1. Chechen Pictorial Arts
Chechen art has antecedents of many centuries. It ascends to the Early Bronze Age. The bronze, silver and gold articles of the Maikop archaeological culture belong to the most memorable samples of that art, which reached its peak in the Koban archaeological culture.
The independent development of certain genres of Chechen pictorial arts began fairly late—in particular, painting and drawing emerged after 1917, with the appearance of Chechen professional artists, while sculpture was well developed and had exceptionally long antecedents in the Caucasus. Ancient and mediaeval sculptures had a rare aesthetic appeal due to inimitable lines and shapes, even though they, strictly speaking, belonged to applied arts—these were human and animal figurines and idols cast by folk craftsmen for pagan adoration.
The Islamisation of Chechnya in the 17th centuries laid a ban on representing humans and animals, and pictorial arts became highly conventionalised, to the point of abstraction.
Pyotr Zakharov (1816-1852), the first of Chechen professional artists, was educated at the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. A child of three, orphaned when his native village of Dadi Yurt was given to fire and sword, he was Russian troops’ foundling. General Pyotr Yermolov, hero of the Napoleonic War of 1812, was his foster father. With brilliant artistic endowments, Pyotr studied art since childhood. Prominent Moscow portrait painter Lev Volkov was his first teacher. In 1833, Pyotr enrolled for the Academy of Arts as non-resident student, and won the scholarship of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists even in his first year.
He graduated in 1836 to become a prolific painter and participate in many exhibitions. His canvas An Old Woman Reading the Cards won a silver medal.
Zakharov’s portraits became popular in St Petersburg. Such celebrities as poet Mikhail Lermontov, historian Timofei Granovsky, surgeon Fefor Inozemtsev and writer Nikolai Muravyev sat for him. His subtle brushstroke and exquisite chiaroscuro helped to discern his model’s inner world through the figure and facial features, which he portrayed with the utmost accuracy. In particular, his portrait of Lermontov was considered to bear the greatest likeness of all the many portraits of the poet. Renowned Carl Bryullov said Zakharov was the second-best Russian portrait painter, himself being the best. It was a really impressive praise, considering the high level of contemporaneous Russian painting and Zakharov’s comparatively young age—he was in his late twenties then.
The portrait of General Alexei Yermolov, the conqueror of the Caucasus and Zakharov’s foster brother, and a self-portrait are the best-known of his works.
Yermolov’s portrait, which brought the artist the rank of Fellow of the Academy of Arts, is marked by psychological insight. The famous soldier is represented as a proud, austere and resolute man of valour, who has come through trials and tribulations to develop cruelty and arrogance.
The self-portrait represents the artist wearing a Caucasian fur hat and felt cloak, with a cased rifle in his hands—the attributes of a Chechen warrior deliberately emphasised by the painter, while his shadowed face recedes into the background. The painting embodies his homesickness for the Caucasus, which he had not revisited since early childhood but which his heart was ever striving for. Indicatively, he signed his canvases “Pyotr Zakharov, Chechen artist”.
The consumptive artist lived a short life but left more than a hundred excellent canvases that belong to the treasury of Russian and world culture. Russian and Chechen art both take lawful pride in him.
No Chechen painters had followed in Zakharov’s footsteps till the 1930s.
The Chechen Artists’ Union, established in 1943, had extremely few ethnic Chechens among its members. On the one hand, that was due to Chechen prejudice against art, rooted in the obscurantism of many mullahs, who considered figurative arts a trespass against the Almighty. As it really is, Islam prohibits only the manufacture and adoration of idols—just as Christianity. On the other hand, Chechen schools taught nothing but the three R’s, and boys and girls living in Chechnya had no chance of higher art education.
The deportation of Chechens put an abrupt stop to Artists’ Union activities. Its work resumed in the late 1950s, and was dominated by painters Shamil Shamurzayev, Hamzat Dadayev, Dadan Idrisov, Amadi Asukhanov, Said-Emin Elmurzayev and Kharon Isayev, and sculptor Ilyas Dutayev, known for carved wooden figurines. They made notable presences at many regional exhibitions, and won numerous awards.
