we don’t go to France every month, we do go three or four times a year. Once I started selling my work in France, I felt more confident and wanted to know how it works here, for example, in Oxford. I decided to take part in the ArtWeeks.

A: It’s all developing; it’s work in progress in some sense. Something that was quite instrumental happened a few years ago. I was spending time working in Paris during the summer, and I was also teaching in Normandy, in a town called Caen. It is very much in the news now because of the D-Day: it was one of the key strongholds during the war. There is a university there. We spent some time in Normandy and absolutely loved it, so we bought a little flat in Cabourg where we now go quite regularly. In fact, Tanya does most of her painting there, because it is very congenial. It’s a lovely place; it’s a northern resort, meaning that it never has huge throngs of people. Also, we don’t tend to go in the summer; we tend to go out of season.

T: It’s very pleasant, and it’s very artistic. There is a picturesque place twenty minutes drive away: Honfleur.

Honfleur in February          Old boat

A: It’s a port town that was popular with artists for many decades because of its character, and because it’s one of the nearest seaports to Paris. I think since the middle of the 19th century, probably, it became frequented a lot by the artistic circles. A lot of painting was done there: Monet, Seurat, Boudin. It’s incredibly beautiful; a very traditional French port. It has what’s called le vieux bassin, a little port area that was developed by decree of Colbert, I think in the seventeenth century – very nice, very traditional. It’s been an inspiration for so many people, so it was very natural for us to come there, to become acquainted with the place and people. It’s still a very prominent centre for arts trade, with lots of galleries all over the place. We built up some links with the place, not extensive, but sufficient to keep us connected. That’s on that side of the channel. On this side of the channel, in Oxford, I think we haven’t really found very wide support. 

T: We actually haven’t tried to find support yet. Maybe it’s time to start, but I can’t say that I have a need for it. If art is your only way of making money, it’s one thing. If it is something that you are doing for pleasure and perhaps for some money, without depending on it, then it’s a different story. You can be more relaxed; you can afford not to pursue links with people in order to sell things. It’s a different job were you to have a manager: you have to have an agent; you can’t do it yourself. I have one [my husband]. He’s so clever that I know he’ll do it for me if he decides it’s the time. I think that maybe it will be an interesting thing to do.

A: I don’t think Tatiana ever considered her art as a way of earning money, but at the same time, as she said, it’s a measure of how meaningful people find your work.

T: Unfortunately, you can’t measure it in any other way. If people like it, they are ready to pay for it. This is the only way to show, for example, to me that they really do like it. There simply is no other way. If they are saying something, it still can be just politeness, so you never know; but you really know when people buy your work. Of course, there are also people who can’t afford to buy, but can really like something.

A: We’re all in that situation in some respect; we all like certain things that we can’t get. There’s nothing unusual about that. But at the same time, I think price is a measure of how your work is perceived. But then the question arises, also: what determines price? What determines the real value? What is the difference? This is difficult. One of the things you inevitably start thinking about is this: what is the mechanism by which art becomes known, popular, desirable?

T: I think it’s different in every case. We can ask questions: why is this particular artist, whose work we don’t like at all, so popular? If we think about it really, really hard, we’ll have to dig deep enough to find out the point at which it all started; why? what were the reasons and circumstances which paved the way to success?

A: Yes: if you try to solve the problem backwards, you might say: ok, we can understand what the reasons for success were…

T: Every case is different. Not only cases are different, but time is also different. We must understand that something may have been en vogue at the time; then the time passed.

A: It’s interesting to think about it in the context of recent events when the MoMart warehouse burned down. It makes you question the value of modern art because a lot of the pieces that got destroyed were very pricey. But were they really valuable, and what makes the price of an object of art? We’ve gone far beyond the point when you could say that it is so expensive because the person who created it put a lot of effort into it, i.e. quite a lot of skilled labour; it’s certainly not as simple as that. In fact, it hasn’t been like that for a long time.

