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By Elena LYSAK
arie de La Ville Baugé is a contemporary French photographer and artist living in Moscow for the last 10 years. She grew up in an artistic family in France, worked on humanitarian missions in Cambodia, Sudan and Russia. This mother of four is working on art and cultural projects. She often travels across Russia and other countries. Her life is a story of freedom of mind told by an exceptional woman.
“I am so much moved by Russia, and even more so by Russians.”
Marie, the last time we met was before the opening of your exhibition in Moscow in February 2015. Has your life changed a lot since then?
In fact, things have not changed much, but there have been some developments. I am a photographer and an artist, rather than an artist and a photographer. Photography is my starting point, and I use it in my artworks. I do pen and ink drawings, and I also draw with a pencil. I used to photo edit on my desktop, but now I mostly do it manually.
I would say, this is the main change in my way to work.
I hardly edit my originals, I re-work them by adding some texture.
The idea is to make them more accessible for the audience, to give the opportunity not just to look but also to touch. I use the canvas to print my photos, it has a very clear texture, and this is important for me.
Last April I organized an exhibition, its main theme was Birch. I used birches to tell the story of four seasons. It is the story of rebirth – the birch tree is capable of renewing itself on a constant basis, similarly to women who sometimes feel that Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal.
I also love the fact that the birch is the national tree and a traditional symbol of Russia. And the birch juice is considered to do amazing things for your health.
Besides, the birch is a very adaptable tree, I am really moved by its adaptability, I associate it with the human adaptability that impresses me a lot too.
The goal of my exhibition was to tell the story of rebirth for women, and I used the birch to tell it. I took the portraits of women and glued the pieces of the birch bark onto the images, and after I printed them on the canvas.
I am impressed. And it seems that you are moved by Russia.
Yes, I certainly am, though even more so, I am moved by Russian people.
You know, some time ago, my husband Jean-Felix and I, went to see Mrs. Irina Antonova, the former Director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
My husband has a high opinion of her, he even told me that she would be a perfect candidate to represent Russia as an Ambassador abroad, much more than some trained diplomats.
She is over 95 and she is full of energy and a great entrepreneur.
She would have given a much better image of Russia than the officials we are used to seeing in the media.
What do you tell your French friends when they ask you about your life in Russia?
You know, as a French artist living in Russia I see it as a part of my job to tell people what I love about Russia, I obviously try to show and tell things to attract more people to come to Russia for business or privately.
For me, Russia is an important place for self-realization. I see many opportunities for myself as an artist here.
For instance, my “Blue Hour” (from French l’heure bleue) project. I would love to capture the surroundings early at the dawn and later in the dusk in the North of Russia when the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue hue!
There’s a certain mysticism in it, and I find it fascinating.
I am also working on a project about industrial cities. I take photos of either destroyed places or capture the first moments of the renovation process.
It has a lot to do with the Soviet era, and this story is far from being over.
For example, some time ago I spent 15 days in Magadan in the North of Russia. It’s only there, after 10 years of my life in Russia, I came to fully understand the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of the GULAG camps and their prisoners.
I got to talk to many people over there, and I find that the story is not over yet, because those people are still living in the same area, they work there and they contribute to changes happening in that place.
I would say that those historical and natural changes are of big interest to me.
“Success, for me, is to have the opportunity to work and to keep my freedom.”
Tell me, from the artist’s point of view, what is the purpose of art?
I use art to express myself, to communicate, and to talk about important things.
I used to work in other areas in the past but I have been always doing art, it is something very important and close to me.
It helps me to move forward, makes me think, it is very stimulating, both intellectually and physically.
I shall tell that this is really my personal view. It’s not about being selfish, it is just personal. And I prefer not to talk about art in general, I can only say what it means to me.
In this case, how would you define success for an artist?
You see, it’s very difficult to define it as
it’s very individual and depends on aspirations and expectations of a particular person.
There are people in art who never do exhibitions, they prefer working for themselves.
As for me, I remember talking to my friend-entrepreneur when I started, who told me that creating without being paid, doesn’t have much value.
I didn’t completely share this idea but I saw his point.
Considering how much time you invest in a certain project, it helps to remember about the commercial part, it helps me to get organized when I work on this or that project.
Certain projects may take a year or two to finish but it helps me to be more productive when I know that I want to present them or sell my works.
Here you go, I can’t tell you what success is, but for me, success is to be able to work and to keep my freedom.
These are the two most important things for me.
It is also important for me to be able to show my works to people that don’t belong to the art world but are able to hear my message.
I love explaining my works to people, some important things may get lost if there is no explanation.
