Lot 8
  • 8

Salikhitdin Aitbaev

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  • Salikhitdin Aitbaev
  • On Virgin Soil, Lunchtime
  • each: signed and titled on the reverse
  • oil on wood, in two parts
  • overall: 109.3 by 197.7cm.; 43 by 77 7/8 in.


Estate of the Artist
Art Gallery Rysbek Akhmetov, Almaty


Almaty, House of Artists; Kyzylorda, House of Culture, Our Kalzhan, 2009

Catalogue Note

Salikhitdin Aitbaev is an iconic name in Kazakh painting. He headed the avant-garde of his generation in the 1960s. This group of young artists, which included M. Kisamedinov, Sh. Sariev, T. Togusbaev, B. Tabiev, A Sidikhanov, E. Mergenov, T. Dosmagambetov, I. Isabaev, laid down a challenge to the established criteria of fine art of Kazakhstan. They refused to accept the official style of the Socialist Realist painters and their peculiar, theatrical manner of depicting life around them. As Morozov vividly expressed, "Young people wanted to do away with ceremonial costumes and grins of pretentious happiness."[1]

For Kazakh painting, the second half of the 1960s was a time of inquiry into new ideas and of defining the national character. As part of this deliberate examination of ethnocultural artistic concepts that were capable of expressing an identity in paint, artists put forward their own programme of creative activities. They first asked the questions: 'What is Kazakh painting?' and 'What about it is unique and distinct?' In establishing principles for a national artistic style, artists eventually relied on the heritage of a traditional nomadic culture.

This resulted in the reclamation and reinterpretation of folk art and traditional eastern miniatures, as well as the use of decorative colour, two-dimensional space, monumental forms and epic imagery. "The whole complex field of issues regarding tradition, succession, identity, particularities and creativity was tackled by artists not just intentionally, but as a part of overcoming the personal and collective challenge."[2]
In three works created in the second half of the 1960s and which brought him wide renown, Happiness (1966), Young Kazakhs (1967) and The Guest has Arrived (1969), Aitbaev embodied his interpretation of nomadic culture in order to develop its physical appearance and the features of its philosophical outlook. These works were a new chapter in the art of Kazakhstan and "only today do they reveal themselves to us as an artistic phenomenon, anticipating a new step in Kazakh fine art …"[3]. The painting Happiness served as a template for future generations, with its succinct and extensive conceptual expression of the nation’s attitude.

However, this period of productivity turned out to be short-lived. At the very beginning of the 1970s, Aitbaev, unsatisfied with what he found, departed from the paths he had previously pursued. Future investigations sought to bring together global cultural achievements.

The period known as ‘the thaw’ brought with it the opportunity for contact with original masterworks of world art that were all but unknown to young Soviet artists. This was a time of broad exposure to progressive art of the 20th century from abroad. One can recall these significant exhibitions, which powerfully expanded the creative horizons of young artists; in 1956 an exhibition of Pablo Picasso in Moscow; in 1957 an exhibition of foreign modern artists’ work as part of the International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow; in 1958 an exhibition of American abstraction at the Sokolniki exhibitionary complex; in 1960, Painting in Great Britain 1700 – 1960, at the A.S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art and in 1961 an exhibition of modern French masters at Sokolniki.
The 1970s brought stylistic change to young Kazakh artists as the future direction of art underwent quite some reconsideration. Reflecting the dramatic tension of the time and depicting personal psychological dramas became a priority for Aitbaev after the creation of his widely recognised ‘national’ style. The artist’s academic research led to further expansion in a more stylistic sense. He developed a passion for Cezanne and Picasso and after undertaking a specific trip to the Hermitage to make copies from original works by Picasso, publicised their oeuvres for the appreciation of others as well as himself; "He illuminated for us the works of Cezanne and Picasso, Mozart and Eastern miniatures…"[4]. The composition Portrait of Anuar Alimzhanov (1970) was the first work to show a definite change in Aitbaev’s artistic orientation. 