T: Because of photography and different new techniques that people didn’t have at the time. If you know you can create real art from photography now, and people do, why bother to try to reproduce the same things using paint?

A: Do you remember this story you read in the Russian magazine? The one about Picasso coming to Visconti’s cinema/art studio? The Italian film director was visited by Picasso, with whom they were friends, in his studio. Picasso came along with his agent to have a look around. After he finished looking around, Visconti asked Picasso to sketch a portrait of him, which Picasso did in about four minutes. When they finished talking, and Picasso was about to go, the director asked him to leave behind that portrait. The agent interfered and said, “Sorry, everything Picasso does has a price.” Visconti said, “Of course, of course. I mean to pay for it. Name the price.” The agent said, “Ten million dollars.” Visconti was shocked, and asked, “But why?”

T: “We are friends and I see that you’ve done it in four minutes time, so why is the price so high?” Picasso told him, “I’ve spent all my life into preparing to do it for you in four minutes time.”

A: In other words, it may seem a quick sketch to you, but actually all my life’s experience was required for these four minutes.

T: And that’s right, if you think about it; it is right. You must put in a huge amount of effort to be able to capture something deep.

A: Also, everybody’s four minutes are different, because they depend on the different experience that they had.

T: So it is: background, experience, and how much they cost at the moment; it’s that simple. It’s a combination.

A: It’s fascinating how price is created, because it is demand and supply – and at the same time it reflects the artistic value of the object. Somehow all these blend it together to produce this universal measure. Take Tracy Emin’s tent, one of the pieces that got burned down.

T: We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it here.

A: It was here on exhibition. She’s one of the prominent representatives of modern British art; all a little bit scandalous, if I may say so. Anyway, this tent is called "Everybody I Ever Slept With" between certain years. It has embroidered on it the names of all her lovers, and relatives that she happened to be sleeping with as a child. It’s a very prominent example of Brit art, modern art movement. It is no longer concerned simply with an image of any kind. It is very much conceptual, and about the baring of the soul. I guess she is particularly good at it. Not everybody likes it; I’m not a great fan. But I do understand that what is valued about it…

T: You understand what works in this case.

A: What people perceive to be unique is that she’s ready and capable to unveil some of her very deepest emotions; a process that other people would most certainly feel very uncomfortable about. That’s one aspect of it, because it certainly makes her unique in a certain way. But on the other hand, she probably wouldn’t be where she is, in terms of her popularity, were it not thanks to the interest of some very prominent, influential, and rich buyers who noticed her art. It is a combination of many things which brings success and money to an artist – or not, if you are not lucky or not clever enough; if you are not able to make an effort. You have to think about what kind of people you would like to get interested, what slice of society it would be useful to address. Tracy Emin was rather common, I would say. Hers might be talent in some way; but it’s not just about being an artist; being able to reproduce features. It is rather a combination of many, many things. It’s always very important to understand who the target audience is. Who are you doing this for? Who will be the people who will be able to appreciate it? Before ArtWeeks, we thought quite a lot about the thirty words you put in their booklet.

T: You understand, of course, that certain kinds of people are interested in ArtWeeks, but still there is a lot of variety among them. We were considering what kind of people we would like to have in our house. We weren’t particularly keen to have anybody just passing around and wandering. So we thought quite a bit about how we should phrase this small notice for what is going to be shown.

A: I think it worked. We looked at the kind of people who came along, and it was very interesting to see a clear match between the kind of message we were trying to send, and the kind of people who noticed it.

T: It’s much more important, than maybe it used to be a century ago, to establish communication; to know what kind of people you are trying to address. Otherwise, you will be nowhere. [Making art] is fun; it’s intellectual, it’s emotional; it’s a combination of everything. Since I would like to attract a certain kind of people, I’m really seriously thinking about what would be the best thing to do, how to express my ideas in the right language for them. Every artist has a variety of approaches. You know your selection of styles. You decide to choose a certain technique, certain colour, certain tone. The first and simplest thing is to say: this is closest to me; most comfortable for my personal taste, mood, structure as a personality. But it can also be something wider. You can think: if I express myself this way, who would like it, and why? If I am trying to aim for people to have my work in their houses, what would they like to have? For a colour spot to be nice on a wall, how must it look? It becomes a combination of your preferences plus, if you bother, your thoughts about how you would like to be seen by other people. How would you like to touch them, which part to reach in their souls?

