Faces of Javlon Umarbekov’s creativity

Nigora Akhmedova,
art critic

Javlon Umarbekov is one of the key figures of the modern art of Uzbekistan. He belongs to the generation of “men of the seventies”, who became classics today. And, of course, the anniversary milestone, as the master becomes 70 year-old this year, makes us think about the nature of this artist’s works, about how his way in art seems.

When in 1972 Javlon Umarbekov’s painting “My Friend” was shown at the regular republican exhibition in the Tashkent House of Knowledge, it became clear that there was a young talented artist with some special, peculiar creative character, resolutely differing from any of the famous masters. In 1968, being a student of the Moscow VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), J. Umarbekov exhibited his work “Hussein Baykara and Alisher Navoiy in youth”. Many people, certainly, kept in mind it, but more likely only as a skillful and masterly stylization. New work of the young artist “My friend” showed something absolutely different. First of all, it was noticeable that, referring to traditions of miniature, the artist could give plasticity to figures, and lines of his individual style to the space, and it sounded in tune with the times and unexpectedly. A grandmother with the granddaughter and a young man in this compact composition, despite its conditional character, exist freely, easy, that is why both the UNESCO magazine and a folder with drawings seem pertinent and necessary in their world. The interpretation of reality offered in this painting by J. Umarbekov fit in a new concept of painting, with which the generation of “men of the seventies” came to art. To some extent it emerged in many national schools as reaction to pathos of the painting of “severe style” and its heroes. Works of painters of the new generation had not only an original synthesis of the most different traditions, but they openly showed a certain artistic “prototype”, which brought a shade of retrospectivism in their painting. The artists were in search of new ideas, trying to come to free dialogue of cultures of the West and East. Certainly, in this new esthetic approach of the young artists there was something programmed, marking transitional characteristics of that time in which they won more creative freedom than ever before.
J. Umarbekov’s ability to perceive different styles defined the multi-vector nature of his painting in the 1970–1980-ies. Intensively mastering eastern and western origins, the artist went to the perspective synthesis of traditions, which he understood widely and interpretational, as to the esthetic system opened for permanent influences. He began with a support on the Old Russian icon, Oriental miniature, early works of Ajanta paintings, then passed to brevity of monumental style in the Algerian landscapes. There were also interesting approaches to independent “reading” of painting traditions of Uzbekistan of the 1920–1930-ies, and such masters as P. Kuznetsov and K. Petrov-Vodkin.
The idea of greatness of the world heritage and the personal involvement in its spiritual roots is revealed in such monumental canvases by J. Umarbekov as “I am a Man” and “Homo sapiens”. And though, their expression is rather rectilinear in these epic like fresco paintings of 1981, this idea was very much attractive at that time due to its pathos of youth, breadth of views and courageous stance of the master. Compositions with images of geniuses of the past and present are full of cultural and historical associations, which are including into the figurative plan, enriching and revealing it. This is not usual style proximity with traditions, but rather a relationship with the origins, images of inspiration and the cultural “memory” of the world art, and the young Uzbek artist quite legally felt himself as its heir. His position was not in representation of his “imagined museum” (A. Malraux) which is carried by each artist in himself, but in the conviction that a dialogue of national culture with the world culture is necessary.
Like many masters of his generation, J. Umarbekov has “behind his back a long, going to infinity, number of his predecessors”, there are references, allusions, quotes, “because, today there is no isolated statement”, it aims to become a component of wider cultural text (M. Bakhtin). Such works of the artist as “Prince, moon still life” (1986) and “Self-portrait with Prince” (1988) are about this. If the mentioned monumental canvases by J. Umarbekov of 1981 was, in fact, creation of a new inter-genre form, application for a new type of historical painting, then the initiated by the artist dialogue with the past, translated into well-tested and stable genre forms of still life and self-portrait, became the beginning of their internal, intensional updating. It turned out, that initially “conducting investigation” through conversion of traditions and, in general, through a stylistic discourse, J. Umarbekov’s searches captured also other aspects of national painting, changing its figurative, substantial and genre bases.
It became more obvious that since “Eclipse” (1978) and further in such works as “Zilzila”, “Saman bazar”, triptych “Flying Carts” (1984), “Seller of old copper dishes”, “Skullcaps are sold” (1988) the artist began to gain such principles as “exposition” of the shape design and “analysis” of its basis. Gradually, as if sweeping away traces of former aestheticization, conditional and refined plasticity, J. Umarbekov’s paintings are filled with sharp deformations. He began to realize new, no less convincing, formal logic in chopped, cubistic forms of figures and objects. They appeared not only as stylistic searches, but were brought to life for expression of the truth of the own experiences, search of new truths. There is a clear link between temperamental deformations on the background of monotonous darkish color of the above-mentioned works and the artist’s thoughts about his time, disturbing expectations and foreboding of social disasters of the end of the 1980-ies. In the paintings