Among the galaxy of prominent artists of Azerbaijan a special place belongs to the painter and graphic artist Elmira Shahtakhtinskaya (1930-1997). Her career choice was not accidental: many Azerbaijani artists and scholars come from the Shahtakhtinskiy family. After graduating from the Azerbaijan State Art College named after A. Azimzade in 1950, Shahtakhtinskaya entered the Surikov Institute of Painting in Moscow, attending its poster workshop.
In the mid 1950s, at the very beginning of her career, the young artist created a number of political and social posters on the relevant themes of that time. Succinctly expressing the key idea of the poster, Shahtakhtinskaya asserted herself as a master with creative approach, who found new and sometimes unusual forms to express the most ordinary everyday problems. Shahtakhtinskaya earned popularity through a series of cultural posters titled “Azerbaijan, the Country of Ancient Culture” (1, pp. 3-4). Over a 15 year period she created a series of poster paintings showing the diversity of history and culture of Azerbaijani people. Careful study of historical and factual material, the well-conceived fundamental idea and the skilful use of background and supporting detail enabled Shahtakhtinskaya to create emotionally-charged images. Quite special in the series are the portraits of the prominent artists and cultural activists of Azerbaijan from Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Poets and thinkers Nizami Gyanjevi, Khagani Shirvani, Imadeddin Nasimi, Mohammed Fizuli and others are depicted expressively, with attention to minute historical and ethnographic detail; the characters are recognizable, yet the images have a fresh aspect in the way they are pictured. The Honoured Artist of Azerbaijan (1963) and the People’s Artist of Azerbaijan (1977), Shahtakhtinskaya created a gallery of poster portraits of Azerbaijani cultural figures of the 20th century, including Uzeir Gajibekov, Muslim Magomaev, Fikret Amirov, and Samed Vurgun.
Among Shahtakhtinskaya’s works a special place belongs to the poster portrait of Alisher Navoi, the famous Uzbek medieval poet and thinker; the work on the portrait was completed in 1991, by the 550th anniversary of Navoi. The theme of Uzbekistan was not new to the artist. While still a student, she visited different places in Uzbekistan with her painter’s case. Scenic landscapes, ancient monuments and ethnographic peculiarities of clothing – all this excited and appealed to the young artist who transferred everything she saw on paper and canvas. She worked on a portrait of a prominent Azerbaijani philosopher Bahmanyar al-Azerbaijani (993-1066), who was raised by the famous scholar of encyclopedic leaning Abu Ali Ibn Sina, who took the smart boy to be his student. Later on Ibn Sina wrote: “I love him like a son and even more. I educated and brought him up …” (2, pp. 15-16).
The art and progressive public activity of Alisher Navoi (1441-1501), the founder of Uzbek classical literature, had a strong influence on the cultural development of not only Uzbek, but also many other peoples of the medieval Orient. His art, even to this day, is very popular in Azerbaijan. In 2004, following the Decree of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev, selected works of Alisher Navoi were published in the Azerbaijani language (3). Many Azerbaijani artists, sculptors, composers and academics give a lot of attention to the character of Navoi (4, pp. 19-21, 37-40).
The result of Shahtakhtinskaya’s hard work was a poster portrait of Alisher Navoi, which evidenced the artist’s great erudition, creative imagination and talent. The portrait of Navoi made by Shahtakhtinskaya is characterized by picturesque and decorative qualities – the distinctive feature of oriental miniature. In the foreground of the picture Alisher Navoi is sitting on the ottoman with an open book in his hands. In the background there is a rose bush, a page from Navoi’s manuscript, a miniature painting that illustrates one of his poems, a circle and a carved wooden column. In the upper left corner an inscription in Azerbaijani Cyrillic stylized as Arabic ligature reads: Alishir Navoi – 550. Lyricism and romanticism of the picture show not only in its composition, but also in the warm and muted colours of the character’s clothing and background.
