Hedonism in the Art of Central Asia. Part I. The Art of Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Issue #2 • 1635

“Pure Spirit” is pure stupidity: if we
disregard the nervous system and senses,
and the “mortal shell”, we would miscalculate – that’s all.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The purpose of this publication is to show the historical dynamics of a balance between hedonistic and ascetic origins in the art of Uzbekistan (with reference to the material from the entire Central Asian region) from ancient times to the present. As the scope of one article does not allow doing this comprehensively, we represent the content in three parts. This is the first part, dedicated to pre-Islamic art in Central Asia. Premises of the article will be further expounded in a monograph titled “Idiomatic Art of the Orient”.

For various reasons, the problem of hedonism (from Greek hedone – pleasure, a trend in ethics and aesthetics that considers pleasure an ultimate purpose and the primary motive of human behaviour), one of the basic philosophic components and psycho-emotional stimuli in the world’s art, virtually remained out of focus equally in the art of socialist realism itself and in the national art criticism of the twentieth century. Although the Soviet ideology was fairly tolerant to the art of antiquity or European Renaissance with their emphasis on sensual pleasure, still the theme of hedonism was unofficially tabooed. Moreover, the first component in “sensual – spiritual” formula was made vapid – the component most expressive and tangible in the plastic arts, and it was opposed to spirituality and morality in the communist sense. This was due to the historic aversion of the Bolsheviks to sensual pleasure as an attribute of a feudal or bourgeois culture corrupted by luxury and bodily pleasures – the culture in opposition to the popular, advanced and morally elevated spiritual tradition.

The philosophy and atmosphere of this revolutionary asceticism was described with a sarcastic subtlety by Andrei Platonov in his ingenious novel “Kotlovan” [The Pit] and the character of a bored unemployed mechanic Voshchev: “Somewhere, probably in the garden of soviet trade servicemen, one could hear a languishing Brass Band: monotonous music that never came true was carried away by the wind into the nature through the ravine-side wasteland, because it was rarely supposed to rejoice … Voshchev sat by the window to watch the tender darkness of the night, listen to the variety of sad sounds and feel his tormented heart surrounded by hard, stony bones.” With striking accuracy this allegorical language conveys the tragic fanaticism and spiritual poverty of the Bolshevik ideology of the 1920s-1930s. In the 1950s-1980s this stance was transformed to interpret hedonism as a synonym to pornography undermining fundamental values of a socialist individual, and thus as an immoral lifestyle typical of the consumer society of the West. As Platonov’s character used to say, “the imperialist freak shall never get socialist children”.

Philosophy of the soviets, based on the premises of moral purity, communist asceticism and a spark of that very anti-hedonism, however paradoxically, was bringing atheistic ideology closer to the world’s religious doctrines. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, there was a corresponding change in attitudes towards hedonism as the culture of pleasures. As noted by students of culture, “this is happening in everyday life – in the organization of living spaces, in specially created commercial and advertising strategies that extensively employ references to hedonistic tastes, and in the basic axiologems of theoretical philosophy” (1, pp. 54-58). In the meantime, each of the post-soviet states, despite their common strategies (commitment to liberal values, market economy, and civil society) had very specific features of nation-building associated with the historical and cultural specificities of national mentality.

In the process of transformation and functioning of hedonism in the Central Asian region an important role is played by confessional and ethno-cultural factors which in 1990-2000 received new impetus in connection with the natural evolution of national identity. This, in turn, was reflected in the practice of the national art of Central Asian states, where hedonistic line is often opposed to the trends of more uncompromising, pragmatic and socially-oriented assessment of reality. Thus, the ‘hedonism – asceticism’ dichotomy as a manifestation of opposing discourses in religious and ethical paradigms of the past is in many ways a universal subject-matter for both art history studies, and art criticism. To a large extent, it determined poetic and stylistic features of the entire world’s art, including those of artistic culture in Central Asia.

Methodologically, in defining the concept of “hedonism in art”, we should assume that it is, first, historical, and, secondly, non-uniform. Hedonism is not only about sensual or erotic motifs (although they constitute the most visually identifiable stratum), but also a universal principle governing one’s attitude towards life, which includes spiritual motivations too – motivations that are also extremely important in an objective presentation of the concept. Therefore, along with the identification of some general trends in art, one should understand that its manifestations can occur either in the form of unpretentious and hardly noticeable elements in the culture at large (in ancient specimens they most often are inseparably connected with religious and cult beliefs), or in a particular item of craft or a work of art.

