Baky Urmanche. A World of Poetic Association

Anna Grigoryeva

Magazine issue: 
#2 2005 (07)


Celebration of the 1000th Anniversary of Kazan

The name of Baky Urmanche (1897-1990) is one of the most interesting new discoveries of the 25th exhibition organised at the Tretyakov Gallery within the project titled "Russia's Golden Map". A cult name in Tatarstan, the artist remains almost completely unknown outside the republic. At that exhibition the works of Urmanche are displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery for the first time ever, alongside the works of acknowledged classics of Russian art.

Urmanche is considered to be the founder of Tatar art on a professional level. He was the first of the Tatar artists to receive professional training. At first he studied at Kazan's VKHUTEMAS institute, and later on at its Moscow branch. But no matter where he lived he never lost touch with his national tradition, a factor that became dominant in his mature years. His talent was universal: he was a painter, a sculptor, a graphic artist, a calligrapher and a teacher. His creative work successfully combined highly professional skills with the basics of Tatar national culture.

Baky Urmanche. 1970s
Baky Urmanche. 1970s

Baky Urmanche was born in 1897 in a small village, Kul' Chercken, into the family of the imam of a village Mosque. In 1913 he arrived in Kazan to enter art school, but one of the entrance exams happened to be on knowledge of the Bible and the Russian Orthodox Church - one that turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle for a Tatar of the Islamic confession. So Urmanche moved to the Urals; in 1916 he served in the army in the Central Asia. But after the revolution, in 1919, the exam was cancelled, and while still in the army, he entered the Kazan Free Art Workshops. The next year the artist was transferred to Moscow and continued his studies in VKHUTEMAS-VKHUTEIN at two faculties simultaneously - at the sculpture department he studied under Boris Korolev, and at the painting department under Alexander Shevchenko. At the same time he attended courses at the Institute of Spoken Oriental Languages.

After graduation from VKHUTEIN, the artist became a teacher at Kazan's art college. Many of his works of that period are dedicated to then-popular industrial themes, and yet they are full of lyrical notes. One of his masterpieces is the picture "At the Separator” (1927). In those days that device for separating cream from milk was considered a wonderful technical achievement.

The centre of the composition, however, is the figure of a young woman (an actress of the Tatar Academic Theatre posed for the picture, since posing was believed inappropriate for the majority of Tatar women). Her image is far from heroic: the woman is ill at ease - she is definitely not used to posing - and the artist depicts her embarrassment, the simplicity of her character and her love of domestic matters, thus creating a lyrical portrait of beauty corresponding to the ideals of the national character.

The works of his first Kazan period, like "Portrait of Sangatullah Bickbulatov" (1927), prove Urmanche to be a brilliant colourist: he prefers colour to graphic line, skillfully modeling forms with subtle colour reflexes. The artist is carried away by the creation of a harmonious colour scheme, at the same time trying to convey the general atmosphere, as well as the state of light and air of the moment. It can be said that the sophisticated, subtle and varied colour scheme is the main and true subject of his pictures.

Even when painting large panels, dedicated to the building of socialist industry, Urmanche remains a lyrical artist. He did not stay long in Kazan: in 1929 Urmanche was deported to the Solovetsky Islands on a false accusation of nationalism, spending four years of his life there. In 1933 he was completely rehabilitated. In the 1930s Urmanche lived in Moscow, participating as a designer in two major exhibitions, "Industry of Socialism" and "Donbass in Painting". His graphic works were displayed at the first All-Russian Exhibition of Young Artists. In 1937 Urmanche became a member of the Moscow Organization of the Artists' Union.

The spring of 1941 marks the beginning of the Central Asian period in the artist's life, one which lasted for 17 years: Alma-Ata where he was to spend the war and some post-war years, Samarkand (1949-52), and then Tashkent. It was only in 1958 that he returned to his motherland, where he lived until his death.