I also love seeing people in my studio that I opened 2 years ago. I always talk to my visitors, it’s a pleasure for me.
Would you define success as recognition?
Sure. It is good to know that people are interested in your work.
Does this mean that success is found “outside” of you?
I don’t think so. I am constantly doubting myself. It has to do a lot with my upbringing, it comes from the family and from school. They taught me self-doubt rather than confidence, and I see it as a weakness. Even today, when I am nearly 40!
I am second-guessing myself, but I get reassured and motivated by the reactions of my clients, my fans, people who inspire me.
I am happy to be recognized, this kind of success is found outside of me.
“My kids showed me what to teach them.”
I’m so surprised, you are a brilliant artist, a beloved beautiful woman, and yet all that self-doubt!
That’s me, that’s my nature. But this is also my upbringing. My parents never talked to us about success, about achievements, about some personal character traits. We were taught to rather be reserved. The same thing in school.
What about your kids, what do you teach them?
I am trying to find a different way to communicate with my children.
It is hard at times to overcome my nature but I am trying to recognize them for what they are, to help them to be confident. I also try to identify their talents and help them to develop them.
You have three daughters and a son. Is there a difference in raising boys and girls?
I do not think so. Besides, I do not think that it’s me who decides how to raise them! These were my children who decided how they were supposed to be raised.
Kids come to the world with their personalities.
The upbringing I give them should help to enrich their individuality, but their personality always prevails.
I see kids upbringing as an extra layer of a polish that highlights their individual personality traits.
What is the most important thing that you are teaching your kids?
I set certain boundaries inside of which they can be absolutely free. And if I see that they show talents in some areas, I try to push them towards working on them, developing them, doing more in those areas.
Let me give you an example. My 18-year-old son is quite adventurous. Last summer, when most of his friends were having their holidays in the South of France, he went for a placement in Barnaul, not everyone even heard of it, right? But it was a truly great experience for him.
In general, I try to observe. I want to understand and to feel what my kids like, what may bring more balance into their life, and then support them.
So freedom is the essence of life?
For me, yes, it is.
What age are your children?
Almost 18, 13, 7 and 4, and they all have the same dad, my husband.
You have a lovely family. How did you meet your husband?
I went to school with my husband’s brother. My future husband studied law at ASSAS (Panthéon-Assas University, the former Faculty of Law and Economics of Paris).
One day they organized a meeting for friends, I went there, and there we met. It turned out that we had known each other for a while.
We do almost everything together.
Even on a daily basis, including the household chores?
Well, excluding the household. We raise our kids together but we both don’t get much involved into housekeeping.
This is our way to organize things to be able to do the work we love.
I’ve always hired someone to take care of our household, besides, starting with our first child, we’ve always had babysitters to take care of our kids.
As for my husband and I, we work together on other projects.
“Balancing work and family life, that’s my secret.”
You have so many plans and ideas. How do you organize your time?
I travel a lot, on my own and with my children. We are frequent travelers, I would say.
When I am in Moscow I work non-stop in my studio from the early morning hours until 6 pm, I have a quick lunch there to avoid wasting time.
I work at my computer, draw with my pencils, and I sew too. Well, that’s the way I work.
Whenever I prepare an exhibition, I have to meet a lot of people. It takes a lot of my time.
Would you say that success, for you, is to be able to work a lot? Are you a workaholic?
Sure! I work a lot, I like to work, I need to work. It’s shocking for some people who say: “Why have kids if you work all the time?”
But I do not pose myself this question.
You very well may make a bad impression in Russia if you don’t spend all of your time with your kids.
But my kids are being taken care of, and I can do my work.
Here is my secret, if you like,
get a good balance between work and family life and don’t be influenced by people who tell that your way of living is wrong.
I assume, your husband backs you up there?
He does, indeed. He never tells me: “You travel too much!” or “You do not spend enough time with the children!”
Well, I would add that my secret is not only to find the right balance but also to be surrounded by people who understand and support me.
“My bed is the most serene place for me.”
I find that you are absolutely incredible! What do you do when you want to have a rest?
I go to bed. That is true! My bed is a quiet oasis for me. And from time to time, I occasionally go on holidays in the sun. I also need to see green, we hardly see much green in Moscow after October.
Imagine your dream day. What would you be doing?
My dream day should be taking place in a cool but sunny place. I am in my bed on the crispy clean cotton sheets, surrounded by beautiful things, books, radio, some beautiful music changed with a bit of silence, watching my kids getting in and out of the room, chatting with them about different things.
Are you laying in bed alone?
