Under a spell of the East
I can write here everything, endlessly...
The artistic biography of outstanding artist Pavel Petrovich Benkov was rich and interesting. The fortune he tested many times was uneasy. Unfortunately, his art did not become a subject of the serious study. Many works written about him remained "the monument" to ideological concepts of that time. The informative book of memoirs by M. Sokolova is the only edition, which has preserved the important data after the death of the artist (1). The artistic evolution of P. Benkov has not been fully comprehended yet. His true place in the history of Uzbekistan art was not specified. One of the reasons is that even the mention of impressionism was forbidden in due time, therefore many things were interpreted in a wrong way in order to protect the author from attacks of criticism. Finally, it brought to perverted views of his artistic originality. Meanwhile, it is obvious that the traditions of Benkov are strong in painting of Uzbekistan. They received wide recognition. However, their comprehension requires elaboration in details.
As a true artist, P. Benkov permanently searched. Having achieved some results, he put the new tasks. He felt constant striving to develop and to perfect the skill. After the Petersburg Academy of Arts (1909), he returned to native Kazan and immediately entered the cultural life of the city. He traveled around Italy, Spain and France much. He started to teach. The Kazan period (1909-1928) reflected his artistic becoming, the fruitful work in the genres of the portrait, landscape and scenery. As a perfect colourist (in the student years, the classmates nicknamed him as Titian), Benkov, like many other Russian artists, leaned to plain-air painting. He was eager for art discoveries and searched for the light, sun and colours. In 1928, he visited Bukhara for the first time. In 1929-1930, he worked in Khiva, and in 1931, he decided to stay in Uzbekistan, namely, in Samarkand. The pragmatic trivial logic fails to explain how the recognized master and the famous teacher could leave everything and begin the life in Central Asia - the country unknown for him, which in the 1920s still lived in feudalism. However, this country became a source of creativity, and its natural environment became the basis of new impressionistic vision, where the leading role belonged to the light and the close contact with nature as well as to the picturesque space instead of subject thinking. Samarkand with its colourful bazaars, the bright turquoise sky and whitish burnt land for Benkov was analogous to the cathedrals of Rouen and London fogs for the impressionists, the "Kirghiz" steppes for P. Kuznetsov and the mysterious Tahiti for Gauguin. Benkov's impressionism is not philosophy of orientalism, savouring the oriental exotics and non-technical methods as many people think. This is a special vision of the world and a picturesque metaphor where the poetic reflection of the present and love for the life with its dynamism occupies the central place. This is personal freedom of the artist, who created trusting to his artistic intuition.
Initially, P. Benkov's painting combined different tendencies and principles, accompanying the formation of impressionism. As D. Sarabyanov noted, the phenomenon known as Russian impressionism partly goes back to plain-air painting and partly to properties typical of the etude. Many works of the artist ("Old Bukhara", "Kalyan Minaret" and "Street scribe") represented the variant, in which the poetry of the sunny environment and the ability to fix the whole without excessive details kept the fresh impression along with the concrete landscape motif. The big scenes, multi-figured pictures and portraits, created later in the open air ("Cotton earthing", "March, 8 on Registan" and "Friends"), bear features of the etude painted from nature.
In the course of time, the Central Asian nature, brightened by the sun, promoted development of such specifically impressionist features as dynamic composition-shot, mobile light-air space, transparency of blue shadows, blanched palette and "open" hard touch ("Houz and water bearers", "Letter from the front", "At the reservoir"). In P. Benkova's Samarkand pictures, the sunlight became the major source of sense and poetry: bright on the squares and bazaars, refracted and crushed on the water of hauz or piercing the foliage of the vineyard. The famous Benkov's "spots" transformed the modest yard into the cool paradise garden. Benkov began a theme of comfortable gardens and small yards. This theme is one of closest both to his pupils, and for the today's artists, which keep archetypes of Islamic tradition, where the Garden always had the deep spiritual and ethic content. Benkov was one of the first in Uzbekistan, who began to create the portraits in the open air ("Portrait of the old farmer", "Girl with dutar"), so reflecting one of the most important aspects of the oriental being - the harmony with the nature.
The feature of impressionism characteristic for all national schools, within which it developed, is that the national specificity could not be manifested stylistically because of equivalence of impressionistic artistic and plastic components. The national originality in its particular stylistic aspect was not accented by P. Benkov, though it was in the center of polemic and art of many Uzbekistan artists. As we could notice, the extraordinary intuition of the master came through the traditional preferences and views of the people. At the same time, the principles of Russian painting were close to P. Benkov. The national originality in this aspect was realized in interpretation of national motifs, images and the natural environment.
In the post-war years, impressionism of Benkov was not discussed. Its specific features were not noticed, its distinctions with realistic painting were toned down in order to avoid the blames in bourgeois influence. The searches for the national dominant in the Uzbek painting by A. Volkov, M. Kurzin, U. Tansikbaev and N. Karakhan frightened criticism as "manifestation of formalism and the western bourgeois influence". Though P. Benkov's works were not connected with the newest directions of the 20th as they did not bear any social ideas, they were getting to disagree with the ideological standards of art. Therefore, many aspects of the evolution of this big artist were deformed or interpreted primitively. As L. Venturi noted equitably, impressionism continued the art development, started by Renaissance, and this art can be specified as realistic (2). At the same time, the impressionism noway can be identified with the realism of the second half of the 19th century.
Unlike A. Volkov, M. Kurzin, V. Ufimtsev, V. Markova and Usto Mumin, which gave the conceptual and synthetic character to their art ideas, proving them as the art system, P. Benkov's impressionism looked artless and not-programmed. The searches of the above avant-gardists were similar in many respects since each of them created own concept of the East and was connected with the young art school and its searches for the national model. Within the art of Uzbekistan of the 1930s, the art of these artists formed the original antithesis to positivism of the European painting, with which P. Benkov's impressionism was connected.
Meanwhile, the situation developed so that at the end of the 1930s only P. Benkov kept the genetic connection with the realistic principles at the high level. While earlier the "specific weight" of the P. Benkov's art concept was not too appreciable in the spectrum of the Uzbek painting, at the end of the 1930s it became leading, when realism was stated as the doctrine of art. The study of realism at the studio of P. Benkov became the important stage for young national artists - A. Abdullaev, L. Abdullaev, A. Razikov, R. Timurov, M. Nabiev and later for R. Ahmedov and Yu.Yelizarov. The pedagogical activity of P. Benkov in Samarkand Art College had played the outstanding role in formation of the Uzbekistan art school. The best traditions of this big master are transferred through generations, preserving succession of classic national painting.
Author: Nigora Ahmedova