The Keeper of the Garden

Issue #4 • 1582

On August 17-27, 2012, to mark the 100th anniversary of the outstanding artist Chingiz Akhmarov, the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan ran an exhibition called “Tribute to the Master”, which was held in the Behzad Memorial Garden-Museum; his graphic heritage was displayed at the National Arts Centre of the Forum for Culture and Art of Uzbekistan Foundation.  In Moscow they published a monograph presenting new aspects of the artist’s evolution and highlighting the most significant issues concerning his style in relation to a broader spectrum of traditions.  The researcher believes that the book, rather than completing the studies of the master’s art, sets the beginning of a renewed understanding of the artist’s rich heritage.

“Have I been able to create an art that purifies the soul, cleanses it like water cleanses the body?”, Chingiz Akhmarov wrote in his memoirs.  An artist of special poetic gift, amidst the cataclysms of the twentieth century, he had the courage to create, disregarding the dogmas of the soviet ideology that then prevailed in many cultures and nations*.

Akhmarov came from an educated and wealthy family of Abdurahman Hoja Akhmarov.  He was born in 1912 in the town of Troitsk, built in the time of Catherine the Great in Southern Urals.  The artist’s father worked as a clerk for a local factory owner, but eventually became self-employed.  The artist recalled that from his early years he drew a lot, learning the skill and technique by making copies from pictures in magazines and books.  In 1927 he entered an art college in Perm, graduating in four years with a draftsman’s diploma.  He remembered the atmosphere of the art life in Perm, where young people, as in Moscow and St. Petersburg, were boiling up with all the “isms”.  Suddenly everything changed because of his father’s illness, and in 1927 the family moved from the Urals to stay with their relatives in Karshi, a distant town in the Central Asian Hungry Steppe.

Akhmarov was eighteen when in 1931 he moved to Samarqand – the city that was to become his destiny, as Rome for the adherents of classicism, or Paris for avant-garde artists.  There his evolution as an artist began: new experiences, new environment, new job – everything was important, everything contributed to the development of a new vision.  He learned Uzbek with ease, and the traditions of Muslim lifestyle with its rituals and customs began to open up to him.  Here for the first time he saw and realized how much this lifestyle was spiritualized by the beauty of pure and sonorous colours, infinite and intricate ornaments covering all surfaces and reigning everywhere – in architecture, ceramics, embroidery, carpets, wood carving…

But in the 1920s and 1930s the ancient Samarqand was not just a city of the past, or of medieval mausoleums and mosques: it lived an intense artistic life that was defined by artists quite unlike each other, who ended up there in different ways.  For instance, back in 1897, A. V. Shchusev, who was to become Akhmarov’s co-author in the project of the Alisher Navoi Theatre in Tashkent, participated in the archaeological commission’s field work led by Professor N. I. Veselovsky to study and measure the Timur’s tomb of Gur Emir and Bibi-Khanum mosque.  At the Samarqand Commission for Historical Studies, young artists Isupov, Nikolaev (Usto Mumin) and Ufimtsev began conceptualizing the East by making sketches of the monuments and diligently copying architectural ornaments.  Already working in the city were L. Bure, D. Savin, D. Stepanov, O. Tatevosyan, G. Nikitin, V. Eremyan, and R. Akbalyan.  In the late 1920s there arrived and stayed P. Ben’kov, N. Kashin, Z. Kovalevskaya, and E. Korovai.  All of them contributed to the emergence of European art forms, new for Uzbekistan.  It was in Samarqand where these artists stood the “trial” of Orient, searching for their own style and its individual implementation.

It was during his stay in Samarqand when Akhmarov started taking part in the republican-level exhibitions for the first time. He often visited Tashkent to bring his drawings to the publishers.  Among the Tashkent artists, Akhmarov was closest to A. V. Nikolaev who adopted Islam and an alias Usto Mumin.

In 1935, Chingiz Akhmarov goes to Moscow to enroll in the graphic arts department of the Painting Institute (the Surikov Institute), and for the first three years studies with V. Favorsky; composition at the course was taught by the famous graphic artist P. Pavlinov.  A year later, he was admitted to attend the workshop of I. Grabar, where instruction was given by masters such as N. Chernyshev and L. Bruni – the apologists of refined artistic culture of the early 20th century, known for their keen sense of shape, texture, and plastic expressiveness.

