The Painted Ground
Farkhad Khalilov: Acquaintance, Akhmedov Art Projects, London/Baku, 2011
Farkhad Khalilov’s son tells me that if I want to understand his father’s work then I just need to spend time in his garden. So I do. I’m standing on the terrace of his studio looking over grape vines and tomatoes, above a pool that once contained fish, listening to the call of the village muezzin. Above my head is sky, blue like paint I’ve seen before, and below the horizon is a pewter swathe – the Caspian – interrupted just twice by darkening trees. There is a headland to the left, indistinct but for pricks of light emanating from country houses and, below, textured botanical greens. At this point my eyes become unfocused, detail recedes, and I’m left with bands of colour. Below his domestic crop lies a scrag of scrubby ending. Grass has given way to golden mineral – sand catching sun, tempered by country dust. I think this is what he sees.

Khalilov was born in 1946, just one year after the Second World War. He is a member of the so-called ‘Thaw Generation’, which came of age during Nikita Khrushchev’s reign as Soviet premier. Chief among the novel social conditions affecting this generation’s outlook was the relative easing of state repression inaugurated by the new leader’s ‘Secret Speech’ at the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, in which de-Stalinization was announced. In the realm of fine art this meant the partial rehabilitation of modernism and increased access to ‘Western’ culture – exemplified by Picasso’s seventy-fifth birthday exhibition that year at the Pushkin Museum, followed by another in Leningrad. Beyond this, the genie of dissent was released, with artists exposed to critical polemics and so-called ‘tamizdat’ literature as well as negative reactions to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Together, such factors stoked enthusiasm for pursuits almost unthinkable to the previous generation, and the uptake of enlightened attitudes could not be broken despite subsequent political retrenchment and the stagnation of the Brezhnev years.

Khalilov’s independent path began while he was still attending Baku Art College, when the fifteen year old first read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life. This story of Van Gogh’s passion for the landscape of the Borinage fundamentally altered the young artist’s outlook, opening his eyes to his surroundings – which he studied with great intensity. Already, he was beginning to depart from the norms of the Soviet artistic education, his numerous drawings far too unorthodox to go unnoticed by the head of the curriculum department. Nevertheless, he completed his studies and maintained contact with leading progressive artists in Baku before taking up a place at the prestigious Stroganov Institute of Art in Moscow.

For a young Azeri artist it was an important professional step: a chance to cut his teeth at the centre of the Soviet artistic universe. But beyond the lecture halls of “Stroganovka” Khalilov was to pursue an altogether more important education. It was then that he took further steps into a changed landscape, into foreign books detailing formal discoveries by artists with unfamiliar names, and into discussions a world away from the party’s conceptual sanctions. It would soon become clear to him that, strangely, the new world had always been there. Beyond metaphor, it was beneath his feet. Khalilov’s paintings from this period set the tone for his later work. It is landscape that moves him, above all. When one looks at his youthful experiments the call of Cézanne rings clear. But, more importantly, it is the new realm of international art history that speaks loudest. Somewhere in Moscow’s communal apartments, amid late night discussions and furtive viewings in museum storerooms, the Soviet intellectual vista had broken apart. From this fissure a multi-hued, many-styled parallel universe of representation was pouring in, changing the way young artists saw the world. Khalilov’s early works from the 1960s are exemplary manifestations of this spirit of exploration.

Just as his work began to chart foreign stylistic terrain Khalilov became aware that this artistic journey could be perilous. The rector of the Stroganov – a Stalin-era figure named Zakharov who was solely responsible for assigning grades – was unimpressed with the young Azeri. ‘I figured they were clearly “drowning” me at the exams’, relates Khalilov, and ‘I began to have my teeth fall out over the nervous strain’. Once, by accident, he overheard one of Zakharov’s deans instructing a lecturer to “nail that Khalilov down” – to deny him a pass on a key assessment, a result that would have rendered him ineligible to sit final exams. In a fit of righteous passion the young artist pushed back. ‘I said [to him] right away that I was leaving the college, and do you know what the dean said? “A good idea, we wouldn’t let you graduate all the same”’. Khalilov then demanded an academic reference – a request the dean was only too ready to satisfy as it allowed him to get rid of his problem student with minimum fuss.

Shortly afterwards, in 1968, the artist transferred to the Moscow Polygraphic Institute, a less prestigious but more liberal environment. ‘It was very popular school’, says Khalilov, ‘where painting was rather applied and so therefore independent thinking was possible. There was also a brilliant group of pedagogues, many of whom had known members of the Russian [revolutionary] avant-gardes personally’. It was here that, for the first time in my life, I got an excellent mark’. The structure of the studentship was also more free as he was enrolled ‘by correspondence’, meaning that he only had to attend lessons for four months of the year, the rest of the time unstructured and given over to exam preparation. Khalilov used this time as ‘mine and mine only’ – effectively, as an opportunity to pursue free drawing and increase his knowledge of foreign and avant-garde art historical developments. This was also a time of regular engagement with the unofficial artistic milieu, including correspondence with with leading figures including Natalia Nesterova, Tatiana Nazarenko, Oleg Tselkov and Ilya Kabakov. It was here in extracurricular ‘alternative’ culture that Soviet art history was really being made, where the ideological and realist strictures that had been in place since the 1930s were being cast asunder and where the furtive rebirth of private artistic sentiment was taking hold. Even after the completing his studies at the institute, while dividing his time between Moscow and Baku, Khalilov would maintain his nonconformist passion.

