The Fine Art Of Azerbaijan in the XXI Century

Ertegin Salamzade, Art Critic

Contemporary fine arts of Azerbaijan are rich with their centuries-old traditions of miniature painting, rock paintings of Gobustan and Gamigaya, ancient Turkic stone sculptures – balbals, it also has absorbed the achievements of classical Russian and Western European art, was influenced by modernist and post-modernist currents. Socio-cultural folk art and the techniques of a professional art polished by centuries entwined in the art of Azerbaijan. The emergence of professional or realistic, as they say nowadays, the figurative art refers to the middle of XIX – beginning of XX century.

1920 – 1991 is the period of formation of local schools of painting, graphics and sculpture in Azerbaijan, as well as the visual language of the fine arts, distinguishing it from all other national art schools, seventy years of its development within the Soviet artistic culture can be roughly represented as the activity of the sequential change of three generations of artists, which seems quite reasonable. Thus, Chingiz Farzaliyev in his work “Painting of Azerbaijan. Anthology” has proposed a new periodization of the art of Azerbaijan of the XX century, based on 20 years module: 1900 – 1940, 1940 – 1960, 1960 – 1980, 1980 – 2000. (1). It is during this time, in his opinion, when a new generation of artists is entering not only the art but as well as architecture, design and art history, where there are certain patterns of development associated with the change of artistic generations. At the time, the author proposed a model, according to which the representatives of the older generation of Azeri masters of art were the bearers of national values, the middle-age generation – of the international values, and the young generation – of the existential ones (2).
Already during the activity of the older generation, in the era of the so-called “thaw”, elements of modernism had penetrated the figurative language of Azerbaijani art. While “in the period from 1985 to 1993” a transformation of “the modernism to normal artistic language” takes place (3, p. 11). The conductors of the modernist trends in painting were the representatives of the older generation like М. Mirjavadov, R. Babaev, T. Javadov, in sculpture – F. Najafov.
Social transformations of the period of independence had changed the face of visual culture of Azerbaijan. Official and opposition ones have replaced each other. Only yesterday the usual visuals gave way to other artistic ideas and formal solutions. Reassessing of social and aesthetic values brought to life new images.
During the years of independence the young generation of Azerbaijani artists of the XX century became the middle-age generation. Today it is the most active generation both in creative work and in exhibition activities. These are the artists born in the 1960s. Among them are Museyib Amirov, Melik Agamalov, Eliar Alimirzoev, Udjal Akhverdiev (1962 – 2005), Asmar Narimanbekova, Aydan Salakhova, Elnur Babaev, Bakhram Halilov, Rashad Mekhtiev, Faiq Akperov, Sabina Shikhlinskaya, Elchin Aliev and others. For this generation the poles of artistic language become postmodernism and traditionalism. On these poles we find the figures of two artists, thoroughly, completely and consistently turning from one concept to another.
So, the pole of traditionalism is represented by the works of the honored artist of Azerbaijan Geyur Yunus, born in 1948, who, however, by the rhythms of his activities joined the middle-age generation. In life and in art, Yunus follows the principles of Islam, but avoid direct copying or imitation of the examples of Islamic art. In terms of visual language, he rather refers to the style of painting of the Qajar period, as well as the urban primitivism of the beginning of XX century, sometimes complementing this visual line with symbols of Sufism or of the Northern Renaissance. The images that are constantly repeating in his canvases are the moonlike Azerbaijani woman “with surprised, wide open eyes and arc of the eyebrows”. The secret of the artist’s skill, apparently, is an alloy of the real and metaphysical, allowing art critics to claim that “all the works of Yunus is an endless zikr that is the ritual of enumeration of Divine names – important in Islam” (4).