everything as if bristles by the corners and fragments, all mixed up in a shaky and strange world. Many heroes of the artist look like the figures turned whether from wood, or cardboard, their gestures are exaggeratedly dynamic, and undiscerning faces are identical and similar to masks. In the artist’s triptych “Flying Carts. Bukhara. Khiva. Samarkand” everything is also gathered and exaggerated in simultaneous shifts of forms and spaces. These paintings of J. Umarbekov reflected his condition of some doubt and mistrust to the known truth, to whole bright and clear, to which he had been taught during many years. Therefore behind the coarse form there is a pulsating mood of dissatisfaction, keen desire to reconsider not only forms, but also a lot of things around. This recognized problem of the artist to reconsider the existing order of things, as well as himself, always was in the orbit of the European culture of the XX century. J. Umarbekov’s conversion into cubism with its principle of shaping and understanding of the problem of time, lying behind it, was important for that period. Semantic links, figurative roll-calls in the above-mentioned works are significant, but behind the stylistics of cubism, we should also note philosophical and substantial connotations of this modernist direction. They are not only in denial of the “correct” point of view and recognition of its continuous displacement, their sense is in seemingly broken into fragments “perfect mirror”, denying stability of the surrounding world. These searches of the artist continued in his painting also in the 1990-ies and went in parallel with others. The whole stage of the creativity came to the end, summing up the result, which we can conclude that the breadth of interests and abilities of J. Umarbekov to assimilation and experience of the entire knowledge of the XX century are so strong that they became an organic part of the artist’s own perception of the world.
In the 1990-ies, in the context of historical-social and cultural changes in connection with the independence of Uzbekistan, new art and plastic ideas were formed. In creativity of J. Umarbekov, who came at the time of creative maturity, a new stage also began. Without refusing the individual preferences, the artist reconsidered again, comprehended his experience, he had his own strategy: every time sacrifice the own discoveries for the sake of new ones. He got a sense of freedom, which led to the most unexpected searches, and created the works, in which childhood memories, ancient stories, legends, various impression and sketches in the markets, easily became a link in a colorful chain of new images. According the figurative and plastic decisions they can be conditionally united in the series, endless stories, which were created during the 1990-ies, as well as in 2000-s.
One of the series of so-called “folklore” stories unites such works as “Two angels”, “For the water”, “Ritual”, “Fight of roosters”, “Behind water”, “Mother and child” and “Dance with lyagans”. These are simple sketches painted with decorative and graphic grace so characteristic of J. Umarbekov. Behind the seeming naivete of folklore one can notice that the artist complicates plastic approaches all the time, moving away from direct relationship with the source of inspiration and traditions. At the same time, he, nevertheless, kept traces of geometrical experiments of cubism behind the difficult rhythmic of poses and silhouettes. And though they are “dissolved” in the masterly linearity and the general decorative composition, their traces appear in “collage” and “patchwork” characteristics of flat forms. This new technique and elements of grotesque in the faces and poses create a modern language of a game, which easily sweeps aside all norms, everything that needs to be explained. Virtuosity of execution, careful treatment of the canvas surface, and – the most important – unique ability of the artist to transform any motive into especially decorative plane, masterly completed integrity, become the most important painting features of the master.
Continuation of searches in the conditional and decorative method is noticeable in the following series of poetic novels of elegantly bluish-turquoise color: “Faces”, “Girl with a tambourine”, “Lovers”, “Peach Garden”, “Dream” and “Musicians”. All of them have a symbolist mood, melodious lines on the background of blue color, but the main thing is an idea of beauty without demand of “justification”, which the modern master has apprehended from the traditions of many eastern cultures and understood as a high artistic generalization. Therefore these images have special, double nature: the artist’s heroes as if are both here, and “there”. And it is not surprising that the women faces in these works of the master are also similar to each other as the faces of the beauties Horunobu or Utamaro, or the dancer and musicians from the frescos in Afrasiab. But all of them are close to each other by something special, “another”, namely by the fact that the contents and mood of the works are reveal through complicated rhythm of poses, refined gestures and silhouettes, which, like in classical works of the East, are also repeated, as if rhymed, creating amusing atmosphere of dreaminess, submergence in dreams, daydream or lyrical melody. Each painting of this series, being independent and interesting of itself, is inseparably linked with others as if continuation a certain poetic “text” of the artist. Not incidentally the forms in these paintings are connected by lines, they as if are grouped in structures, and become a peculiar expression of special feeling of unity and integrity of the objective reality. Later, much of this series were generalized by J. Umarbekov and received a new interpretation in the triptych “Summer of Our Youth” (2003). In this work with a poetic mood, scenes of harvest, musicians, mothers and child at a spring and other motives familiar from the works of the artist of last years are combined together. The color is played in yellow-blue sides, pure as the color of blue of the sky and earth it harmonizes and unifies all fragments. One can see connection of many searches of the artist in style of the triptych: here there are difficult yellow-blue backgrounds, collected, as if stained-glass windows and fragments in spherical compositions, and characteristic types; everything is shifted in the song about the days of harmony in the garden of bright and serene childhood.