Chechen artists of that time kept within the Soviet mainstream, portraying landscapes and labour scenes in the Socialist Realist spirit. Shamil Shamurzayev’s portraits, Amadi Asukhanov’s and Said-Emin Elmurzayev’s landscapes, and Khamur Ahmedov’s graphic art were setting the tune of Chechen art for many years.
Though Shamurzayev also excelled in landscapes and still-lifes, he owed his prominence to the portraiture of ordinary Chechen toilers—as in The Woman of the Mountains, The Pensioner, The Cattle-Breeder and The Concertina Player. He depicted people of frank countenance and tranquil gaze, impressive in their unassuming grassroots beauty.
Hamzat Dadayev won renown with his Carpet-Weavers when a young man. The trials and tribulations of his native people dominate his art. Pained compassion for his long-suffering land penetrates his latest works, such as Refugees and Grandson.
Amadi Asukhanov’s Chechen landscapes are imbued with love for his motherland, and the admiration of its majestic beauty, and the modesty and austerity of its people. He portrays Chechen mountains, towers, turbulent streams and local dwellers (Eventide, The Motives of My Motherland, In the Ancestral Land and The Prodigy of Nature). His latest works are dedicated to the tragedy of war. The paintings Wartime Wounds, Peace Street, The Centre of Grozny and Motherless are wrathful invectives against war, which tramples down every living thing and cripples Man and Nature alike. As the artist shows, the wounds on the face of the earth heal much quicker than wounds in the human heart.
The art of Kharon Isayev, of the older generation, mirrors the fate of the entire Chechen people. He excels in every genre, be it landscape, still-life or portrait. A catalogue of his works, published in 2008, reproduces his paintings and compiles reviews of, and essays on his art.
Young artists Vakhid Zaurayev, Said-Hussein Bitsirayev, Sultan and Lecha Abayev, Abu Pashayev, Sultan and Zamir Yushayev, Hassan Sediyev and Raisa Tesayeva started work in the 1980s to enrich Chechen art with new trends, themes and ideas.
Said-Hussein Bitsirayev is one of the few Chechen artists educated at the Ilya Repin Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. He settled in St Petersburg for good, and is presently a professor of the State Academy of Industrial Arts, the Chair of Painting. Despite that, he has retained heartfelt interest in Chechen culture and history. Even his Spanish Rhapsody, a cycle of paintings on Federico Garcia Lorca’s motives, and re-creating the artist’s firsthand Spanish impressions, finishes with a still-life and a self-portrait dominated by the Chechen theme.
The Spanish Rhapsody was a landmark in Bitsirayev’s quest for the new form and content as he turned to eternal, existential questions and the universal problems of life, death, love, and the triumph of life over death.
Love and death, joy and anguish walk always hand in hand. The way of all flesh is from the cradle to the grave, and the interpenetration of life and death haunts everyone. The cold breath of death makes the perception of life more acute and mystically profound, even if more tragic. Death embodies eternal love. The musical quality of line and colour in The Spanish Rhapsody merges with the word and rhythm of Lorca’s verse. The colour scheme of The Spanish Rhapsody rests on contrast. The awareness of the tragic quality of life penetrates Lorca’s poems. The Spanish Rhapsody is also imbued with it. However, its glowing colours make the cycle a hymn to joie de vivre.
Sultan Abayev also studied at the Ilya Repin Academy of Arts. Deeply interested in Chechen culture, he is dedicated to his roots. That is the vehicle of his work. Ancient towers silhouetted in his canvases look not mere buildings but shadows of the past, the present-day earthly embodiment of ancestors long gone—people who cherished their land and were ready to lay down their life for it.
In the paintings Nikaroi, The Shadows of the Past and Nocturnal Shades, towers now gather in a circle to protect their land with their mighty stone torsos, now stand in battle formation broken by enemy surprise attack. Every tower Abayev portrays is not a dumb stone structure but a live creature eternalised in stone. Through distinct preference for subdued colours, Abayev renders the borderline state between the animate world and the inanimate. He avoids contrasting colours and abrupt transitions from shape to shape.
A cycle of exquisite Oriental landscapes inspired by the artist’s journey to Korea portrays seaports, mountains and picturesque villages. Evidently influenced by Gauguin, they dazzle one with sharp contrasts of buoyant colours dominated by rich reds and greens.