A: It sounds a bit post-modern, but in a sense, you can only produce art if you feel that there is something you want to say. I think that’s very much a traditional approach, for people to create what they feel is right. But inevitably you have to ask yourself: who will resonate in response? Perhaps it would be pretentious to say that I don’t care: somebody will be found. In the modern context it is probably inevitable for artists to start thinking whether they can do what they like.

T: I could never say that I don’t care – maybe somebody else can. I can never say that for me it doesn’t matter who cares. I always wanted to attract a certain kind of people. I would like well-educated people to like my work; for me it is really important if I manage to say something they could appreciate and value. Why? For me, it would be the greatest success: you reach a certain level of speaking, and are being received at the same level. Perhaps that’s the most interesting objective for me. I think what really affected [my own art created in Britain] was my personal development as a person, as a human. I’ve been talking to different people, artists in Russia and elsewhere. They have different views, approaches, hopes, but many of them say, “I’m not interested at all who would buy my art.” For me the appreciation from the other side is an important component; who will answer my wave? It is very important and has always been.

A: Which I think is very interesting, because this is not a sign of lack of confidence: Tatiana is quite a confident person. It is common for people to be concerned whether their work will be appreciated; what people might think of it. This is not the same issue we are talking about; I think it’s rather different.

T: I would be totally comfortable knowing that I am not getting understood right now. I would try to dig, for myself, to understand why. For me, [art] is a conversation. Of course, someone can say: “I am doing this just for myself.” At some point in someone’s life this might be valid – it’s very individual. But I cannot believe it to be true one’s whole life. You can’t say something, or write, or paint, and not want somebody to respond. We are not in a vacuum; we exist in a society. Art is a way of talking, and you want somebody to reply.

A: I was just thinking about what you were saying. Perhaps this attitude that you have comes from your music background.

T: I’ve been thinking about it, too. Yes.

A: Because, you see, in music a lot of the time you are an interpreter – say, if you’re performing something, not writing or composing. The point of your contribution, your interpretation, is to pronounce something in a way that would engage the listener; that would make people resonate in return; that would bring out in them, in the most prominent way, certain emotions, certain feelings and thoughts.

T: I tell my pupils: here is the text, there are the notes, of course; then there are comments and remarks. We need to know the style and period to know how to play the piece. But at the same time each person taking in these notes will play them in a different way, contributing their personality, some part of their own soul. This applies everywhere, in every sort of art.

A: Think about painting in that context. You could say: there, you have captured a certain image or perhaps emotion, feeling; this doesn’t have to be entirely specific. What the artist tries to do is interpret it for somebody, in order to be able to share that particular experience. Now, it doesn’t have to be true that the most precise, the most detailed reproduction of a particular image gives you the best way to transmit emotion. It is actually likely to be true that you capture it better by refracting the image in some way, by changing it, by adding to it, or even by subtracting from it.

T: It is a combination of being creative and emotional, and using the intellect, for me, absolutely. I would never switch off my brain and just ‘do art’. I can’t help thinking who I’m addressing: this is the most interesting bit that is a challenge, pushing myself to develop my ability. Of course, the emotional part remains the basis of it, the most important thing.

I now use mostly two colours; beige and blue, in different shades. They stand for Normandy. We come there and there they are: endless, endless water, and sand, talking to each other. Each time you look you see different shades of these colours, so I can never get bored with them. I think it is a very elegant combination of colours that speaks to my soul and my mind at the same time. That is the way it appeals to me: I am not sure how other people would describe their process of creation. For me there is always a combination: how I feel starts me thinking; then it is down to me how I use it, and what I can do with it. For me it is a process; a development. And, of course, I cannot be sure how my work will look in a year’s time, two years’ time. It is a great feeling: I am free and not dependent on earning money from my art; I think this is a very important point to make. I am unafraid; and if I arrive at something that sells, I am not forced by my circumstances to stop there, get hold of this thing, and keep pushing it.