J. Umarbekov’s creativity, developing on whimsical logic, undergoes the way, as each talented master, not similar to the peaceful and solemn procession “to the altar of the eternal truth” of arts. Faithful to his experimentation spirit, he is always in active dialogue with the form and color, every time readjusting the stylistic optics and surprising with new searches. At the same time it is noticeable that the master feels free from any instructions, narrow frameworks of one style, retaining the need to constantly expand borders of his creative ego. Though, it is also noticeable, that the artist is able both to protect, and to preserve the main preferences, the acquired experience.
During the years of creative development a new unity of plastic systems has been created in J. Umarbekov’s painting. His relationship with various traditions is expressed by such method as “the art inspired by art”. His is interested in that, which has already been “culturally” mastered or is in the own “museum”. Therefore it is noticeable that feelings of the artist are expressed not directly, they are, in the spirit of our traditions, reflected by the style. It is fairly considered that the history of art contains, first of all, in consciousness of an artist, in this fine and perfect environment in which special and very different aspirations easily come in various combinations”.
It is worth noting that in J. Umarbekov’s creativity each period, programmatically or intuitively, ends with creation of the works, significant in setting of artistic problems. If in the 1980-ies his early stage ended with such monumental canvases as “Homo sapiens” and “I am a man”, then in the 1990-ies the wakened interest in national history, great heroes of the past, ethno-cultural perspective, general for national school, was realized in the majestic work of the artist – “Lord of seven planets” (1995). Thus, the triptych “Summer of Our Youth” of 2003 also became a certain art generalization, as well as three-part composition “Awakening” (2001), rhythmically dynamic and absolutely new by the sultry ocherous color, which noted a new change in J. Umarbekov’s painting. The monumental triptych of 2001, by its energy and tension of rounding “volkov’s” striped forms, is constructed on shifts and installation of close ups, on free plastic game, which laws are convincingly mastered by the artist. In this there is something another that was not shown before – it is “awakening” of forms captured by one powerful breath and carrying a new feeling of unity of all tangible and intangible substances. Here, behind the external game of lines, forms and faces, the artist’s conversation about meaning of life is born, which, as always, is spontaneous, chaotic, but full of joy of ups and bitterness of dawns, expectations of new flight.
Each time J. Umarbekov’s need in search of new expressiveness takes a special form – sometimes intensively dramatic, and sometimes poetic and contemplative. May be it is a new harmony of style as, for example, in such works as “Meeting” or “Scheherazade”. If J. Umarbekov “tells” a story, not only the plot is interesting, but also the plastic language and the artist himself, who, reveling in beauty of fabrics, play of ornament and color, can bring to the work a sharp modernist spirit.
Trying to understand dialectics of J. Umarbekov’s development, dialogistic character of his creativity, we note that, on the one hand, it is turned to the formal ideas, if to speak in general terms – to the modernist principles. K. Greenberg correctly noted, “if in old masters’ works we initially see what is represented and only then we notice that it is a painting in front of us, then a modernist painting you see first of all as a painting” (1). On the other hand, the artist constantly has eastern matrix – love to the graphic component of the style and strengthening of decorativism. However this dialogue of the West and East in J. Umarbekov’s painting is not contradictory, it leads to opening of new plastic options, and the ideas of “novelty” characteristic of the masters of modernist orientation update the artist’s appeal to the canons of Oriental art, being a source of the new style. In due time, the researcher of modernism K. Greenberg also debunked the myth about modernism renunciation of traditions, and noted that “losing the past of art, losing needs to support the quality standards, modernist creativity would lose essence and justification. Art, in addition, is a sequence, without which, it does not exist” (2). In the works of the Uzbek master also one can see preservation of whole experience of national culture with characteristic of it expressiveness of the refined form, love to purely colorful and plastic achievements of easel painting. Each time different voices of cultures are masterly united in the artist’s painting, being sometimes dispersed, or merged. His talent is in ability to hold through these cohesions the idea of unity of so contradictory world as it is today.
Since 1970-ies and till present time Javlon Umarbekov has preserved faithful to his principle: the world is infinite and it is always necessary to avoid repetition, realizing limitation of a particular style, and to sacrifice the own discoveries always for the sake of new ones. Subconsciously this existentialism of the master is expressed by his creative guideline and philosophy: in life, as well as in art, there is no universal truth, existence of spirit is infinite, because plurality of the truth opening to it is also infinite.

1. K. Greenberg. Modernist painting. Art Studies. M, 2007, 3-4. Page 548.
2. In the same place.

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