From Primitive Hedonism to Conscious Pleasure: The Art of Antiquity and Early Middle Ages

The process of reflecting sensuality as a natural manifestation of physiological qualities went through a long evolutionary path: from primitive hedonism to its social forms. Genesis and dynamics of the manifestations of hedonism in the history of world civilization is very revealing. Religious cults of many farming nations, such as Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, India, Greece, Rome, and Central Asia had the character of erotic mysteries, and fertility gods and goddesses were mostly deities of love. In Ancient Greece, for example, in honour of Dionysus and his mistress Semele people arranged festivals, during which they carried huge wooden or stone phalluses as symbolic attributes of the deity. These erotic rituals had also been reflected in art.

Thus, the origins of hedonism are rooted in religious and cult beliefs associated with practices of ancient peoples. In the process of making life more socially organized and instincts more cultured, and with the emergence of legal prohibitions (taboos on incest, homosexuality, etc.), primitive hedonism has been transformed. As Sigmund Freud put it, these restrictions on primitive freedom have become “the deepest wound in man’s love life of all times”(2, p. 94). This thought allowed the followers of the ideas of the great philosopher and psychoanalyst to express it in an ambivalent formula: “Love is what remains after the removal of restrictions imposed by civilization.” Thus, the evolution of hedonism moved from unconsciously erotic cults (ancient sacred phallic objects and terracotta figurines symbolizing female fertility) to the forms of conscious (socialized) hedonism in anthropocentric classical ancient aesthetics (Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus…).

As for the ancient art of Uzbekistan (Neolithic rock paintings from Zaraut Camar and Zarautsay, Bronze Age zoomorphic rock art from Sarmysh and Cholpon-Ata), the search for primitive hedonistic motifs and manifestations are obstructed due to syncretic nature of these phenomena, where sacral and cult practices are virtually inseparable from the manifestation of aesthetic origin proper. In the proto-urban culture and art of the 2nd and early 1st millennia B.C. (Southern areas of Uzbekistan, such as Jarkutan, Sapallitepa, Bandyhantepa, Kyzyltepa, and other ancient settlement sites) primitive sculpture from Sapallitepa presents a rather expressive art material. However, it is dominated by cult-related specimens, such as primitive ascetic clay figures, in which it is not possible to establish the presence of any hedonistic, even unintended, elements of ancient hedonism either.

This is also evidenced by Sapallitepa bronze pins with heads in the shape of animal figurines dating to the same period (3). As for nomadic consciousness, sacral and heroic aspects dominate in the monuments of Eastern steppes and artefacts of livestock breeding culture, leaving no room for hedonistic perception. Widely known Sak sacrificial cauldrons with cast animal figures on the edges from Fergana regions date to 5-3 centuries B.C. and reflect the traditions of the steppe animalistic style. Dynamic plasticity of zoomorphic images emphasizes their cult semantics. Aesthetic and hedonistic component of these items is at the embryonic stage.

As hedonism in the art of the region was linked to the development of urban and, more importantly, court culture, one of the first tangible manifestations of hedonistic worldview could be artefacts dating to the period when the first nation-states evolved: from early 1st millennium to the 6th century B.C. (Bactria, Sogdiana, Khorezm). This is evidenced, in particular, by items from the famous Amu-Darya treasure, containing precious items dated to the 5-3 centuries B.C.. The largest group in the treasure consists of items attributed to Bactrian school, harmoniously combining local traditions with nomadic and more refined, hedonistic in nature, Achaemenid art (silver statuette of a king; chariot drawn by four horses, etc.). Quite expressive are shaped tops of Khorezmian clay ossuaries, but hieratic features of these local kuroses (Koi-krylgankala, Khorezm, from 4 c. B.C. to 2-3 cc. A.D.) is an example of unconscious asceticism of cult notions, when sacral plastics had not yet transformed into an art form proper (4, p. 232, fig. 89, 90; p. 234, fig. 91; p. 241; p. 94; p. 246, fig. 96).

During this period, unconsciously hedonistic symbols are presented in a large number of clad and nude female terracotta figurines of fertility goddesses (4, Tables XXV, XXVII – XXX, XXXIII; 5, pp. 185-194). Recently there has been a sensational discovery of a portrait gallery of Khorezmian rulers in the ancient city of Akshakhankala built after the secession of Khorezm from the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th c. B.C. and the formation of an independent state. About thirty images of people, from small fragments to full portraits, are painted on the wall, arranged in four or more tiers – one above the other. The interpretation of the images suggests a special skill of the artist who was able to convey individuality of the pictured rulers. Here one could see the manifestation of early features of secular hedonistic culture (6, p. 18).

