TAIR SALAKHOV ART AND PERSONALITY

Alexander Rozhin

Article: 
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

Tair Salakhov is rightly ranked among the brightest and most significant personalities of the Soviet art world - his work, representative of a whole era in culture due to its magnitude, spiritual richness, imagery, aesthetics and complex metaphors, has fittingly blended with new times, and modernity.

Salakhov and the artists of his circle were both a creation of their time and a challenge to it. Political pressures notwithstanding, and in defiance of the false canons of Socialism, the strong 1960s generation came of age spiritually within our culture. Tair Salakhov was one of the founders and enthusiastic champions of this movement.

The time of “Khrushchev’s thaw” put into the art world a score of then very young artists who had different creative potential and temperaments but became united in their defiance of the official taboos and canons. This group included Viktor Popkov and Pavel Nikonov, Yevsei Moiseenko and Nikolai Andronov, Boris Berzinsh and Edgar Iltner, Nikolai Karmashov and Oleg Subbi, Mikhail Savitsky and Marik Dantzig, Zurab Nizharadze and Guram Gelovani, Minas Avetisyan and Akop Akopyan, Togrul Narimanbekov, and of course Tair Salakhov.

Salakhov, who received a solid professional training first at the Azimzade Art College in Baku and then at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, even then stood out for his integrity and single-mindedness, creative independence and perspicacity of mind. The world around us, and we in this world, are the essential elements of the imagery in Salakhov’s early works. Free from short-term topicality and vanity, these pieces instead are marked by their keenness of the perception of life and convey life’s inner movements. Salakhov’s paintings, like the creations of almost any great artist, invariably have an element of “non-finito” — that incompleteness of meaning which in many ways ensures the viability of art. At the same time Salakhov has a special metaphorical turn to the way how he shapes his concepts into imagery, and this metaphorical turn should not be confused with allegory, or Aesopian language. His style is terse and in line with the artist’s forceful personality, and this is why Salakhov’s works require thoughtful and unhurried consideration and involvement.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Salakhov became a highly visible and even socially engaged personality. The human figures in his pictures were nothing like the stereotypical motherland-loving cast of characters that became a fixture of Soviet national art at that time. It was not pompous statements but artistic discoveries, consistency, and fidelity to principle that made Salakhov influential in professional circles.

Even his early works, such as “Back from a Work Shift” (1957), “Oil-tank Train. Morning” (1958), “Oilman” (1959), “Morning. Window” (1959), “Reservoir” (1959), with their magnitude, psychological intensity and inner dynamism anticipated his later landmark oeuvres such as “Repairmen” (1960) and “Portrait of Composer Kara Karayev” (1960).

Tackling the personality of Karayev, a man with whom he had an artistic and spiritual affinity, Salakhov tried not only to convey his attitude to Karayev and to faithfully reproduce the composer’s appearance, but also to create a sort of canonical image of the 1960s generation. This explains why viewers find in this painting those moral invariables and personality traits that characterize Kara Karayev as an exponent of the progressive ideas of a whole generation. Tellingly, at the “Russia!” show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York the “Portrait of Composer Kara Karayev” from the Tretyakov Gallery was featured among the 250 masterpieces created over the span of nine centuries, and the American curators of the grandiose exhibition, as well as the critics, talked in superlatives about the work.

In the same year, 1960, Salakhov created the picture “Repairmen”. Like the master’s many other works, this one is marked by a search for things heroic in things everyday, in this case — in the activities of the Caspian “toilers of the sea”: oil producers and prospect generators, drillers and repairmen. The rich monochromaticism of the colour scheme, the arrangement of rhythmic highlights, the amplified characterization and emphatic dynamism of the inward motion, down to the depth of the picture’s space with its high horizon over which broods a cloudy pre-dawn sky — all this imparts to “Repairmen” an epic magnitude.

Salakhov’s monumental painting “To You, Humankind!” (which was created purely on speculation, without a contract from the state) became a major event as well. The artist’s foresight was correct: his piece was displayed at an Azerbaijan Republican Exhibition in Baku, and literally the next day, on April 12 1961, the whole world learned about Yury Gagarin’s flight aboard the Vostok spaceship. Not surprisingly, Salakhov’s picture of two figures flying across a blue universe with orbs in their hands, their arms outstretched, was perceived as a romantic hymn to this feat of glory — man’s flight into space. Salakhov’s imagination introduced romantic overtones into the prose of life in the artist’s later pieces as well. His career in art has not experienced pauses or downturns; his life has been full of inspired work and a delight in inner freedom.

