Enlightened by Orient
From May 31 till August 31, 2006 the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography named after Peter the Great (also known as the Kunstkamera) in Saint-Petersburg housed an exhibition titled "Dreams of Orient: Russian Vanguard and the Silks of Bukhara". This project was initiated by the Forum for Culture and Art Foundation, the Russian Asian society, The House of Style and the Russian Information Agency "RosBalt".
The exhibition presented pieces of Russian vanguard from the State Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan, together with a rich collection of Bukharan fabrics, jewellery items and costumes from the collection of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.
On the face of it, Russian vanguard paintings and Central Asian textiles are completely unrelated. However, as the exhibition demonstrated, the link between them is apparent, and this project has proved it.
The very name of the exhibition - "Dream of Orient: Russian Vanguard and the Silks of Bukhara" - stated the problem. The objective of the project was to refer to the experience of Russian vanguard and, using examples, to comprehend, empirically rather than through an abstracted logic, the influence of the design and colour of Central Asian textiles upon the aesthetics of Russian vanguard.
A challenging task: to select and present to the viewers the discoveries of new shape categories that were inspired by Oriental world and existed only in the artist's laboratory.
At the exhibition opening ceremony Yuriy Chistov, the Director of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, said: "The cultures of Russia and Uzbekistan are connected by thousands and thousands of threads. One of these threads is a fantastically interesting interconnection of shapes and images in the Russian vanguard painting and aesthetic principles at the foundation of imagery and colour of traditional Central Asian textiles".
The exhibition curators tried to comprehend this 'fantastic' interconnection and dependence, which are linked to the very nature of pictorial expression means. In our view, there is no need to look for direct and formal relation between these art phenomena, which are so typologically different and so distant from one another. One has to try and understand their connection by looking at them as interlinked phenomena of a single process of global cultural development. It is clear that it would be wrong in principle to reduce artistic preferences of Russian vanguard masters to the Central Asian cultural heritage alone.
From the beginning of the 20th century, art has been looking intensely for ways to renew the means of pictorial representation. Interest towards Central Asian textiles developed in the environment when everyone in Europe and Russia was keen on Oriental style. Many artists made pilgrimages to the East. But whereas for the European artists, East meant Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Palestine, for their Russian colleagues it was primarily Central Asia. The interest of Russian artists in Orient continued throughout the historically and was comprehensive and based on the traditional 'global responsiveness' and ability to "burn with an alien light", absorb the beauty of an "alien" culture, transform and remain oneself.
Complexity and ambivalence of Russian vanguard art were determined by historical developments - collapse of the old world, and social and ideological objectives of the new society - on the one hand, and by the artists' aspiration for the unknown, for continuous experiment and search for a universal language, a "numeric code" to the historical development of the world, on the other. As Konstantin Malevich put it, "…A system in time and space is being constructed, independent of any aesthetic beauty, experiences or moods, but is rather a philosophic colour system to realize new attainments" (1, p. 175)
Vanguard art is characterized by high degree of philosophic generalization. Having started with the search for 'great spirituality' and sublimation of artistic forms, and having reached a pure structure, vanguard artists turned to the ideology of the so called "industrialists".
The State Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan has an excellent collection of Russian vanguard art. While the collection of the Savitskiy State Fine Arts Museum of Karakalpakstan has earned recognition among experts and is already well-known owing to the expositions abroad, the Russian vanguard paintings from Tashkent were displayed at the international exhibition for the first time. These were the paintings by the prominent artists of the First Wave: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Aleksandra Ekster, Ivan Klyun, Georgiy Stenberg, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksei Yavlenskiy… Analysing the influence of Central Asian textiles on the work of these artists, a researcher often has to basically decode the concentrated structures of these two phenomena and identify loose associations. With all the seeming boldness of hypotheses (which is unavoidable when one studies wide ranging issues related to vanguard art), it is important not to overlook a common trend in spiritual and artistic quests of the artists and their aspiration for activity, primarily a conceptual one.
In this fascinating inter-relation the project organizers saw an opportunity to go deep into what, at first glance, seems to be the inexplicable processes of this cultural interaction and present to the viewer an invaluable material that is being preserved, studied and revived.
Textile material dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries enables the most complete representation of the richness and diversity of traditional Uzbek fabrics. Geometrical shapes, design, calligraphy and patterns represent coded images. Silk, semi-silk abr and adras textiles, brightly coloured traditional costumes, embroidery and carpets with their fascinating colours and designs could be truly appreciated only by artists. Aleksandr Volkov, whose art is inseparably linked to vanguard, wrote: "Textiles contain more Orient than photographic images do, for when textiles are created, the artist reproduces (sees) the world in its essential peculiarities" (2, p. 14).
Vanguard art assigned the same role to the form as did Islamic art ('conceptual' in the former, and 'divine' in the latter). One can talk about common standards in aesthetic concepts and about the idealization of forms, which is sourced from the abstract concept of the world.
The Central Asian collection in St. Petersburg, which counts about five thousand items and is directly linked to the history of political and diplomatic relations between Uzbekistan and Russia, is one of the most extraordinary in the world in terms of its size and significance. The collection comprises textile samples, sets of festive and everyday wear, arms and jewelry. It is willing to tell exhibition visitors fascinating stories about great migrations of peoples, communication among them, their philosophy, traditions and aesthetic ideals. Elena Tsaryova, an expert in Central Asian textiles and the author of the selection of fabrics for the exhibition, correctly observed that the exhibits bear the signs and symbols of a thousand years old wisdom and "almost mystical beauty of the small mirrors of the ancient culture of urban residents".