Conquests of Alexander of Macedonia (334-326 B.C.) that put Achaemenid power to an end (6-4 cc. B.C.) marked the arrival of a new era in the history of Central Asian art and culture – the Hellenistic era. Hellenistic traditions are clearly discernable in the art of Bactria (Dalverzintepa, Khalchayan, Kampyrtepa, Old Termez) and less evident in the artistic culture of Sogdiana and Khorezm. Under the influence of Greek culture, in the southern regions of Central Asia there appears polished ceramics of the Hellenistic type: elegant shapes of amphorae, oinochoes, vases, cups and other items (Khalchayan, Dalverzintepa, etc.), indicating the development of more refined tastes and the emergence of hedonistic elements in daily life. Numerous items, such as dice, chess pieces, etc. are indicative of how developed the entertainment and leisure culture was during antiquity. Yet the manifestation of hedonistic aesthetics was particularly strong and expressive in fine arts.

The beauty of human body, sensual origin combined with spiritual depth of images – things that had given a humanistic and also erotic appeal to the art of the ancient Greeks – became a benchmark of ancient art created by the peoples of the Central Asia. These features were interpreted in the context of local religious, ethnic, cultural and artistic notions, yet preserved the charm of human emotions inherent in the originals. In the Central Asian art conscious hedonism is most evident in numerous plastic embodiments of the images of Aphrodite, Dionysos, Eros, various figurines of winged Cupids and other deities of ancient Greek pantheon associated with the cult of love and fertility (7, ill.137, pp. 98-109).

In the sculptures of Dalverzintepa, Khalchayan and Airtam hedonism of Hellenistic sculptural tradition is embodied in the images of both religious and secular characters. Thus, in the portraits of goddesses, worshipers, devata, monks, bodhisattvas and other Buddhist characters found in Dalverzintepa, a fair, life-asserting smile of Hellenic world shines on the faces frozen in canonical silence (7, Antiquities … ill. 107, 108, 110, 111, 114, 125, 130), although the image of Buddha himself retains its inherent hieratic quality (7, ill. 132). Secular characters express the mimicry of an earthly man even more powerfully (7, ill. 113, 115, 116, 131, 133, 137). Overall, as opposed to life-asserting intonations of Hellenistic art, the Buddhist concept (the four Great Truths of Buddha about suffering and deliverance from suffering by way of restricting one’s desires), in fact, was against the expression of emotional state through countenance or body language. This was manifested in motionless and hieratic Buddhist images. In this sense, Buddha untroubled by emotions, and overtly impulsive Hellenic Dionysuses, Cupids and mascarons are the two antipodes of antiquity, with underlying hedonism-asceticism debate behind their faces. Perhaps it is no accident that in the Gandhara Sculpture Buddha’s opponent is a Silenus-like old Devadatta.

However, hedonism of Indian origin did exist and was one of the most developed in part related to sensual, erotic and sexual aspects of this concept. It would suffice to mention Vatsyayana Kamasutra, the widely known ancient Indian text in Sanskrit (Aphorisms on Love by Vatsyayana”) (8). Presumably, Vatsyayana, the author of the text, lived in the 3rd-4th centuries A.D., but literary variations of this treatise spread across Central Asia, and even during Islamic period these were popular among wealthier people and courtier in the rulers’ palaces. Thus, the 11th century historian Abu-l Faz Bayhaqi mentions illustrated manuscripts of Alfiya that were similar to Kamasutra (9, p. 191).

The sophistication of erotic themes can be judged by a terracotta figurine of a man and a woman locked in an embrace from Kampyrtepa dating to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D. and by bare-breasted female images engraved on a bone comb from Dalverzintepa (2-3 centuries), which was probably imported from India (10, ill. 65-67). To this group of imported items with erotic motifs one could attribute a bone pin from Kampyrtepa with a miniature nude female figure, as well as half-naked female figures (of a later date) featuring on a euthalitic bowl from Chilek (see below). A good example of local hedonistic culture of antiquity is a treasure of gold coins dating to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D. discovered in Dalverzintepa ancient settlement site, which reflect the traditions of Hellenistic, ancient Iranian and steppe animal styles (10, ill. 72-80).

