Desert and Garden in the Modern Art

Issue #3 • 2720

The Arabian proverb says: “The Desert is a garden of Allah from which the Lord of the faithful removed all redundant human and animal life so as to have on the earth at least one place where he could walk lonely”.
“Everything can become clear in comparison with the opposite”. Rumi.

The desert and garden – two images, two “poles” of the East where lived and wandered the followers of Moses, Christ and Mukhammad. This area includes lands of Asia Minor, Arabian Peninsula, Africa and, connected by historical fate with Russia, territories of Central Asia. The desert and garden – as if two extreme points, between which lays a variety of the life in the East. They not just determine a way of life of those or these peoples, but like many other phenomena of the reality, obtain essence and value going out geographical or domestic concepts, express philosophical, religious, aesthetic ideas and become metaphors, allegories and symbols.

We meet their pictures in myths, legends, philosophical treatises, in poetry and, certainly, in applied and fine arts. Walls of palaces, miniatures of the East and Europe, icons, pieces of applied arts: embroideries, carpets, jewelry, leave alone illustrations to practical instructions on landscape architecture – have preserved pictures and symbolical signs of gardens.

In its first and main meaning the garden reproduces the picture of Eden created by the God, isolated and separated from the surrounding space, which is unfriendly towards a human. The garden abounds everything what a human needs – the plants filling it with colours and aromas, the birds pleasing the hearing, the fruits giving pleasure, the soft grass and cool… Otherwise, the garden created by a man from nature’s materials and as if “improving” the nature according to his practical and aesthetic needs, satisfied all five feelings of a man, and became actual embodiment of the idea of “culture” in its first meaning (“culturа” – “cultivation”).

For the artist it was a fertile material, initially picturesque, allowing to relax in empirical perception of the world, to open entirely its sensual and visible beauty. Some exceptions just confirm a rule.

Quite another matter, the desert – the world of probations, deprivations and ascesis. Though exactly in the desert were running many important and dramatic events of the myths, sacred and real history. The brightest descriptions of the desert in the past had been created in literature instead of the fine arts. It is not only reason that the desert, at the first glance, looks ascetic, not picturesque and even lifeless. It opens the beauty gradually, and comprehension of this beauty requires some efforts. The desert is uncreated and has overhuman magnificent scale. It leads outwards the limits of the ordinary into a sphere of spirituality and intellect, into the field of not so much visible and obvious as the mystically mysterious that is accessible only for mind’s eye. It is indicative that exactly in the desert Islam arose – a monotheistic religion with restrained relation towards graphic and sensually realistic expression of the world. Moreover, even earlier, the idea of impossibility to draw the God came to the Hebrews connecting the act of the Precept receiving with the desert.

The desert is antilogous and artful, full of deceptive mirages. The God for the first time appeared before Moses in the desert as a column of the dust, but columns of the dust are, at the same time, baleful divs. Jejunity of the desert is a Christian allegory of the soul being left and forgotten by the God. Meanwhile, the representatives of official religions blamed fantastic forms, in which the people having had a chance to see the place of communication with the God exposed it.

Around such meaning and content in different cultures and epochs were given to the desert and garden. Fixing essential distinctions, sometimes they paradoxically interchanged positions of “poles”. The 20th century which strongly transformed both the earth and spiritual culture of many peoples, had extended borders of world vision and self-consciousness of a man. In many respects, it displaced the traditional concepts, gave to them new meanings, but did not put off the old ones. In the culture of our big country, following its own “special” way, the life of traditions developed dramatically. Violently outrooted, they often existed indirectly, in complicated way interacting with general problems of the European culture. The collection of the State Museum of the East gives the opportunity to trace how during almost seven decades the artists of different generations, schools and cultural traditions (actually “Eastern” being transformed due to contacts with the Russian art and “Russian” touching the East) understood and realized ideas of the desert and garden, how their pictures, either becoming the key or going back to the periphery of the art interests, reflected facets of art world vision. In a course of time it became obvious that these pictures were born out of vital aspiration of the artists, maybe, not realizing them entirely, but caused by the logic of their art destiny and fate of the country, and these subjects form if not essence, but “anchors” of art creative process.

