December 2021 saw the publication of the first Russian novel about women in today’s London: London, mother! («Лондон, мать!») by Darya Protopopova
The title hints at the Russian swearing that cheers one up in hard times. The idea behind the novel is that in order to survive, first and second-generation immigrants (the novel’s characters include women from Italy, Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hong Kong) need to be strong, decisive and oblivious to the consequences of their actions. The bold, bright cover of the book, illustrated by a young Russian artist from St Petersburg Elizaveta Benk, reflects individual strengths of the heroines. In this exclusive interview for RA+C, Darya Protopopova spoke with Liza Benk about the craft of illustration, Liza’s unique painting style, and images of Britain in modern Russian art.
Darya Protopopova: Liza, thank you very much for introducing readers of RA+C to the striking world of your art. Could you describe for us the main themes of your paintings, and what inspired them?
Liza Benk: Probably the main theme for me is a modern woman, sometimes a woman artist (but not necessarily), and a new take on the Soviet poster. Although I am not a fan of the Soviet regime and its ideology, I absolutely adore Soviet art, Soviet aesthetic heritage. In many of my paintings, I explore an image of a strong woman through the lens of Soviet and post-Soviet poster. I explore the role of women in the post-Soviet society, the role that is not an easy one. Women in post-Soviet countries still have to fight for their right to be themselves and to express their needs and interests freely. The society still expects them to get married, have children and cook borsch, and to be subservient to their husbands. I believe that women should be able to choose whatever path they want, or to pursue several paths, in different combinations.
Another source of inspiration for me is an American TV series Twin Peaks, created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. It is a unique artistic phenomenon, rich in cultural allusions, and for many years, I’ve been going back to it, always discovering something new. In Twin Peaks, you can see the influences of Francis Bacon, references to René Magritte. Lynch is also a great writer. I highly recommend his Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, thanks to which I started meditating. Twin Peaks inspired me to explore the subconscious through the genre of surrealist graphics.
Twin Peaks explores the themes that are important to me – the meaning of the Universe, the struggle between darkness and light. In this sense, it reminds me of one of my favourite science fiction novels, Definitely Maybe (Russian: За миллиард лет до конца света) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This novel also explores the question of how favourable the Universe is towards us, and how far we should push in our pursuit of its secrets.
Other themes that feature in my paintings are Jewish art, multrealism [мультреализм, or animation realism, is a figurative style of painting, reminiscent of cartoons and illustrations for children’s literature. The term was coined by a famous Russian artistic group “Sorcery Artists” (Колдовские художники), also known as “Kolkhui”, founded in 2002 by artists Nikolai Kopeikin, Andrey Kagadeev, and Vladimir Medvedev. – DP]. I also paint portraits and artistic tributes to my favourite visionaries.
DP: Please tell us briefly about your path towards becoming a professional artist. What advice would you give to beginner artists around the world?
LB: It is difficult, of course, in a few words, to describe the journey of 31 years. [Laughs.] Since childhood, I have always wanted to become a creator. When I turned 11, my parents took me to an art school in Nekrasov Street in St Petersburg, and I really liked it there, I wanted to stay. And so I stayed there for a long time, for five years in total. The art school gave me an opportunity to “liberate myself”; there was a cheerful, friendly atmosphere.
While still at school, I was captured by the art of Nikolai Kopeikin and (they were all still working separately then) the “Sorcery Artists” (Колдовские художники). I didn’t even dream that I would ever be able to call them “colleagues”, but many years later I joined them at the Pig’s Snout Art Gallery in St Petersburg. I have a degree in art history, so I studied in detail the genre of multrealism and the Russian avant-garde in general (both in painting and in literature). At some point, I realized that I did not want to talk about art (although at that time I was already working in a museum): I wanted to practice art, to paint, to draw! I had a dream, and I acted on it – and I managed to achieve it. I even have a painting about it – a remake of the Soviet poster “You can go anywhere – but I am off to the savings bank!” (“Кто – куда, а я – в сберкассу!”, 1929). I called the painting “You can go anywhere – but I am off to the easel!”: it is about me at the beginning of my journey. I greatly enjoyed spending all of my free time drawing. I ran home to draw after work, I left parties early and ran back to the easel.
I think my main advice for artists around the world is, firstly, to create only if you cannot live without creating art. And, secondly: talent is not luck, not luck at all, but the result of long and hard work, which requires constant upkeep and consolidation. So work, work, and work again!
