“Bread-makers” by Mikhail Kurzin: Vivid Image of the Orient

Issue #4 • 519

The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I. V. Savitskiy collection counts more than 90,000 exhibits. Particularly notable among them is a collection of avant-garde art: along with numerous large-format paintings it also has small-size drawings, including a famous piece by one of the leading Uzbekistan artists of the 1920s and 1930s Mikhail Ivanovich Kurzin, “Bread-makers” [Lepyoshechniki] (1928). In the early 1920s, the New Art exhibitions placed his works side by side with the canvases of Kandinsky, Malevich and other iconic figures of the Russian avant-garde. Kurzin’s view was the voice of truth.
In the Museum, Kurzin’s art is represented by 228 works, including about 140 drawings. These works arrived in the Nukus Museum between 1966 and 1983, spanning his art of 1920-1957. The most comprehensive collection covers years 1954-1957, the last period in his career. The artist’s interest in and turning to painting and set design are reflected in expressive colouring and generalized shape in his easel paintings: still-life (“Flowers”, “Ducks”, “A Melon and a Watermelon”, “Still Life with Pomegranates”), portraits (“Portrait of an Old Man Wearing a Cap”, “Portrait of a Woman Against Green Background”, “Portrait of an Elderly Woman”), thematic compositions (“Capital”, “Old and New”, “Rope Walkers”, “Uzbek Family”), etc. In Kurzin’s works of that period there appeared the incredible expressive force that could only come from the fusion of skill, experience and concentration of all his powers.
Oriental motifs helped the artist find laconic and vivid plastic solutions accentuating the expressivity of silhouette and gesture, his colour and compositional techniques. To achieve this, he employed stencil technique he mastered in the early 1920s in the “Okna ROSTA” [Comic posters of the Russian Telegraph Agency]. The artist used this technique in many of his Crimean landscapes, as well as in the “Chinese Theatre” drawing series inspired by Chinese popular prints he saw during his stay in China. These works were displayed in 1922 in the Tomsk city museum. Already then it became clear that Kurzin belonged to the galaxy of the most prominent Russian avant-garde artists. According to V. Ufimtsev, “… in his stencils he created original plastic formulas, ‘the clusters of life’.”
Kurzin is a virtuoso draftsman and colourist, author of many colourful paintings and keen satirical drawings. “Bread-makers” [Lepyoshechniki] is one of his early works, showing a scene from everyday life of Uzbek people. In this work, the author seeks to express deep philosophical reflections on the life of ordinary people. In Uzbekistan, bread has always been cherished and treated with respect. Lepyoshka, the flat bread, as one of its traditional forms, is not only famous for its delicious taste and fragrance, but it also makes bakers, the bread-masters, particularly respected and revered. Baker’s profession is passed from generation to generation, when senior masters teach the younger ones. Since ancient times, lepyoshka was baked in a tandoor oven. The artist shows the process of making lepyoshkas and exposes personalities of his folk characters – the bread-makers. The composition of the sheet is a planar drawing with expressive silhouette of two male figures dressed in traditional summer clothing: skullcaps, long shirts girdled with a scarf, pants, and kaloshes. In the centre, near the oven shown as a black spot, the artist pictured an elderly man pulling freshly baked bread out of the tandoor. Behind him, as a scarlet spot, stands a young man, cheerful and smiling, with arms his raised: he beckons the passers-by. In the foreground to the left there is a round table with freshly baked breads on it. The author intensifies the action of colour with scarlet, orange and ochre shades lending the work its merry and joyful sentiment.
The piece was created in 1928, when Kurzin actively engaged in the art life of the city, working in the Sverdlov Theatre, collaborating with newspapers, teaching at an art studio and in college. At that time he joined the “Masters of New Orient” group (1927) to become one of its leaders.
Mikhail Kurzin’s “Bread-makers” in the collection of the Savitskiy State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan is one of the finest examples of a graphic vision of the national character presented through a kind of decorative minimalism typical of the stencil technique. The exceptionally valuable drawing that gives different interpretation of shape, and skilful combination of bright and dark colours are defined by the colour vision of the Uzbek artist. Excellence in plastic experiment akin to the European art, and the fusion of avant-garde trends (German Expressionism, Italian Futurism), picturesque Russian poster, and polyphonic mysterious Orient are some of the artist’s notable achievements that inform our understanding of the art of Mikhail Kurzin.

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