The pole of post-modernism is represented by Malik Agamalov (born in 1962). M. Agamalov is the graduate of the workshop of T. Salakhov of the Moscow State Art Institute named after Surikov. He has an excellent sense of composition and color with a wide range of visual images and forms. The mature period of his work is characterized by entire scope of signs of post-modernism: seriality, quotation, regime of “spreading-solidification”, etc. But the most important is the game, which the artist leads with the system of depiction, with the viewer and, most probably, with himself. In the paintings by M. Agamalov there is everything that constitutes the life: the Genesis, the initial forms, their growth and the relationship between bodily food and spiritual food, erotica, piety before the subtle sound of the celestial spheres. His paintings are organized in thematic series: “Angels”, “Still-lives”, “Games”, etc. All this acts as the subject of postmodern games, like the theme of classical painting. For this purpose the artist uses the effect of “tainted” pictures, when the “stains” are intentionally applied to the surface of the brilliantly painted image. Some of them permeated by a grid of squares, as if the magazine reproductions of old masters were carefully folded several times and then unfolded and carefully flattened out. Thus, still life of 2003 depicts crayfish, grapes, quince and lemon scattered around a bowl, as you feel their taste on your lips. Stop! There is a small but clear Latin inscription “falsatio” – “fake”. Now the game is out in the open.
In the years of independence the subject and genre of domestic plastics change, because the monumental sculpture – an art form associated with large financial costs, during transition economy it seemed that the tradition of creating large plastic forms may be interrupted. However, already in the 2000s, the monumental sculpture is experiencing a new upsurge. As befits a sovereign state, the public consciousness in Azerbaijan begins to realize itself in the space of world culture. This was determined by the social order to create, on the one hand, the monuments of the figures of world history and culture in Azerbaijan, and on the other hand, outstanding personalities of Azerbaijan in foreign countries. Thus, the monuments to A. Navoi, A. Pushkin, T. Shevchenko, V. Mozart, N. Tesla have been installed in Baku, to Thor Heyerdahl in Sheki. Of particular note is the monument to the founder of the Turkish State – Ataturk (2010) made by the patriarch of the sculptural workshop, academician Omar Eldarov. The national culture and history are represented by the figures of the poet Hagani Shirvani (2000), artist Azim Azimzade (2002), footballer Tofiq Bakhramov (2004), outstanding composers Kara Karaev (2014) and Fikret Amirov (2011). At the same time, in the stone the epic legacy is imprinted: the first equestrian monument “Keroghlu” (2014) by sculptor Tokay Mamedov was installed in Baku, the ethnographic park “Dede Gorgud” was opened, the center of which was the monument to the Oghuz epos (2013) made by G. Babayev. The urban environment of Baku was adorned with elegant artwork of the People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, Fuad Salaev (born in 1943), including his composition “The Traveler” (2010), installed in front of the Museum center. Career of Natik Aliyev (born in 1958) was dynamically progressing. A graduate of the Leningrad Higher Artistic and Industrial School named after V. Mukhina (LVHPU), still in his youth he was the author of a number of interesting compositions, including the monument to the Azerbaijani poet – A. Vahid (1990). His talent was fully revealed in the 2000s, when he created the monuments to V. Mozart (2011), Romanian composer George Enescu (2006), the architect Z. Ahmedbekov (2011) in Baku, Serbian writer – Milorad Pavic (2011) in Belgrade. The works of N. Aliyev are focused at the most relevant thematic trends of contemporary sculpture of Azerbaijan. Among his works is artistic image of the national leader – Heydar Aliyev, in the monuments installed in Kiev (2004), Tbilisi (2007), Astrakhan (2010) and Belgrade (2011). The sculptor is distinguished for his deep penetration in a certain character, a certain theme, which is consistently revealed in several compositions.
The most interesting themes in his painting of recent years are historical, cultural and epic heritage, and environmental, lyrical and romantic subjects, etc. At the turn of 1990 – 2000s, the general tendencies of change of the artistic language of painting became evident. “Pronounced linear nature of painting … has given way to a multilayered, concentrated, textured painting. Significant changes occur in the plot orientation and the image structure of paintings: from monumental forms and large-scale subjects – to the intimacy of the content, increased concentration of images”. A noticeable change occurs in the portrait genre, “in which the interest in the personality was largely replaced by an appeal to the nature of the model” (5). However, along with this, the genre of portraiture keeps a focus on classic samples.
