Pavel Ben’kov in the History of Uzbek Painting

Issue #2 • 1481

Z. Kovalevskaya. The Portrait of the Artist P. Ben'kov

On May 18, the International Museum Day, the Central Exhibition Hall opened an exhibition titled “A Poem about the Uzbek Land” commemorating the 130th anniversary of Pavel Ben’kov, an outstanding artist and Honorary Worker of Arts of Uzbekistan. On the same day an academic conference “Samarqand School: 19th-20th Centuries” dedicated to the artist’s work was held.

Every nation reveres foreigners who respect and glorify its traditions and spiritual values. For Uzbekistan, Pavel Ben’kov, the Russian, was this deeply respected and appreciated artist.

Ben’kov wrote in his memoirs: “My stay in Uzbekistan can be considered a special period… for it was in Uzbekistan where I began to create complex compositions”.

Girl with a Dutar, 1947. Canvas, oil

The artist arrived in Uzbekistan in 1928. Charmed by the land, he remained here for the rest of his life that ended in 1949 in Samarqand.

Artist Ruzi Charyev once said about him: “Contemporary masters of brush can learn a lot from Ben’kov, for one of his qualities was that he took an active part in the life of our people, glorified their lifestyle and traditions by presenting it in his canvases; with love and sincerity he uncovered the uniqueness of this lifestyle without missing a single little detail. His work series dedicated to Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva earned him worldwide fame. If you notice, his every canvas, be it a portrait or a landscape, features historical monuments”.

…Golden sunbeams stream through vine leaves. Under the vine there are two girls, and above their heads there hang ripe juicy grapes coloured like red gold. The Uzbek girl shows to her Russian friend a bunch of grapes she just plucked from the vine. On the background, the girls are watched by the old man – the gardener, and other children. All people on the picture appear to be members of a good family. This painting called “Friends” is known to many. Pavel Petrovich Ben’kov created it in 1940. The artist affectionately portrayed not only the fruitful Uzbek autumn, but also subtle human emotions and friendly relations between nations.

A Small Street of Bukhara. 1929 г. Canvas, oil

During his lifetime Ben’kov travelled a lot and experienced many reverses of fortune. The artist was born in 1879 in the city of Kazan’. He started painting when he was six years old. First he became a student of the town’s art school and later on entered vocational college of arts. His teachers were G. Zaleman, Y. Tsioglinskiy and B. Kustodiev. Graphic designer D.

Kardovskiy generously supplied young Pavel with advice and ideas. Ben’kov had a chance to visit the workshop of Ilya Repin. Having graduated from the vocational college with honours, the young artist was rewarded with an assignment abroad. For about a year he studied in Paris, in Julienne private school, exploring impressionistic method and studying the pearls of fine art stored in Le Louvre and in Luxembourg; he travelled to Spain to look at the works of Velasques. He finished his graduation work while in Italy, the cradle of culture and arts. In 1909, full of creative ideas and plans, the young artist returned to his home country.

In Kazan’ Ben’kov taught at the art school and was actively engaged in work. He worked in the genre of portrait and landscape and created still for the Kazan’ Opera Theatre. Capturing the images of ordinary people on his canvases, he feels how easy his brush becomes and how clear his mind is. The artist admired those simple and unpretentious people who portraits he created. Such are the pictures “The Old Tatar Man”, “Tatar Worker”, “Tatar Girl”. Particularly attractive is his famous canvas “Young Gypsy Girl”. While the “Tatar Girl” is painted in quiet, subtle colours, the dominant colours in the “Young Gypsy Girl” are the ones that emphasize mobility and spiritedness of the heroine.

Portrait of Z. Kovalevskaya

In Uzbekistan the artist was amazed by the beauty of local nature, people’s warmth and hospitality and their caring attitude towards customs and traditions. Having made Samarqand his base, he travelled to Bukhara and Khiva in search for inspiration. His visit to Bukhara turned out to be quite productive. Working there, Ben’kov realized that there is a need to employ a special method of applying strokes which would communicate sunlit objects in the open air that was characteristic of impressionist painting. Being skilled in this method, the artist essentially created a school of plain-air painting in Uzbekistan.

Canvases such as “Labi Hauz”, “Bukhara Dignitary”, and a portrait “Jewish Dye-Master”, which he created in plain-air, confirm the expressivity of this method. The artist’s landscapes “Autumn, Hauz”, “Covered Market-place”, and the work “Tajik Man” are filled with play of colours and chiaroscuro. These also communicate the uniqueness of the market-place and street environment typical to Bukhara only. Sometimes the artist’s studies and sketches painted from life looked as completed paintings. For example, work on paintings such as “Street Copyist”, or “Oriental Street” might take two or three days, and sometimes only a few sessions.

Bukhara bazaar, 1943. Canvas, oil

The choice of colour shades was very important for the artist. Ben’kov is the only one of the visiting artists who did not strive for conventionality and contrast in colour combinations characteristic of oriental miniature. His works are dominated by polyphonic tones, subtle and complex play of light and shadow, and colour nuances that cleverly communicate silver shades of air. The artist was once criticized for this impressionistic manner and accused of incompleteness of compositional solutions and forms. Meanwhile, those paintings where the artist portrayed day-to-day life in full realistic vision have now acquired the value of being true historical evidence.