In the early centuries of anno Domini (A.D.) the art of ancient Khorezm comes under the influence of a hedonistic tradition of Hellenistic culture (Toprakkala, Gyaurkala) brought here from the southern regions of Central Asia (Parthia, Bactria, Sogdiana). These traditions blended with local features of Khorezmian art, giving it a special flavour. The most developed kinds of pictorial art of Khorezm in the 4th c. B.C. to the 4th c. A.D. were sculpture and murals discovered during the decoration of ceremonial halls of a dynastic temple (Toprakkala, Koykrylgankala etc.). Subjects of paintings and sculptural compositions of these monuments suggest that during this period Khorezm had various kinds of well-developed arts, such as dance, music and performance.

The strengthening of hedonistic line in the court art is characteristic of early medieval Khorezmian culture (7-8 cc. A.D.). Sculpture is dominated by dynasty subjects: enthronement scenes with images of kings and palace servants; the empowerment of a ruler being blessed by celestials in the traditions of Hellenistic art. Such is the scene picturing a ruler sitting on his throne and being crowned by two winged Nika-Victorias. In murals that usually adorned halls for feasts, hedonistic theme is expressed with the images of dancers and mummers, rulers, musicians, soldiers, palace entourage, etc. (11, p. 207).

Reflecting its connection to the heritage of the ancient art of the East, the culture of Khorezm in the 6th-8th centuries developed greater closeness to the traditions of hedonistic art of contiguous regions, namely Sogdiana, Ustrushana, and Toharistan, and through them – to the imagery of India and Eastern Turkestan. This is clearly demonstrated by a group of 12 gilded silver items bearing a Khorezmian inscription, in which the cult theme of Indian and local origin is “secularized” by the very function of the chalices as vessels for drinking and palace luxury items (12, ill. 126, 13, pp. 105-106, tables 25-26, p. 107, fig. 14).

By and large, the beginning of advanced Middle Ages era on the territory of Central Asia was marked by the collapse of major ancient states, such as the Kushan Empire and Kangyui agglomeration, as nomadic tribes invaded their territory. During this period Central Asian cities grew fast, trade and crafts flourished, contributing to the quick formation of secular culture. Early medieval castles (keshka) and the palaces of local rulers become centres of a new phase in the hedonistic culture evolution. Unlike the previous period when artists were guided by religious themes, cult-related subjects and characters, in the art of the early Middle Ages secular themes come fore.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and cities of southern Sogdiana, Chach, and Khorezm grow into major centres of urban civilization (13, p. 9-14). Sogdian art provides remarkable examples of synthesis between painting and sculpture. Basically it is all about secular aesthetics. The art of early medieval Sogdiana experiences a process of “secularization” of both religious cult themes, and heroic tradition of the Eastern steppes. Subjects with analogies in Sogdian toreutics were intended to idealize the ruler and were representative. This “heroization” device was borrowed by Sogdian art from the arsenal of Turkic didactic tradition. However, the dynamism of nomadic culture in the Sogdian art is absorbed by hedonistic style of the court urban art. This is evidenced by animal plastic in the carved plaster of Varakhsha and decor on a series of Sogdian silver bowls.

The development of pleasure and entertainment aesthetic is reflected in the strengthening of a secular line in early medieval culture of Central Asia. For example, hedonistic trend is reflected in the paintings of Balalyktepa ancient settlement sites. A noteworthy example concerns the interpretation of an estate’s grand hall as a cult chamber, which was challenged by researchers not only on the basis of its architecture analysis, but also to a greater extent on the basis of its paintings content that was characterized as secular (12, p. 135). Predominantly secular murals and sculpture were also discovered in other medieval monuments in Central Asia, namely Toprakkala, Varakhsha, Penjikent, Kalai-Kakha-kakha, Afrasiab and others. The subject of the murals confirm their secular nature: ceremonial processions, heroic battle and hunting scenes, king’s feasts, entertainments, etc. There, along with relatively pure hedonistic secular genres we can also see secularized forms of religious themes.

Classic examples of Sogdian art, such as monumental painting, sculpture and items made of precious metals, are representative of a refined court hedonistic culture in which the philosophy of enjoying life manifests itself in a particularly strong way. To a lesser extent it can be felt in mass-production artistic crafts, represented by non-glazed ceramics reflecting either the urban cult-religious tradition (ossuaries), or nomadic tradition (vessels with images in stucco moulding). The absence of a state religion during that period in Central Asia, such as, for example, Zoroastrianism in Sasanid Iran, encouraged secularization, greater acceptance and tolerance in Sogdian art, in which anthropological aspect dominated. In the art of Sogdiana subjects and characters retain their semantics, but in the works of monumental art and toreutics one can still observe the secularization process – the strengthening of decorativeness. This process was active in the 8th-9th centuries – the period of transition from early medieval art to the aniconic aesthetics of Islamic art.

