Lazar Rempel. Portrait and Personality in the Art of Central Asia

Issue #4 • 1253

Lazar Izrailevich Rempel (1907-1992) is a scholar and art historian who has made significant contribution to the development and study of monumental architecture and other forms of art heritage of Uzbekistan, as well as to the education of young generation.

Research work of L. I. Rempel covers wide range of art forms in the East and West, yet many of his fundamental works still remain understudied. The San’at Journal Editors offer their readers an extract from the scholar’s unpublished manuscript, which is kept in the Archive of the Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan.
The national and universal in portrait. “National schools” grow naturally; they do not need to be created for the same reason as there is no need to be looking for gloves tucked into one’s belt, as the saying goes.
“The problem of singularity, especially in the age of the total expansion of Universality, preoccupies every artist. Under pressure of Universality, how can one retain individuality, for it allows keeping the best that there is in the national culture. Yet when we start fencing our own and rejecting the universal, it eventually leads to the degradation of culture. Adding one’s voice to the universal chorus, amplifying it – this is the way of cultural integration, as I understand it” (1).
It is incorrect to attribute to the national art only those features that are linked to the past or expressed in the art of the past, take portrait again; or, conversely, to exclude national features communicated through tradition, fearing the idealization of the old times.
National art schools in each region of Central Asia are unique. They have different depth of traditions, and time works differently for them. Every epoch sets new objectives. The pace of development of each of the schools and their maturity depend on many factors. Portrait, better than other genres, can provide insights into spiritual life of people of different character, temperament, profession and ethnicity. National peculiarities in portrait are expressed in two ways: in the specificity of the model’s personality (his physical and spiritual appearance), where these specificities often hit the domain of ethnography; but even to a greater extent – in the art concept of a particular school or style, in the manner of thinking, imagining and experiencing.
Oriental miniature style has influenced contemporary portrait of Central Asia in a certain way. However, the very concept of national art has expanded its boundaries. Social value of an individual and his inner world have become the main content of art. Therefore, national specificities of every art school are nowadays expressed by the entire cultural uniqueness. It would be difficult to isolate a portrait from each region of Central Asia as a national school benchmark. Personal uniqueness of each artist grows out of his unconscious psyche, upbringing and exposure to cultures of other nations. That is the specificity of the multinational art: it liberally combines tradition with modernity based on international and national experience.
Summing up the experience of the national schools of traditional persuasion, one can identify portrait inspired by oriental miniature in synthesis with Russian and Western European Orientalism of the XIX and early XX centuries. One can discern straight revival of oriental miniature (Chinghiz Ahmarov) and the Orientalism that was pursued in Russia (and later in Armenia) by Saryan, Kuznetsov, Volkov and Petrov-Vodkin, and in the West – by Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh… In the first instance it concerned a newly emerged group of enthusiasts in the Artists Union of Uzbekistan (lacquered paintings: “Portrait of Behzad” by N. Kholmatov, “Babur in the Garden” by Satybaldieva, women’s portraits by Kamalov); in the second – the ‘Turkestanis’, referring to the older generation artists. Inspired by the same Orientalism, they created their own tradition here (Usto Mumin (Nikolaev), the early Tatevosiyan, and Ahmarov). The latter moved away from stylizing oriental miniature, while retaining its inherent refinement and purity of style, the transparency of linear or only subtly coloured drawing, and the sublime spirit of poetry so pleasant to the eye.
Another kind of tradition is prompted by Russian realist painting with origins in the world’s classical heritage. This tradition encompasses the most impressive group of artists who remained forever faithful to the leading lights of Russian realist art – from Levitskiy, Borovikovskiy and Tropinin, to Serov, Vrubel and Nesterov… Among them are also graduates of the Repin school (third and fourth generation), Repin being the one who inspired Elizarov and A. Abdullaev early in their career. The term ‘traditionalists’, that is those who took it from the experience of the high priests of Russian and world’s art, can also refer to many other artists of Russia in the late XIX and early XX century. Some of them moved from symbolism and manifest expression. One example is Vrubel, the source for Alexander Volkov who subsequently trained the whole galaxy of Uzbekistan artists.
Artists of the East were once criticized for decorativeness as if it were a vice undermining the ideological core of a piece, and, consequently, for the impaired value of their painting. Meanwhile, decorativeness has its own objectives and its own techniques it grants to easel painting too, when it seeks convergence with architecture and the “art of object”. In poetry, music, dance and painting of the East, rhythm has always played a significant role. Text of a poem was under the sway of rhythmic outlines of dance or music. Miniature painting echoed them. When the poetic origin of the XVII c. miniature painting started being erased by its everyday prosaic language, this was the symptom of its degeneration as poetry. On the other hand, taking the Russian realist art of the second half of the XIX century, it is clear that as much as the Itinerants themselves were poetic in their civic consciousness so dear to us even today, so much the epigones of the Itinerant movement, having lost those ideals, in the late XIX century degenerated into talky liberals, lost their former poeticism, and exchanged the high-keyed truth of art for philistine credibility, ersatz emotion, feigned indignation… Keeping the language of a painter of life does not prove anything, except maybe the atrophy of musical, rhythmic, and poetic origins.
Romanticism has always distinguished oriental poetry, music, dance and painting. “Flowers of Romanticism grew from a very real soil and not as a result of imagination flying far away from everyday life; exactly the opposite: from the desire to find and reflect something new in life – new connections still underdeveloped and inaccessible to realistic study, but already functioning and already important. And also the romantic colours of our prose, if seen not as ornamentations but as means of artistic exploration of day-to-day novelty, that is, to think about serious art and not about playing games at leisure. True romantic artists are the discoverers of purpose for true realists.” (2) Romanticism has contributed a lot to all arts as a source of jovial perception of the world and the “discoverer of purpose for true realists” (3). Realism is a common pattern in the evolution of art at every stage of social development. However, every nation should itself define the forms of this realism, where oriental romanticism remains one of the components.

Prepared by Gulnoz Sharipova

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