Sure enough, I am in bed with my husband. We talk about things, and kids are there too. In a family with four kids, they are always around.
Your family seems to be important for you. Would you reckon, is it possible to be happy on your own?
I was talking just about myself. Surely other people have other preferences. It should be possible for somebody else.
We don’t know why a person makes this or that choice. And we are also not there to give unsolicited recommendations.
“If you want to go for something, go for it, even if sometimes it means danger.”
Could you give some advice to our readers who want to change their life?
You have to take control over your life at some point.
I may sound a bit tough, but if you want to go for something, go for it!
You should kick your own ass. You should get out, see people, even do something you consider dangerous.
My husband and I often challenge ourselves out of our comfort zone, it pushes the boundaries and makes us move forward.
When I did humanitarian work together with my husband in Cambodia, Sudan, and later in Russia, we happened to find ourselves in some unpleasant situations but they helped us to progress.
Looking back I see that my husband and I have done things to be proud of, and yet, I believe we should push ourselves again towards trying something new.
Does it mean that it is important to be courageous?
It is not exactly about courage. You rather need courage for survival, and it’s not my case. I have hardly needed it in my life because we’ve always lived relatively comfortably.
On the other hand, I have always been a bit audacious.
“During 20 years of our marriage, every morning I eat breakfast in bed served by my husband.”
Great! Tell me, are you happy?
I would say so.
It’s a difficult question for a person who is plagued with self-doubt.
I’ve never asked myself this question but if I ever did, the answer would have been: Yes, I surely am.
And another philosophical question: What are your strongest and your weakest points?
I have already told that my weakest point is my self-doubt. If there’s anything else?
I am very sensitive and in a way, highly responsive. It’s a useful quality for an artist but at the same time, it can also cause more self-doubting more uncertainty. You are more susceptible to outside influences. I can see it as my weak point.
As for my strengths, I think that my biggest strength is that I am an engine, a self-driving engine. I hope that I am also the driving force for other people around me, for my husband, my children, my colleagues.
Where do you find your energy, your inspiration?
I am a bit like a watermill that uses the power of water to drive the process of making something else.
It’s quite similar to me:
I always work and I rarely stop.
Except for the days when I return from my trips. I may get so exhausted that I rather take a day off and rest, but then I get back to work again.
Are you familiar with procrastination?
I am surely familiar with procrastination. And it’s annoying, I’m not happy about it. I have an impulsive way to work, and when I start procrastinating, I can’t keep the rhythm I want.
So I try to pull myself together and end up doing what I have to do, even if it takes more time than usual.
What is your daily routine?
I get up at 8.30-9.00 am. I do not exercise, I get ready pretty fast.
What comes after, really depends whether I am in Moscow or elsewhere.
If I am in Moscow, I go to my studio, I work there, and then I have a quick lunch there.
I try to eat some healthy stuff, and I teach my children to eat healthy, even if it’s difficult.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Every morning I eat what my husband serves me in bed. Just imagine, we’ve been married for 20 years but he still brings me breakfast to bed. Except when he is not there, then I am obliged to get out of my bed to make a coffee.
Well, like all the French, I have two tartines (a French open-faced sandwich) with jam and butter. I also have a huge mug of coffee.
Normally, my husband would be talking to me about some things, I would listen to him. And when I am done with eating, I get ready and leave immediately.
Do you exercise?
Sometimes. In Spring and Summer, I may get on my bike to cycle around Moscow.
I also like yoga. And this year I started taking Zumba classes, 2-3 times a week, it’s very funny. A different way to do sport.
I like sports that require a lot of physical activity – skiing, biking, but I don’t get to do much in Moscow. And I get quickly bored with the gyms.
Do you find the life in Moscow difficult?
Absolutely not! It is not that hard, otherwise, we would not have stayed there for so long.
We are extremely free to choose what we want to do over there, as we are not the expatriates sent by a big company.
It is our choice to stay there. If one day we wanted to leave Moscow, we could move to any other country in the world, but Moscow is so unique. Besides, it’s relatively near and we can often go to Paris to see friends and family. Our friends are important to us.
Do you lack time for something you really want to do?
Yes. I realized that my children are growing up so fast. I lack the time to enjoy their childhood, I would wish they could stay kids for longer. That’s all.
Marie, thank you very much for this interview. Where can people find you online?
- My website and Social Media:
Useful links, notes, and resources:
- The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia
- Irina Antonova, former director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
- Jean-Félix de la Ville Baugé
Images: Marie de la Ville Baugé, Andrey Stekachev, MadameSuccess.com (Anastasia Rufin/Natalia Yurevich)
Translated by Natalia Yurevich