The process of secularization of cult-related subjects is also characteristic of Sogdian silver, where the images of deities loose their former religious meaning and turn into decoration. A typical example is the image of a mythical creature – a winged camel on a jar from Sogdian Bukhara dated to the 7th-8th centuries, which has analogies in Varakhsha paintings (13, p. 84, Table 10). Pictured inside an oval medallion on the body of a silver jug, the image of this favourite Avesta character turns into a decorative element with the help of vegetable patterns around it. Primitive figurines of nude fertility goddesses common during antiquity were of the type that emphasized the semantic context of the character. In the early medieval Middle Eastern toreutics the images of nude female figures, which had their former origin in religion and cult, are increasingly filled with hedonistic content.

One of the first specimens of such items can be considered the so-called euthalitic bowl dating to the 5th c. A.D. found in Chilek village near Samarqand and kept in the Samarqand museum. This is a typical example of euthalitic art, which combines Bactrian-Kushan, Sasanid (Iranian) and Gupt (Indian) elements. On the outer field of the bowl, inside the arcades, there are six half-nude dancing women, in the iconography of which one can discern Indian and Hellenistic traditions (15, p. 85, ill.). The artist deliberately emphasizes the eroticism of a female body: plump bosom, narrow waist, and very wide hips. Similar nude female figures are pictured on several small jugs, which G. A. Pugachenkova and L. I. Rempel identified as Sogdian and connected the images to the phenomenon of templar prostitution. B. I. Marshak who criticized this view, attributed them to Sasanid Iran (16, pp. 7-8). Of interest to our topic is a gold-plated silver dish with an image of a nude goddess feeding a horned deer (the second half of the 8th and the first half of the 9th cc.). According to V. P. Darkevich, the iconography of the goddess is akin to the image of goddess Anahit popular in Iran and Central Asia, and the Greek goddess and the nursing mother Artemis (13, p. 9, p.101, table 22).

In the 9th-10th cc. toreutics the specificities of local art schools get obliterated and the style reflecting the trends of new time is born. Hedonism of that time is well illustrated by an elegant decor of a silver bowl made in the 10th century Mawarannahr: at the bottom there is an image of a human-bird holding a vine in its hands; an Arabic inscription on the edges is a glorification to wine (14, p. 118, table 29).

From the iconography standpoint, the image goes back to the Byzantine tradition, but in this case it is probably the favourite oriental image of a peri, the winged fabulously beautiful maiden living in a faraway heavenly kingdom (17, pp. 123-131). Here the hedonistic line is expressed both in the visual image, and in its verbal accompaniment. The ornamentation of the bowl as a kind of a cross between the traditions of Sogdian style gravitating towards monumental forms in plastic expression (the style that had already asserted itself) and a new pan-caliphate art, the hedonism of which is based on a the exquisite decorativeness of designs. The corporate authors of hedonism in the early medieval art of Central Asian region can be considered to be the representatives of the ruling class of society, primarily rulers and kings, court aristocracy and wealthy urban residents.

The historical dynamics of hedonism in the art of Central Asia, particularly of Uzbekistan, demonstrates a close connection between this concept and the evolution of society. Hedonistic culture originated from and had its centre in the court culture. The philosophy of hedonism evolved in the process of social stratification. It is no accident that Aristotle, emphasizing the hedonistic functions of art, said that it emerged from the man’s desire for luxury. In this sense, the phenomenon of hedonism is more characteristic of those historic communities where economic situation and the lack of political crisis create the environment that helps it to resonate in art forms. Hedonism in art rarely corresponds to dramatic or crisis situations in society. In the middle of the 1st millennium B.C., several centuries before Aristotle’s kalokagathia (the harmony of good and beautiful) and then Epicurus’ ataraxia (hedonism as a way of life without suffering), desire as physical and social phenomenon was ostracized in Buddhist philosophy. This was in a certain way reflected in the Hellenistic art of Central Asia, particularly in the Bactrian sculpture during Kushan Kingdom period. Representation of hedonistic culture as aesthetics of pleasure culminates in the early medieval art of Central Asia (Bactria – Tocharistan, Sogdiana, Khorezm) as urban and court culture flourished.

To be continued

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Akbar Khakimov

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