In 1942 Akhmarov defended his thesis titled “The Sword of Uzbekistan”, when the Surikov Institute was in evacuation in Samarqand.  During the defence, I. Grabar, seeing the “atypical” talent of his student, said prophetic words about him: “This is a fine artist, composer and poet, like Alisher Navoi” (1).  Akhmarov’s artistic vocation was determined with the help of two prominent individuals.  In Tashkent, to mark the 500th anniversary of Alisher Navoi in 1941, they started building an opera and ballet theatre.  When it came to choosing an artist to do mural painting in the theatre, Grabar recommended his graduate student Ahmarov to A. Shchusev, the architect.  The work on the murals started only in 1944.  The challenging task was to interpret traditions in the system of new spatial and visual principles of monumental painting.  To avoid stylization or replication of historical imagery, Akhmarov, with his usual artistic tact, turned to the basics of poetics and characteristic principles of miniature painting – to things that allowed communicating a sense of connection with traditional canon, while keeping the author’s original style: a certain conventionality of figures and landscape, flatness and decorativeness in the overall solution, as well as prominent ornamental rhythm created by linearly graphic artistic thinking of medieval Oriental masters, which is inherent in the entire art of the East – from miniature painting to handicrafts.

The artist was commissioned to create compositions based on the poems of “Hamsa”, one of the most remarkable works of Alisher Navoi.  It is important that the artist made his discoveries following his gift and intuition, even in those Stalinist years of socialist realism, not afraid that his painting was, to say the least, remote from life’s reality and inappropriate in its subtle romanticism.  It is amazing that already in his first significant work the artist achieved this high standard, which was to distinguish his art in the future.

Much in the Akhmarov’s approach to the monumental painting in the Navoi Theatre was not only new, but also deciding in setting a kind of foundation and overall direction for the development of this art form.  Already in those years it was obvious to L. Rempel that “this is the past, present and future of the monumental art in Uzbekistan” (2).  However, Akhmarov’s murals excited a major debate. Rempel, defending the young artist, said: “Akhmarov was strongly criticized for making his murals in the Navoi Theatre pale, flat, and decorative.  But imagine if Akhmarov painted his murals in the style of realistic easel painting. I believe that Academician Shchusev was right when he requested that Akhmarov make his painting somewhat plane, faded, and decorative – to match the ganch plaster carving” (3).

Even before the murals were completed, in his painting “Shirin” (1945) Akhmarov expressed his state of elation with the breakthrough in the path to a new language of painting, which he felt he was able to create.  “Shirin” is not just one of the most mesmerizing female characters in art, but also the first significant work of Akhmarov that made one thing clear: he is setting a new trend in Uzbekistan’s painting.  For all its parameters – a new formal solution, and fair, emotionally charged image – it is hard to find a parallel in any painting of those years or look for influences.

Mysterious Shirin stands, pensively, against the background of the blue Samarqand majolica.  Her delicate face with expressive almond-shaped eyes resembles that of a young woman-artist Shamsroy Hasanova. For Akhmarov, the loved one became the embodiment of his aesthetic ideal, forever young.   Quite impressive are the freshness of colour and extraordinary levity of tempera technique that was rare in the years of total easel-ization of the soviet art.  The whole picture is an exquisite decorative plane where the artist, harmoniously and effortlessly, maintains sophisticated colour passages, which create painting freedom unusual for that time.  Much of what Akhmarov could express in this picture boldly and naturally, in a spirited way, was to be maintained and developed in his later works.

Already in this first work the artist was able to come close to the refined colour harmony and decorative solution of the picture plane, and to convey his understanding of oriental ornamentalism and the most vivid impressions he kept from his first encounter with Samarqand.  Yet there were other not less substantial things about the artist’s very approach to the model.  In “Shirin” Akhmarov faced the antithesis between the real and the ideal.  The latter had won.  Subsequently, everything in the features of his beloved Shamsroy, like in oriental poetry, would acquire the traits of perfection, be given the meaning of ideal, and become a kind of a model.  Here it happened for the first time.  “For me, the most beautiful thing in life is the Uzbek girl on a background of ceramic architectural ornament”, later admitted the artist who created not one such composition (4).

