The work of Kazakh artist Abylkhan Kasteev, his life and contribution to cultural development have long been the focus of detailed studies by Kazakhstan and foreign scholars. He left behind a heritage of more than two thousand pictures, water-colours and drawings which represent a kind of chronicle of the 20th century Kazakhstan.
The early period of A. Kasteev's work belongs to the late 1920s and 1930s. That period in Kazakhstan was marked by the evolvement of European genres of fine art, which become an important factor that characterized cultural processes of the epoch. As a mater of fact, the formation of professional artistic tradition in the past, especially in the Middle Ages, was connected exclusively with big city culture, and in Central Asia the big cities were Bukhara, Samarqand, Kokand, Khiva, Tashkent and some others. In Kazakhstan, due to the prevalence of nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles, the traditions of urban culture and professional activities did not develop, and this was how one of specific features of local art manifested itself and influenced quality and pace of the art's adaptation to new forms. Speaking about professional versus folk art forms, it is by no means their quality which is compared, since the best monuments of both urban and nomadic art show high level of workmanship. The artistic level of Kazakh art that was exclusively folk, was no second to the “urban” art of the neighbouring regions.
Specificity of new art forms adaptation in Kazakhstan was connected with relatively late, in comparison with the other republics, entering into the system of new artistic orientations and the absence of a broad milieu of Russian and other immigrant artists who could have actively developed European forms of art. Russian artist N. Khludov played a major role in artistic initiation of A. Kasteev. Quite remarkable is Kasteev's multi-directional searching, which manifested itself during the very first steps in his career. The artist works in oil and water-colour and does not limit himself to a particular subject or genre, trying his skill in portrait, landscape, genre painting and battle scenes. But whatever genre he turned to, his works always keep the very atmosphere that characterized the development of Kazakh society in the first decades of the 20th century – the scenes of nomadic camps, steppe settlements, mountain pastures, inhabitants of highland villages…
Traditions of folk culture, its applied arts and musical heritage, epic tales and legends – everything that constitutes an integral part of the world in Kasteev's paintings – have also been reflected in his work. Richness of colours and the rhythm of felt carpet ornaments continue in a number of his decorative works (“Yurt interior”, 1929 and 1934; “Two Kazakh women”, 1935). Melodies of the native land seem to be heard in expansive landscapes, and epic heroes come to life in a number of historical portrait characters (“Batyr”, 1935).
Turning to portrait genre became Kasteev's response to the events of time that proclaimed the value of a personality, of a human being actively making his way into the new world. The artist does not stop having mastered the portrayal of physical feature likeness and becomes increasingly focused on psychological aspect in his works. Qualities of Kasteev's talent such as captivating sincerity, moving naivety and, at the same time, austerity are reflected in his “Self-portrait” (1931) showing a young man wearing a winter hat tilted over eyes and a done up overcoat. In this orderliness of form and austerity of character one can feel the artist's personality – integral, purposeful and at the same time introverted, somewhat withdrawn into the world of his thoughts, and only the loosened ear-flap straps of his hat bring an element of artistic confusion into the image. Every feature of his face speaks about the model's character: tight lips characterize Kasteev as laconic and modest person, horizontal lines on his forehead reveal his tendency to continuous reflection and his philosophical mind, and the gable roof position of his eyebrows betrays him as vulnerable, childishly spontaneous and ingenuous person. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries, Kasteev was exactly like that.
A significant portion of Kasteev's work is given to the portraits of famous historical personalities such as Abai, Amangeldy Imanov, Chokan Valikhanov and Tokash Bokin; folk artists Djambul, Birjan-sal and Kenen Azerbaev; traditional master craftsman Sarsenbin and others. Works in this genre show civil position of the artist who for the characters of his paintings chose national figures who had made an invaluable contribution to the development of Kazakhstan culture.
The artist's genetic memory, when creating images of new art and selecting themes which the artist identifies himself with and understands, is revealed most vividly in landscapes. The preference given to this genre is not accidental: the whole life of a Kazakh, a cattleman and nomad, was closely connected with nature.
Kasteev's landscapes are often compared with those of Breughel as both artists are keen on panoramic spatial solutions. In our view, consonance with Pieter Breughel's works is primarily shown in the ability to correlate general and particular. However, while the Dutch Flemish master builds his collisions on contrast and contraposition of phenomena (for example, the world's grace and tragedy in “The Fall of Ikarus”), for Kasteev the whole and detail are always in the state of inviolable harmony. This notion of the world is typical of steppe inhabitants, and that is the reason why we can talk about specifically ethnic qualities of his pictures.