DP: You work with different mediums: acrylic, Vector Art, graphics. Which one you prefer and why?
LB: It is difficult for me to single out any particular medium, since the variety of techniques and materials in my art is a reflection of my mood, which tends to fluctuate, different sides of my character, and many sensations that I try to capture. When I have an idea for a painting, I listen to myself and easily select the necessary materials. I am inspired by the idea of the creative process as meditation. And, for example, if I need to completely immerse myself in the drawing process and lose myself in it in it, then I prefer graphics. It allows you to use many tools and details. Working on small details is like meditation. For graphics I use pencils, gel and ballpoint pens, felt-tip pens, markers, as well as Staedler liners, which allow me to create the thinnest lines.
For painting, I prefer acrylic. It’s easy to work with, I like its vibrancy, durability, texture. A big plus, of course, is that it dries quickly and does not lose its brightness over the years. As for the brands, I like the Russian brand Aquapaint («Аква-колор»), the French “Pebeo”, and the British Winsor & Newton.
DP: You exhibit regularly at a famous Petersburg gallery “Pig’s Snout”. The gallery has many enthusiastic, positive reviews from Western tourists on Tripadvisor, and a few snarky comments from disgruntled Russians, who found the gallery’s artefacts “disrespectful” and “rude” towards Russian history. Can you tell us more about the gallery itself and your views about its aesthetic choices?
LB: Yes, indeed, most often I exhibit there. For the first time I was invited to participate in their Annual III Women’s Collective Exhibition in 2018, and since then I have become a member of the “Union of The Pig’s Snout” – a union that unites two “wings” of the gallery: the men’s collective “Sorcery Artists” and the women’s collective “A Steel Udder”. I love this gallery for its amazing combination of fresh, innovative ideas, manifestations and, at the same time, its loyalty to the tradition and principles of the Russian avant-garde. The “Sorcery Artists” are a great and rare continuation and modern rethinking of the legacy of Soviet propaganda poster, Soviet book illustration, etc. Many subjects that the “Sorcery Artists” take from Russian history they rethink following traditions and the cutting-edge manner of the early-twentieth-century Russian avant-garde.
Plus, I find it absolutely amazing when artists are able to be ironic not only towards each other, but also towards themselves. In the modern art world, this is very rare. At “Pig’s Snout”, we do not shroud our art in false loftiness, but speak clearly, directly and, in my opinion, always to the point. Although the main principle of the “Sorcery Artists” is “finding absurdity in the dramatic, and finding drama in the absurd”, the themes we address are very often serious and point to specific social and political problems.
As for the aesthetics: among artists at “Pig’s Snout” there are Honoured Artists [a state award in Russia – D.P.], members of the Artists’ Union, but at the same time, everyone is united by one very important principle: “I draw as I can, and not as Monsieur Consumer wants me to.” In other words, an idea (a concept, a statement, a problem) being raised is more important than a means of expression. This principle is very close to me.
DP: Can you tell us about your series with Lenin and, even more controversially, Stalin?
LB: My family, my ancestors, being representatives of the White movement, suffered greatly from the revolution and Stalinist repressions. Naturally, both Lenin and Stalin have always been controversial historical figures for me, and I would never have thought that I would be drawing them, and even in such numbers.
For the first time I portrayed Lenin, one might say, by chance, to order. Five or six years ago. The order was quite extravagant and interesting, so I took it. Then I left this topic for a long time. I would probably have never returned to it, if not for the pandemic. In March 2020, The Pig’s Snout gallery went into quarantine. Back then we did not understand what awaited us in the future, but the Kolkhuis [the Sorcery Artists – DP] quickly “found their bearings” and decided to organize online events (concerts, master classes, etc.). You can read about the work of the gallery during the pandemic here.
It so happened that in April 2020 there was a notable date: 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. We decided to mark it with our first online exhibition, which turned into a major performance. For that exhibition, I did my first “Lenin in Switzerland” painting, based on my favourite ironic quote ascribed to Lenin: “In spirit I am with you, in Siberia, and in body, unfortunately, I am here in Switzerland” [Lenin and his wife lived in Zurich in 1916-1917. – DP]. That painting marked the beginning of my “Leniniade”.
DP: Many of your paintings are portraits of a woman artist overcoming emotional and financial difficulties. Could you tell us more about this series and its relation to the Soviet poster? What does it mean to you – to be a woman?