Abayev’s gift reaches its peak in portraiture. He fully deserves his repute of one of Chechnya’s best portrait painters. His Tibetan Lama, The Portrait of My Brother, A Girl in an Armchair and The Portrait of an Old Man reveal high professionalism as the artist portrays the inner man through outward details and the interplay of light and shadow. The cycle Chechen Celebrities, at which he is working presently, will comprise portraits of cultural activists, researchers, educationalists and economists.
Lecha Abayev, another graduate of the Ilya Repin Academy of Arts and Sultan’s brother, is an artist of rare gift. A man of tragic fate, he has carried love of art and the history and culture of his people through all adversities.
Many of his works are dedicated to dramatic episodes of the Chechen past.
In the tragically magnificent Sheikh Mansur, the Imam’s figure towers above the army standing in formation before him. He is portrayed as more than a religious and military leader—he is a Redeemer, who has come into this world to improve humans—yet his posture shows not only majesty but also the awareness of the impending doom.
One of his best paintings, Zelimkhan of Kharachoi, portrays the famous outlaw as the embodiment of loneliness that awaits one who has challenged all evil under the sun.
Lecha Abayev is also a prolific landscape and still-life painter, and graphic artist.
Lema, the youngest of the Abayev brothers, also a graduate of the Ilya Repin Academy of Arts, extols the sublime spirit of the Chechen people, whose tragic fate he deeply empathises with.
Some artists are not merely affected by the tempests of the time they live in. Their art and life blend into that time and become its quintessence.
Vakhid Zaurayev regards art not only as a means of self-expression but also as the mode of life, and the way to create his own model of being, in which the confrontation between Good and Evil acquires a universal scope and an apocalyptic quality.
Zaurayev is a Post-Impressionist, Expressionist and Surrealist in one.
His Self-Portrait with Salvador Dali and Van Gogh is a key to his aesthetics. They are his teachers. Zaurayev inherits their manner and content. He is full of compassion for Van Gogh and worships the tragic genius of Dali. Van Gogh’s Last Painting is the most penetrating of Zaurayev’s works expressing empathy with the artist who was victim to his own passion for art. Colours, composition and dynamic lines—all are saturated with the Doomsday presentiment of death. The death of a genius is more than death. It is an irretrievable loss to the entire human race.
The aesthetic and psychological impact of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Dali does not make Zaurayev their imitator. He has made an artistic world all his own, which combines European civilisation with Nakh spirituality and thirst for the transcendental.
Zaurayev synthesises the Chechen spirit and the Western modernist aesthetics. This helps his art to retain profound content and the beauty of form during a thoroughgoing crisis of Chechen culture.
His early works are Impressionist—buoyant colours imbued with sunlight, love of life, and overwhelming joie de vivre, as in The Bouquet of Paradise. The Impressionistic desire to eternalise with his brush the last ray of light on the mountain top at sunset or a fleeting shadow on a sunflower petal at night acquires mighty drive with the powerful brushstroke and the thrust of the contrast-based colour scheme. Light and colour express emotions and sounds (Thunderstorm and Thunder). Sunflowers in the Dark, The Bouquet of White Hope, and Sunflowers are hymns to the harmony of existence, and to this sunny world.
Zaurayev regards Nature as the crown of creation. It is precious in itself as the embodiment of beauty and justice. Any man-made thing is secondary to it. Man’s creations might blend into the landscape, as the ancient Nakh towers (Towers in the Mountains) but much more often man brings disharmony and chaos into the world. War is the most dreadful of all human inventions.
The artist’s wartime impressions changed his views of the world and himself.
