The Problem of Utopia in the XIX-XXI Centuries Art of Uzbekistan (To the Studies of Genesis of the National Pictorial Art)

Issue #1 • 1949

Starting from the 1990s, vocabulary of the national art began to change dramatically. The issue of terminological definition surfaced in the domestic art criticism, when the habitual set of criteria and definitions used in art criticism and the entire range of instruments employed by soviet art critics disintegrated and could no longer reflect dynamic and diverging trends developing in the art of post-soviet nations.

With the attainment of the right for independent cultural interaction with the Western world, in the artistic practice of Uzbekistan there emerged different forms of actual art that necessitated lexical renewal in the language of domestic art criticism. New definitions appear in the vocabulary of art criticism – both genre-related (design, installation, video-art, performance), and conceptual or notional (post-modernism, identity, subculture, paradigm, anthropology, mainstream, hermeneutics, concept, idiomaticity, hedonism, etc.), which more accurately and comprehensively represent the essence of current processes in contemporary art. The sources of renewal are Western and Russian art criticism and related humanitarian sciences, such as cultural studies, philosophy, sociology, etc. It should be noted that this “Europeanization” of the language triggered a mixed response from domestic opponents who often regard it as professional snobbism and pseudo-academic rhetoric (1, p. 238). Meanwhile, the emergence of a new categorical apparatus in art and art criticism, including those of Uzbekistan, is a natural phenomenon that should be considered in the context of overarching globalization processes, which are unstoppable in culture just as they are in economy and social domain. Certainly, the process of interpreting these categories should take into account peculiarity of historical/cultural and situational environment, and the need to understand the specificity of using this apparatus has also been recognized by lead Russian culture experts (2).

One of such concepts is “utopia”, a kind of a terminological indicator that enables a more extensive interpretation of the “artist-society” problems. Still, when one extrapolates the term “utopia” to the art processes in our region, one should, first, take into account the specificity of oriental utopia, which is determined by the regional socio-cultural context, and, secondly, differentiate the notion of utopia itself, which has a number of variations, namely social, aesthetic/artistic, personal, etc. And the artist, originally, de facto, being the subject of “aesthetization” of reality, is utopian; and, however paradoxical this may be, he is utopian even when he creates essentially anti-utopian piece, as he always tends to beautify the reality due to the attributes of his art and means of expression. Employing instruments of self-expression such as sound, melody, text, colours, film frames, plasticity and mimic, the artist is controversy incarnate, sometimes implementing an alternative to utopia in the forms of utopia itself.

Given that the communist project itself was one global social utopia of the 20th century, the problem of utopia in proto-soviet (for our region that would be a period from the late 19th century till 1920s) and social realism art was not specifically accentuated. When in 1970s-1980s the wave of Russian underground des-enshrined the values of soviet art and the demonising of social realism heritage reached its apogee, the utopian nature and hopelessness of the soviet artistic project began to be taken as an axiom (3). Greater accent on the problem of utopia in art was given in post-soviet period. The explicitly social context of utopian art of social realism was noted in the book of a well-known Russian-German researcher Boris Groys, “The Art of Utopia” (2003).

And, chronologically, utopia now covered the territory of Russian vanguard too, in view of its radicalism and romantic veil. Thus, according to B. Groys, social realism and vanguard are behaviourally close – in both instances the zone of utopia is strictly protected and any intrusion of artistic dissent is barred: “Vanguard practice in the 20th century can be described as a practice of propagating taboo on the practice of art itself” (4). In subsequent publications and interviews Groys repeatedly turned to the subject of transformation of social utopias in art, thus underlining the importance of proportion between politics and art as a relevant academic discourse: “Something that truly interests me is the situation in art and politics” (5).

In the early 2000s, in international exhibitions we find that analogies were drawn, in terms of typological commonality, between Russian vanguard and the art of social realism, between their utopian vision and ideals. In 2003 the city of Salonica (Greece) hosted an exhibition of the most renowned Russian vanguard artists under a symptomatic name “Art + Utopia”. As the announcement said, the exhibition was conceived with the purpose of emphasising the fact that the driving force for the Russian vanguard artists was their desire to change the world by means of revolutionary acts in art, in which the exhibition curators actually saw the manifestation of its utopian character. Actually, the same idea of a sacral and unavoidable impact of art upon social life, and belief in its cathartic mission dominated the ideology of the soviet art as well, providing grounds for labelling it as utopian by the critics of social realism.

