Winter 2005 (13.4)
of an Artist:
Impact of Stalin's Repression on Tahir Salahov's Art
Salahov was one of the co-founders of the artistic trend in Soviet
Art known as Severe Style, which grew out of a reaction against
Socialist Realism of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He wanted
to show real people, real feelings, real heroism. This was a
style in total contradiction to Stalin's propaganda that everything
in society was developing. This group dared to express doubts
and show the pain and struggles.
In 1968, Tahir was elected as Secretary of the USSR Artists'
Union. Over the course of 20 years, he was elected four times,
an unprecedented honor. Here he talks about some of the early
influences on his life as a child and the impact of his father
being repressed by Stalin on his worldview.
I was nine years old when Father was arrested in 1937. I never
saw him again. He never came back. But the years prior to that,
Father gave me and my brothers so much encouragement in art.
He would come from work everyday around five or six o'clock in
the evening. After dinner, he would put some coins in the inkpot
and would say: "Who can make the best drawing of Chapayev
[Russian military commander]?" And he would give us paper
and pencils and say, "I'm going to relax now and sleep,
you work on your drawings until I wake up." So he was always
announcing such competitions in our house.
So we would busy ourselves while he was sleeping. Two hours later,
he would wake up, take a look at our drawings and announce the
winner. Every day it was the same. This continued for several
years. We couldn't wait for Father to return home from work to
know what subject he would give us. To tell you the truth, I
think he gave us this assignment primarily so we wouldn't bother
him. How else could he have had a chance to get a little rest.
There were five of us kids, plus my parents - all living in the
confined space of a two-room apartment.
But the end result of my father's involvement was that all three
of us boys in the family became professional artists. Sabir became
a member of the Artists' Union and Mahir became a distinguished
Another important influence in my life was the woman who worked
at Belinski Library in the Revolution Garden (now Vahid Garden
below Philharmonic Hall). Today, the library no longer exists.
They've destroyed it. It used to stand opposite what is now the
Heydar Aliyev Foundation Building near the sea. There used to
be a kind librarian there; I don't even remember her name anymore.
But every time when she gave us books to read, she would ask
us to draw a picture to illustrate the story.
Sometimes I would take books from the library, read them, but
sometimes when I didn't have time to do a drawing I would feel
so embarrassed that I would hold on to the book more. I remember
sometimes even keeping the book for two months. Then upon returning
it, the librarian would give me another book and again ask me
to draw a picture. I gradually began to realize that she was
asking everybody to do this. Of course, not everybody did.
After a while, she organized an exhibition of our illustrations
there at the library. And this was how I met Toghrul Narimanbeyov
and Victor Galyavkin who later became distinguished artists.
They also illustrated some of the books.
There was another factor that played an enormous role in my becoming
an artist. In our home there used to be a painting hanging on
the wall. Actually, it was an engraving of a woman with long,
wavy hair. Her hands were tied behind her back. We always used
to look at that painting while we were eating.
Later on, after the officials arrested Father, they came back
and confiscated everything in our house - carpets, furniture,
everything. And they took that painting away, too, but they couldn't
take it away from my mind.
I think it's very important that every family has such painting.
It doesn't have to be an original work. It can be a reproduction
of a good painting as well. Such art takes on a life of its own
and family members start having a dialogue with the painting.
It starts talking to you. It's very important for children to
be exposed to art while they are growing up.
The War Years
The war years were very difficult in Azerbaijan. In 1942 I had
to drop out of school. I was in the fifth grade at the time.
All three of us boys had to start working. I was employed by
the Baku Water Pipeline.
Tahir Salahov's "Women
of Absheron", 1967. Here the women wait for their men to
return from work on the oil rigs in the Caspian sea. Note the
loneliness and isolation of each woman is occupied with her own
world - a situation characteristic of Stalin's era when people
could not trust one another. The artist himself had experienced
the agony of waiting in his own life as his family anticipated
the return of their father after he was arrested in 1938. Eighteen
years later they learned that he had been executed shortly after
being arrested, but no one had told them. Photo: Art by Tahir
I used to go around to the houses and check the water meters
to see how much the owners had to pay for water. My brother Mahir
also worked there. Then I returned to school a year later.
That summer I started to work in Kirov Park as an artist. I designed
announcement posters for them. For example, "Central Park
named after Kirov is announcing mass walk next week."