The Chechen War not merely brought him new themes—it made him a Surrealist. He gave up The Bouquet of White Hope for The Flowers of Evil. The new Zaurayev concentrates on Eternity and the contention of Good and Evil. He has developed a keen perception of Evil. As he sees it, Evil is invisible in the usual routine. The artist alone discerns it. Evil reveals itself to him now as a monster in his sleep (Nightmare and The Monster), now as an illusory apparition in the interplay of light and shade. The Satanic Rider communicates the artist’s awareness of the presence of Evil, of the diabolical power in this world. The contoured rider is barely discernible at first sight. A longer and closer look at the canvas reveals two or three—or more—riders, who gradually blend into a huge crowd. Evil is multiple, and has innumerable faces. In wartime, it casts off all its masks, and we see its true beastly face. War is the supreme manifestation of Evil. It destroys not only the present but also the past and the future (The Face of Evil, Fighter Planes, and The Breath of the Grave). Evil is boundless, and it takes the entire human race to fight it—or it will knock on every door tomorrow. European Fire Festivals, one of Zaurayev’s best works, is a warning. Here, the artist tries to comprehend his own attitude to European civilisation and moral values. This world is full of pain to overflowing. Famine, calamities and wars torment it. Europe, the only oasis of wellbeing, seeks to wall itself off from others’ plight in its secluded islet of entertainment and idol worship. It is feasting during the plague. The painting shows a dancing crowd which, in its frenzied exhilaration, does not see the horrible face of Devil, who gives the picture of mirth the satanic look of Black Sabbath. Devil turns man off from Good, and robs him of kindness and compassion. Grim and unrelenting, he brings man’s retribution ever closer.
Retribution and punishment for evildoings and earthliness are the leitmotifs of Zaurayev’s many works. Avarice makes man forget honour, dignity and everything he holds sacred. What is left in the end is the black slit of the grave (Dead Man’s Gold).
Yet there is a punishment even more dreadful. That is life in a limbo—not the death of particular people but the life-in-death of a nation that discards its culture and spirit, and loses the sense of historical succession. In Chechnya: The Obituary, the artist materialises his apocalyptic vision of contemporary life—a blood-curdling picture of the decay and death of every living thing. As Zaurayev sees it, we live in a topsy-turvy world of falsified values. What we deem this-worldly reality is actually the underworld, while sunlight belongs solely to the world of tombs—the world of the past, which is much cleaner, kinder and worthier than the present. Portrayed in the centre is the magic triangle, symbol of the Universe. In its vertex is the ominous face of Un-Nana, the pagan goddess of death and disease. This world is affected with disease caused by human evil. The artist views humankind as a crowd of walking corpses, who do not deserve their past and are killing their future.
Surrealist Abu Pashayev depicts the human world, inner and outer alike, as the chaos of harmony and the harmony of chaos. Good and Evil are inseparable, and live within each other. There is no way to know Good unless you know Evil. Birth brings forth death just as death is the prelude to life. Birth and death are just as inseparable as Good and Evil. The human soul is the abode of the entire Universe, for man the micro-cosmos is a replica of macro-cosmos, its soul materialised in the human body. The artist gives fantastic visual forms to mystical images and symbols. These bizarre shapes create the illusion of the eternal whirl dance of all creation. In Pashayev’s inimitable imagery, the macro-cosmos passes into the micro-cosmos, and the other way round.
Young Chechen painters Ruslan Khaskhanov, Fatima Daudova, Ramzan Izhayev, Zareta Murtazalieva, Rustam Sardalov and Magomed Zakriev have won recognition already, though they started work quite recently.
Chechen sculpture is developed far less than painting for many objective and subjective reasons.
Ilyas Dutayev, with his wooden figurines, is the best known of all Chechen sculptors. He displayed an interest in art in his adolescence. His carved Bunch of Flowers attracted the jury of the Firth Republican Applied Art Show in 1962. Dutayev studied at the Abramtsevo Art School outside Moscow, and became a laborious woodcarver after graduation. He won renown with a set of chess made as figurines of Chechens spectacularly reflecting the ethnic identity and mentality. Grandson Dancing, Waiting for the Son, and In the Cobbler’s Workshop, also dedicated to the ethnic theme, were highly appreciated by art scholars and the public-at-large.
Iles Tatayev carves unique sculptures of woodknobs, known for hardness. His titanic labour reveals the breathtaking beauty, harmony and splendour of Nature, which reveals its mysteries only to the chosen few. His compositions The Flame of Love, Motherhood, Bach’s Music, Planetary Alignment, The Lady with the Dog and Thought are amazing due to the author’s unique aesthetic vision. Every sculpture reflects an inimitable world of images, feelings and associations the artist and Nature create in their close teamwork.