LB: When I started my career, I had quite a few fears, complexes and contradictions within myself. I decided that for me the best way to “get to know” myself, the real me, is art. Therefore, all my paintings in which the main character is a woman are a kind of “diary”, my “autobiography”, where each painting reflects one of my discoveries and experiences. In a way, I believe that what we paint becomes true, and so my “woman” posters are not so much “self-portraits” as idealised versions of myself, my subconscious. It seems to me, as if I were portraying in them those qualities that I had lacked then, and I have gained those qualities now.
For me, being a woman means being in harmony with myself. Being a woman means illuminating the world with your warmth and beauty. If a woman is happy, then she transforms the world around her. I really strive for this. I also believe that you are not born a woman; you become a woman, by working on yourself and on your full acceptance of yourself.
DP: What do you understand by beauty?
LB: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is whatever you love. The only question to which I managed to give a short answer. [Laughs.]
DP: What principles do you follow when creating illustrations?
LB: There is only one principle – to follow the customer’s wishes, while preserving your style and your individuality. I prefer to accept orders from people with whom I am on the same “wavelength”, who trust me to fulfil their wishes, and who do not control my every step in the process.
DP: What literary texts featuring London did you read before illustrating the novel London, Mother!? What do you think of London as a city?
Since childhood, London has been the city of my dreams. I studied English at school, my grandmother was an English teacher who loved British literature, history and culture. My acquaintance with British literature started in early childhood. I learnt about Britain from Charles Dickens (Great Expectations is the first book I read in the original English), Arthur Conan Doyle (to this day I enjoy re-reading the adventures of Holmes and Watson), William Thackeray and others. As I got older, my preferences changed and I became a fan of the dystopia genre, and thanks to this I encountered the great Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
I love St. Petersburg, and London, in my mind, is very similar to it – foggy and rainy. Also, I love the British sense of fashion.
DP: Is Britain present in contemporary Russian art? Could you give us some examples? What contemporary British artists do you think have influenced the Russians lately?
LB: Yes, it is present. You don’t have to go far to find an example. The first thing that comes to mind is my recent experience writing notes for my old friend, artist Mikhail Shapiro’s exhibition “Something Like This” («Как-то так», Borey Art Centre, St Petersburg). The exhibition presented his new, “post-pandemic” series of paintings, featuring scenes from life, memories of childhood, friends, women, ancient myths, and travel impressions. One of the themes was the artist’s journey to beautiful London.
Ill. 12: Mikhail Shapiro, Self-portrait with Big Ben, courtesy of Nicolay Simonovsky
As for myself, I will say this – at one time I was strongly influenced by British artists. However, not in terms of the “influence on the creative method”, “technique”, but spiritually. I am still far from making the “human body” the basis of my art, but at the same time I can enjoy such paintings. For me it was, in the literal sense of the word, “piercing”, to see the exhibition “Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and the School of London” at the Pushkin State Museum in Moscow in 2019. When I first saw Bacon live, it was a real catharsis for me. His work originates from the same “unified field” from which my favourite director David Lynch draws his ideas. If you look at some of Lynch’s work, it becomes obvious how Bacon’s creativity influenced him.
Freud’s paintings made a huge impression on me too. I have been familiar with his work “in absentia”, but here for the first time in real life I saw the portraits of Kitty Garman, his first wife. These portraits amaze me as I see myself in them, especially the portrait “Girl with a Kitten”.
Now I am reading Lucian Freud’s biography, Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, by Phoebe Hoban. My friends from Berlin sent it to me, I highly recommend it.
DP: And finally, what are your plans for 2022 and what would you like to wish our readers?
LB: I have many plans for 2022. I hope that many collective exhibitions await us not only in St Petersburg, but also in other cities of Russia. And, who knows, maybe, finally, abroad. One good news is that in March 2022 I am planning to try a new role – the role of a curator. Together with my wonderful colleague from the Union of the Pig’s Snout and Steel Udder Alina Kopeikina, we are preparing the VI Annual Women’s Exhibition, which will be held at our gallery “Pig’s Snout”. We are currently looking for artists. We are facing an interesting task – to bring something new to the annual exhibition, but at the same time preserve the “face” of the “Pig’s Snout”. I am confident it will be a success: St Petersburg people and guests of the city, you are warmly invited!
To all the readers I wish health and – to live in the present moment!