At 35 Salakhov became a recognized leader of the multi-national culture of the former USSR, which was, at that time, an undoubtable success and a sweeping rise. Yet, he never lost his grip basking in the limelight: he continued to tackle new themes and images with an ever bigger efficiency and energy, to travel extensively across the country and abroad. Far from being a hindrance, the distinctive style and original artistic manner rather help the artist to convey the unique peculiarity of his country’s natural environment, the charm and romanticism of the cities of old Europe, and the views of the breathtaking, pulse-quickening American megacities. Most of these pictures were drafted and painted with watercolours from nature as if in one breath, although they were partly created from memory. The pictures are marked by a stunning spirituality and consummate craft.

Working on the painting “Women of Apsheron” (1967), the artist no doubt was thinking about the life of his mother, her difficult journey through life full of neverending worries about children, daily household chores and, most essentially, her undefeatable faith in goodness and justice. “Women of Apsheron” is like a heroic hymn to the courage and patience of people who are prepared for hardships and full of moral beauty and nobleness. A landmark piece for the period, the painting “Oilmen of the Caspian Region” was created as a counterpart to the “Women” and received mixed reviews, probably because of the ostentatious or even excessive machoism of its images.

And yet, Salakhov’s portraits appear as his greatest achievements and most essential professional breakthroughs of that period. They include the “Portrait of Composer Fikret Amirov” (1967), “Portrait of Rasul Rza” (1971) and of course “Aidan” — a touching poetic image of the artist’s youngest daughter, a little girl on a toy horse (1967). A true masterpiece, this work is one the most remarkable child images in modern art. As soon as it was presented to the public, the portrait became a landmark in our national art and a yardstick of the most accomplished professional culture, winning the highest praise and universal recognition.

In 1976 Salakhov for the first time put on public display his inspired portrait of Dmitry Shostakovich, a work into which he put tremendous effort. It is rightfully considered as the most meaningful and profound in the series of Salakhov’s portraits. Salakhov himself said about the concept of Shostakovich’s portrait: “I thought that his image should be treated within the tradition of Russian dramatic portraiture. I am talking about such pieces, for one, as Ilya Repin’s famous portrait of Modest Mussorgsky or Ivan Kramskoy’s portrait of Nikolai Nekrasov.” Both the critics and general public believe that Salakhov fully achieved such aims.

His portraits from the 1980s and 1990s and the recently finished pieces created already in the 21st century are marked by comprehensive rendition of the sitters’ state of mind, emotional polyphony, and diversity of compositional and painterly techniques. The portrait of the ballerina Varya, the artist’s wife, called simply the “Portrait of a Woman” (1984), is distinguished by its consummate craftsmanship and special chic and splendour. Not unexpectedly, among the score of attractive, impressive, lyrical images of women created by Salakhov, many are portraits of his daughters, Gulya and Aidan.

Novel features of the artist’s style are visible in his portrait of his close friend Yvgeny Dunaevsky, himself an artist, created in 1997, as well as in his portrait of ballerina Olga Rukavishnikova (1998), in the portrait of his wife, in the allegorical picture “Alagez. Oriental Legend” (2001) featuring the artist’s older daughter, and in a score of other works, including the large graphic triptych “Meeting with Rauschenberg”, created with mixed media of gouache and water-colour as far back as 1990.

People from artistic circles — musicians, poets and artists — have always attracted Salakhov with their dedication, selfless devotion to their work, single-mindedness and artistry. Yet another brilliant work of this kind is the portrait of the prominent cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (2002). The musician’s image against the background of music stands which rhythmically fill in the space of a painting like a mosaic is stunning for its profound insight into the musician’s magnanimous inner self.

Salakhov’s still-lifes are as good as his famous portraits — for Salakhov, a still-life is a special perception of the world. Here the artist, unshackled by a grand design and not afraid to display his partialities and aesthetic preferences, gives free reign to his emotion. Salakhov’s graphic and painted still-lifes often feature a chair — as a podium for other objects, or as a hanger for drapes, or, finally, as Van Gogh’s chair which even Pablo Picasso, one of Salakhov’s most favoured 20th-century artists, used as a characteristic and important object. Salakhov’s still-lifes are in some sense his self-portraits, even autobiographies, even when they have names such as “Still-life with a Vienna Chair” (1976), “Still-life with a Lamp” (1977), “Still-life with Clay Jugs” (1978), “Agaves” (1981) or “Chair. Picasso’s Palette” (1989).

In the maestro’s still-lifes the stirrings of the soul, meditation alone with oneself are conveyed through an adequate imagery and artistic means, although in fact it takes the artist more than one sitting to create such a piece. Salakhov normally works on a picture for several days adding more and more new touches. This is visible, for instance, in the “Still-life with Pears” (1997), where a thick, dense brushwork creates an impression of volume and nearly palpable materiality of the objects pictured, and in the “Still-life with Boughs of Pomegranate”, also created in 1997, a piece adorned with luscious highlights of ripening red fruits of a pomegranate tree against the background of emerald foliage, as well as in other of the artist’s works characterized by similar artistic objectives and featuring agaves, watermelons and other fruits of our generous soil.