In contemporary practice and theory of art, social utopia is considered not only to be the attribute of social realism and its forerunner, the Russian vanguard, but also in the context of contemporary post-modernist paradigm (6). And the experience of the 20th century cultural transformations has demonstrated that there is a kind of a cyclic pattern in utopia turning into its opposite – anti-utopia (7).

The dichotomy of ‘utopia – anti-utopia’ was present in the art of Turkistan and Uzbekistan artists of mid 19th and early 20th centuries, although for the 20th century art of our region more typical pattern was one form of utopia replacing the other (8). Social utopias in the art of Russian artists in Turkistan reflected the views of the tsarist political and military elite, and of academic and artistic intellectuals, too, upon the prospects of transforming Turkistan cultural landscape, who, in the spirit of paternalism, rated this project as progressive modernization of social life in the area. Let us recall a well-known picture by N. Karazin, “The Construction of Irrigation Systems in Mirzachul” (early 20th c.) (9, p. 42, ill.), in which the aforementioned concept of modernization is presented with all pictorial and plastic obviousness. Karazin’s painting ideologically forestalls the revolutionary spirit of socialist transformation that infected the artists of Uzbekistan after 1930s, and, in this sense, is a forerunner of social utopias in the art of soviet period.

To a certain extent, artists such as L. Bure, R. Sommer and S. Dudin could also be considered heralds of social utopias, as they followed the line of ethnographic realism – less socially marked, yet close to reality-mythologizing consciousness. This tradition continued in 1920s-1930s in the impressionistic line of P. Ben’kov and his followers, Z. Kovalevskaya and N. Kashina. Thus, the genesis of utopia in the national 20th century art has its genetic roots in Russian artistic tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The same objective of showing the constructive activities of the tsarist government in the area and “…the advantage of the Russian conquest of Turkistan, stressing the positive impact of the penetration of European civilization here…” was pursued in a documentary film epic about Turkistan region created by a well-known Russian cinematographer A. Khanzhonkov (10, p. 106).

In the second half of the 19th century there existed another artists’ viewpoint upon social phenomena in Turkistan, which was destroying from inside the idealizing schemes of its modernization. For instance, in the late 19th century the most significant canvases conveying the reality of Turkistan in its harsh critical presentation were the paintings by V. Vereshchagin – a kind of a visual socio-artistic anti-utopia. Particularly keen social insight marks his “Captives” (1870), “The Doors of Timur” (1871), “Opium-eaters” and others. With time, however, academic painting of nihilistic character looses its relevance. Nihilism of his social concept remained inaccessible to the majority of other Russian painters who worked in Turkistan at that time, largely creating ethnographic sketches.

An early 20th c. artistic tendency towards social characterization of reality set by Vereshchagin gives way to hedonistic aesthetics and idyllic pictures. This was partly linked to the fact that the tradition of “exotization” became one of the symptoms of this perception of oriental world (Gauguin, Matisse, Klimt and others), which was largely facilitated by vanguard trends in the European art – cubism, futurism, etc., propagated in Turkistan through the work of a number of artists. The images of the Turkistan people constitute a rather large spectrum and are well represented by photographs in the well-known “Turkistan Album” published in 1987: these are the water-carrier, the sellers, the craftsmen, the musicians, the tea-house runners, the representatives of local aristocracy, the maskaraboz – local street actors and jesters, etc.

When comparing these photographs to paintings, one can notice a rather prominent degree of aesthetization and a kind of idealization of these characters and their environment. This is characteristic of the works by A. Isupov (“Oriental Cafe”, 1914), O. Tatevosyan (“Banishing a Genie”, 1919; “Calligrapher of Sacral Inscriptions”, 1920; “Mulberry Picking”, 1921), N. Grigoryev (“A Sad Song”, 1919), A. Nikolaev (“The Groom”, 1920s; “Bacha-Musician”, “Spring-time”, “Water-carrier. Labi Hauz. Bukhara” – all of 1924; “Teacher”, 1926), A. Volkov (series of characters dancing and playing musical instruments, dating to the early 1920s, which climaxed in the “Pomegranate Tea-house”, 1924; series of works with caravan theme, and others). Each of the aforementioned artists treats the characters in his own individual style, yet the common trend of excessive poetisation of day-to-day reality is characteristic of all these paintings. This, in a sense, is a utopian aesthetic concept that idealizes local landscape, which existed during the period of pictorial art evolution in Uzbekistan.