These themes are traversing the art of Alexander Nikolaevich Volkov born in Central Asia. He was the unique by his bright individuality person: the artist, poet and theorist of art. Especially in the first decades of his activity, he synthesized innovations of the European art and national traditions. Taking and continuing to develop the idea in special and peculiar way, which was close to many Russian artists at the turn of the centuries, he aspired to express some essential features of the East, oriental culture and traditional life, intuitively guessing and revealing their deep sense. The desert for him is connected with another oriental subject – a caravan that, crossing its huge vast open spaces, was “carrier” of the idea of space and time and simultaneously the alternative to silence of the desert. One of his most significant pictures is “Caravan” III (1921 – 1922) at the collection of the Museum, having another title: “The Desert before blizzard”. Conditional language of geometric planes and volumes – signs of real forms – removes a genre element and forces to perceive the composition as philosophical and symbolical picture. The space of the desert, figures of the people and animals have merged in the picturesque – plastic substance penetrated with powerful rhythms where are guessed real signs, but the main thing is a feeling of this magnificent reality, which the artist – philosopher like demiurge created. Presence of the desert can be felt or meant in many works of that period as it is always in the real life in the East. At times it seems that the desert is “leaking” in the pictures of the artist – he uses sand for creation of required texture of painting surface.

Like many avant-garde artists A.Volkov had been caught by the idea of social reorganization of the world. Its widespread allegory was transformation of the desert into blossoming Eden. In Central Asia started the construction of the irrigation systems capable, as it seemed to realize century-old dreams of the farmers. But the picture “Storm of wayless lands” (1932), exposing the construction of the Chirchik channel, to be exact, a road to it, is lack of the force of generalization and powerful energy, which was in the early works of the master, and a real landscape with green, here and there scattered trees and motley groups of people are perceived more likely as genre scenes than symbolically. Hardly the pupil and follower of A.Volkov, P. Shegolev aspiring in his picture “Extraction of sand” (1933) to realize the idea of creative labour, thought that a half-century later it would be perceived as a picture of some magic action, which purpose would be unknown. With obscure fanatic feeling the people are piling up heaps of the sand lifted from the river swept, filling the space around with sand and as if replacing uncreated barchans of the desert. It seems, that a core of this action – “to tame” desert, to pass it through the hands and so “to subordinate” it to the human will and to deprive the multivariate symbolics.

Now, a decade later, it is obvious that the idea to de-sacralize the desert, struggle against it in really practical and in “mystical” aspects consciously or subconsciously influenced the subject and sense of the works of many artists. Here again it is necessary to recollect, how the Soviet ideology unrooted everything irregular, multi-valued, aspiring to uniformity. The mysterious, boundless desert bringing the person out of the society, causing reflections about essence of human and world being (it was logic that searchers for the true left for the desert – hermitage), could not be included in any way into the picture of the future, which should continuously and perfectly “blossom” as a garden thanks to permanent and coordinated work of the people – “cogs”.

Having survived disappointment in the socialist Utopia, A.Volkov obtained a new breath when he turned to the real nature and began to draw small “pleasant”, almost plein-air etudes. This is not symbolical interpretation of the universe but a real piece of the fertile land granting the shadow, cool and rest. Finely catching changes in illumination, weather and paints, penetrating into silent harmony, the artist found a new sense of the life and creativity, what allowed him to save himself in a stream of official art.

Occurrence of the garden in the art of the Turkmen artist, Byashim Nurali, the artist deeply implanted in the national tradition, however captured by opportunities of the “foreign” fine art was logic. Nurali was well educated person, wrote verses in Arab, and lived rather according to Sufi lifestyle regulations. Some his pictures, in particular “Vintage” (1929), find direct analogies in the oriental poetry. It is a successful and original attempt by new art means to realize traditional ideas of the Islamic culture as here the picture of the light future coincided with the tendency of Islamic art to reflect perfection of the universe in ideals.