The period between the Navoi Theatre murals and the paintings in the UlugbekMuseum in Samarqand in 1963 is the least studied in Akhmarov’s artistic career.  His researchers underestimated or dismissed these sixteen years as irrelevant for his biography.  On the one hand, by inertia the artist was regarded as steady and consistent interpreter of the heritage, and on the other there was the so-called crisis theory saying that the entire art of 1950s was under the sway of dictatorship. As a result, subjective preferences depleted understanding of Akhmarov’s career development, and the novelty of his stylistic quests during those years did not allow constructing a “general line” or “straightening” it to fit the conventional views. It has now become obvious that the criticism of his art lacked a correlation between general ideas about the master and his actual creative evolution.  Indeed, some observations that follow confirm that neither a “straight line”, nor a “common path” of development could be constructed.

Already at an early stage Akhmarov’s art evolved in it own way.  It all began with the drawing.  While in Samarqand, he did not embrace the impressionism of the great master Pavel Ben’kov, and thus never went through the stage of impressionistic understanding of shape and outdoor painting that was almost essential for all the beginner Uzbekistan painters, notwithstanding the fact that his teacherI. Grabar was one of the most prominent followers of the method.  But there were other reasons, too, related to his natural inclinations and gift.  Dynamics of the changing world around him hardly had any appeal for Akhmarov; neither was he keen on open-air opportunities that helped produce many a masterpiece in the art of Uzbekistan, glorifying the nature of Central Asia.  Perhaps due to the fact that stylistic element was generally poorly expressed in impressionism, he developed his own method and his own priorities.

The analysis of the artist’s massive heritage shows that Akhmarov never painted as born painters do – “just like that”, based on impressions.  He was indifferent to direct and immediate capturing of pictorial motifs and therefore did not like doing outdoor studies.  But he made sketches all the time to comprehend the aesthetic capacity of human body or a nude model, and to guard against things accidental by way of selection and analysis.  His draughtsman’s experience helped him develop the principles of putting shapes in order, as well as ability to create rhythmical structures even in a small form work – through a spot, colour, or lines.  He was looking for a method that would allow synthesizing experiences into plastic ideas resulting in the expression of style.

It was during this period of finding his own style, while the problems of plastics that preoccupied him had not yet been harmoniously resolved, that Akhmarov’s painting manner was changing.  Having been exposed to the first big success and strong criticism almost simultaneously, he started creating pieces so different that made one think he lost his guiding principles and denied his attainments.  Those were difficult years for the artist, in both professional and personal dimensions.  Akhmarov told very little and never mentioned in his memoirs of how he tried to make himself completely absorbed in work, while dealing with misunderstanding and loneliness after the death of Shamsroy.  So the chronology of his life is saturated and varied: one large-scale monumental art project every year.  He painted a lot, and lived in different cities.

In the painting of that time the problem of a realistic image came to the fore.  Akhmarov decided to deliver a series of “robust” realistic portraits, as if to prove that he could also excel in creating the image of a contemporary: Stakhanovite factory worker Yakubova (1949), a perfect school student R. U. Gufranova (1950), high-achieving student Zotova (1951), and the famous dancer M. Turgunbaeva (1951).  Clearly, these pictures defer to his lyrical images.  There was a risk of losing his individuality under pressure of the conventional method.  At first glance, these typical over-achievers – students, stakhanovites and labour heroines representing the face of socialism – are pictured “correctly”: one with a red banner in the background, the other with a book, and everyone has a medal or badge pinned to her chest.  But none of this was important for Ahmarov.  The artist managed to escape the falsehood of ‘social order’ and used the new for him portrait genre as an opportunity to find expressive features in these ordinary young women.

But those years also saw Akhmarov’s breakthrough towards open color, pure flatness, and delightful contrasts in the portrait of the outstanding ceramics master from Samarqand Usto Jurakulov (1953).  Features of traditional aesthetics were exposed by him candidly and boldly, becoming the basis of the artist’s pictorial interpretations.  Nothing could stifle the decorative power of colour, refreshingly daring in its flatness in tempera: red and blue colours shine at full strength – their beauty is in contrast and energy they draw from each other.  This emotional language of portrait struck a chord, giving a sensation of a fair and joyful world, where the master creates by the laws of his ancestors.

Akhmarov was constantly travelling between Moscow and Tashkent, working with different teams of artists.  In 1953, following an invitation to work on the design of the Moscow metro, Akhmarov moved to stay in Moscow temporarily.  He created a mosaic panel called “Friendship” at the Kievskaya-Ringline station.  In 1954 he went to Kazan to ornament the Opera and Ballet Theatre named after M. Jalil. In Dnepropetrovsk in 1956 the artist painted a ceiling of a culture centre.  His co-authors were V. Konovalov, I. Weinman, and S. Iordanskiy, with whom in those years he painted a plafond in the lobby of the “Ukraine” hotel in Moscow.

