Cool evening air outside, and we, the «San’at» Journal people, are hosted by Javlon Umarbekov, the People’s Artist and Academician of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan, enjoying the warmth and comfort of his studio. Pictures on the walls are a comprehensive collection of paintings and drawings of Uzbekistan of the 20th and early 21st centuries that could do credit to any museum’s showroom in the world. Among the represented authors are Chingiz Ahmarov, Bakhtiyar Babaev, Bahodir Jalalov, Vladimir Kaidalov, Mikhail Kurzin, Ruzy Chariev and, naturally, the studio host. Art books on the shelves, old furniture, copper tableware, an easel, traditional suzane wall-rugs, ceramics and chasing constitute the macrocosm in which the artist works. Everything favours a conversation with our generous host.
SJ: Javlon Yusupovich, how does it feel to be an artist?
JU: It is a great happiness that I have been building for all my 66 years. Already in 1968, “Hussein Baikara and Alisher Navoi in youth” brought me success, and I could have remained at the starting point, without aspiring to progress. As if carried by wings, I always rush enthusiastically to my studio where ideas and canvas are waiting for me. To my students I say this: do not assume that four years at the Institute have already made you an artist: you should work on it and prove it all your life! As Thomas Edison put it, “Genius in one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.
I always enjoyed drawing and was not like the rest of my family. We lived in Chigatay district that still preserved its old streets, blind walls, and flat roofs. As a child, I loved to wander around there. I still keep a series of my childhood drawings of those places: “Travels of Yura and Jora” – that’s how my school friend and I called ourselves.
I used to read a lot when I was a young boy: “Children of Captain Grant”, “A 15-year-old Captain”, “Robinson Crusoe”, and the like. Once I asked the librarian to give me a travel book in Russian language, which I hadn’t learned yet. I was given “The Pathfinder” by James Fenimore Cooper. No matter how hard I tried to get the meaning from illustrations, I failed. Much later, illustrating books, I made a special effort to tell about the characters as much as possible in my drawings.
In 1966, when I graduated from the Ben’kov Art College, my first teacher, Boris Ivanovich Tokmin, suggested that my works were “cinematic” and advised entering the VGIK [State All-Russian Institute of Cinematography]. We were seven or eight people eager to enter universities of Moscow and Leningrad, and, with referral reference letters from the College, we headed off to Russia.
We passed the exams, and now it was only the interview left. We feared it more than anything else, as we expected to be asked the most difficult questions about art. I was the first to walk into a large room with fifteen VGIK professors. My future professor Ivan Petrovich Ivanov-Vano posed a single question: “How are things now in Tashkent, after the earthquake?” My story about the disaster, presented like a movie script, impressed them, and Ivanov-Vano congratulated me on the admission, saying, “We shall try to make you a good cinematography artist for your republic”.
I am extremely glad to have studied at the VGIK. Russian art education, many exhibitions at the Institute and Moscow’s museums and showrooms, as well as the discourse, have been a great schooling, without which I would have never become the Javlon Umarbekov. But I have not become a cinema artist. When a renowned Uzbek filmmaker Elyor Ishmuhamedov invited me to work as an artist on his film “Lovers” (followed by the People’s Artist of the USSR Malik Kayumov and others who also invited me to join their film crews) I declined, as I had a different objective.
My participation in the First Republican Young Artists’ Exhibition in 1965 with my student’s work “Harvest” gave me wings, and I was drawn to painting. Chingiz Akhmarov, whom I consider my teacher, supported me in this endeavour. By the time I graduated from the institute in 1972, I had already gained a reasonable artistic experience, and on arrival in Tashkent I was immediately accepted as member of the Artists Union of Uzbekistan, and – hallelujah! – given a studio.
SJ: Had the socialist realism and its scope limited you or compelled you to be more subtle in expressing your thoughts and emotions?
JU: By and large, nobody ever guided me, just “hit me by the rouble” for going beyond the framework. Once the government contracted me to make a portrait of Avicenna, to mark his 2000th anniversary. Rather than painting a classic portrait of the thinker, I wanted to do something completely different. Avicenna is a genius and rightly ranks among the other great people of his time who determined the course of human history. Who else lived and worked in the Middle Ages? The painting features Behzad, Navoi, Beruni, da Vinci, Dante, Khayyam… What did they all share? The searching for Truth I portrayed as nude Botticelli’s Venus. What obstructed these creators? Falsehood and ignorance – a dark grim shape hovering above them like a bird of prey. Today, the creative inquiry of these geniuses has taken men to space. This is why the picture shows Tsiolkovsky, Einstein, and Gagarin. I named the piece “Homo sapiens”. My government clients, having received this experimental conceptual work instead of a conventional portrait, got frightened by its novelty and decided to withhold part of the fee as a penalty for my artistry [laughter]! Despite the lack of understanding on the part of officials, the painting became famous and was repeatedly exhibited in the Soviet Union and abroad; now it is displayed at the State Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan.
