Ornaments in the Harsh Style

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by Shirin Melikova, Director of the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum

The carpet, the symbol of Azerbaijan, was and remains an important part of the nation’s cultural tradition. As in past eras, the carpet is alive and evolving, reflecting the dominant stylistic, aesthetic, and intellectual preferences of its time. Professional artists developed the design of carpets, following the main trends in art in their broadest context. The carpet contributed to the creation of the interior, not so much from the functional point of view as from the aesthetic.

Adopting the prevalent artistic style of its day, the carpet played a decisive role in the composition of its epoch’s imagery. Even in the Soviet period, when national cultural outbursts were leveled, and the vast expanse of the Soviet Union was globalized, the carpet continued to be part of the interior. This is true not only the classic carpet, but also of narrative carpets that repeated scenes in the leading style of the Soviet Union: Socialist Realism.

In this regard, I want to talk about an outstanding artist of the Soviet era, the living legend and cult figure of Soviet art, Tahir Salakhov. He burst upon the scene during one of the most iconic trends in Soviet art — “harsh style” — and was one of its founders. The restrained color and compact, strict forms of his works were fundamentally different from the idealized realism of earlier Soviet art.

Azerbaijan Carpet Museum’s exposition
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum’s exposition

Salakhov’s workers, oilmen, and repairmen are purposeful and determined people, defying the elements. There is no false pathos nor artificial misery in them. These courageous people can appear tired, impassive, and closed, as if they have disappeared into themselves. The inner tension of Salakhov’s heroes arises not so much from the severity of their work as from the strained realities of Soviet life. This is true realism, showing life as it was, with a touch of romance that has always evoked and will forever evoke a response from the audience. It is no accident that Tahir Salakhov’s creativity garnered him many laurels: he was the People’s Artist of the USSR, vice president of the Russian Academy of Arts, and Chevalier of the highest state awards of Azerbaijan and Russia.
Portraiture is one of the most important elements in the works of Tahir Timurovich. We all know his famous works in this genre and we never cease to admire them. He created portraits of the composers Kara Karayev, Dmitry Shostakovich, Fikret Amirov, and the musician Mstislav Rostropovich. His glorious works adorn museum and art gallery expositions. And some of the portraits from his brush can be seen in the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, but in a slightly different form: embodied as carpets, transferred to the language of carpet weaving. Tahir Timurovich has been experimenting within this field, which is absolutely new to him, for a few years with great passion. He has always been and remains an enthusiast who tirelessly opens up new horizons, and now the carpet has begun to occupy an increasingly prominent place in his work.

I wondered why he chose this technique as a new way of embodying his works. Tahir Timurovich replied to my question by explaining that it all began with a photo that he happened to see of Picasso depicted against the background of a tapestry based on his canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. And Tahir Timurovich wanted to realize his works through this technique.
His first project within this medium was a work he did in collaboration with the carpet artist and People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, Eldar Mikailzade. They created the carpet Dede Gorgud, which is displayed in our museum’s current exposition (where you can also see the portrait carpets Dmitry Shostakovich and Uzeir Hajibeyov). Later, Tahir Timurovich worked on manifesting his paintings through this technique, and collaborated with other carpet artists.

I want to emphasize that Tahir Salakhov’s contribution as an artist to the process of transferring images from the canvas to the carpet is not limited to his authorship of the original picture. Tahir Timurovich works closely with carpet artists and carpet weavers, and monitors all the stages of work, from the development of the sketch to the weaving process. In this case, the carpet’s artistic expressiveness, which speaks the language of the ornament, does not simply flaunt a famous pictorial masterpiece with an ornate frame. Rather, by employing the meanings of certain symbols, it further reveals the individual’s character and creates a multilayered semantic background.

For example, the carpet Koroghlu (named after the hero of the Azerbaijani medieval epic), based on the painting of the same name, has complex, nuanced colors, and an ornamental border. Its main elements consist of a shield and a sword. The sword is based on a well-known characteristic element of Pyrebedil carpets called “gaichy” (scissors) or “buynuz” (horns), symbolizing the courage of the national hero.

Carpet Koroghlu. Azerbaijan. 2012. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 255x204 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov
Carpet Koroghlu. Azerbaijan. 2012. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 255×204 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov

One might say that, in the portrait carpet Fikret Amirov: The Thousand and One Nights, the fringe performs a full-fledged compositional role, along with the carpet’s central part. It is not by chance that even the name of the carpet reflects both the name of the portrait’s hero and the name of one of Amirov’s works. The fact is that several years ago, Tahir Timurovich created sketches of decorations for F. Amirov’s ballet A Thousand and One Nights for a new production by the Kremlin Ballet Theater. In this carpet, the composer’s image frames sketches of the production, immersing the viewer into the bewitching world of the eastern fairy tale, recreated by the duo of the beautiful composer and brilliant artist. Work on this carpet was completed just a few months ago.

Carpet Fikrat Amirov. A Thousand and One Nights. Azerbaijan. 2016. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 248x342 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov
Carpet Fikrat Amirov. A Thousand and One Nights. Azerbaijan. 2016. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 248×342 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov
Carpet Maksud Ibrahimbeyov. Azerbaijan. 2015. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 201x262 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov
Carpet Maksud Ibrahimbeyov. Azerbaijan. 2015. Wool, cotton. Pile, handmade. 201×262 cm. It was woven on the base of Tahir Salakhov’s painting. Sketch author: T.Bashirov

A very curious repetitive form of ornamentation was used in the rim of the carpet Maksud Ibrahimbekov (an Azerbaijani writer and screenwriter). This is the image of a blue eye, which has long served as an amulet in the East. In this work it symbolizes the blue eyes of his wife. The theme of love is complemented by the Azerbaijani traditional decorative and applied art image of two birds facing each other. In addition, a picture of an open book is included in the rim of the carpet, serving as the background for the writer’s signature, as well as an image of a pen and inkwell.
These carpets were created by Tahir Salakhov in co-authorship with the main artist of the Carpet Museum, Honored Artist of Azerbaijan Tariyer Bashirov, and were first presented at the exhibition Portraits: The World of Carpets by Tahir Salahov. It took place in May 2018 at the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, and was a major event for all who visited it. I can say without exaggeration that we attended an historic event: a survey of the creativity of one of the most famous domestic artists of our time.

Tahir Salakhov with Tarier Bashirov and weavers
Tahir Salakhov with Tarier Bashirov and weavers. Tahir Salakhov’s solo exhibition Portraits: The World of Carpets by Tahir Salahov, May 4, 2018, Azerbaijan Carpet Museum

Shirin Melikova, Director of the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum




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