This splendidly and originally edited album constitutes the catalogue of an exhibition held in 2009-10 in the State Museum of the Orient, in Moscow, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Russia and of the Marjani Fund. Organised without participation of Uzbekistani museums (notably of the unique collection of the Nukus Museum in Central Asian Soviet painting of the 1920s-30s), the exhibition itself has perhaps marked some revival of interest in Soviet Central Asian subjects among Russian institutions of culture and research, both public and private, after decades of almost complete indifference. The exhibition has also shed light on Russia’s capacity for organising events of this dimension out of her proper museum resources (Uzbekistan having shown incomprehensibly reluctant to participate in this exceptional event), among which must be signalled the unprecedented role of emerging private collections, like that of the Marjani Fund itself.
The richly illustrated volume is divided into two parts: (1) a historical introduction (pp. 6-19) on diverse moments and aspects, notably local and regional, of the development of modern painting in early Soviet Central Asia; (2) the catalogue strictly speaking, in which illustrations have been distributed by painters, in five different categories: the “masters of the new Orient;” Volkov’s brigade; the “Izofabrika” of Samarqand; the school of the arts of the Orient; and the female painters. In their introduction, the Editors and T. L. Mkrtychev have distinguished several successive moments of the history of easel painting in Turkistan since the expansion of Russian culture following the conquest in the 1860s. The first turning point is made by the travels to Central Asia of Russian of early Soviet avant-garde artists like P. V. Kuznetsov and K. S. Petrov-Vodkin, and to the return of some Central Asian natives after their studies in Russia (the most famous of these ones being perhaps Skobelev-born Aleksandr Volkov).
Reminding briefly the political upheavals of the time, the authors mention the main personal and thematic exhibitions of the 1920s, and develop on the studio-schools of art opened from 1918 onwards (the first being the short-lived Izokomuna created that year in Samarqand by Oganes Tatevosian, who had settled in Central Asia in the years of WWI; it was followed in 1920 by the ephemeral school of arts opened by painter Ruvim Mazel’ in Ashkhabad, renamed three years later by A. V. Lunacharsky “Udarnaia shkola iskusstv vostoka,” before its closure in 1925). The authors also remind the role of artists like those of the Izofabrika of Samarqand, led by Tatevosian after the failure of his “commune” of artists, in the conception of motives for a large range of industrial arts from propaganda posters to ceramic utensils and papier-mâché panels.
The introduction’s last paragraphs are devoted to autochthonous weavers’ culture of colour and to its influence as a source of inspiration on the work of easel painters. The interconnection or apparent lack of interconnection between the latter and vernacular craftsmen is just evoked in passing, and the interaction between institutions like the Izofabrika of Samarqand and the modernist Turkistani intellectual milieus of the time only sketched. The authors just mention in passing the attention shown by the Soviet authorities for the preservation of historical monuments of the Central Asian past, as a demonstration of the new regime’s interest in vernacular culture.
From these viewpoints, one can only remark that despite the irruption of new protagonists like the Marjani Foundation in Moscow, the Russian discourse on the modern and contemporary cultural history of Central Asia has not substantially changed since the last decades of the Soviet period. In this history, local protagonists continue most of the time to stand on the sidelines, and the production of Russian-culture avant-garde artists to be seen as an embodiment par excellence of triumphing modernity. Given this mood, it is even more regrettable that no parallel at all has been sketched in these pages neither with the specific sociology of other major modern arts in Central Asia (like photography or cinema), nor with the position of non-academic European or American painters in varied ‘Orients’ (suffice to mention Paul Klee in Northern Africa) during the same period of time.
These short philosophical reserves notwithstanding, the reader can be only impressed by the quality of the catalogue (pp. 20-223), which is organised as a succession of short biographical articles on painters, with chronologies of the main dates of their lives. Each notice is followed by a choice of colour reproductions of those of works exposed last year in the Museum of the Orient. The fantastic regression that can be observed in many artists’ personal works between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s (for such figureheads like Volkov himself, or Mikhail Kurzin for instance) speaks by itself, even if some of those who could survive the Red Terror, like Kurzin or Viktor Ufimtsev, could find a kind of revival of their inspiration, though very limited, after Stalin’s death.
One last remark: despite the intrinsic interest of many works represented here, one can only observe that, contrary to what was going on in the major centres of Soviet culture, for painting as well as for other arts, none of the schools and studios present in early Soviet Central Asia seems to have been capable of producing a new aesthetic matrix, and a majority of these works hardly go beyond the level of mere illustration on exotic, colourful themes ― an excellent illustration, if depressing, of the merits and self-limitations of early Soviet Orientalisme.