Baky Urmanche is a master of chamber motifs, with the result that he seems to be in his element in his graphic works. All his landscapes are distinguished by their delicate colour scheme: they display his special, gentle attitude to nature, his ability to find beauty in ordinary everyday things. His graphic works show the evolution of his style very well. In the water-colour series created in Bashkortostan and Uigur collective farms at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s the artist widely uses line, while his transparent and full-of-air water-colours depicting the Caspian seashore in the middle of the 1950s, and his book illustrations from the 1970s are already painted with colour spots and patches.

However, this does not mean that Urmanche stopped using line at all. In the late period of his creative work he reaches a distinctive level of mastery in using line, and even takes up calligraphy that he considered a separate art form. In the 1970s-1980s he created a series of drawings illustrating the works of the outstanding Tatar poet Gabdulla Tukay (1 8861917), who is called the "Pushkin" of Tatar literature. Over 27 years of his life and seven years of his creative work Tukay managed to change the literary language, the system of writing poetry, but most important of all, he managed to depict the self-awareness of his people, the unique qualities of Tatar culture, having married the classical systems of Russian and Oriental literature to the national tradition in his creative work. In that respect, Urmanche is very similar to Tukay, and they are often compared. And the fact that Urmanche turned to the heritage of Tukay, just as Tukay had turned to that of Alexander Pushkin, proves that they were very close indeed. Urmanche created over a dozen portraits of Tukay in various years, monuments in Kazan and Tashkent and the sculpture in the house-museum of the poet in Kyrlay as well. He illustrated Tukay's poetry books and even painted some sketches for stage decorations to his poem "Shu- raleh", on the basis of which several plays and a ballet were staged not only in Kazan, but also in Moscow in the Bolshoi Theatre in 1955 as well.

The poem "Shuraleh" holds a special place in Tukay and Urmanche's creative work. It is written on the basis of one of the Tatar national fairy-tales, and Shuraleh is the most popular character of Tatar mythology. The spirit lives in a forest, and in a way is its chief and master, with a body covered with hair, three long and a few short fingers and one horn, able to tickle any man to death with his fingers. Shuraleh is somewhat similar to the Russian "leshiyi" (wood- spirit), personifying the forest as an element of nature alien to mankind: something that can lure you deep into the forest, far away from the road you need to take, or can scare you to death with its laughter Given that the fairy-tale is one of the lasting folklore genres, it is proof that long before Manichaeism and Islam won over the medieval Bulgary society in the fifth and tenth centuries respectively, the Tatars already had pantheistic beliefs.

Both Tukay and Urmanche keep the fairy-tale specifics, filling it with colourful details and sounds full of special meaning:

Something strange and eerie greets him,
     Comes towards him from the night.

What can this be? Ghost or demon?
     Fugitive? He could not tell.
Such a foul and ugly creature
     As might live this side of hell!

See its nose, hooked like a mouse's.
     See how from its face it shoots.
Arms and legs all curved and crooked,
     Looking more like twins and roots.

Eyes deep set in burning sockets,
     Sparkling in the moon;
In broadest daylight, even here,
     A beast like that would make you swoon.

Its feet are bare with bony toes;
     Its form like man or woman born.

From its forehead of the size
     Of a middle finger sticks a horn.
Then the fingers, thin and narrow
     From its hands stretch straight and long;

Ugly fingers like the devil's
     Each of them six inches long.

Such funny motifs happen to be of special importance to Baky Urmanche, and he turned to them again and again in drawings characterized by a subtle sense of humour and skilful usage of line. His Shu- raleh possess some traits known not only from Tukay's poems but from oral folk stories as well. In some sketches there is not one Shuraleh but several. Urmanche paints female Shuraleh, and he is fond of "portraying" children Shuraleh and other similar forest beings. He readily uses artificial colours that are very bright and full of life, and frequently refuses to use perspective, simply arranging colour spots and lines on the plane.

