In the 1920s the association of “Masters of New East” operated in Tashkent. A short-lived episode in artistic life of those years, known mainly in Uzbekistan, continues to arrest our interest to this group, its remarkable leaders and their cohesion in searching for new artistic means. “Masters” had shown everlasting potential of easel painting as well as possible alliance of different creative temperaments. A list of names shows gravitation of these artists, significance of their personal creativity and artistic features of that epoch. The association mainly united Tashkent artists. The exception was M. Gaidukevich living in Kazakhstan whose activity coincided with ideas of “Masters”.
Their complete professionalism involved both painting and graphics. Plastic realization met searches for national style and universal artistic language. The artists demonstrated unlimited potential of graphic art. Another field of their interest was theatre.
The association involved Vadim Gulyaev (1890-1943), Michael Kurzin (1888-1957), Valentina Markova (1904-1941), Alexander Volkov (1886-1957), Alexander Nikolaev (Usto Mumin, 1897-1957), Michael Gaidukevich (1898-1938), Semen Malt (1900-1964), Peter Ryabchikov, Nikolay Turkistansky (1902-1945) and Iskander Ikramov (1909-1964). Telling about “Masters of New East” that’s not fair to forget Victor Ufimtsev (1899-1964) though formally he did not belong to the association.
The artists gave different dates of their group establishing and considered it conditional. Nevertheless, it was a group having its own program and the board. Its members made such monolith that no artist could easily join them. Their works testify to powerful potential of expressive means, courage in their realization and elegance in play of mind. It seemed that the group had no leader – so bright and strong were the individualities. Sometimes dating was caused by personal participation in exhibitions, sometimes the records were connected with some art actions. Anyhow, we could limit the period within 1926-1930.
Prehistory of the association was connected with several Siberian artists moving to Uzbekistan, first of all M. Kurzin and V. Gulyaev. In 1926 the society “New Siberia” was established. V. Gulyaev was one of its founders. Thanks to persuasions of M. Kurzin, he moved to Tashkent. Having estimated the limits of possible, he put forward the idea to establish a similar association in Tashkent. The Siberians had experience of such organizations (i.e. Altai Provincial Art Studios and Altai Art Society (1918). Gulyaev and Kurzin participated in that). They wanted to apply this experience to the country where the artistic program could obtain greater amplitude. Typically Siberian liberality allowed quick actions and idea realization. They studied refraction of oriental art and ornament by example of Altaians, Khakases, Buryats, Siberian and Altai Kazakhs’ art. The Siberian artists quickly entered the creative environment of Uzbekistan. In 1927 Elena Korovai (1900-1974) moved to Uzbekistan, Samarkand.
Directives of “Masters of New East” were parallel with “New Siberia” working in contact with M. Kurzin, V. Gulyaev, V. Ufimtsev and V. Markova. The Uzbekistan Siberian or Siberian Uzbekistanians aspired to keep contacts and arranged exchange exhibitions. So, in 1929 Kurzin organized an exhibition of “Masters of New East” in Novosibirsk which represented 120 painting and graphic works by M. Kurzin, V. Gulyaev, A. Volkov, M. Gaidukevich and S. Malt.
A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin). Groom. 1928. Paper, tempera. As we know, V. Gulyaev and M. Kurzin arrived to Uzbekistan being completely set artists. Siberia was their cradle having given a feeling of Asia. Both of them drew inspiration from artistic heritage of Siberian and Altai folks. Their understanding of a picture plane differed from Central Asian. This remark does not detract from M. Kurzin’s merits but explains partly a reason of opposition arousing in his dispute with A. Volkov. “Eurasia” by Kurzin was enriched after his moving to Turkistan. His knowledge became more extensive: a pise wall with a solar symbol drawn on and suzane as a symbol of astral diagram stand in front of his pictures in colourwash (“Mother and Child”, 1923 -1924; “Still-life with pears on a background of suzane”, 1930).
Having common views of synthesis and “expulsion” of illustrative narration, Volkov, Nikolaev and Kurzin had different approaches to nature and colour. German expressionism and Italian futurism ever remained important for M. Kurzin; geometrical laws of primitivisms -for A. Volkov, Italian quattrocento – for A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin). Kurzin as if searched for universal painting language, often assimilating to the play with Fortune while Nikolaev’s and Volkov’s movement to synthesis captured by plastic revelations.
