Author: Sabira ALEKBER
“Tahir Salahov was a bright, sincere, unusually talented and spiritually generous person. His multifaceted talent, inexhaustible energy, endless dedication to his profession won him great, enduring love of connoisseurs of fine art all over the world. The bright memory of Tahir Salahov will forever remain in the hearts of his relatives, colleagues, friends and numerous admirers of his unique talent.”
First Vice President of Azerbaijan Mehriban Aliyeva
From Tahir Salahov’s memories
“My father was arrested on September 29, 1937. I remember that well. I was nine years old. He was the First Secretary of the Lachin District Committee of the Communist Party. Years later, in 1966, trying to find out about the fate of my father, I applied to Heydar Aliyev, who was then the Deputy Chairman of the KGB. He got his file from the archives. It was the first time I entered the building near the Dzerzhinsky Club and found myself in the office of Heydar Alievich. He was doing his job, while I was reading the documents for three hours. I can hardly express my emotional state at that moment. On July 4, 1938, after a meeting of the troika, my father was charged under four harsh articles and sentenced to death. He was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956. All these events left an indelible mark on us, his five children. We did not believe that our father could had committed something. We wanted to rehabilitate the good names of our parents", - from Tahir Salahov’s memories
And Tahir Salahov succeeded. Could those who arrested the father of a nine-year-old boy know then that he would become a world-class artist and observe the whole process anxiously? No!
Children? Who did care about them?! At that time no one knew how a mother of five children was supposed to raise her children alone. Salahov's father was arrested by the NKVD order No. 00447 during the first wave of purges, which marked the beginning of the so-called Great Terror of political repression. Arrests included peasants, priests, former nobles, as well as people suspected in affiliation with the White Movement or the opposition. Of the 1.7 million victims of political repression, only about 100,000 had connections with the Bolshevik Party, including the members of Komsomol, ordinary party members and a few party leaders. Salahov’s father was among these 100,000.
What was the fate of the children of ‘public enemies’? They could not expect good living conditions. And even the underaged (!) could be convicted and sent to concentration camps on charges of having ties with public enemies. These were the so-called CHSIR – members of the families of traitors. But thank God this did not happen to the family of Tahir Salahov. We’re also blessed that it’s often difficult to lock one’s talents and genius. Tahir had to leave his school to work as a controller at the Bakvodoprovod (Baku Main Water Line) together with his brother.
From Tahir Salahov’s memories
“Our mother raised five children alone. For twenty years, not a single person visited our home, as everyone was afraid to be accused of affiliation with the family of public enemy. Nobody greeted us. We grew up in some kind of isolation. I remember how my father would put a rouble under a silver inkwell and say: "Well, who would draw [Chapayev] better today?" He would fall asleep, and we used to try our best. Perhaps, these contests made us artists. I have a portrait of my mother, where she stands in front of an agave tree. The leaves of the tree represent us, her children!.."
His life could have become a model for the biography of a successful Soviet realist artist, if not for the arrest of his father. In search of justice, Salahov fought to defend the rights of many "wrong" artists unwanted by the Soviet ideology. “Laureate of all possible Soviet and post-Soviet state awards, medals and orders, an academician and a classic… He insisted on admitting to the Academy of Arts the artists whose art was more than alternative to his own, including, for example, Oleg Kulik, an ambiguous Soviet and Russian performance artist,” writes the art critic, Associate Professor of the European University in St. Petersburg, columnist Kira Dolina.
In 1950, Salahov graduated from the Azim Azimzade Art School in Baku. But since he was recognised as "the son of a public enemy", he could not enter the Ilya Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (now the Ilya Repin Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg). Fortunately, he could enter the Vasiliy Surikov Moscow State Academic Art Institute (workshop of P. D. Pokarzhevsky), which Salahov graduated in 1957 with a degree in painting.
Republican exhibitions, 1955. Salahov’s homeland, Azerbaijan, has always encouraged the artist. That’s where he became famous.
His series of paintings depicting oil workers (Morning Echelon, Over the Caspian Sea) have become popular since 1957 at group exhibitions all over the USSR. Salahov was famous for his harsh painting style. His portraits of Gara Garayev and Dmitry Shostakovich (both portraits are in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) have become classic examples of Salahov’s style, which, despite its official exhibition status, was in contrast with the established standards of socialist realism.
“Tahir Salahov was one of the artists who initiated the search for modern or, sometimes they still use the term borrowed from the critics of 1970s, a harsh style, which implied a change in heroes, characters and plots. Portraits of members of the state party elite were replaced by paintings of the men engaged in hard jobs, like the first heroes of Salahov – the oilmen of the Caspian Sea. Or people of intellectual labour, creative persons. But they were no longer in luxurious berets, with palettes and brushes, as in old portraits, but looked like Gara Garayev in Salahov’s eponymous portrait: in a state of powerful spiritual search. This simplicity and truth is perhaps the first impulse in Salahov’s search for a harsh style. After all, Salahov has never invented anything! He really loved his compatriots: Azerbaijani oilmen, bright, young, handsome and harsh heroes. Nor did he depict the people he found alien to his spirit,” says the Doctor of Art History, Alexander Morozov.