Throughout the city, I used to paint these announcements on the
asphalt. It was popular back then to paint on the asphalt. So
I had to produce such signs in about 20 locations. Even though
there was curfew at night, they gave me special permission to
do my work and I would go out with my bucket and paints.
I was only 15 years old at the time. First, I had to sweep the
asphalt clean, then sketch out the design and carefully do the
writing so it would be accurate and beautiful. Often guards would
stand around watching me.
Some would bring me bread or food. They showed a lot of respect
for me. It seems they liked to watch art being created right
there in front of their eyes. The drawings would remain on the
pavement for about a month or so and eventually wear off. Unfortunately,
I don't have any photos of these works.
Then I went to Leningrad. I wanted to enter the Art Academy there,
but they wouldn't admit me. The reason? My father. I was naïve.
On the application form, I had written that my father had been
arrested [we didn't learn until 18 years later that he had been
killed soon after his arrest]. Later I went to Moscow to enroll
in Surikov Institute. This time, I didn't write that my father
had been arrested. This time I was accepted.
My father's death had a strong influence on my art. The most
significant thing is that it made us children grow up to be very
independent. Society rejected us and so we went our own way.
In addition, we were always trying to prove by our own lives
that Father was not an "Enemy of the People". We always
wanted to bring honor to the name of our father and our mother
who had raised five children on her own.
I did my diploma work, painting the workers at Oil Rocks in their
rough environment of the Caspian Sea. Those piers and oil wells
out had just been built a decade earlier. It was the first time
in the world that anyone had drilled for oil in the sea. I went
out and lived with the oil workers. To tell you the truth, I
found them to be so brave and so honest. They didn't just work
there; they enjoyed nature's beauty - the seagulls, the sea in
all its splendor and power.
That's where I painted my diploma work entitled, "The Shift
is Over", which has become a classic in Soviet Art. It depicts
workers - both men and women - walking along a pier when the
shift is changing. There's a strength, a rhythm, a resolve in
the workers as they face into the wind. The work depicts a tough
Along with two other artists - Victor Ivanov and Pavel Nikhonov
- we are credited in the Soviet Encyclopedia with the creation
of new trend in Soviet Art. It was called "Severe Style".
During Stalin's era, artists were required to paint in the style
of Socialist Realism through a perspective of glorified optimism.
But there was no truth in it. Artists were not permitted to grapple
with the issues that were eating their souls; canvases had to
show that everybody was happy and satisfied.
But some of us artists emerging in the 1960s, opened a new direction
which emphasized strong truth, strong realism. Not Socialist
Realism, but realistic truth. "Severe Style" was a
kind of revolt and protest by a new generation of artists against
the artificiality of Stalin's art. We were tired of artifically
contrived sweet scenes. The new generation grew up with strong
inner feelings against the government. There was an strong under-current
of opposition though few dared to express it openly.
My works were often heavily criticized as being gloomy and having
an aura of pessimism. Critics complained that my colors were
dull, severe, and that people in my paintings were not content.
Once I was criticized because the main figure in the work was
walking with bowed head, as if he were depressed. It was hard
time for us. I tried to show real people, real feelings, real
heroism. Often the people in my paintings are shown dealing with
perilous conditions, facing unknown situations where their lives
are in jeopardy and the future is uncertain.
I was severely criticized for the portrait I painted of Shostakovich.
He is shown alone, abandoned and ill. And that was true. He had
a difficult life. Stalin gave him immense difficulties in 1948.
So I wanted to express this situation and it seems I succeeded.
In 1998, I was invited to the ceremony celebrating the 90th Jubilee
of Shostakovich in Moscow which was held at the Pushkin Museum.
Everyone was coming up and congratulating me for my painting
which was on exhibit but which had formerly been criticized.
Everyone was wondering if I had made any changes to the portrait
I replied that the portrait itself had mastered time, as people
were now looking at it with the different eyes. In the catalogue
of the exhibition, it was written: "In this excellent portrait
of Shostakovich by Tahir Salahov one can see a great musician
and composer, who bears the load of the 20th Century on his shoulders".
When I paint, I totally immerse myself in my work. I treat every
painting as if it were to be my last work. I can honestly say
that I'm not materially motivated. I try to feel deeply about
everything that I paint.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that my experiences as
a youth, especially in losing my father to Stalin's purges, has
definitely affected my brush, my choice of content, and even
color scheme. How could something so traumatic, so tragic and
so unjust not manifest itself both consciously and subconsciously
in my work?
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