To understand the artists better it is necessary to observe heritage they had had coming to innovation. Three of them were distinguished for amplitude of their creativity and ever personified the group’s title. At the approaches to the association A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin, 1924) had already created his “Spring” and “Life of bachi” A. Volkov (1924) – “Pomegranate chaikhana” and “Singers-Uzbeks”, M. Kurzin (1923-1924) – “Craftsmen of old Tashkent”. “Masters of New East” continued and developed their previous achievements. These were “Caravan in the desert” (1926), “Two Kyrgyz girls in yurt”, “Old man and boy with a donkey” (both 1927) by Volkov, “Bidanaboz” (“Fan of quail fights”), “Friendship, Love, Eternity” (“Old Bukhara”), “Groom” (all 1928) by Usto Mumin, “Dinner”, series “Anhor”, and “Execution” (1927-1928) by Kurzin.
Exclusively valuable drawings would promote better understanding of their creativity. Usto Mumin’s ideal of beauty, roughish volumes highlighted by fondness and sympathy by Volkov, challenges of Kurzin with sudden switches from realism to decorative stencils were affined in understanding of the characteristic. Usto Mumin’s and Volkov’s graphic interpretations of childirm (timbrel) were further developed in technical diversity from Gulyaev’s and Markova’s “play of beads” up to Ufimtsev’s appliqufis imitating leather silhouettes of camping grounds. Malt’s woodcuts, artistic contours in soft sanguine and coal by Gaidukevich, constructivist planes of Ryabchikov and Ikramov, realistic drawings by Turkistansky elaborate discussion on a role of the graphic in development of “Masters” as a group.
Kurzin and Volkov were affined in tendency to thematic fullness of monumental characters, Volkov and Nikolaev – in aspiration to convey harmony of human being and Central Asian nature. Volkov, a native Turkistanian, caught this harmony in hot colours of the native land. Nikolaev discovered pathetic love for the land in dull colours. Acting temperament of Volkov, Nikolaev’s exploration of old city and his change to Islam and Kurzin’s observation of life-giving process “in a belly of the fish” were pure.
The artists arranged big exhibitions. They felt on the rise. Looking back at the monumental image of the association, we shall note its independence. Extremes of opinions were reasoned by approaches to artistic interpretations. If somebody’s behaviour could have seemed high-flying, it was equal to rich life and artistic experience. M. Kurzin’s statement in a letter to Gulyaev – “our time is lack in contemporary Fiedy which indeed I expect to be” was not fanfare. More likely it was his challenge against time. Kurzin was impudent in words and often epater but that was dearly bought. M. Kurzin’s epatage can not delete his significance as Van Gogh’s cut ear is not excluded from history.
Membership in “Masters of New East” did not prevent the artists including Volkov and Nikolaev from participation in exhibitions of AARR, an organization ideologically and artistically opposite to them. Tashkent branch of AARR allowed such kind of participation for aspiration to creative dialogue and relevance of exhibition activity.
Backgrounds of future members of the association allow excursion into different decades of the century, considering frameworks of their art biographies, years of education, interaction with various art schools and masters on the boundary of two centuries. They were acquainted with many prominent artists and jointly developed a new futuristic direction. They were K. Korovin, F. Krichevsky, V. Kandinsky, D.Burlyuk, N. Roerih, A. Yavlensky, L. Mogoli-Naghi, V. Mayakovsky, A. Rodchenko, G. Yakulov, A. Yakovlev and N. Goncharova which had made the history of art in the first third of the 20lh century. The biographies could tell about hobbies, directions and groups the members of the association had passed before to meet each other on new way. They formed a colourful kaleidoscope of that driving age having involved names of our masters.
Friendship of M. Gaidukevich and M. Kurzin began in 1921 in Moscow when Kurzin taught at VHUTEMAS and was cemented in 1923 along their journey to the Crimea. In the 1920s he visited Uzbekistan and worked in Tashkent and Samarkand (1925). A dialogue was continued at Turksib (the Turkistano-Siberian Railway) where Gaidukevich worked in 1927 as a planner. Speaking about a creative line “Masters of New East” – “New Siberia”, the artists playfully named themselves “engineers of Turksib”. Meetings of Gaidukevich, Kurzin, Malt, Ufimtsev and Li pin were often held at Turksib. In 1927 Gaidukevich together with Ufimtsev and Li pin participated in the exhibition in Djetysu town along with Kazakhstan artists. As a member of “Masters of New East” he participated in the Novosibirsk exposition in 1929.
Being a twelve-year girl V. Markova began to participate in exhibitions in a line with her teachers. She joined the group in 1926 upon arrival from Barnaul to Tashkent. In spite of she was much younger, V. Markova became “one of the lads”. Happy coincidence of views and interests provided her right to be a serious partner. Definition of plastic tasks and clear soft retro showed her great skill without extreme female aestheticism. Interest to psychological solutions in portraits and genre, good social intuition brought the artist up to a level of “masters”. Intolerance in her mind and statements concerning the art revealed some kind of egocentrism marked by artistic originality.