However, hedonistic utopia of 1920s would soon defer to a new variety of social utopia in art – social realism. The transformation of one utopia into another is demonstrated by the art of a unique painter A. Volkov. His early works of 1920s are performed in cubistic manner – painting deliberately idealizes reality, employing the expressivity of sensual oriental aesthetics. The rhythm of bright colour patches, lines and silhouettes creates the sensation of meditative, mystical and extra-social space. Volkov wrote in one of his articles: “…one has to… deepen all technical abilities in order to convey that exceptional vividness, powerful colourfulness, special expressivity and peculiar life-style of Central Asia” (11). The entire spirit of his article was focused on asserting utopian ideas of autonomy of pictorial space: “One must not forget the most important thing – painting itself, which poses certain artistic and technical problems” (11). Yet, given the time of the article – year 1928 (the process of making art ideology-driven and turning it into the instrument of social rearrangement had begun), this position had to be complemented with reservations: “By this I do not [the context suggests the presence of negative particle 'not', which is missing in the manuscript. - A. Kh.] mean to say that content is not essential. I only stress that a well-conceived painting content also requires good processing.” (11) Only in the concluding part of his article the artist, following the requirement of time, underlines a connection between social processes and creative searching: “Technique and industrialization in life and technique in art are strongly bound” (11).

Towards the end of 1920s and early 1930s ideological pressure compels the artists to abandon the utopia of oriental exotics. Looking at their paintings one can tell that in 1927-1929 a fundamental change in the interpretation of reality occurred and priorities shifted – artistic consciousness became ideology-driven. Yet the plastic properties of decorative painting were still there – realism was mastered slowly. For instance, in Ural Tansykbaev’s “The Portrait of The Uzbek Man” (1934) the traditions of the 1910s and early 1920s decorative painting are not completely forgotten, although social intonations are already different – sufficiently active, and the image is filled with the spirit of social creation. This futurological utopia is contrasted with the philosophy of passeism in the paintings of V. Rozhdestvenskiy, “The Portrait of The Uzbek Man” performed in the realistic key in 1926, and N. Rozanov’s “The Uzbek Man with Chilim” (1927) of a similar title and intonation. In these works, the characters interpreted in the academic painting manner are absorbed in their personal experiences and turned into the past (extra-social passeistic utopia). Thus, within ten years time, the pictorial art of Uzbekistan had seen a peculiar metamorphosis of utopias: from the idealization of the past to the idealization of the future.

The artists’ works dating to 1929-1930s are distinguished by a kind of plastic primitivism linked with the process of complex and essentially dramatic adaptation of painting techniques to the new requirements of time and government ideology. Such are M. Kurzin’s “In a Tea-house” (1929); N. Karakhan’s “Girls with Hoes” (1931), “Irrigator” (late 1920s), and “Wheat Harvesting” (1930); U. Tansykbaev’s “Harvesting Apples” (late 1920s); and A. Volkov’s “Cotton Picking”. Part of the “Cotton” triptych (1930-1931), and others. Notable in this particular instance is an overlap of two processes within one short time-span: the disintegration of former myth-making illusions on the subject of somnolent hedonistic Orient and the formation of new systems for social myth-making. The nature of this phenomenon, which is easy to observe, yet, surely, painful for the artists themselves, determines a kind of an “axis time” in the art of the region throughout the 20th century (12).

The birth of the art of social realism proper in Uzbekistan is dated to 1933-1934 when the memorial style of the previous decade ultimately gives way to a new model of plastic and semantic interpretation. This is demonstrated by A. Volkov’s “Construction of a Brick Factory” (1933); U. Tansykbaev’s “Torch Welding” (1930s) and “Feeding an Open-Hearth Furnace” (1933); M. Kurzin’s “The Team of Woodworkers” and “Fire Brigade” (both of 1934). Precisely from these two ways of perceiving the Orient (reality in general) – memorial (hedonistic utopia) and futurological (social utopia) – grew the entire subsequent spectrum of plastic language and genres in the art of Uzbekistan. Futurological interpretation triggered by communist ideology and prevalent in the art from 1930 till 1960s was defined in post-soviet literature as “utopian realism”. “Picturing reality in development, that is, in a distant perspective, is a utopian realism” (13).