Salakhov’s works give sophisticated and interested viewers a chance to bring to work their individuality in grasping the associative chain created by the artist, and interpreting the focal points of his imagery with respect to content, meaning, and emotion. Tair Salakhov is a self-conscious maximalist, and the paintings he cherishes the most (Kara Karayev’s portrait, “Repairmen”, “Women of Apsheron”, Dmitry Shostakovich’s portrait and some other works created later) obviously attest to his inherent attraction to the extreme in art. This means that these pictures were created as if at the outer limit, at the borderline between the real and the abstractly imagined, the already accomplished and the unpredictable, that which is beyond good and evil, that about which people as a rule do not speak publicly.

Tair Salakhov’s art is international. He enjoys a well-deserved recognition in the international community of the masters of contemporary artistic culture. Salakhov has formed close ties based on kinship of spirit with many prominent international artists: the American Robert Rauschenberg, Britain’s Francis Bacon and Gilbert and George, Germany’s Gunther Ocker, the Italian Giacomo Manzu, Mexico’s Rufino Tamayo, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely — an uncontestable elite among the classics of post-war international art of the 20th century. Thanks to the international initiatives undertaken by Tair Salakhov, Russian viewers have had the chance to familiarize themselves with American pop-art and the European postavant-garde, and his efforts were instrumental in bringing to Russia retrospective exhibitions of the most acclaimed artists from around the world.

Speaking about the artistic evolution of his style, one should note that the search for new notional constructs is the inner motor of Tair Salakhov’s art. He boldly and craftily combines different form-generating elements — the artistic, stylistic and colouristic traditions of Orientalism and European culture, creating a new syncretic framework of the expressiveness of imagery that does not depend on specific currents and trends, on volatile demands of topicality and fashion (“Oriental Legend. Alagez”, “Aidan. Star of the Orient”, “Rome. Caffe Greco”, 2002). The artist’s graphic pieces and paintings, as well as his philosophical worldview, become more sophisticated and rich with respect to emotional nuances, and the palette acquires new imaginative turns. It would suffice to mention a number of recent portraits, the most noteworthy among which are “Varya on a Red Sofa” (2003), “Varvara in a Red Hat” and “Varya in Picasso’s Dress” (both — 2005), the “Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg” (2004), the “Portrait of Boris Yefimov” (2006), the “Portrait of Andrei Voznesensky” (2005), and the “Portrait of Madame Rachel” (2007).

A new testimony to the magnitude of the artist’s plans is the triptych “Country of Fires” (2007) — a pictorial hymn to his native Azerbaijan. In a romantic style celebrating heroism, Tair Salakhov in this painting realized his old dream of creating a picture of epic proportions showing the past and the present of his nation. In Azerbaijan Salakhov’s artwork is regarded as a national treasure, in Russia he is considered a great artist and one of the leaders of national art, a true classic, while internationally he is called a citizen of the world who embodies modern humanistic culture.

The most important and representative retrospective exhibition of Tair Salakhov’s art will open in Moscow in January 2009 at the “YEKATERINA” Cultural Foundation.

Illustrations

Apsheron Interior. 1981
Apsheron Interior. 1981
Oil on canvas. 140×100 cm. State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO
Tair Salakhov in His Studio
Tair Salakhov in His Studio
Aidan. 1967
Aidan. 1967
Oil on canvas. 110×80 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil-tank Train. Morning. 1958
Oil-tank Train. Morning. 1958
Oil on canvas. 150×200 cm. R. Mustafaev Azerbaijan State Museum of Art, Baku
Old Bath-house. 1978
Old Bath-house. 1978
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 67×88 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Women of Apsheron. 1967
Women of Apsheron. 1967
Oil on canvas. 265×265 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Baku. Shirvanshakh Palace. 1966
Baku. Shirvanshakh Palace. 1966
Oil on canvas. 84×103 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Shostakovich. 1974–1976
Portrait of Shostakovich. 1974–1976
Oil on canvas. 136×115 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of Composer Kara Karaev. 1960
Portrait of Composer Kara Karaev. 1960
Oil on canvas. 121×203. Tretyakov Gallery
Ronda. Spain. 2005
Ronda. Spain. 2005
Oil on canvas. 80×100 cm. Property of the artist
Portrait of Varya. 1985
Portrait of Varya. 1985
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 71×51 cm. Property of the artist
Rome. Caffe Greco. 2002
Rome. Caffe Greco. 2002
Oil on canvas. 120×160 cm. Andrei Shandalovʼs collection
Artist Boris Efimov. 2006
Artist Boris Efimov. 2006
Oil on canvas. 145×100 cm. Property of the artist

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