In 1929 “Masters of New East” held an exhibition that the newspaper “Pravda Vostoka” informed on. The same year Iskander Ikramov took part in work of “Masters” when he returned to Tashkent after Leningrad Art and Industry College at the Academy of Arts (1925 – 1929). A reason of his involving was not only new ideas he brought and close connection with Uzbekistan. Ikramov had been already known since he studied at Turkistan Regional Art School (1921-1923) where A. Volkov was one of leading teachers and where M. Kurzin worked too after its reorganization into Tashkent Art School (1924). Since 1929 he turned to graphic and devoted 30 years to publishing industry.
V. Ufimtsev lived in Siberia and visited Uzbekistan, enriching experience and everywhere being high on organizational innovations. He felt himself more Samarkand’s and came under a spell of Bukhara. He could not stand neuter towards the association, shake off charm of the past and become sober and analytic. After Samarkand (1923), acquaintance with Muminbek (early pseudonym of Usto Mumin) that grew into friendship and affinity (Ufimtsev married the sister of Nikolaev), after staying at the Commune named after P. Gauguin and joint exhibition “Old Samarkand” – he again went to Siberia. “The land of Turksib” as if swept into his works accompanied by clickety-click. These were sketches, gouaches, linocuts and appliqufts expressing global dynamics of time. Lake Balkhash, roadside stations and inhabitants of the Kazakh steppe entered his works. He represented the Uzbekistan set at the 1st Russian exhibition of painting, sculpture, graphic and architecture organized by “New Siberia” in Novosibirsk (1927). Uzbekistan and Turksib works were exposed also in Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk in 1927-1929 simultaneously with actions of “Masters of New East” in Tashkent. The artists exchanged letters and photos. Impressive looks a picture of the Ufimtsev’s exposition he sent to “Mumin-aka”.
However, the end of the group was felt earlier its actual end. After emotional intensity of close dialogue, crisis or changes must have come up. Anyhow, it could not destroy creative potential of “Masters”. It was a period when new look touched upon many fields including ideology in general and programs of new organizations. The crossed muse in “Priest of art” (1928) by Ufimtsev, where we easily recognize Anton Sorokin (1884-1928) – a phenomenon of literary and artistic Siberia, sounds more as a question than satire.
Pessimistic traces and grotesque appeared in their works. Expressive methods accented psychologism of figural characters in such works as “Chaikhanshik” (1928) by Usto Mumin, “Smith” and dark blue “Tashkent Landscape” (1928) by Kurzin and determined dramatic development of farming crowd scenes in pictures “Start of work” by Volkov. Graphic diffusion of “Chicken markets” and “City Market” by Kurzin neighboured with generalized expression of “Electric chair”, “Execution” and “Sacco and Vancetti” (1928). Vision of Kurzin reached especial sarcasm in classifications of human society involving global events – “Face of capital”, “Lower middle class” and “Thieves devouring social food” (1931-1933). V. Markova’s “Colonial landscape” was coming up.
Even in the works close to agitational posters “Masters” attracted with exclusive picturesque concepts. Volkov strengthened the task generated by his Petersburg teacher M.D. Bernstein: to adopt not “projection” of a model but its real plastic in any position and situation. Colour solutions often associated with karnay’s music. In the 1930s the artists spoke much about Volkov’s colour, especially bright and dense.
Usto Mumin was discussing his long business trip to Leningrad (1929 -1931). Nobody knew if he returned or not. He returned having sent a letter to Gulyaev: “Peter (Leningrad) has been coincident with my hopes. It is possible to study and work here. However, my heart belongs to East”.
A mood of crisis had lasted for 2-3 years till the following period of optimistic injection, which just bordered the disintegration of the group. However, it did not loose its value. Their daring skill of plastic experiment runs up on reformatory European art, for example, the unusual alloy of avant-garde directions, picturesque materialism of Russian signboard and verbose East in Kurzin’s works. Discoveries of “Masters of New East” do not mix up. Professional level and skills of each artist are clearly seen.
Disintegration of the association, as well as its establishment, was logical. The association had fulfilled its artistic and organizational tasks. Necessity of direct connection disappeared but the artists remained faithful to their active position, which in fact was a motto of their alliance. They remained the same, just Time coloured events and biographies with a high hand leaving untouched the art and concentrated feelings of “Masters of New East”.