I went to Moscow, invited by the General Commissariat of Expositions, to talk to the Russians about painting. As my theme I had chosen “the artist and the world today.” This would allow me to touch upon delicate subjects such as freedom of art and thus human freedom, and, indirectly, the question of socialist-realist painting. My lecture had been sent on and translated into Russian three weeks before my arrival.
Two hours before the meeting, I was forewarned that I would probably speak to an empty hall since the invitations had been systematically withdrawn from those invited. This permitted a correspondent of a French rightist newspaper to tell me smilingly, “So, you’re planning to create a diplomatic incident? That suits me to a T!”
Despite this the hall was filled to overflowing. A serious, attentive public whose strained expressions were rather intimidating. I learned later that it was in its majority made up of students, painters, “engineers” and also some workers. At the beginning of the session my interpreter took care to inform the audience that we were talking about painting and those not interested could leave. Only a few people left the hall.
I began amidst a heavy silence. My lecture had been divided into paragraphs which my translator read after me. The first indications of a detente took place the moment I declared that a painter was a man who, in general, had no desire to go to the Moon. Then, each time that I raised questions of freedom of the artist and his art, or affirmations of the rights and dignity of man, of the unconscious need for the artist to be in a state of “permanent revolution” etc., the applause became longer and longer. At the end, many pertinent questions were asked from all sides, either orally or on slips of paper. I was able to save a few and offer some examples here. There were even one or two “provocateurs”—I give some excerpts from one of their longer texts —who were booed.
At the end of about two hours the entire hall rushed up to the stage to demand that the text be translated (later, it was dittoed). Some, in tears, embraced me, offering me touching little gifts; one of them told me in his awkward French, “that he could now live ten years longer.” I rediscovered intact the old Russia which the look of the streets had almost made me forget. The evening ended up in a healthy brawl which three policemen quickly put an end to, this last episode being told to me later since I myself, ill-prepared for the enthusiasm of public meetings, had disappeared at the height of the melee . .
The next day I repeated my lecture to the Circle of Friends of the Fine Arts, in an old private mansion formally decorated with admirable panels by Bonnard. Many of my previous night’s listeners had come back, including my “provocateurs,” and the crowd filled even the corridors. I had to wait...
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