The composition is not a tribute to any tradition or fashion, nor is it a conventionality for the sake of conventionality, but a carefully thought-out idea, simplicity and clarity. Using the compositional principle of oriental miniature, Shahtakhtinskaya employed modern methods of pictorial art. Realistic manner in which the portrait is performed is an indication that the artist sought to expose the character and personality of the poet – the mature man with gray beard and healthy complexion and skin colour of his hands revealing his artistic profession; the man who understood the essence of his time and human nature and kept his faith in the future. That is why Academician N. Ponomaryov, one of those who taught Shahtakhtinskaya at the Surikov Institute, noted: “She knows how to present her characters with a kind of spontaneous lyricism. This fair and delicate lyricism becomes central to many of her characters and many of her works.” (5)
The lyrical effect is amplified by accessories, which play a significant role in the composition and fit the portrait naturally, contributing to its expressiveness. They represent the unique artefacts of the times of Navoi and characterize the nation to which he belonged.
Every detail and every line in the poster are loaded with meaning. A rosebush with one fully developed flower and several buds on Navoi’s left is polysemantic. Rose is a symbol of beauty, perfection, love, bliss, wisdom and mystery. Its cult developed in the East, where it was considered a symbol of love; one of the favourite themes in oriental poetry is the theme of the Nightingale’s love for the Rose. In the Middle Ages the image of rose was embraced by the European symbolism too. This flower as a medieval image of perfection and harmony is compared with a lotus in the symbolic tradition of the Ancient Orient. Symbolizing the heart, a rose stands for love, life, art, fertility and beauty.
Just behind the rose bush, the artist pictured a carved wooden column as a background item. The column surface is covered with floral relief design in combination with geometric patterns. What makes the column remarkable is not just the high art of carving and its ornamental richness, but its harmonious proportions and the original design of its bottom section shaped as a jar with flowering shoots. This column shape with unique ornamental wood carving, with minor variations in its rendition, firmly established itself in traditional construction practice everywhere in Uzbekistan, being a sort of a name card of Uzbek craft. Since ancient times in different cultures a column symbolized the universal axis that supported the Sky and connected it with the Earth, as well as the Tree of Life and the path of spiritual rebirth; it has always been perceived as a symbol of robustness, stability and determination. There is logic in the custom of erecting columns dedicated to major victories (for example, the trophy-pillars in ancient Rome, the Roman Emperor Trajan’s Column, the Napoleon’s Vendome Column in Paris, the Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London and the Alexander Column in St. Petersburg, in honour of the victory of the Russian army in the war of 1812 with Napoleon’s France).
The background of the portrait is shown as two pages from Navoi’s manuscripts: one with a miniature and the other with verses. Shahtakhtinskaya managed to perfectly fit them into the overall fabric of the picture, both in terms of size and shape, and their colour range.
Both pages are superimposed on a decorative circle that partially overlaps with the column. The circle symbolizes infinity, perfection and the continuity of the universe. Many traditions represent Cosmos as a circle – an orderly living space. The symbol of circle also reflects the idea of cyclical time and perpetual motion. At the same time, a circle is oriented towards its center – invisible yet real. It is interesting to note that in the centre of the circle the artist pictured the pages of the poem and the poet’s head.
Any representation of the external is a reconstruction with a focus on the primary, from the artist’s viewpoint, lines, shapes and details allowed by the material, which serve to represent the implied whole and substitute it. The inner form of the character is personal; it bears a trace of the author’s ideas that make the character distinct as implemented, and the character becomes the expression of historically relative trends and ideals. The Azerbaijani artist Elmira Shahtakhtinskaya succeeded in conveying the greatness of the famous Uzbek poet and philosopher Alisher Navoi.
1. Эльмира Шахтахтинская. Каталог выставки. Плакат. Живопись. Графика. М., 1981.
2. Мамедов З. Дж. Азербайджанские философы и мыслители средневековья. Баку, 1993.
3. Navai Alisir. Secilmis asarlari. Baki, 2004.
4. Нагиева Дж. М. Навои и азербайджанская литература XV – XIX веков. Ташкент, 1990.
5. Аскерова Х. Плакатное искусство Эльмиры Шахтахтинской // Международный музыкальный культурологический журнал, http://harmony.musigi-dunya.az.
Sabuhi Akhmedov (Azerbaijan)