The original positive aesthetics of social utopia is expressed in different forms: from visually obvious and documentary/note-taking ones (description myth of 1950s-1960s) to abstracted ones, often found in a grey area bordering on memorial concepts (late 1980s-1990s). The most renowned names representing these trends in the national art are those of R. Akhmedov, N. Kuzybaev, M. Saidov, T. Oganesov, Z. Inogamov, as well as next generation artists who modernized the techniques of realistic painting without changing its ideological essence, namely R. Charyev, V. Burmakin, Y. Taldykin, Y. Melnikov, Y. Strelnikov et al.

Artists of this generation develop the traditions of social utopia of 1930s, but their pictures differ from those of the preceding period in being less spirited, having deeper insight into day-to-day life, and in searching for personal self-expression. Their works do not have that social infection and naive zeal, which were characteristic of the 1930s paintings of N. Karakhan, U. Tansykbaev, V. Ufimtsev, A. Volkov, A. Nikolaev, M. Kurzin… In all fairness it should be noted that in a number of grotesque works of M. Kurzin dating to the late 1920s and early 1930s one can see the elements of Vereshchagin’s anti-utopia. Anti-utopian elements can also be traced in colour-subtle paintings of E. Korovai dedicated to the life of Bukhara Jews.

Still, by and large, anti-utopia of V. Vereshchagin remained uncalled for throughout almost the entire period of development of social realism in Uzbekistan, up until late 1980s when the traditions of nihilistic painting, on the background of perestroika and glasnost, were reflected in the paintings of A. Nur, A. Ikramjanov, T. Mirjalilov, B. Jalalov and other Uzbek artists. In their works, the artists critically assessed soviet historical heritage, including events that took place during the establishment of the soviet rule and the period of repressions, and their intrinsic negative reflexion upon ideological symbols of the recent past was resolute and emphatic. It might seem that the last bastions of social utopia were collapsing with the arrival of a pragmatic, unsentimental art style of the new time, free from redundant baroque elements. However, the subsequent development of pictorial art in Uzbekistan, especially after the attainment of independence and removal of ideological pressure, revealed an unexpected trajectory and the emergence of utopia as instrument of artistry.

In the art of 1990s and early 2000s hedonistic utopia became dominant, and the search for an ideal place, “ou-topos” (which does not exist – A. Kh.), was manifested in exquisitely beautiful characters and scenery. Perhaps, this was a peculiar reaction to the sway of communist ideologemes. This typological array should include not the artist, but the works that reflect their artistic consciousness in the given period of time (these are paintings by I. Mukhtarov, A. Nur, G. Kadyrov, Sh. Khakimov, B. Jalalov, J. Umarbekov, J. Usmanov, H. Ziyakhanov and others, dating to 1990s and 2000s), as many of them are characterized by the change of paradigms over a short time-span. For instance, on the verge of 1980s and 1999s, indicative metamorphoses were experienced by a number of artists who had left their anti-utopian experiments in the past and joined the club of painters of hedonistic orientation. Today, those who side with the memorial line (hedonistic utopia) are preoccupied with the search for new plastic techniques of autonomous plastic significance.

As a model of contemporary yet aesthetically refined and graceful “vocabulary”, we consider the painting by Timur Akhmedov “Vanity Fair” created in the framework of “Tetragon” project in 2007 (14). Deliberate atomization and detalization, the funeral velvet of emerald-purple and blue-yellow colour ranges demonstrate a kind of emanation of Splenger’s idea of Sunset. But it is not the Sunset of Europe, but of the oriental civilization that, in the 20th century, tasted the forbidden fruit of cynical anti-utopia with its liberal made-in-the-West values. The boat of a ferryman that carries human souls into the void of spiritual non-existence (a place that, unlike utopia, does exist – the anti-utopian alternative) vanished in a myriad of shining and glittering lights, stars, and fragments of the universe. The artist constructs a kind of a symbiotic form of anti-utopia, in which the Oriental and European traditions blend into an indivisible moral discourse that symbolically denominates the apocalypse of civilization and, accordingly, the end of the art itself as a utopian structure.

