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Art has been called the ‘soul of the nation’ and in Uzbek art we can see that colourful, pensive, enquiring spirit reaching out to us over the ages. By sensitively blending ancient and modern, venerating the past and embracing the future, painters here have managed to create a unique and fascinating school.

The lands we now call Uzbekistan have always been a wonderful melting pot where East and West met in cultural profusion. Even before the lively bustle of the Silk Road, craftsfolk were sharing ideas and techniques – the Greco-Bactrian and Hellenic-Roman influence on very early Buddhist art in southern Uzbekistan for instance, with its clear, noble lines, or the sun and moon motifs of Zoroastrianism.

The arrival of Islam in the 8th century brought a new wave of inspiration. Now we see the Uzbek masters developing fabulously intricate geometric patterns interlaced with trailing tendrils, flowers and fruits. The murals, frescoes and panels decorating palaces and citadels in early medieval hubs such as the enigmatic Afrasiab are a true national treasure. Solemn and refined yet vibrantly reflecting the life around them, these are truly Central Asian works.

Later, works commissioned by the great ruler Timur became a precious source for historians, too, as he commissioned many portraits, landscapes and scenes from life in court for the panels in his sumptuous palace. The magnificent mosques, palaces and mausoleums that rose up in thriving centres like Samarkand and Bukhara are ablaze with colourful mosaics, each one meticulously executed by skilled master craftsmen, a truly awe-inspiring sight.

In marked contrast to these incredibly impressive displays, we see the development of exquisite miniature paintings. The detail in these tiny pictures is breath-taking and the artists could spend months on one small image, painted with vivid colours and fine, flowing brushstrokes. Scenes from medieval poetry penned by the great enlightened thinkers are a favourite source of inspiration and indeed, many of these miniature illuminations adorned the leaves of medieval manuscripts.

One of the most famous but also mysterious miniaturist artists of this region is Kamal ud-din Behzad (1450-1535), a semi-legendary figure who headed the royal ateliers in Herat and Tabriz during the late Timurid period. Renowned for his skill at gracefully capturing nuances of human movement, Behzad produced a wealth of exquisite pieces, perhaps the most well-known being The Seduction of Yusuf and Zuleykha, currently held in the National Library and Archive of Egypt in Cairo. Executed in 1488 and just 30 cm x 21 cm, this is a stunningly ornate portrayal of the well-known story of how Joseph eluded Potiphar’s wife. Using bright, contrasting colours, alternating perspectives and bold geometric forms, Behzad leads the viewer from room to room as Joseph (Yusef) escapes his pursuer (Zuleykha). Later works show clear Uzbek influence in the detail of costume and scenery, and indeed the enigmatic Behzad – a contemporary of the great mystic and poet Alisher Navoi – features prominently in many Uzbek historic novels.

Great art is always searching for new ideas, new ways of interpreting and portraying the world around us, and so the meeting of European and Central Asian artists brought great results. European artistic traditions arrived in Central Asia at the end of the 19th century when Tsarist Russia sent expeditions to study the culture and life of neighbouring Turkestan. The first Russian artist to bring the depth and exoticism of our region to the world was Vasily Vereshchagin. Significantly, the Russian artists introduced their Uzbek counterparts to easel painting – previously unknown in the region – and a period of intense creativity began.

In just a few short decades (1910-1940), Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism Chagallism, and Impressionism all found fertile ground here and a uniquely Central Asian form of avant-garde emerged as local artists added the bright flavour of medieval culture and discipline of decorative arts.

Unique customs preserving the centuries’ old way of life, evocative scenery and nature, characters similar to biblical prophets, folk art with its many layers of meaning and symbology – these became the source of the new artistic language for both native Uzbeks and Russians who settled here. In this way, the classical heritage of the West, the traditions of Russian iconography and the experimentalism of the Russian avant-garde were unified with the decorative ornamentalism of Central Asian art and together they gave rise to a unique artistic Weltanschauung.

Some painters embraced the abstract prism of Cubism – Alexander Volkov whose Garnet Red Teahouse, for instance, is the unofficial symbol of Turkestan avant-garde, while others took their inspiration from nature and preferred landscapes. Nikolai Karakhan is an outstanding example, with his naïve tradition, or Victor Ufimtsev with his wonderful sense of perspective. One of the greatest artists of this short but productive period is Ural Tansykbaev, the renowned Uzbek colourist who filled his canvases with dense, bright images of the Uzbek countryside.

Many Russian-born artists were drawn to the vibrant exotic world of Uzbek art. Nadezhda Kashina, for instance, moved from Moscow to Samarkand where she painted touching scenes laced with impressionism and primitivism. Oganez Tatevosyan also found inspiration in Samarkand, reproducing Uzbek life as he saw it – noisy melon bazaars, the measured life of villages warmed by the spring sun, and of course, rest in the shade of a tree.