Kasteev's landscapes can be divided into three groups: mountain, steppe and genre. The artist always keeps a wide panorama that allows achieving a large-scale and epic sounding of a canvas (“In mountains of Kazakhstan”, 1951; “Mountain pasture at experimental station”, 1951; “Experimental station”, 1951; “Issyk Lake”, 1953, etc.). His love for mountain landscapes is not accidental: they breathe with ancient notion of a mountain as the world's pillar and unwavering core of the universe. According to traditional Turkic mythology, mountains were one hypostasis of the World Tree, the most ancient symbol of the universe; mountains are the symbol of eternity and stability of being, the symbol of the native land and its nature.
“Holiday home in the mountains” (1937) is one of the best paintings of the “mountain” series: snow-covered and forested slopes are equally convincing; the artist finds a solution to picturing several planes, which help achieve credibility in the presentation of space. This work sounds fresh and unusual in the context of time. On a background of so dear to the artist green valley ending with forest-covered mountains there stand multi-story buildings of the holiday home – a completely new phenomenon for that epoch. This seemingly non-subject painting and the ordinary landscape reflect very important signs of time – celebration of labour and rest, care for an individual and faith in the future.
Faithful adherent to nature, Kasteev never experiments with space; he maintains low, human height, point of view, in combination with bird's eye perspective, thus achieving a peculiar effect of “presence in the frame”. This method of resenting space makes it possible to show details on the foreground (shrubs, grass, rocky ground) and large-scale distant panorama that seems to be expanding right in front of our our eyes as if encompassing micro- and macrocosm. As R. Kopbosinova noted, “Kasteev had a skill to establish very accurately a proportion between the level of horizon and scale of figures to determine the significance of Man in the landscape space, or, on the contrary, to accentuate expressiveness of “developing” expanses” (1, p. 15). Even when mountains are not the main object in the picture, they are often present on the background as an essential element.
Perhaps, no other thing describes Kasteev's art as fully as steppe landscapes. They have a uniqueness of their own, primarily due to their uncomplicatedness and even extreme simplicity of means with which they are pictured. Steppe, the line of horizon – low or high, but more often equally dividing sky and earth, yellowish low hanging sky, scant growth, the infinity of space covered by the span of vision – so are the works “Chinggistau – the native land of Abai” (1947), “Collective-farm houses” (1947), “Ainal district center” (1948), “Sary-Shoki collective farm” (1948), “Summer pasture of Chalkude” (1956), “Sarykol Lake” (1956) and “We shall grow wheat here” (1956). At first glance they may not seem very expressive or picturesque; however, it was the very meagreness of colours and shapes, the very simplicity of drawing and subject, and strict and documentary accuracy, in which Kasteev saw the truth in painting – the truth he never permitted himself to depart from. Neither does it seem accidental that Kasteev turns to steppe landscapes only in the post-war years, after he had already acquired the skills of professional mastery.. Indeed, one has to possess great talent for painting to be able to express it with in such laconic forms and means that are offered by the landscape of Kazakhstan steppe. The “steppe” theme developed by the artist became a defining “face” of Kazakhstan painting of the 20th century.
As was the case with mountain landscapes, the appearance of steppe landscapes with their laconic artistic language, was caused not only by the artist's aspiration for expressing personal perception of his native environment and his willingness to be closer to nature, but also by deep, genetically determined, subconscious impulses. The point is that images of Sky and Earth, the paramount concepts in the life of a nomad, lie at the foundation of Kazakh ornamental art. For centuries and right up till present the ornaments of Kazakh felt carpets featured traditional negative-positive method of pattern-making, when background equals pattern, and, correspondingly, pattern equals background. This method developed from the willingness to express the world outlook and notions of steppe inhabitants for whom the world consisted of two equally important concepts – the Earth and Sky. These were worshipped and idolized: the Sky symbolized the supreme deity, Tengri, and the Earth was honoured as mother-goddess Umai. These were the notions reflected in felt carpet designs which were believed to have the meaning of well-wishing and protection. These concepts – the equivalency of Earth and Sky – on genetic level, found their original reflection in Kasteev's landscape painting, and this makes it possible to speak about the continuity of centuries-old traditions in his work.
Quite significant in Kasteev's art were genre landscapes, which became one of distinctive features of Kazakh painting in general. At first glance, pictures of this type, in terms of content, could be considered as genre painting; however, the specificity of lifestyle of Kazakh people who live mostly in natural environment predetermined a combination of genre painting and landscape, and, consequently, the emergence of genre landscape. Kasteev was the first who suggested this combination, which would eventually become a favoured technique among his followers.