The class of contemporary anti-utopias also includes artefacts of actual art with characteristic oriental-post-modern intonation. Meanwhile, in Central Asian region the philosophy of anti-utopia acquires great scale and intensity. The most radical are the anti-utopian assessments of artists from Kazakhstan, E. Meldibekov and A. Menlibaeva, who employ ethno-cultural nomadic stratum as metaphoric material. Anti-utopia of a Kyrgyz actual artist U. Japarov is less aggressive, but also quite expressive. In Uzbekistan one can mention selected works of A. Nikolaev, S. Tychina and others; in a more obscure way anti-utopian elements are present in the installations and video-works of Y. Useinov and J. Usmanov. Young Uzbek actual artists tend not to push their social preferences, limiting themselves to the search for metaphorical meditations, although in their works once can still see sufficiently accentuated elements of des-enshrining the former time values. Anti-utopia was quite vividly presented in photo-collages of A. Salijanov and a diptych “Quotation from I. Brodskiy”, created by a group of artists led by the author of these lines in the framework of the “Turkistan Remake” project in 2009.

A new typology of utopian consciousness is demonstrated in the latest works of B. Jalalov on the cosmogonical subject. Their technocratic polychrome plasticity and futurological design are aimed at a peculiar “reconstruction of the future” – the ou-topos – the non-existent reality. Specimens of this deliberate futurological utopia feature in his latest project “The Elation of a Silent Witness” that consists of four sections:

      1. The Union of Sky and Earth;


      2. The Legend of Navruz;


      3. The Mystery of a White Night;


    4. Shambala.

The project was demonstrated at his personal exhibition held in Tashkent in 2008. The construction of utopian reality is completed with the creation of an actual, visually-tangible artistic environment that acquires the shape of anti-utopia – the realized topos.

Thus, the overall dynamics of the manifestation of “utopia – anti-utopia” dichotomy in the pictorial art of our region is sufficiently complicated and, to a certain extent, controversial. Schematically, on a vertical, it can be presented in the following way: from the mid 19th century anti-utopia of V. Vereshchagin to the anti-utopia of the end of perestroika period; from the utopia of N. Karazin to social utopias in the art of social realism; from hedonistic constructions in the art of A. Isupov, A. Nokolaev, A. Volkov and O. Tatevosyan to poetico-metaphoric painting of the 1990s-2000s Uzbekistan artists. Yet there were horizontal intersections too: in one and the same time one could observe a coexistence of these two diverging poles in artistic worldview, which also constitutes the essence and the specificity of the national art evolution. During certain time periods (from 1930 up until 1960s) of the functioning of an absolute ideological system, utopia in art acquires a mass character (social utopia dominates). In the years that followed, to the foreground comes individualized utopia (predominantly aesthetical and culturological), to match the process of legitimate personalization of creative process.

1. Махмудов Т. Олий малакали санъатшунос ва меъморшунос олимлари тайёрлаш муаммоси // Санъатшунослик масалалари. Вып. III. Ташкент, 2006.
2. Берг М. Литературократия. Проблема присвоения и перераспределения власти в литературе. М., 2000.
3. Рубинштейн Л. Уже ничего. от 17.12.2007.
4. Гройс Б. Что такое современное искусство. Лекция-встреча с Борисом Гройсом 18 июня 1996 г. в Зубовском институте. Петербург //
5. Обратная сторона утопии: Борис Гройс об искусстве, дизайне и демократии // ARTinvestment.RU – 22.11.2008).
6. Беспалова И. В. Традиция и утопия в художественной культуре постмодернизма. Дисс. … канд. филос. наук. Нижний Новгород, 2007.
7. Якушева Н. Б. Трансформация утопии в антиутопию в культуре XX века. Дисс. … канд. филос. наук. Санкт-Петербург, 2001.
8. Хакимов А. Социальные утопии как художественная парадигма в искусстве Узбекистана 1920 – 1930-х годов // Социальная жизнь народов Центральной Азии в первой четверти ХХ века: традиции и инновации. Материалы Международной конференции. Ташкент, 2009.
9. Антология живописи Узбекистана. Ташкент, 2009.
10.Каримова Н. Проникновение кинематографа в исламскую среду Туркестана в начале ХХ в. // Исламские искусство Узбекистана. Ташкент, 2009.
11.ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-394, оп. 1, д. 338, л. 18. Статья художника А. Волкова.
12.Хакимов А. Миф и реальность в искусстве Узбекистана // San’at, 1998, №1.
13.Берг М. Литературократия. Проблема присвоения и перераспределения власти в литературе. М., 2000.
14.Хакимов А. Похищение реальности как приближение к смыслу // San’at, 2007, № 3.

Akbar Khakimov

Pin It

Comments are closed.