1930s was the time of substantial social transformations. Bearing eye-witness of those days, Ben’kov, as true artist, could not but portray them in his works. Many new images and types were characteristic of his urban landscapes, portraits and subject canvases. Paintings such as portrait of Yuldash Akhunbabaev, “Red Tea-House in Bukhara” and others celebrate human dignity and sincere belief in new values.

In 1930 Ben’kov happened to be living in Khiva. Day-to-day life of this unparalleled oriental city, its fruit and vegetable markets and tea-houses became regular objects of his observations. Items created here reveal a refined colourist in their author. Natural colours of Khiva, the interplay of its intrinsic hues – from light- to deep-yellow that grow into light-brown – create an unrepeated and charming impression. In the works of the Khiva series the former silvery shades changed to colours reflecting the world around as if it were burnt by the sun. In this particular colouring the artist painted his “Vegetable Market”, “The Street with Minaret”, and “Chigir in Khorezm”.

In his Khiva works Ben’kov paid particular attention to the sketches of local types up to the smallest ethnographic detail in his characters’ costumes, the way they walk and gesticulate. Such are “The Portrait of a Khiva Woman”, “Khiva Girl”, and “Khiva Spinners”. One can safely refer to the “Khiva Girl” (1933) as a true gem in Ben’kov’s heritage. This painting is kept in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Painted from life, not only does it communicate the exotic peculiarities of traditional lifestyle so popular among painters of that time, but also and primarily it shows the author’s true love for everything he got in touch with living in the environment unusual for him.

In 1931 Ben’kov arrived to Samarqand. In as early as 1920s this city already became the art life centre for the entire Central Asia. Artists from Russia settled here and set an objective before themselves: create new, contemporary art that would combine post-impressionist trends, Russian avant-garde and local oriental traditions. Soon, however, the Samarqand artistic community disintegrated due to political pressure. The method of social realism was gaining strength and finally entrenched itself from the moment of the establishment of the Union of Artists of Uzbekistan (1932). In 1933 the Union’s organization committee was created and comprised P. Ben’kov as well. Eventually he was also to become an authorized representative of Samarqand art society.

Ideological requirements concerned Ben’kov as well. In 1931-1940 he created large-format canvases “Khujum” (“Attack”), “Silk-Weaving Factory”, “The 8th of March in Registan”, “Cotton Hilling in Uzbekistan”, and “The Construction of Rabat” that were in keeping with ideological objectives of those years. Despite their political engagement, these paintings created over many years were top-rate in terms of their compositional solutions and painting quality. The artist was able to preserve his individual signature by extensively employing the plain-air method.

In 1938 the title of Honorary Worker of Arts of Uzbekistan was conferred on Ben’kov.

The World War II broke out when the artist was in Samarqand. During that challenging time the city became home to the thousands of evacuees, including the faculty of the Pan-Russian Arts Academy. Art institutes of Moscow, Kiev and Khar’kov were also evacuated to Samarqand. Ben’kov helped his colleagues as much as he could investing a lot of his time and effort. Enduring days of war time were also reflected in his art. Parallel to his intensive public activity at that time, the artist painted pictures such as “Meeting the Hero”, “Letter from the Font”, “In a New Family”, “Gift for the Soldier”, and “Home Again”. His work “The Mother of the Hero” glorifies the nation’s spiritual strength through the image of an ordinary Uzbek woman.

In the last years of war Ben’kov’s health deteriorated, but he still worked a lot trying to use the time as productively as he could. Over the period between 1943 and 1948 he created a series of canvases showing Samarqand landscapes and the city’s everyday life.

Ben’kov is a prominent master of brush trained in the European art school. Still his art has a certain peculiarity that makes his painting manner akin to Oriental artistic traditions. It is particularly noticeable in his piece titled “Gift for the Soldier”. The canvas shows two Uzbek girls sitting on a topchan. One of them is bent over her embroidery, and the other is sitting still, admiring the nature. In its colouring the canvas resembles Bekhzad’s miniature “Sheibani-khan” created in red-and-black and black-and-white colours. This makes it possible to assume that Pavel Ben’kov, on arrival to Central Asia, studied the art of miniature painting used as illustrations in ancient manuscripts and creatively interpreted it in his works.

A well-known Uzbek artist Abdulkhak Abdullaev wrote about his famous teacher, Pavel Petrovich Ben’kov: “Few men can leave so deep a mark in people’s hearts. This is not to say that we do not have good artists except Ben’kov, but still Pavel Petrovich was the one and only among us. I think this should be remembered, especially by our young, developing artists. We, the students of Ben’kov, shall pass on to them, as precious baton, the traditions of Ben’kov’s school.” The outstanding artistic heritage of Pavel Ben’kov will be a model of creative searching and gaining to follow by many more generations of artists in Uzbekistan.

Nodir Normatov

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