Paradoxically, for the Soviet context, Khalilov’s unorthodox path would lead him back to the centre of the cultural power structure. In addition to his bohemian manner, his dispute with the Stroganov’s rector marked him out as someone prepared to take the risk of standing up for principles. Thus, despite his minimal involvement in Baku’s public artistic life, in 1987 a group of progressive artists made Khalilov their candidate for the chairmanship of the Union of Azerbaijan Artists. To everyone’s great surprise he won the popular vote, defeating an opponent endorsed by the First Secretary of the Central Committee (of the Communist Party). During a ratification congress that lasted three days and two nights, in which his credentials were scrutinized and trashed by conservative apparatchiks, victory was anything but secure. “He’s good, but he’s not a member of the CPSU”, went one Party objection; “He has no regalia”, another. However, his supporters dug their heels in and the reforming spirit of the times prevailed. So began Khalilov’s tenure, and he would hold the post until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, he still holds it today, having managed the organization’s transition from socialist to capitalist context – via a stint as a member of parliament during the turmoil of the 1990s. That the union is still able to provide free studios to its members in such changed economic times is a direct consequence of Khalilov’s tireless work on behalf of Azeri artists.

Concern for others is a desirable quality in a leader, but for Khalilov this also meant disregarding his own reputation as a practicing artist. For more than two decades he did not exhibit in Azerbaijan – despite museum presentations abroad, in Russia and elsewhere. This was not for want of opportunity, but Khalilov has been adamant that he should not abuse his prominent position in the public arena. Moreover, he has relished keeping painting, his first love, to himself – a sanctuary from day to day realpolitik and the pace of urban life. He still pursues this aesthetic quest for honesty and simplicity in his country studio, today, much as he has done since the 1980s.

Some of the works in Khalilov’s studio have been there for thirty-five years or more and a few are still are in progress. ‘I started painting them and wasn’t sure about a particular element’, he relates, ‘but I always think there is more time to discover the solution. Maybe it takes three decades but I get there’. The important thing is to achieve an economy of expression, and his method is akin to meditation. He also likens it to poetry. ‘The epoch of the 1960s was completely impregnated with poetry, but it seemed to me that I could not deeply perceive this world. I was sincerely interested, but was tormented by my lack of connection. Now I know I just don’t like too many words: When I was around twenty years old I was at a friend’s house in Moscow with a group of artists and we all had too much to drink. I stayed there overnight and the next morning I opened my eyes when everyone was still asleep. There was a big library and so I took out a book and began to read. It was the first time I ever encountered a Chinese poem. It was only a couple of lines long and then [it] finished. It went something like this – “In fish eyes, only tears”. My eyes were opened. It was perfect’.

‘People perceive it as more or less abstract work’, he says gesturing at the stacks of pictures. ‘That’s funny to me because these [canvases] are what I saw or felt’. ‘I sit and look and draw’, Khalilov continues, ‘my style is not from the head’. Ever since his time in Moscow the artist’s work tells the ‘truth’ of his relationship to landscape. Hailing from Baku, the city of wind and fire, the truth of these surroundings is intense. The heraldic symbol that represents the region on flags and which adorns the facades of municipal buildings is a flame. This emblem has something to do with the burning ground – eternal fire, which springs from the rocky earth mere kilometers outside town and just off the country road to his studio. To get there, as Khalilov does almost every day, one must pass by an expansive oilfield – more than a thousand winching pumps, ceaseless in their movement, bristling the baked earth amid reflective pools of crude.

Khalilov is certainly a colourist, and not all of his palette is easy. How to appreciate the fathoming black that sits heavy on some of his canvases? Likewise, the earth-brown that reddens this tone about its edges and purples which rise from the murk, hinting at biology. These are not allegories, not metaphysic, Khalilov insists. But he will admit to having spent many a summer sketching in the oilfields, delighting at the sight of runoff from the wells collecting and snaking through the dirt. He has never painted the pumps themselves – too much extraneous detail – but they are not far from his mind. As they pull the paint from the earth in ceaseless toil Khalilov wets his brush.

But beyond the wilds on Baku’s fringe the artist finds order. Khalilov’s garden bears aesthetic fruit. This is his spiritual microcosmos, and it reflects the formal characteristics of his work. In material terms, every garden is an exercise in limiting the complex distribution of naturally occurring life to an island of relative orderliness and simplicity. After all, order begins with the representation of a border – describing the aesthetic field, giving shape to its contents. Harmony and balance is as much the product of omission as inclusion. As the threshold regulates, music replaces noise; that which lies within the bounds approaches the essential. In fact, Azeri carpets – for long, considered the nation’s paramount artistic product – commonly feature images of ideal enclosed gardens filled with geometric ornaments, flowers, and animals. Such scenes seem to acknowledge that figural mimesis is grounded in the pruning of messy – lived – reality. It is thus appropriate to consider them premonitory metaphors for Khalilov’s formal agenda, and his canvases as contemporary successors to highest aspirations of Azeri culture.

Farkhad Khalilov: Acquaintance