Having returned to Uzbekistan in 1961, Akhmarov resumes his search for a new “language”.  In those years, folk art traditions provided a kind of an “energy kick” for renewal in painting.  The logic of Akhmarov’s individual development was then supported by the desire of many other artists to search for something new; he was not alone anymore – painting of Central Asia was up to a resolute refreshing.  From picture to picture the artist moved towards distant horizons he saw looming ahead; however, due to many known circumstances his progress was thwarted.  Akhmarov evolved following his own logic: at times he burst forward as an audacious innovator, at times he wavered, forgoing his finds.

As of Akhmarov’s daring quest of the 1960s, these are the most significant of his paintings: “Rahima”, “The Girl with Fruit”, “A Girl in Peshonaband” and portraits that followed – of the artist R. Timurov and poetess Zulfiya.  “Rahima” has festive solemnity about it: the girl appears on the background of a bright-red suzane, she carries fruit, inviting guests to the table.  Akhmarov builds on the principles of a panel or plane that provides playground for the rhythms of the suzane and the satin designs; silhouette emphasizes the monumental voice of the red.  Despite its force, this “dangerous” colour is harmonized, for the experience of other painters taught Akhmarov that it should be handled very carefully, otherwise the result is crudity, discord, and a cheap.

Apparently, he embraced the experience of European Post-Impressionist masters and learned from Matisse.  It is no accident that in his memoirs Akhmarov refers to the Hermitage and the MoscowPushkinMuseum collections as his “spiritual water-springs”.   He wrote: “In Moscow, having made my eyes full with the works of these artists, I move to the paintings of the great artist of the twentieth century, my favourite Henri Matisse” (5. 124).  Without copying him, Akhmarov wanted to grasp the most important thing the French master could offer: how this luxury and sweet poison of the Orient, which can overwhelm an artist with its magnetism and excess, be harnessed by the modern understanding of pictorial plane-ness.  Not without the influence of Matisse, who revisited all the elements of European painting through the Oriental prism, Akhmarov, too, re-examines many things, and, renewed, sets himself free from laws he does not need.

But already in the works that followed, the artist obviously departs from his finds to search for an ideal image of the distant Orient, unknown, vague, dim…  Stylistic quest is refracted toward the poetics of a new, Akhmarov’s own, universe he created.  Perhaps the now mature master realizes that interpretative approach at a formal level, though so perfect, has been exhausted for him.  Titling his memoirs “On the Path to the Beautiful”, Akhmarov indeed has in mind not only skill, but also the desire to find a perfect human being in the world of sublime poetry.

A special place in the artist’s painting belongs to a series of paintings inspired by the themes of Alisher Navoi’s poetry and life; these are perceived as lyrical suites, complete and soulful (“Navoi as a Child”, 1965; “Navoi in Samarqand”, 1970; “Navoi with his Disciples”, 1968; “Lyrical Poetry of Navoi”, 1968).  For Akhmarov, Navoi’s poetry was a sacred and very intimate domain of spiritual self-perfecting, where he found support and saw parallels with his own life path.  Not repeating the stories “verbatim”, the artist was able to communicate the deep lyricism of Navoi, his sublimity and, at the same time, a feeling of loneliness that never parts with the Poet.

This intensifying urge to paint images that are distant, inspired by imagination, literature, or history, was gradually realized in a certain iconographic model of an eastern “girl holding fruit”, standing against architectural ornaments or painted to the chest. The artist increasingly moves away from open contrasts and bright colours, expressing lyrical sentiment of his characters through tender palette of blue, deep-blue, pink and greenish colours.  They have no overt temperament, but an exquisite modesty of a cold palette and that amazing colour harmony that expresses the lyricism and tranquillity of the image.  Henri Matisse’s expression that “the problem of colour is not that of quantity, but that of choice” would support him, when some became of opinion that he worked in monotonous blue-green range.

For Akhmarov, easel painting was the main source of his incessant quest.  The artist entrusted it with his lyrical experiences, and it gave him opportunity to be free and sincere. Yet, no matter how much we appreciate the sublime beauty of his painting images, and regardless of the subtlest nuances of sensations and emotions he discovered, Akhmarov, first and foremost, is an outstanding master of monumental art.  Rhythmic relations, compositional techniques and specificities of plastic solutions so characteristic of his frescoes became features of an entire trend and even a kind of school of Chingiz Akhmarov.