Another star of this era is Pavel Benkov. He first visited Uzbekistan for work but was so taken by the country that his simply couldn’t leave. He became one of our best-known impressionists, but was also a master of portraits and landscapes. His student, Zinaida Kovalevskaya, followed in his footsteps and went on to create a whole series of images in a similar genre.

Another artist who fell in love with Central Asia is Usto-Mumin (Alexander Nikolayev). Inspired by the landscape but also the way of life, especially the thriving handicrafts, Usto-Mumin painted genre compositions as well as landscapes and portraits. Like many contemporary artists, he studied the work of medieval miniaturists and skilfully blended traditions of the western European avant-garde with Oriental miniaturism.

Thus for a couple of decades, Uzbekistan nurtured an international centre of avant-garde. Things changed dramatically, however, in 1934. This was the age of Socialist Realism when art was severely censored and had to comply with strict rules both in terms of content and style. The avant-garde movement was accused of ‘formalism’ and many of the Uzbek artists came under heavy fire. Others tailored their work to meet the demands of the time, producing poster-style portraits of ‘exemplary workers’ or scenes of happy cotton-pickers toiling in the field.

Nevertheless, the masters of the early twentieth century inspired and coached a new generation of artists, and the Uzbek School was born. One of the first leading lights to emerge was Abdulhaq Abdullayev. Fascinated by human nature and considering each person to be absolutely unique, Abdullayev took socialist realism to a whole new level in his captivating portraits. His contemporary, Rakhim Akhmedov, explored a different theme, taking his native Uzbekistan as his inspiration – the hot sun, fast-flowing rivers and generous gardens. Chingiz Akhmarov, meanwhile, looked to Uzbekistan’s ancient roots for his creative source. His landscapes remind us of Eastern miniatures accompanying the lyrical verses of the great Alisher Navoi. Akhmarov is also famous for his huge frescoes, many of which can still be seen in public buildings or even the Metro. Even here, his sensitive portraits capture the shy yet enchanting allure of Eastern beauties and the bold pride of his brave heroes. Akhmarov’s wife, Shamsroi Khasanova, was Uzbekistan’s first acclaimed woman artist, and her works explore the spiritual freedom of Central Asian women. She sought to capture the essence of prominent women, turning to her own experience and empathy for her sensitive portraits.

The 1970’s brought a new wave of creative development to Uzbekistan. Many Uzbek artists ran counter to the official ideology and used art to challenge the ruling elites, persistently pursuing their own path in the search for artist expression. Artists such as Shukhrat Adurashidov, Maskhud Tukhtaev, Shukhrat Timurov, Khaidar Sanaev and many others inspired the next generation to pursue their own artistic quest, too. Artists such as Orifjon Muinov developed the avant-garde tradition, using a sort of code or symbols to communicate with their audience.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan’s newfound independence had a dramatic affect on the art world, and new horizons opened. With a strong sense of identity and a proud cultural heritage, Uzbek artists entered the world arena and quickly assimilated new techniques. With the founding of the Uzbek Academy of Arts (1997), fine art was no longer seen as a kind of handicraft but took on a more philosophical role, a way to interpret and express the world around us.

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This diversity is one of the most interesting features of modern Uzbek art. Artists such as Javlon Umarbekov, Bakhodir Jalal, Fayzulla Akhmadaliev, Alisher Mirzaev, Lekim Ibragimov, Jamal Usmanov, Vyacheslav Useinov, Akmal Nur, Murad Karabaev, Erkin Juraev, Maxim Vardanyan, Khurshid Ziyakhanov, Nodir Imamov, Tahir Karimov, Bobur Ismailov, Rustam Bazarov, Ibragim Valikhojaev, Sanjar Jabbarov and Jamshid Adylov all seek to explore, understand and portray the world around them, but each has their own distinct approach.

Bakhodir Jalal, for instance, strives towards self-awareness, towards an understanding of the harmony between man and the Universe. His canvases unfold like a fantasy story revealing man’s place in this vast spinning cosmos. Bobur Ismailov’s works also tell a story, but his paintings have a theatrical feel to them, as though his characters were actors on the stage of life. Javlon Umarbekov takes a more poetic approach and his moving canvases exude his unmistakable love for the beauty of his native land. Love is a theme taken up by Akmal Nur, too; pure colour and tenderness fill every brushstroke of his luminous paintings.

The last two decades have been a time of great creativity here in Uzbekistan. The first international biennale of modern art was held here in 2001 and has played a tremendous role in revitalising the art scene ever since, bringing world-class art to our country and exposing our artists to international art lovers.  As well as showcasing modern pieces, new art galleries run exhibitions honouring great masters of the past, those who have so inspired artists of today. Firmly rooted in their centuries’ old heritage and with the symbolic motifs of folk art running through their blood, Uzbek artists are poised to create many more great works.

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