From Tahir Salahov’s memories
“Once I visited the Temple of Fire Worshipers in Surakhany. I saw a father and daughter praying to the fire. They prayed for a long time, and it was so mysterious and interesting. And I was really happy to watch them. Caravans from India, China stopped by the Temple of Fire Worshipers, where everyone prayed and felt united... Artists used the ‘white oil’ found here to create their works, adding it to their paints. It was this oil that gave some kind of unique flavour and texture to their paintings. There were the famous artists Yaroshenko, Gagarin, Ivanov, Bogolyubov. Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev also visited this place: he had a laboratory nearby. The temple was even visited by Dumas the father. Baku is a romance to oil labour. The city is associated with oil and oil production. I have always been fascinated by this theme. My university thesis was also dedicated to it. I lived for two months in a hostel with the oil workers. We became friends. Baku is a city of hard labour. It owes its existence to this labour, it smells and is saturated with oil. And one can't draw it otherwise."
The angular figures in his paintings are rigid, static, the shadows are not smooth, everything is sharply linear. His works are an explicit manifest of the art deco, the realities of the Soviet Union (!). Once again there is an echo of a difficult childhood and the status of the son of a public enemy – Salahov’s constant search for justice and non-standard artistic style. After all, a Soviet realist artist did not have such liberties as a synthesis of modernism and neoclassicism. Art Deco was influenced by trends such as Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism.
“It is not very clear whether Salahov has been familiar with art deco painting, but many of his paintings quite explicitly refer to this genre. One of his most famous works, which became famous only in the last decades of Salahov’s life, is a six-meter horizontal composition "For you, humanity!" (1961). It even became a motif for a remarkable story in Salahov’s life: the work was exhibited in the Manezh, where Nikita Khrushchev demonstratively reproached the abstractionists. But Salahov had enough intuition to hide his canvas from the eyes of the high-ranked Soviet officials on the eve of their arrival to the Manezh. After all, his naked characters and space exploration without Gagarin were hinting at obvious ideological tactlessness. Of course, references to Art Deco or Art Nouveau are a purely plastic resemblance, because for every true Soviet artist, content was much more important than form. However, the European character of Salakhov's painting is striking,” wrote art critic Kira Dolina.
From Tahir Salahov’s memories
“I was lucky to meet very interesting people who later became my friends. I think I will also meet such persons in the future. Creative people excite me. They excite with their activity, their inner strength, dynamics. Therefore, I do not paint literal portraits, but create images. For example, I am glad that I painted Shostakovich. I visited him for several days. He took it very seriously. I found a low table used as a stand for his phone and put a pillow on it. Shostakovich sat down, his hands wide open and he retreated into himself. This was the natural state of Shostakovich. I also painted a portrait of Rostropovich, not a literal one, but a certain image of a cellist. This is what he is, with his head up, connected with the sky and music when he plays on stage. And I had to try to be at his level. You see, I felt them because I spent hours with them. We became friends with Gara Garayev and met when he staged his ballet The Path of Thunder in Moscow (1958). There, at the rehearsals, I finished his image partially. But when I came home, I realised that something was escaping from me. Then I came to Garayev and asked: "Do you have a white sweater?" He changed his clothes and when he sat down next to his piano in a thoughtfully concentrated pose, I saw HIM."
“About a dozen of his paintings are on the list of the main works of the Soviet era. These include production themes (On Watch, 1957; Repairmen, 1960; Oilman, 1959), and portraits of the best people in the country (primarily the portrait of composer Gara Garayev, 1960), Fikret Amirov (1967), Rasul Rza (1971), and lyrical themes (a portrait of a mother standing next to an agave tree, 1980; replicated in millions of reproductions, including postage stamps, a girl on a horse - Aidan, 1967). Without Salahov, the harsh style would not become a great style. But there are still things for which we should be grateful to Salahov. Yes, he naively believed that democratising the art community can be from above, but a great sense of justice more than once forced him to defend the ‘wrong’ artists, primarily after the Bulldozer Exhibition (1974). And it was thanks to his post and connections as the First Secretary of the Union of Artists of the USSR in the late 1980s that the Soviet authorities opened the doors for contemporary art so triumphantly. Thanks to Salahov, in three years (1988-1991), the works of eight major Western contemporary and, importantly, living and actively working artists (Günther Uecker, Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, Gilbert and George, James Rosenquist, Jannis Kounellis) were exhibited in retrospective in Moscow. Smiling broadly, posing for photographers, giving a solemn speech, this Soviet academician opened Pandora's box. He has never regretted anything,” wrote Kira Dolina.
In Russia, Tahir Salahov is considered a great artist, the leader of Azerbaijani artş The world community of masters of modern art culture recognise him as a citizen of the world. For Azerbaijan, his name is a national asset.
“Tahir came to art as a realist and remained faithful to realism throughout his life. But this is not the ceremonial realism of the Soviet period, but a strict, tough one. He selects the most important from the chaos of life impressions, summarises and presents them to his viewers in this form,” recalls Anar, People's Writer of Azerbaijan.
Great master, you could have been completely different with the status of the son of a public enemy, but you chose the path of truth and justice, were not afraid to say your word in painting shackled by the Soviet ideology. And how lucky we are to live in the world as your contemporaries. Thank you for your works, which will live always!
From Tahir Salahov’s memories
“I take good care of my memories. This is a part of my life that helped me learn to overcome difficult life situations, appreciate whatever is sent from above. Fame does not come immediately – you need to deserve it, you need to believe in yourself and in the future, not forgetting to constantly work on yourself. It is important to be objective with yourself, try not to exaggerate your importance and talent. Life and profession have their own laws, which must be constantly learned and followed.”