The diptych On Virgin Soil, Lunchtime, presented at this exhibition, is on the border between these two periods of Aitbayev’s artistic oeuvre. The painting is likely to have been executed at the end of the 1960s or in the early 1970s. The rhythmic, flat compositional structure and local colour are evidence in favour of this date. A general comparison can be made with Young Kazakhs.

The action depicted in the work takes place in an outdoor space with a yellow-ochre ground forming a spherical semi-circle that creates an image of an everlasting world. Here one can also sense the artist’s desire to connect Soviet subjects to common ethno-cultural subjects. An allusion to the present-day situation is given only by the shed covered in red cloth.  The composition stretches horizontally. People are settled around a low table. The table is bare apart from two gleaming white bowls. The main figure is marked out by his red coloured singlet. The character to his left is reading a newspaper. A dog is lying under the table, resting his head on his paws.

Artistic conventions and the generalised presentation of the theme of human unity are the main composite factors of this work. The artist propagates the values of naturalistic representation as is the recognised traditional national approach. However the scene itself is indefinite. Why are these people gathered at a table and where is the conversation leading? Everything here is taking place on a symbolic plane. And in this sense the diptych On Virgin Soil, Lunchtime has more analogies to the Last Supper than a canvas which Aitbayev was commissioned to paint in 1972, Lunch, Gathering of a Team. Even though this later work was based on a determined subject, it still bears comparison.

The ordered work was negatively received and provoked sharp critical judgement: "Charged with ‘Picassism’, adhering to ‘bourgeois formalism’, and contradicting Soviet art"[5]. Such an opinion, it is thought, emerged because this work depicted a present day scene and tended towards exact reportage by addressing a wide range of burning issues about communal living. Such perception happened, in the words of Morozova, because "young artists broke down the psychology of social responsibility in their works. As a result, works without any avant-garde qualities about them were still scarcely accepted into exhibitions. Subjects of young painting were criticised for not corresponding to poster stereotypes; their feelings not corresponding to the life-assurance of an 'ideal' Soviet man"[6].

As recollected by the art historian Camilla Lee, due to the accusations of formalism by the commission and the similarity of the painting with the subject of the Last Supper the artist was forced to make a few changes; to remove the bread from the hands of the figure to the left, whose pose almost separated it from his neighbour, and also to refine the title according to a suggestion from the Art Fund of Kazakhstan. In principle the changes were not significant, yet they allowed for the contract to be completed.

Nevertheless, during the execution of the commissioned work Aitbaev aimed to work out other stylistic issues, which drastically altered the final canvas. This reflected a pattern dictated by the times. The artist placed the group of people in an enclosed space, the only openings of which were two empty windows that provided him with the semblance of three dimensional perspectives. Here, the columns, road, horseman, and chimney stacks depicted out of the window are used to present a view of the brigands’ working activities. It is possible that because of these aspects the painting was for many years known by the title Lunch in the Field Camp. The artist created a type of ‘conceptual’ painting with realistic details, through which he attempted to link more closely art and the routine human experiences.

The painting Lunch, Gathering of a Team is now held in the collection of the A. Kasteev State Museum of Art, Almaty and is a classic example of the fine art of Kazakhstan.

[1] A. I. Morozov, Young Generation, Moscow: Soviet Artist, 1989, pp. 9-10

[2] R. A. Ergalieva, Ethnocultural Traditions in contemporary art of Kazakhstan, Almaty: Gylym, 2002, p. 46

[3] K. V. Lee, Fine Art of Kazakhstan. XX Century, Almaty: Atamura, 2001, p. 166

[4]  Obituary, Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 4 October 1994

[5] K. V. Lee, ibid. p. 167

[6] A. I. Morozov, ibid. p. 155

Catalogue note written by Kulzhazira Mukazhanova, art historian, AICA President of Kazakhstan National Section.