Usto Mumin in the Echo of Vanguard

Issue #2 • 1180

An exhibition organized by the Ilkhom Theatre in the memory of painter A. V. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin) displayed a canvas called “Rowers” for the first time. However, there is a hypothesis that the painting was wrought by K. S. Malevich, not Nikolaev.

The collection of paintings of The State Art Museum of Uzbekistan is so significant that it enables an extensive coverage of stylistic peculiarities of the epoch and an insight into the “back-water” of regional schools where the ideas of reformer artists received additional coverage.

The receipt by the museum of a number of vanguard pieces from Tashkent was no accident. Those who know the history of displacements would not be surprised at finding famous and rare names in the faraway land. Paintings by Malevich are almost from the realm of museum intrigue. Setting the details of art process aside, we shall tell of what we bore witness and in the manner of how we once heard it from Nikolaev’s associates.

The painting in question arrived to the museum with a documentary record that read “Nikolaev. Rowers”, under which it was registered in the A.V. Nikolaev Fund of the Central National Archive of Uzbekistan. This record was preserved in the museum protocols of receipt and storage. “Rowers” fit nicely into the collection of Russian Vanguard, having joined the arrivals to the Tashkent State Museum of 1920s. The fact of the “Rowers” staying in Tashkent is linked to the story of acquaintance of painter Alexander Vasilievich Nikolaev with Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878-1935). Nikolaev was the student of Malevich.

By the time they met, Nikolaev was a trained artist; the major role was played by his home upbringing: his father, the admirer of Antique and Italian art, painted. Keeping up the family tradition of military service, Nikolaev was first a cadet and later joined the Corps of Uhlan, but an urge to paint never left him. He studies with painter N. K. Yevlampiev and later on, in Voronezh, in the studio of A. A. Buchkuri. In the year of the tour of the Moscow Free Theatre (1918) he was noticed and invited to work in the theatre. Nikolaev leaves Voronezh and finds himself in the midst of revolutionary events perceived by his new milieu of Vanguard artists as the process of universal renewal. Theatre perfectly corresponded to these notions and the stage had a capacity to accommodate mass elemental action. Having specific production and technical effects, it solved the problems through maximum play and pictorial conventionality. The capacity of the theatre to feed the contemplations about man’s place in an extended, boundless space kept attracting Nikolaev, including the time of his work as stage designer in 1940s.

With an experience of poster, graphic and theatre artist, Nikolaev enters the National Free Art Workshops (NFAW) and becomes a student of K. S. Malevich. After Malevich created the UNOVIS (Asserters of New Art), Nikolaev becomes member of the society and takes part in its expositions. Nikolaev always called himself the student of Malevich and mentioned his UNOVIS membership in questionnaires. Looking back on the fifteen years of his work, he recalled the years with the NFAW saying, “The Patriarch of Formalism corrupted me so much that I ceased to perceive a real form”. The words were said not in disavowal, but to ascertain the Suprematism period under the mentorship of the Master – the Patriarch of geometric abstraction. Nikolaev used time valuations, which in the 1930s were officially understood in a narrow plane in order to contraposition methods. Malevich deserved to be referred to as “Apostle of Art”. He called his discovery “A new pictorial realism” and encouraged bold search for renewal. “Dare!” – that’s him.

In response to the viewers’ amazement at the precision of compositional solutions Nikolaev used to say, “I have a scheme”. He meant a notion received from Malevich about an assembly of an object with near-the-object environment. This principle is particularly evident in the tempera “Tea-house Tender” (1928). The plummets of precision designs are taken from Malevich’s school, from the Suprematism period. If the principle of hagiography icon, which he applied in his work “The Life of Bachi” (Zeal with Pomegranate, 1924), opens an unfolded course in the development of the plot, the “Tea-house Tender” offers a summary.

There is a notable fact in Nikolaev’s biography: a stop in Orenburg caused by a necessity to get off the train because of typhus. F. Likholetov, S. Soldatov and E. Baranovskiy kept him company in Orenburg. They were following the same route as was outlined for Nikolaev. The stop was prolonged. From Nikolaev’s travel companions we learn about his new meeting with his teacher: Malevich arrived in Orenburg to deliver a lecture. People saw the three of them together: Malevich, Sandomirskaya and Nikolaev. Malevich and Nikolaev. Sandomirskaya and Nikolaev.