The keeper of the classical tradition of portrait is Sakit Mamedov (born in 1958), who absorbed the achievements of European and Russian schools of painting, but developed his individual style of painting. The sense of color of S. Mamedov is genetically linked with the tradition of Azerbaijani painting. Equally good are his landscapes, still-lives, genre scenes, but above all he is a renowned master of portraiture. The portraits of Leyla Aliyeva (2001), Pope John Paul II (2004), actress Monica Bellucci distinguished by deep psychological insight, a fine sense of nature, high craftsmanship of color palette belong to the hand of S. Mamedov.
Historical, cultural, mythological trends, without doubt, are focused around images of the heroic epos of Oghuz people – “Kitabi Dede Korkut”. It should be admitted that Azerbaijani artists were considerably ahead of their counterparts from other Turkic countries in the development of this theme. Already in 1956, Mikail Abdullayev created illustrations to the epic of “Kitabi Dede Korkut”. In the 1970s, Togrul Narimanbekov turned to the figure of Korkut. Since the 1990s, Ismail Mamedov works on a series of paintings devoted to this epos. Wonderful portraits of Korkut were created by Mamed Shirzad (1998) and Nusret Gadjiyev (2002). At the turn of the XX–XXI centuries the image of Korkut for the first time was embodied in sculpture. A huge monument to Korkut in Nakhchivan (1999) had been created by Elman Jafarov. The chamber sculpture of Korkut made by Namiq Zeynalov in 2004 has decorated one of the squares of Brussels. In 2013, the ethnographic Park of Korkut was opened in Baku, where a monument to the stories of the epic work is towering made by Gerush Babayev.
One of the stable trends of the landscape genre is domination of the theme of Absheron Peninsula, which even led to the formation of so-called “school of Absheronist artists”. In the 2000s, Absheron landscape continues its evolution in paintings by F. Halilov, Kh. Abdullayev, S. Shikhlinskaya, M. Amirov, U. Akhverdiyev, Z. Guseynov, A. Narimanbekova, A. Mahmudova, and others. “Absheron is primarily the fieriness of its color, and its most characteristic season is summer” (6, p. 13).
The researchers rightly point out that Absheron landscape is not just “rustic” motifs; it is also paintings of the old city of Baku – Icheri Sheher – with its medieval architecture, narrow streets, sea views, traditional way of life. The scenery of the old town, its picturesque and graphic works have been created by E. Avalov, A. Geybatov, I. Mamedov, М. Mamedov, Т. Mamedov, R. Mekhtiev, J. Mufidzade, А. Sadyhzade and other artists. An outstanding master of the brush – Togrul Narimanbekov (1930 – 2013) has painted “Near the Maiden Tower” (2003), “Self-Portrait on the Background of the Icheri Sheher” (2007), “Barbecue near the Maiden Tower” (2008) created in the last years of his life. One of the brightest incarnations of Baku-Absheron theme (7, p. 163) is a triptych by Tahir Salahov “The Land of Fire” (2003), on one of the paintings of which is depicted the symbol of ancient history and culture of Azerbaijan – the majestic Maiden Tower towering on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
The images of nature and the history of the Absheron Peninsula are closely related to the topic of oil, since old times produced in this land. During the period of independence “the romanticism of oil-producing facilities, the novelty of the geometry of the marine landscape, which troubled the artists in the 1960s and in the 1970s, was replaced by greater interest in the material itself, the oil substance as the obvious means of updating the language of artistic expression” (8, p. 211). The oil theme is reflected in the works by V. Ali, A. Amirov, T. Agabekova, A. Guseynov, Z. Guseynov, M. Guseynov, E. Sarkhanoglu, I. Eldarova. Thus, the graphic style of a series of paintings by Irina Eldarova “Girls choose the oilmen” (2013) refers to the pop art and imagery of comic books of the last century. Creative work of Zakir Guseynov (1961 – 2010) both coloristically and graphically resembles the painting style of Fernand Leger. General leitmotif of the works on oil theme is its perception not only as an integral part of the economy and culture of Azerbaijan, but also as an integral element of Azerbaijani identity. This interpretation of the theme is inherent in the middle-aged and, especially, the young generation of artists.