Blossoming and fructifying gardens, the other subjects of the Soviet myth appeared in the art more often and sound more pathetically as the reality was turning more difficult and poorer. Paradox of the reality – “parks of culture” – metamorphosis of old estate parks. The desert as an independent and self-sufficient part of the universe for a long time had left from the fine arts, giving up the place to the desert being conquered or having been conquered, and the idea of its harm to the new society and progress of humanity was included as a component into the complex of totalitarian official concepts regulating and limiting development of the culture.

A decade later, in 1970, already new generation of the artists, which were much lesser touched by the freezing breath of totalitarianism, but at the same time just slightly touched by the short “thawing weather” too, had “to open” the “forgotten” themes in the art, to extend plastic opportunities and spiritual sphere of the fine arts, at times intuitively restoring connections with previous generations and with cultural heritage in general. Full liberation of the creative person had been still far ahead, and ways to it were various, but, undoubtedly, one of them lay through the refusal of pomposity typical of the previous decades and turn to themes forbidden, to art concepts of “old masters” working at the first third of the 20th century, which were in opposition to totalitarianism.

In the picture of the Turkmen artist, Mamed Mamedov “Kara – Kumy” (1971) there is nothing except a picture of the desert – infinite line of the flat sand waves, almost monochrome. The gloomy palette of black, grey and ochre directly illustrated the name of the desert translated “Black sand”. Perhaps, first for many decades the artist met alone with protogenic, not touched nature. The character of the lifeless space, hostile to a man, was similar to the concepts of the last years, but recognition of its significance, necessity for human life became available.

Alexander Bobkin who visited Turkmenistan, Merv at the end of the 1980s, deliberately profaned a character of the desert and looked at it by the eyes of aul’s inhabitants, for whom this huge, mysterious space is just boondocks where the rubbish could be dumped. The absence of historical roots the people had lost living on ruins of the great history, the artist perceived as the reality, inevitable result of a life course. The plastic grotesque, irony and self-irony protected him from pathos in the solution of this theme ” Sic transit gloria mundi ” (So passes the worldly glory). The artist from Siberia, Vladimir Nasedkin first visited Turkmenistan (Merv) in the same years.

Magnificence and severity of the desert influenced strongly development of his individual style supposing minimalism of expressive means. Neihbourhood of ancient Merv had given to his perception some historical prospect and philosophical orientation. A series of the works in sanguine “Desert. The vineyard” is not so much embodiment of the visible character of the desert as its laconically expressed multivalued character. The surface of the paper covered many times with sanguine, coal, chalk, and then worked by a sharp tool, had been identified by the artist with a surface of the desert.

In the series of the Moscow’s graphic artist, Tarif Basyrov “Inhabited landscapes ” the desert turns into the wasteland which can be interpreted not only as actual, but also as the metaphor of “spiritual wasteland” of the domestic culture – a result of long-term and persistent struggle of totalitarian ideology against the desert. These real and spiritual wastelands – only and adequate environment for his personages – “sovietiqus”, denuded of individual features, working, thinking and feeling within uniform standard. In his landscapes, the industrial pipes with dark clouds of a smoke replaced trees, and the flowerbed filled with bright colors, in fact – is lifeless. The sense and plastic solutions of many works of T. Basyrov are developing around of the multivarious symbolics of the desert, which became for the artist some kind of “companion”, in dialogue with whom had been clearing up the artist’s world vision.

Autobiographic features are present in landscapes of Mamut Churlu for many years having worked in Uzbekistan and came back to the Crimea, to his historical native land. He preserved real signs of the East – kishlaks, mulberry trees, channels, blossoming apricot trees… The East which more often seems sunny and colourful, in the pictures of this artist looks strange in its catalepsy, deserted, deficient in energy and consequently vulnerable and defenseless. The nature is becoming an allegory of the person’s feelings, who was forcefully removed from his native land.