Without an audience, Malevich called out his free verse just as loudly. Here is one of the themes: Evening. Nikolaev and Malevich are taking a walk together, talking enthusiastically. Immaculately stern, “engineer-wrought” Malevich raises his arms up, and, outlining arches, exclaims: “Give me freedom and I will paint the sky!” And another one: A river and slogan-like verses. They rush into the stream, and the river, the splashes and the evening sky respond to the pathos of Malevich’s exclamations, the mood of being thrilled with freedom.

F. Likholetov was a photographer. He kept a negative film that, unfortunately, is badly damaged. In 1970s he said the film was beyond repair but he would try to mend one yellow photograph of that time, which he showed: Nikolaev, Sandomirskaya and a tree. Two figures clad in white – friends and a robust tree with straight trunk and broad crown – the kind of tree Beatrisa Sandomirskaya used to cut her sculptures from.

Before long Sandomirskaya would come to Asia on assignment to become leader of Samarqand art workshops where she would meet the “familiar stranger”: white garments now have a Muslim cut, he wears a gown and a turban, goes to the mosque to pray and his name is Usto Mumin.

Nikolaev’s position is free from declarative-ness, yet he is the painter of his time, and he belongs to that epoch. He is attracted by the orderliness of Suprematism, the logical array of pictorial language expressed in canvases and rhythmic theses of Malevich. The man of the West goes East. Then, in the whirl of time, he is just a traveler. Intuitively, he takes the direction that will become his destiny. His artistic training and his mental and physical deliberations cross his new visual experiences; he recognized geometrical shapes in the art of oriental tradition. The triangles in the structures are softened by Nikolaev’s brush and end up rounded; he seeks harmony and silence. He found this silence in the old guzar of Samarqand. Nikolaev’s friends in the 1920s said they would know where to find Usto Mumin if he disappeared for several days. He would press his finger against his lips, seeing Semyon Soldatov in the gate of an abandoned house, silently asking not to disturb his partaking from the silence of the house where he swept the yard and filled the jars with water. Soldatov would depart, leaving him sitting on avian in the same pose.

The Union of Artists brings up an issue of scheduling creative trips to Moscow and Leningrad. Nikolaev is included. He chooses Leningrad, but as the trip is a long one, he was going to bring his wife and first-born son along. He leaves in 1928 to have preliminary discussions about the conditions of stay. It was at that time when, on return, he brought the canvas presented to him by Malevich to Tashkent.

Nikolaev’s advanced training took place in “Detgiz” (The Publisher of Children’s Literature) with V. V. Lebedev in 1929-1931 and was combined with independent creative work that involved illustrating books and magazines. From people who were close to Nikolaev and from Ada Korchitz-Nikolaeva we learn about his Petersburg period. They did not tell us everything, and we shall respect their silence. We will only quote some lines from Nikolaev’s letter to Vadim Gulyaev that says about the imminent arrival of new times: “The Filonov exhibition will not be opened, by all symptoms – because of its “mismatch” with the current industrial moment. What a pity! This is positively a stunning phenomenon for all painting foundations. Perhaps this is why they have been reluctant to open it for such a long time”. (March 10, 1930. To Tashkent, for V. N. Gulyaev.)

The group of works of later Malevich is characterized by the alternating stripes of pure primary colours. The horizon is moved away. A similar device of positioning sea waves can be observed in the “Rowers”, emphasizing the remoteness of the horizon. Malevich repeatedly developed compositions with a figure in white tunic at the stern of a boat and with rowers – these are known from the publications of his artistic heritage.

What does the subject mean? Anything but Nike. There is a presence of anxious anticipation of human efforts and an aspiration for large unexplored expanse. The spaciousness, thickly painted deep waves and the perseverance of will cultivated by consciousness. The innovativeness of Vanguard connects to the chronologically preceding verse-writing, the symbolism of plastic art, the foreknowledge of science… Malevich was among the first who takes the lead and in his creative implementation outdistances the poets and painters of presentiment.

Rimma Yeremyan

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