In the late period of his creative work, under the influence of national culture, Urmanche's painting manner changes as well. The artist starts using tempera, and the works of that period are distinguished by their remarkable decorativeness. Their composition is clear and simple, as he employs bright and luminous colours. In his late works, too, the artist often paints cloth with patterns, in pieces reminiscent of Tatar national carpets.

Sculpture holds a special place in Urmanche's creative work. While it is believed to be the peak of Tatar plastic art, Urmanche's relationship with sculpture was not an ordinary one. While a student, he studied plastic art professionally, but then a 40-year pause followed. Everywhere he worked, whether Kazan, Moscow, Alma-Ata or Tashkent, he was known as a painter and graphic artist, but not as a sculptor. It was only when he turned 65 that Urmanche rediscovered sculpture.

Probably his work on a ceramic panel for the Palace of Culture of a copper factory on Lake Balkhash in 1952 provided the necessary boost. When the work was finished,
the master moved to Tashkent where he created several notable sculptures, and in 1956 he became the head of individual art workshops at the Tashkent Institute and opened a sculpture department there.

In 1958 Urmanche returned to Tatarstan, and his talent as a sculptor emerges. The marble bust of the Tatar national poet Tukay is among his first works. Later he created several other portraits of the poet, as well as a series of works based on his poems. Portraits of other Tatar poets, writers, composers and scientists followed that of Tukay, among them poets such as Musa Dzhalil, Kul-Gali, Derdmendah (a pen-name), Shaichzadah Babich, the historian Shigabutdin Mardzhany, the artist Gabdulla Kariev and the writer Galimdzhan Ibragimov.

Over 30 years Urmanche created more than 150 sculptural compositions. Although his images are sublime and idealized to some extent, they always preserve the individuality of the model. In general, Urmanche's sculpture is distinguished by its variety of emotional and poetic associations, as well as by skilful composition. Though Urals marble was the master's favourite material, his most interesting and unique masterpieces were made of wood.

Urmanche created such compositions as "Sagysh" ("Deep in Thought”, 1966) and "Spring Melodies" (1969) from the light Central Asian plane tree. "Sagysh" is the embodiment of the sculptor's philosophical ideas and thoughts about life, and the true-to-life image has a general meaning. The composition "Spring Melodies" is its complete opposite: the image of a girl with a kurai, a kind of a flute, in her hand personifies the youth and the beginning of the creative path. The work is extremely beautiful: the golden warmth of the wood conveys the colour of the girl's dark skin; the sculptor also conveys the suppleness of the young body and the lightness of the girl's thick hair.

In 1976 Baky Urmanche, together with Amir Zagirov, creates several four- metre-high sculptures of Shuraleh for the museum of G. Tukay in Kyrlay. The master finds new daring solutions, creating expressive and unforgettable images. Some Shuraleh, cut from straight tree trunks, seem to be somewhat stiff, although full of inner motion, striving upwards. Others are made either of combined trunks or of trees with branches sticking out in all directions, producing an impression of something free and natural.

The centenary of Urmanche's birth in 1997 was celebrated on a wide scale in the Tatarstan Republic. A street in Kazan was named after him; while several memorial tablets were installed and a tombstone erected, and a monument to the artist and a museum dedicated to him were opened in the centre of Kazan. The collection of the museum contains more that 150 different documents and photographs. Every two years the museum holds a competition among artists of Tatarstan for the Baky Urmanche prize.

Baky Urmanche. At the Separator. 1927
At the Separator. 1927
Oil on canvas. 128,4 by 102 cm
Baky Urmanche. Sailing. 1929
Sailing. 1929
Oil on canvas. 103 by 80 cm
Baky Urmanche. Portrait of Sangatullah Bickbulatov. 1927
Portrait of Sangatullah Bickbulatov. 1927
Oil on canvas. 78 by 66,5 cm
Sagysh (Deep in Thought). 1966
Baky Urmanche. The Arrival of Ibn Fadlan in Bulgary. 1973




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