A: You mean continue repeating it

T: Yes, just because it’s successful. I still have this luxury of being able to try different things, try talking to different kind of audience.

A: I think it must always have been an issue for artists: whether you should concentrate on creating whatever sells. You see, perhaps after all it sells not as well as the best thing you could do; it is just that finding the audience for what you consider to be your best ability is always difficult. So it’s an eternal question.

T: I very much cherish my freedom in trying things and being able to experiment. If your primary aim is to earn money, then it’s a different story. When you find something that you can sell, you just get hold of it.

A: However, the way you create ‘a space of your own’ is different for every person. I remember talking to a colleague about a French writer from the 17th or 18th century: she wrote a book about the nature of society and the place of a woman. In order to be able to articulate an objective and independent point of view, she writes the book from the point of view of a young girl from Latin America that had been brought to Paris in her teens. Since she comes from a different society, she observes what she sees in a fresh way, judging it without stereotypes, making social comment on what she sees. Clearly there is always a place for such work, and it must be quite interesting. The general conclusion was that the position of a woman was terrible: there was very little opportunity, or none, to develop her ability, etc. I then started asking questions: how did this author manage to succeed in writing her book? “Well, she got good education”, my colleague replied. “How did it happen?” I asked. “Well, education was actually accessible to certain groups of women.” “But how did she manage to become a writer, and to get her work published?” “She was interested and observant, her thinking was original, and she found a powerful person to help her.” What I saw in this was a story of a woman that managed to create a space of her own, a place for herself in the existing system. This must have required a lot of effort, and certainly great ability to develop relationships and engineer social position. But this is possible, to different extent, under the rules of any particular society. We must all strive to create more possibilities, to build a society that is fair to people of different backgrounds, genders and so on. But at the end of the day, whatever the rules of the game may be, there will be talented, capable people, who will always find a way to create a space for themselves. To me, the most striking outcome of that discussion was to confirm that under any conditions, however uneven or unfavourable, somebody’s who’s really gifted will find a way.

T: It’s an easy excuse to keep saying that women were suppressed; that still in some respect the conditions are such that it’s very difficult to do so and so. I’m rather against this view. I think if you are working towards your own goal, if you are stubborn enough in your wish to achieve, if you really want it, you will find a way under any circumstances. If you are not strong or obstinate enough, that’s another matter. It’s very cruel, but it’s really fair, if you think a little bit more deeply. Of course, it’s great when you have the luxury of deciding easily what you want to do, trying different things and developing yourself; of course, who would deny it. But in every society and in all times there will be people who push ahead along their own path.

A: The restrictions and obstacles that people complain about, actually, although they make life hard, sometimes lead to remarkable results. In the Soviet Union there was quite a lot of censorship, restrictions on all sorts of artistic work. But in some respects, the outcome of that censorship was greater creativity.

T: It was better then than it is now. Now everything is possible, you can do whatever you want, in film, literature, visual art. But for several years now they keep saying: where are all those truly creative people?

A: You see, it was the case that certain language was restricted. Since you couldn’t say things in straightforward way, you were forced to invent.

T: Invent a way of saying, for example, in films, certain things that everybody would understand, but at the same time in a way that nobody could accuse you of…

A: Transgressing any boundaries. That was perhaps, in many ways, one of the most nourishing sources of Soviet art. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, for a while it was really crazy.

T: Now it is much better, but the beginning of the nineties, five or six years, were catastrophic in every way, culturally.