It should be noted, that the blending of genres was characteristic not only of Kazakh painting, but also of Central Asian painting at large, though this process in Kazakhstan had its peculiarities too.
Works of late 1930s, such as “Collective-farm”, “Collective dairy-farm” and “Milking of mares” demonstrate the artist's accurate knowledge of people's everyday life. At the same time they are filled with heartfelt lyricism combined with epic power of communicating harmonious union between nature and man who feels himself part of it. From an ordinary daily life sketch they turn into poetic ode to being, full of symbolic interpretations; “In the subject structure of these paintings one can see a folklore origin intrinsic to the artist” (2, p. 56).
Post-war works, such as “Carpet makers at djailau” (1950), “Red yurt” (1957), “Latest news” (1963) and “Mobile shop at the pasture” (1963) are also based on equival-value combination of subject and landscape. They are free from far-fetched thoughts or fantasies of the artist – there is only a desire to show steppe life as it is. This approach is quite natural at the first stages in the evolution of new art: to record the reality in its immediate being. At the same time, the artist chooses subjects that enable him to convey his caring attitude to changes taking place in the steppe. His genre paintings became a “cumulative portrait of the nation, which expressed the idealism of Kazakh traditional mentality, priorities of collective and tribal values, and perception of the humankind as living extension of nature” (1, p. 17).
Representation of everyday life against natural background is as natural for the Kazakh artist as life itself. The emergence of this genre was not accidental: it expressed the world outlook and perceptions of the nation, which reflected the idea of harmonious coexistence of man and nature, the idea of patriarchal lifestyle, sustainability and inviolability of tribal relations. These paintings can be regarded as valuable ethnographic material, since it was always important for the artist to maintain factual credibility and remain close to nature.
A milestone in Kasteev's work was the portrait of Chokan Valikhanov (1951) who was the source of inspiration for the artist more than once (we also know of a portrait painted in 1952, which is more of a chamber quality). Analogies with “Yurt” (1934) suggest themselves; they make it possible to identify both the dynamics of style development, and already established distinctive features of Kasteev's painting.
Brilliant, full of deep psychological “clearvoyance”, portraits of the sons of Kazkh nation Amangeldy and Alibi Djangildin, Djambul and Kenesary Kasymov captivate the viewer primarily by manly reserve and the power of realistic drawing.
The pictures of post-war years reflect the entire epoch imbued with the spirit of victory, faith in the radiant future, inexhaustible optimism and perfectly justified pathos. Kasteev, being the great master of detail, brings in seemingly insignificant elements in order to fully disclose a theme connected with new realities of life; and in every instance it is done very delicately, without socially engaged emphasis.
“Latest news” (1963) shows a curious combination of traditional and new elements of everyday life. An ordinary Kazakh family is dining on the felt carpets spread near the yurt, an old woman on the right side of the picture is filling up cups with kumys – a scene that could have been happening in the last century or even before. What becomes important here is details belonging to the present day and new way of life: magazines and newspapers that seem to be accidentally scattered in the foreground and radio with antenna; and, perhaps, modern men's clothing – boots, caps, coats – have not been pictured right in the centre of the composition by accident either. And, finally, one more feature: a fair-haired man on the left side of the picture, a guest arriving to djailau. With the help of these unobtrusive details Kasteev was able to give capacious and accurate characteristic of the entire epoch, when the signs of new time quickly became part of the cattleman's life.
In this plane, the work “Valley of Talas” (1970) is of significant interest. The canvas has horizontally extended format that enables more expressive presentation of the main theme – boundless expanse of steppe. In every work of the artist one can find his amazing ability to develop a subject that combines notions most valuable for the bearers of traditional culture, and new signs of time, which the future of the nation was associated with.
The role of Abylkhan Kasteev in the development of Kazakhstan's national art is unique. Owing to his talent and profound connection with native culture he was able to intuitively “connect social, cultural and aesthetic dimensions of different historical epochs” (2, p. 79). The value of his works is also in the sincerity and purity of feelings, which he preserved throughout his artistic career. As G. Sarykulova notes, “Abylkhan Kasteev captivates us by his quality of being possessed and pure, like mountain spring; his naivety is beautiful for it is pristine and completely sincere” (3, p. 20).
With a joyful feeling of a pioneer, Kasteev aspired to render the world in all its manifestations. By doing so, the great master Abylkhan Kasteev earned himself an invaluable credit.