SJ: For all your cosmopolitanism, you are the Uzbek artist, before anything else. What does the folk theme mean to you as an artist?
JU: For me, this theme is very important. When I was a child, the community intellectuals used to gather in our house to discuss news, or read folk tales aloud, such as the legend of Rustem, and I still revere traditional culture. Meanwhile, everything I do in the traditional style becomes international, that is, understandable to all. I believe that contemporary Uzbek painting is overall profoundly international, and that only a theme can be folk.
In modern Western art of today the situation is not simple. All the “isms” have been explored and developed, and there is no coming back to the realism; so what is next? Sometimes people search not only beyond the realm of art, but also beyond humanity. Imagine a canvas with living mice glued to it… This is one example of this kind of searching … Today, East is the place where art is on the rise.
I imagine art and creativity as a triangular charm: one corner symbolizes idea; the second represents heart; and the third is hands. That is, the artist should first feel his idea in his heart, and then get to work.
People often ask me which of the “isms” I follow. I think the style can be described as Romanticism with folk ideas. Look at our suzane rugs: their idea, colour, and pattern – they are truly avant-garde! And I am trying to translate it into the language of painting.
On a prompt from academician Rahim Akhmedov people call me the Uzbek Picasso. Yet I did not follow him, but studied Uzbek art, particularly suzane, ceramics and majolica; in my painting I employed traditional colours and ornamental elements.
SJ: In your painting “Homo Sapiens” you were one of the first Uzbekistan artists to highlight the role of Central Asian nations in the world history. How important is historical theme in your art?
JU: Historical theme is my friend, but I may understand it differently. It is not only great personalities or events for which I was looking for a specific form, plasticity and scale to portray in my works such as “I Am Human”, “Homo Sapiens”, “King of the Seven Planets” (to the anniversary of Amir Temur), etc. It is also the going signs of the past. I feel nostalgic for the city of my childhood: the Arbakesh neighbourhood, Chigatay, Kush-Tut, Jar Street, Sagban, Sassyk Hovuz teahouse that nestled under a huge plane tree, the Quay of Ankhor canal in which we used to swim as kids, drinking its water…
Once I was doing a study in the old town: a winding little street, houses, the trees along the ditch… An elderly man came up to me and asked, ‘Son, why are you drawing? Are they going to demolish our houses?’ And I said to him: ‘Father, these houses will stand for a long time. I am drawing because I like this street; my grandfather Umar-Karavani lived here…’ Alas, many of the old buildings in Tashkent disappeared, but they still live in my memory, and I want to keep them for the history. This is how the idea was born to create a series of paintings and drawings, “Melodies of the Old City”.
SJ: Your painting manner can be very different – as if the works were created by different artists. How do you discover a new technique?
JU: It is just a different Javlon [laughter]. I love to experiment. Each theme requires a new approach, hence the variety of techniques and materials. Some of them come as a surprise. For instance, I have a series of easel paintings on black, dark-green, burgundy, and grey paper. When I was still at the VGIK, I was given a roll of wide black wrapping paper for film: ‘You will come up with something!’ And I did: a colour drawing in a white outline. Since then, I occasionally come back to this technique, and my archive already has quite a few of such works. The drawings in the “Melodies of the Old City” series are also performed in this technique.
SJ: What have you been working on recently, and what is your current project?
JU: My recent major work was to design a book of Uzbek heroic epic “Alpamysh” published by “Uzbekiston” Publishing House. When I was offered the job I had an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, it was a great honor to illustrate a book like that; on the other, it was rather scary to go for it after Kaidalov’s famous illustrations for the 1952-1954 edition. It took me almost a year to work on the book. In 2011 it was published in Uzbek language; Russian and English editions are forthcoming. In 2012, at the “Book of the Year” exhibition at the EXPO Centre it was awarded the Grand Prix.
I plan for a large display of drawings, some of which I am finalizing, converting to a large format. An incomplete catalogue of these drawings, “Melodies of the Old City”, has already been published, but they have never been exhibited anywhere, and are known to few.
Granting our request, Javlon Yusupovich shows us drawings from the “Melodies of the Old City” series, which are quite unlike the master’s works we already saw, again revealing the different Javlon. These drawings are conquering in their refinement. Graceful lines and unusual background create the impression of unreality, reminding the viewer of the already seen landscapes and well-remembered characters, but in a new transcription. The best recognition of the artist’s discoveries and achievements is the appearance of imitations – something that no famous artist could escape, including our host.
Saying good-bye, we thank the studio host for the opportunity to be among the first people who get to see his new drawings, and wish him to keep his passion and “winged” enthusiasm.