The artists of the generation of the late 1970s – 1980s: Aida Mahmudova, Ramal Kyazim, Rashad Alekperov, Farhad Farzaliev, Farid Rasulov, Fakhriya Mamedova, Faiq Ahmed – members of the Creative Association “Yarat!”, the founder and the leader of which is A. Makhmudova, create the “platforms” in Azerbaijan for presentation of the national art both within the country and abroad. In four years, the organization brought together 130 artists and has implemented more than 120 various cultural and artistic projects. The members of the Association work in all fields of visual creativity – painting, drawing, sculpture, design, photography, video-art, installations, and today they already define the face of Azerbaijani art of the XXI century.
Aida Mahmudova was educated in art in London. Different facets of her talent are reflected in her pictures – “Autumn in Hampstead”, “Reflection”, “A View out of Window”, “Costa del Sol” etc. In recent years the object of her attention is a man-made landscape as a manifestation of the inner world of the human being of XXI century. A number of her works on this topic was included in the “Inner Peace” album, many compositions of which are created on the basis of the technique, known in cinematography as “the abandoned nature” (9, p. 10). The artist is able to convey gracefully the motives not only of the traditional landscape, as in her works from the “Absheron Series” (2013), but also to feel the poetry of the techno sphere that invaded a surrounding landscape, like in the picture “Pipelines 1 and 2” (2013). In November of 2015, the personal exhibition of Aida Mahmudova was held in Baku, which demonstrated a series of works that synthesize the painting and sculpture.
One of the most memorable events in the artistic life of the country was the opening of the Museum of modern art on March 20 of 2009, in Baku, which houses more than 800 works of Azerbaijani artists and sculptors mainly working in avant-garde style. Besides, the Museum exhibits the works of such masters of classical Azerbaijani art as Sattar Bahlulzade, Beyukaga Mirzazade, Elmira Shahtakhtinskaya, Tair Salakhov, Omar Eldarov, Nadir Abdurakhmanov. The ceremony of the Museum inauguration was attendedby the President of Azerbaijan – Ilkham Aliev, the first lady of Azerbaijan – Mehriban Alieva, the Good Will Ambassador of UNESCO, and the General Director of UNESCO – Koishiro Matsuura. The Museum holds the richest collection of modern painting and sculpture. The author of the Museum’s interior design is a well-known Azerbaijani artist, Altay Sadykhzade, who is a landmark figure in the art of Azerbaijan of the early XXI century. He connects the older and younger generations of artists, collaborating with the “Yarat!” Association. Painter A. Sadykhzade also creates graphics, sculpture, three-dimensional art objects, installations, and interior design. The artist’s painting is “the carnival of the streets, cities, seas and oceans (9). It seems like all countries, palm trees and oceans participate in this colorful show” (10). At the same time, the paintings by A. Sadykhzade are characterized by simplicity of composition and soft lines. A. Sadykhzade was always interested in the idea of flight and freedom, but recently it has become prevalent in his art, finding its expression in the UFO subject. So, there is a whole series of works depicting various aircrafts, the outlines of the constellations – “Apparatus” (2009), “Stellar Labyrinth” (2009) and other. Moreover, A. Sadykhzade is the author of portraits of the first lady of Azerbaijan – Mehriban Alieva, her father, academician Arif Pashaev and her sister, Nargiz Pashaeva. Multifaceted oeuvres of the artist are combination of the trends of the turn of the XX – XXI centuries.
The art pieces by Azerbaijani artists have been highly appraised by the audience in many countries of Western Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Australia. During the one and a half decade of the XXI century the artists of Azerbaijan repeatedly participated in the international contests, festivals and exhibitions, among which most notable is the Venice Biennale. A major event of cultural life is a series of exhibitions “Fly to Baku”, held in 2011 – 2012, in London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow, during which over twenty artists, representing contemporary Azerbaijani pictorial art, had shown their work to the international audience.

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