Imagined journeys to the East became a basis for some painting and graphic works of Tatyana Badanina. Such properties of the Islamic culture as poetic refined intellectualism and metaphoric features are close to her creativity. Her pictures of the East are more abstract, rather than sensually real. The Central Asian painting on ganch became indirect prototypes of her fantastic colours as if existing on the border of the living and inanimate matter. A series of works “The Garden of Islam ” (1988) breaks standard interpretations and concepts of “oriental garden which is smelling sweet and full of roses” and escapes the stylization of “the oriental samples”. This is conceptual realization of the idea of gardens, which in their own turn according to intentions of their medieval founders, expressed the idea of the perfect universe by means of their geometrical harmony. The artist interpreted them as ascetic, what causes associations… with desert.

For the young generation of artists the idea of garden obtains a new sense if does not became opposite. The garden of the Tadjik artist Alexander Akilov sometimes reminds the fruitless Mirage inhabited by figures – phantoms. By its spatial structure this is “a place fenced from everywhere” (according to translation of a word – “paradise”) and a labyrinth simultaneously (“White day “, 1981). In the works of the middle 1980s, multi-coloured and very material, the spectator can not escape the emotion of alarm, the apocalyptical anticipations, not typical of “classic” understanding of the garden. In addition, as if answering the question on the opportunity of the paradise on the earth, Akilov created the composition, where surrealistically connected the garden magnificently green and sandy plain spreading around roots. Unwillingly comes to mind the oriental legend about the powerful and arrogant king who ordered to imitate the paradise garden on the earth. Nevertheless, Allah covered it with the sand, so turning it into desert.

Thus, we can see that at our dramatic and conflict time, the garden as materialization of the paradise, equally with many other positive ideas, is a rare case. Ideals have too depreciated, the risk of schmalz and falseness is too great, it is too difficult to imagine and realize the harmonious source. The dramatic nature of the desert is much closer to the modern artists – intellectuals. In mind or really they follow the way of eremites hoping to find the spiritual sources, capable to spiritualize not only their own creativity, but the society in general.

The garden in the art of artists of 1980s – 90s, if did not turn into its opposition, was often complicated with additional sense and painted with irony or nostalgia. Therefore, for George Totibadze the garden appears in a form of a city park – a fragment of nature within the fence of multi-storey houses. The artist excludes it from the real time, giving to it a character of children’s vision (“when flowers were big”) or memoirs of an old man about his young years. Moreover, just accuracy of color composition wakens visual experience in the person and “links” the picture to the present time.

Meanwhile, simultaneously with the youth, in 1980s – 90s had been working the masters of the elder generation, behind which laid rich life experience, and at times the directly inherited tradition. The brothers, Alexander and Valery Volkovs who had lived in Uzbekistan for many years, were developing art principles of their father. Asia for them is not exotic, but the world well familiar from the childhood having its own signs, specificity which is perceived integrally, in aggregate of phenomena and essences. Both gardens and deserts for them are an integral part of the East. The habit taken from the father “to bring up an eye by nature” allows the artists in decorative, often semi-abstract compositions, escaping the “life imitation” by means of colour, its balance and dynamics to wake in the spectator own memoirs about fresh water stream, cool foliage or hot breath of the desert – all those sensations, aromas, sounds, colours, which form real and at the same time classical in the completeness and harmony character of the East.

For Eugene Kravchenko, a follower of A.N.Volkov, the desert is among the basic themes of his art. Born in Turkmenistan, he knows, likes and understands the desert in its various images and conditions: in the morning, at the sunset, before a simoom, in the spring… He feels and can perfectly transfer its harmonizing influence, opens inexhaustible colour treasury of the desert. Its real beauty appears for the artist more important than symbolics and mysticism, and it seems, the artist has found his garden in the desert.

Author: Svetlana Hromchenko

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