From 1964 until the 1980s, the master created murals for a number of large buildings.  These are a panel in the Navoi Museum of Literature and Art (1967), painting in the Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies (1965-1968), and the ornamentation of “Yulduz” restaurant in Samarqand (1970).  New colouristic ideas captivated the artist while he was working on his “Sogdian Wedding” in Angren (1975), murals in the Institute of Art History (1978), and ceramic panels in the Tashkent subway where he tried finding a new way to combine them with the architectural environment.  Each of these works became a significant milestone in the art of the mature master.

Akhmarov’s amazing creative energy went side by side with exceptional artistic workmanship – the high standard of the Akhmarov-style art.  He was able to create his own synthesis of monumental art traditions, miniature painting and ornamental/decorative art with philosophical and poetic ideas of the East.  Based on the concept of Islamic art where ornamental discourse always conveyed a certain meaning, unlike the European one, the master emphasized the decorative element in his paintings to communicate the beauty of the garden-world – the abode of the heroes.  The artist’s painting of the later period shows his gradual departure from the decorative sonority of colour: a restricted palette in the darker range of “unearthly”, cold shades of greenish and blue now becomes a metaphor of time, exciting and magnetic.

Consciously or not, the symbolic memory very naturally brought together traditions of different cultures in Akhmarov’s art.  L. Rempel quite rightly indicated one specific feature of the artist’s method: “For Akhmarov there was no dilemma between Western and Eastern experience – he lent a new meaning to their interpretation” (5). The artist wrote in his memoirs: “Since I became aware of my place in the world, and later on, through my whole life, I tried to absorb and make sense of everything I saw around me, melting the impressions of life in my creative laboratory” (5, p.108).

In the 1970s and 1980s Akhmarov started giving a particular attention to drawing as means of expressing his deeply personal experiences.  Formerly, drawing had an applied function in his art, but now it acquired its own value.  Sheets of the later period reveal the new facets of his talent.  In his huge graphic art heritage all the drawings are impressive, primarily in their free and clear line that allowed him to liberate himself from the burden of material things, to capture and emphasize things most important, and to escape into artistic simplification with ease and grace.  At the same time Akhmarov enthusiastically worked on book design and in theatre; he produced ​​sketches for films, and created original ceramic platters and panels.  However, his concept of style was not limited to purely formal discoveries: the artist understood it as a kind of philosophy of life and art, where the most important part was to recreate the world according to the laws of beauty.  Essentially, he was setting up a new tradition in the national art, as his stylistic ideas influenced design, textiles, ceramics, porcelain and lacquer miniature, helping the revival of handicraft industry.

The artist’s recent works show reminiscences from his own pieces of 1960s -1980s.  Their novelty was in the ghostly shapes devoid of materiality, in restrained emotions, enlightenment and peace.  Perhaps, this was the result of the fact that his many-years long battle for his ideals was now in the past – won by the master.  Like the great poets he revered, “he became the singer of beautiful roses, keeping their fragrance carried by the breeze”, no matter what happened to him…

Time has proven that the art of Chingiz Akhmarov, even if it does take one away from reality, does it only to set one free from the world’s imperfection and falsehood, and to draw our gaze to poetry, harmony and higher truth that his art represented.  Beautiful and mysterious is the world of Akhmarov, the world that is ghostly, yet one we came to love.  It was born in the lyrical soul of the artist who kept the kindness and subtlety of emotions and thoughts.  The world he remained devoted to till the end still holds the living and magnetic character of the Master.


1. ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-2277, оп. 1, д. 16, л. 7. Хасанова Ш. Молодые художники Узбекистана.

2. ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-2320, оп.1, д. 663. Из выступления Л. Ремпеля на обсуждении Республиканской выставки, посвященной 45-летию Октября. 29 ноября 1962 г.

3. ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-2320, оп. 1, д. 48, л. 336. Доклад Л. Ремпеля «О национальном своеобразии в искусстве» на 5 съезде СХ Уз 4 -7 мая 1956 г.

4. ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-2665, оп.1, д.21, л. 37. Запись С. Круковской.

5. Ахмаров Чингиз. На пути к прекрасному. Воспоминания. Ташкент, 2007.

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