‘We became more Russian than we were,’ says Moscow-born artist in Paris

Painter Masha Schmidt always saw herself as a citizen of the world, but the war in Ukraine has forced her to identify as Russian and to rediscover a sense of purpose in her art.

Schmidt is one of around 53,000 Russians living in France, including 3,500 or so in the capital.

Some are descendants of the first wave that fled the Bolshevik revolution, others arrived after WWII.

Schmidt was a beneficiary of Gorbachev’s glasnost, arriving in Paris in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

She’s kept a strong sense of hospitality – offering coffee, dates and homemade cookies on an elegant silver plate in her Paris studio where we sit and chat, surrounded by large canvases.

A graduate of the Moscow Arts Academy, she was 22 when she came to Paris to study at the Beaux Arts and Sorbonne. It was a radical shift, moving away from the Russian figurative tradition of her youth to Impressionism and Cubism.

“I can’t say there are no abstract painters in Russia – let’s not forget Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky – but in my time Moscow academies weren’t practicing this abstract way of painting or thinking.

"So when I came to Paris I felt like I was a very old person because I was painting like an academist of the 19th or even 18th century.

“Bit by bit I started taking off my knowledge … I wanted to feel, I didn’t want to know.”

Listen to a conversation with Masha Schmidt in the Spotlight on France podcast

Schmidt has built a fulfilling career in fine art, but also film and theatre.

And she met the love of her life here – Georgian concert pianist Irakly Avaliani.

“We do our art: he’s playing his music and I’m making my paintings. It sounds like a fairy tale,” she laughs.

Why paint when people are dying?

And then Russia invaded Ukraine, and even if it's 2,400 kilometres away, she felt deeply affected.

“It was a terrible moment, everything stopped,” she murmurs.

She found she could no longer paint.

“I felt that all these things I was doing – painting, my art projects, nothing had any sense anymore in front of the horror.

"I mean why would you paint your beautiful paintings when people are dying? That was my dilemma.”

Helping Ukraine was the priority, and she began collecting medicines and clothes to give to charities.

“It seemed like it was a necessary and immediate thing to do. But very quickly we understood that the point was not small things, but money.”

Artists didn't necessarily have fat cheque books, but they had their art.

Along with other artist friends, she set up a website Art et Paix (Art and Peace) – offering original artworks to people who donated to charities such as the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders.

It was a way of encouraging donations, but also saying thank you.

“I was thinking that if somebody is doing something good, helping people in this horrible situation, someone should say ‘you’re a good person’.

In the following months, they gifted hundreds of artworks. The project was also a way of connecting people and sharing something positive.

Sorry, I'm Russian

Connections were made between artists and donors, money was sent, but the war has also polarised the Russian diaspora.

“Until 23 February I thought I was a person, an artist, and I was in love with various world cultures and arts, but I was forced to feel like I’m Russian,” Schmidt explains.

She recalls how the caretaker in her building, who’d become a good friend, saw her on the staircase a few days after the invasion.

“I had red eyes and she understood I was crying all the time. She gave me her special warm hug and said ‘Masha, I must apologise, I thought you were Russian all these years and now I know you’re Ukrainian’!”

Schmidt smiles at the presumption only a Ukrainian could be moved to tears.

“I said: ‘I’m Russian, I’m sorry, but I’m against the war.’ She was so confused.”

“The thing is we became more Russian than we were. I haven’t lived in Russia for 32 years, yet I was forced to feel immediately connected to Russia and to the war.

“Things are very black and white, polarised, and you can’t see in between.”

The most important thing, she says, “is not where you were born, but what you think and what you do”.

Masha Schmidt's website

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