Wedding in the Caucasus
36 x 48 in.
Murat Kaboulov – No Dividing Line
I have before me a painting by Murat Kaboulov entitled ‘Countryside’. It’s an oil on board and measures about 16 x 12 inches. It was painted in 1988, that is around the time I first met Murat in Ossetia. Together the following summer we toured various artists’ studios in Vladikavkaz (then Ordzhonikidze), Murat’s home town, held an impromptu music evening in the municipal museum and art gallery on Peace Avenue, and spent hours pondering the curious nature of art. Murat ponders but does not pontificate. His manner and his art are at once thoughtful and spontaneous, refined and reverie-like. ‘Countryside’ has no horizon, no apparent depth or illustionistic space, no solid ground, no discernible action. It is calm and yet full movement. Figures emerge and disappear into the flow of yellows, reds, greens and browns. Apparently two young women stand slightly off-centre. Two children are placed to their sides. They commune. The heads of the women incline towards each other as they seem to contemplate some small object held somehow between them. The passivity of the children, one seated on the ground, the other standing with his arms crossed, while energised by the thickly impastoed smears of yellow and red across their upper bodies, imparts a melancholy to the picture. The fluidity of these insubstantial beings meshes with their surroundings, the whole becoming a river of Ossetian colour in which fragments of buildings such as barely visible ptiched roofs float like jetsom and flotsam. For all its abstractions the painting reflects the spirit and origins of Kaboulov, his journey and quest, his projection of beauty, memory and experience. ‘Countryside’ glows with Murat’s gentle but vivid inner warmth. While it expresses the timeless, universal relationship of human beings and nature it also captures the moment. There is, within its harmony, an ineffible quality of turmoil, as if the artist has, in a hyper-sensitised way, understood the distress of his homeland. A feeling of conflagration, an all-engulfing fire, permeates the work. The transience of all things, of all states and beings seems to be emitted from the composition. Nothing is static in Kaboulov. Everything is fragile and connected. And within this vision, which could be most awesome, he enunciates the beautiful.
Kaboulov has always been a colourist. His canvases are saturated in bright hues, often applied with loose, broad brushstrokes which convey his sensitivities. Back in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union was unravelling his art captured the trauma of the northern Caucasus and beyond in an unparalleled way. His red horsemen, blue mothers, bearded guardians of the mountain traditions, melded with their settings, homes, earth and sky as if belonging to a kaleidoscopic continuum of existence. The figures were frontal and, for all the motion in which they are caught, still. They observe, wait. While the colour bursts around them they appear pensive, their eyes, brows, hands and feet expressing simultaneously eternal foreboding and a tremulous certainty of place. Those rich colour medleys contained elements of dissonance, frequently imparted through arms that ask ‘Why?’, eyes that suspiciously ask ‘What?’ or anatomical distortions that ask ‘How?’ I remember eating and drinking at Murat’s table until long into the night. Around him were his books and reproductions of pictures by some inspirational artists that he would refer to with due respect and empathy. Although there are some traces of Yevsey Moiseyenko, his teacher at the Leningrad Academy, in his painterly approach, the impact of the Fauves and German Expressionists, including Matisse, Derain, Roualt, Nolde and Kandinsky, many of whom he had seen in The Hermitage, carries more weight. Murat stretched the boundaries of what was permissable in late Soviet painting. He turned towards those artists who expressed a search for inner truth, a Zeitgeist concern and volatility over and above the conveyance of certitude, versimilitude and human-designated order. On the wall above the table was Monet’s ‘Impression. Sunrise’ with its quivering light, reflections and fragment-like space, while Matisse’s red-figured circle ‘Dance’ peered out at us from among the books.
Just below the Matisse was a new portrait of Murat’s wife Marina, who sat with her sister beside us. This image stays with me and in many ways it anticipated the turn in Murat’s painting and life that was to occur very soon. For by the early 1990s the couple were in the USA and Murat’s painting departed from his north Caucasian motifs. Always concerned with the nature of beauty henceforth Kaboulov concentrated on extracting it from his new surroundings and intimates. While his approach and technique remained ostensibly attached to that which had gone before his subjects moved away from the southern heat of Europe’s highest mountains and their communities to contemplative cityscapes such as New York, St Petersburg, London, Moscow and Paris. In addition, a new mellowness was to be found in his painting of women. As his muses these appear now in parks, cafés, as dancers and bathers, as mirror gazers and piano players. As before there is no hint of ‘work’ or conventional narrative. But now the figures are more youthful, the flowers more fragile, the marines more pastoral, the light more diffuse. The primal pensiveness has gone, replaced by a suffusing, calm iridescence. If anything Kaboulov has turned from Caucasian Expressionism to Arcadian Impressionism. But ‘-isms’ are of dubious worth and, as ever with Murat the unifier, there is no dividing line. Or is there?
Copyright © Jeremy Howard. All rights reserved. No reproduction, publication or alteration of the above text is allowed without the author’s written permission.
School of Art History
University of St Andrews