Thus, the creators of the exposition faced an extremely difficult task: of the 520 textile samples in the museum collection to select 28 pieces that would correspond to the concept of the exhibition and the pieces of vanguard art, as well as complement historical costumes that left museum storage for the first time in many years.
Designs and colours of textiles presented at the exhibition are very diverse, and the manufacturing technique, as well as decorative features are very impressive, which places them in the same rank with the world weaving masterpieces.
The most important section of the exhibition comprised gifts to Russian tsars from the emirs of Bukhara and Khiva: horse attire (horsecloth and saddle covers called zinpush) made of purple and emerald-green velvet embroidered with silver and gold filaments; clothing sewn with gold and pearls. The famous collection of velvet and silk iqats alone is a rarity that has no analogies in any museum of the world. An occasion for presenting gifts would be events of national import. A kind of a "diplomatic silk road" connecting Bukhara and St. Petersburg was the route along which gifts also travelled on the occasion of a coronation day, which was celebrated every year.
The value of the exhibits is not only in the number of specimens and decorum variations, but also in the fact that they belong to different periods in the history of Uzbekistan. The exhibition put the very best of them on display. The exposition was complemented by unique historical photographs and ethnographic drawings associated with the history and culture of Central Asia.
The idea of the "Dreams of Orient" was continued in the Kempinsky, Moika 22 Hotel with colourful histrionic fashion defile staged by the well-known choreographer Valentina Ganibalova, who employed the motives of oriental tales and music from "Shekherezada" by Rimskiy-Korsakov.
The fashion show demonstrated the designer project of Gulnara Karimova, the author of numerous extraordinary fashion collections and the founder of the House of Style in Tashkent. Fashion items presented at the show were made of natural hand-woven and hand-dyed fabrics, with the use of traditional embroidery, printed cloth and batik, and decorated with incrustation of gems and semi-precious stones. The combination of fabrics of different texture in one apparel item - satin and guipure, or silk and velvet, as well as the use of contrasted colours ranging from pastel shades to bright and rich hues - created a sensuous and expressive image of Orient. Exquisite accessories were an effective addition to the dresses: traditional and modern (designer) jewellery, different shawls, scarves, purses and small hats also made of traditional fabrics.
The defile presented fashion collections by Sherzod Atabaev, lead designer of the House of Style, who creates his items mostly for young people, employing contrasted colours and the blending of styles. Classic Uzbek textiles such as adras, shoi, and khan-atlas [satin], acquire a new voice and new interpretation when used in modern-day cuts and silhouettes.
The hotel halls housed the exhibition of traditional and contemporary art of Uzbekistan, which beautifully complemented the overall concept of the project. Yefim Rezvan, the author of the ambitious idea of the "Dreams of Orient" noted: "Our great wish is for the exhibition visitors to feel the entire depth and power of centuries-old traditions and the "energy of beauty" that breathed life into the series of remarkable paintings and pieces of decorative and applied art".
A natural decoration and addition to the overall "oriental" atmosphere was contemporary ceramics, engraved items, gold needlework, embroidery, carpet weaving, wood carving and lacquered miniature - original and unique traditional arts presented by artistic enterprise "Ustozada".
Traditional culture became an invaluable source of inspiration for the artists Javlon Umarbekov, Lekim Ibragimov, Faizulla Akhmadaliev, Khurshid Ziyakhanov, Imyar Mansurov, Gafur Kadyrov, Shavkat Khakimov and Shakhnoz Abdullaeva, whose works were displayed during the exhibition in the context of the project idea.
A keen interest of contemporary artists in ethnic and cultural heritage is not only a pictorial and shape-based interpretation of the heritage as style, but also a source of different spiritual and philosophic impulses. However, as regards silks - the object of our attention, these fabrics, also known as haftrangi or seven-coloured, with their exquisite colour palette and design, prompted contemporary artists to find a peculiar painting technique. Masters of textiles knew the laws of colour interaction very well. By altering light-gathering power of colour in one set of repeats, they created an illusion of bulk or a combination in which white, for instance, "sounded" like blue or green. And in another, by employing endless variations of the same colour, they made the entire spectrum sound, presenting colour in the most diverse colour combinations and contrasts.
The "Dream of Orient: Russian Vanguard and the Silks of Bukhara" project drew attention not only of experts, but also of the general public. The fact that the project idea was born in St. Petersburg, the city known for its adherence to strict and classical traditions, is very telling.
For the exhibition they prepared a voluminous and beautifully illustrated catalogue and a film titled "The Garden of Eden: The Seven Colours" telling about the miracle of creating silks.
The project will continue; it is already awaited by viewers in France, Germany and Finland.
Unique projects of this kind that help comprehend centuries-old wisdom and find ways of continuity with innovative philosophy and creative risk are particularly important nowadays, when the art of Uzbekistan represents a distinctive synthesis of West and East.
Literature:Наков А. Русский авангард. М., 1991.
Земская М. Александр Волков (Мастер "Гранатовой чайханы"). М.,1975.