A: People couldn’t find anything to stand on; they just couldn’t find a basis because suddenly everything was possible. So in many cases the whole idea of art just disintegrated into pornography; there was hardly anything else. It all became rather trivial, and it took them a while to find new ideas to build on. You see, one remarkable aspect of Soviet art was that it was very ideologically motivated. I don’t simply mean the prevailing formally imposed ideology of the Communist Party; rather that artists were forced to address some very fundamental questions.

T: This was always a choice for someone wishing to have a career as an artist. You knew that if you paint portraits of the people at the top, you would have money and a successful career. Then it simply depends on your personality and character, what you allow yourself to do; whether you are perfectly comfortable doing these things. Or not: there were people like my friend who became monk Aphanassii – he didn’t want that kind of official career, so he chose to abandon this kind of life and escape. You see, you always have a choice; everybody always has a choice.

A: It’s interesting that in our discussion today we talked about Tanya’s uncle - he had a choice, too. These people knew that they would be taken away and imprisoned, or perhaps even shot – but they could escape into Siberia and live in a small village. Perhaps they would have given up their very desirable high-powered life, live in obscurity - that was the choice. Some people didn’t make that choice, but others did. There are always people who take the choice – I think in any society, under any circumstances, however frightening they may appear...

T: But making choices requires strength.  

A: In western ideology choice is often put at the top of the list; you say that freedom of choice is the most important thing. But first of all, people use this freedom differently. Secondly, being faced with a choice is not necessarily a comfortable situation. To have two options can be very hard; to have many can be tremendously difficult. When you don’t know what is right, when you can’t have enough information, then making choice is very stressful. I think one of the reasons why people sometimes feel unhappy about their life is that they have too many choices.

T: Particularly if you don’t have the luxury of having long discussions with your friends and family, trying to hear and share views; if you have to decide mostly by yourself and it all depends on you – it’s really stressful. I get tired of the choices one has to make here all the time; would you believe it? I like it; it’s fun – then, at some point, I suddenly feel so tired of it, because it is so difficult having to work out the right choices for this, and that, and that. But, being Russian, I ask people. We have many good English friends who know and understand me as a person, so we can talk, and explain, and work things out. I think I’m very lucky.

A: If I look back over the years, I think you’ve always been like that; you’re essentially unchanged. You have a very strong constant, central core of ideas.

T: I can’t say there have been any changes [in my priorities]. I was brought up in a very strict way; my parents were rather old and I was the only child. I had things thoroughly explained to me, by my father mostly, not by my mom. He had a very strong personality and insisted on me obeying the rules, the sort of rules that would satisfy him, in our house. For me, from a tiny age, this was absolutely the natural thing, because I developed within the framework of these rules; I had a really strict upbringing. I was given ideas about how things must be in my life; that I must have a clear view of what I would like to make of myself, how I intend to develop, what my aims are. I would say that my views on these issues haven’t changed much, even coming here actually. For me it is very important to have an aim, to work out a route and to follow it; used to be like this and still is now. I cannot see any change in my priorities, or my approach to people, or society as such; that the different culture over here really made any difference.

A: But I think you and I would have to accept that over the years we have spent together we’ve exchanged some ideas.

T: Of course. You can’t stop the diffusion of character because we are very close and we are great friends and we use both our minds to push forward and achieve something. It’s great fun.

A: Let me ask you a question. I know that before we met, I probably didn’t have quite the same luxury of being able to discuss somebody I met, something that I’ve seen in so much detail with you – just to check if my perception was correct, that I haven’t missed anything. Did you have this before?

T: Yes, absolutely. My family. And it is a luxury, yes. I always talked much, trying to check if my point of view is right, or at least logical. So I can’t say that I’ve changed in that respect, either.

But I enjoyed talking to you. [My husband] used to be my pupil, you see. I taught him piano.

