Oriental Portrait

Absheron is the land loved by the sun on which it left its mark, which it penetrated with all its colors, the intolerable heat of which you feel through your naked soles in a hot summer day. Absheron, which is preservation area of poets which also has its chronicler with paints. And his name is Tahir Salahov. Outstanding master, national artist of Azerbaijan and Russia, winner of the state awards, vice president of the Russian Academy of Arts, current member of the European academy of Sciences and Arts – the list goes on and on. But the maestro does not rest on the pedestal of world recognition and on the eve of his 85th anniversary, as before, getting into creative search, makes new content and new forms.


The special earthly attractiveness of Salakhov's painting strikes at first sight. And it is very significant that the artist in young age worked as a painter of posters on asphalt – not hot, melting from heat, but cold and dusty night asphalt of Baku. In 1944, being 16, I already worked as a painter in Kirov's park, – the artist remembers, – I drew posters about upcoming events directly on asphalt. It was wartime, and walking at night was forbidden. But I was allowed to pass with a bucket of paint. Sometimes the patrol stopped and watched me drawing out those letters. And they used to take out their food and invite me to share a humble dinner with them. Then the nights got shorter... So it is possible to say, the first canvas of the master was the land, which later became one of the main themes of his art. And the heroes of daily work will forever be poeticized by his brush.

Once a disprover of academicism, whose creativity in line with modernism was perceived as innovation, now Salahov is an undisputed classic. The modesty of the color range, the so-called dominance of one color – "the open color" – became an attribute of his monumental painting, and the brevity and depth of expressive means – a feature of the artist's "brutal style". Tahir Salahov is a master in whose hands the colors "spoke out", so it is possible to talk about their rhythm, leitmotif, polyphony. And it was not by chance that the artist was destined to create portraits of legendary musicians of the 20th century.


The portrait of Shostakovich, which is now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery, was at the exhibition dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the composer, in the Pushkin Museum. I have not seen him for 10 years, – Salakhov admits. There were many exhibits: works he collected or received as a gift, works by other artists, and suddenly among all this I saw my portrait. I saw but I didn't recognize it. What surprised me is that many people came up asking: is this the same canvas? For some reason, it looks completely different. At this point you realize that 10 years have passed, and the work led its own life. It's not an accident. If the artist feels the image of a person, his works, art, mental state, his past, present and even future, it will turn out not just a photographic portrait, but penetration into the essence of the depicted. Even in the catalogue it was noted that the portrait of Tahir Salahov shows Shostakovich as a person carrying on himself the load of the 20th century.

And here's the history of this portrait: once I walked around the area of the main post office and met Mikhail Kapustin, citizen of Baku, employee of the newspaper "Pravda". He, having excellent knowledge of music, was going to an interview with the composer: "Tahir, I’m meeting with Shostakovich, you should come too and help me". So we headed to meet with Shostakovich, in house of composers. He met us warmly: "Qara Qarayev, whose portrait you wrote, told me about you. Have a seat here please, while we work". And Misha started an interview with him. I took my notebook out too, and started doing some sketches. On the first sketch was Dmitri Dmitriyevich in a profile, answering Mikhail's questions. I even clearly remember his answer to one of them: who is the best composer for you? Why you want to limit me? – he said, – I like many composers of different directions, both young, and passed away, different ones. It all depends on the inner state, so I don't want to starve myself by choosing someone specific. Then he looked at my sketch and asked me to sign it, while I was hoping that he would sign for me. Misha suggested: maybe you should work together. Yes, – he answered, – Qara Abulfazovich recommended me. That was our first meeting. He kept the sketch.


And although I already got deep into this job, it was quite a while, about two or three months before the meeting finally took place. On the call of Irina Antonova, the composer's wife, I arrived at the cottage. It was winter, it snowed. Dmitry and I sat down, had some tea. I had an album with me, a watercolor, and I did my first version of the sketch. He took this work so seriously that he put on a white shirt that morning. And a green vest. Said it was his favorite. I decided to replace his armchair, he sat in, with a chair. And since there were no other chairs in the room, I took a square table from under the phone in the hallway and placed two flat pillows on it. He sat down and retreated into himself. His fingers started moving as if to the beat of inaudible music, and I got started. And when Irina Antonova came in and noticed that it was so hard for him to sit, Dmitri objected: "Irinochka, we have already started working"…

I wrote three variations of the composer's portrait. But in 74, when Shostakovich passed away, after his funeral, I didn't approach the easel for probably three months. But one day I came to the workshop and looked at my work: it was a composer on a canvas in a green vest on top of a white shirt. He sat near the piano, with his hand put on the ottoman. And I made that black ottoman red. And sound of the work came on strong and tragic.

The portrait of Shostakovich belongs to series of Salakhov’s "musical" portraits. The brilliant images of cultural figures reveal the creative energy of art, its vulnerability and subtle spirituality.


At the same time, the artist's heritage is associated with the expression of daily labor, its lyrics and romanticism ("Ploughed Field", 1954, "Wilderness", 1954, "From the Shift", 1957, "Repair people", 1960, "Women of Absheron", 1967, "New Sea", 1970, etc.). Where do these images, silent and at the same time talking about the integrity with each its line come from? All of them come from life, – the artist answers. These are the people who inhabit the land of Absheron, with real fates, with no theatrical gestures, without losing touch with their land, bearing in themselves the imprint of its meagre nature. Already for 40 years Tair Salakhov has been spending his rest at the cottage in Nardaran village on Absheron. Here he observes life flow through once-established canons that locals remain true to. That is why the woman of Absheron is invariable in my eyes, – Salakhov notices, – she kept her internal core, as a natural phenomenon, she strikes with her resilience. Once established order of life here does not change, and new developments crash against them like it’s a rock. Someone drowned, or some fisherman did not return from the sea, and these simple women accept the terrible news in silence, and they instantly become monumental, sculptural images.

Today the painting of Tair Salakhov was reincarnated thanks to the idea of synthesis with carpet weaving, ancient native Azerbaijani handicrafts. And this is the natural outcome of the logic of Salakhov's creativity, which has always poeticized labor weekdays and hard workers. Carpets are created in the Sumgait workshop of Fazil Abbasguluzade. The artist, who shared his high intellectual creativity with the skill of the hands of ordinary weavers, showed a high degree of patriotism, humanism and creative ingenuity.


Interview by Ulviyya Mahmudova and Konul Nagiyeva 

Photo by Sanan Aleskerov 

The material was published in the 4th issue.