A: It was very simple. My parents had thought about teaching me music when I was a kid. They took some advice and decided it wasn’t worth it – so they didn’t. But I really suffered. When I was at university I discovered that I’d really like to learn music, just to be able to play for myself. I dedicated one summer to going to one of these summer trips that they had for students in the Soviet Union, where you could earn some money. There weren’t many legal ways to earn money, but this was one of them. The students would be sent to some far-flung corners of the country. I went to [a town] on the border of Kazakhstan in the mountains. We, students, were building houses for collective farmers – rather ridiculous. Anyway, I earned enough money; I came back, I bought a piano and went to school, one of those music schools that Tanya was talking about at the start, where one got formal music education. The classes were usually in the afternoon.

T: After-school.

A: I got enrolled, and Tanya was my teacher. For four years I came to the school twice every week, after university.

T: Our connection developed through these lessons; once we started talking it turned out to be really, really interesting.

A: We had very long conversations. I was usually the last pupil of the day; we would finish with the music and then walk home and talk.

T: We really are [great friends]; we talk about everything. It’s really, really helpful. Sometimes you have to pronounce things out loud, rather than just roll them around in your mind. That in itself often gives you some understanding, even your own; but if you have somebody who is able to listen carefully, maybe even without saying anything, then it’s a great luxury.

A: We just share observations of life – which, of course, is the most fascinating thing there is; seeing what’s going on around us. It’s rather peculiar that to this day we still find that we see different things; we look at the same person, or the same event, and we see different things. If we then exchange notes, as it were, we discover that I have missed something and that Tanya has missed something, but together we can have a fuller picture.

T: Which gives us a lot of power. I understand each of us could survive on one’s own, separately, of course. But then, we are so lucky to find this combination that we know we have, to be able to share the pleasure of discovering things together...

A: One of our friends said something about Tanya being so artistic and me being so logical. Tanya and I were laughing afterwards because in some sense, she can be incredibly logical, much more logical than I am. And sometimes I can be more artistic…

T: [When I was growing up, there were] discussions every evening, actually. Sometimes with my father we were talking until three in the morning, if there was something interesting for both of us. It helped me to learn how to understand the world; how to feel comfortable in different environments. I became used to analysing things and thinking them through, trying to understand the roots of how it all works.

A: It’s also a matter of certain tenacity in that approach. Tanya has this characteristic: when she sees something that doesn’t make sense to her; when she doesn’t quite understand why somebody behaves in a certain way, she feels uncomfortable ...

T: Until I understand why. I have to think about motivations that are perhaps hidden behind the scene, things that force people to behave in a certain way. Until I understand I can be very uneasy.

A: It is possible to have arguments with full understanding of the rule: if you come up with stronger statements than mine, I will accept them. It is very important to trust the person with whom you’re arguing, because if you don’t trust them, then it’s all pointless. So it’s possible and it’s right to have a situation like this: we are both keen to prove our point of view, but at the same time we allow for the other’s point of view, if it’s stronger, to be accepted. It’s a very important condition on which to conduct an argument; otherwise, it’s all just a matter of exchanging words and departing on your separate ways with the same views that you came with. On the other hand, we could agree to travel with togetherfor a while, let me construct an argument, let me show where I’m trying to lead. Then it is much more interesting to see what the implications are, than if we keep stopping at every point to check: is this tiny bit right, or is it wrong? Then you don’t go very far; you don’t reach anything meaningful or interesting for discussion.

My perception of Tanya is that she is quite analytical, but also very strong in terms of being able to accept a situation as it stands, accept the choice that has to be made, and then to make it, in full expectation of the consequences. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to remember a situation when she shied away from taking a decision – she wouldn’t be herself if she did it, it is so essential to her being.

T: I am comfortable with my choices. I am enjoying what I am doing now; it is fun, it is interesting. I wouldn’t change anything. Of course, I wouldn’t object to achieving certain amount of popularity and success – why not? I’m not against it, but I wouldn’t identify it as my principal aim. My marriage [is what makes my life perfect]; this relationship that gives me the opportunity to exercise my intellect, discussing things from different points of view, learning more and more about life – that is the greatest luxury I can imagine. 

June 2004

Venice at dawn          Gondolas