A Brief History of the Fine Art of Kazakhstan

The story of professional art in Kazakhstan begins more than a hundred years ago when Nikolai Khludov arrived here from Russia, and became the first teacher of many local artists. At the time the Kazakhs were still a nomadic people and their art was constituted by the needs of the perambulatory existence – every yurt was a mobile exhibition of applied art. The collapse of the nomadic culture and the import of the Soviet revolution coincided with the active import of Russian art. From that time onward, the chief source of Kazakh artistic ideas was Russia.

Nikolai Khludov.

The professional art of Kazakhstan during its entire existence has been focused on the European style, mainly because all the information entering the country was filtered through Soviet censorship which determined a total scheme for the arts across the USSR.

Still, the Kazakhs have always striven for self-identity. The art that was entirely new and brought in from outside went through a process of adaptation to local conditions. However, the accelerated assimilation was not a mere mechanical transfer of the world’s cultural heritage to a new location – it was a difficult period for a new way of understanding of the development of the world.

In this history of Kazakh fine art, we can delineate several stages: 1920s to the 1940s was a time of laying the foundations of a professional school; the 1950s formed the Kazakh Soviet academism; the 1960s was a time of formation for the Kazakh variant of the ‘severe style’; the 1970s and 1980s saw the establishment of the ‘performance school’.

At the same time, we can see periods of stagnation, connected to the priorities of the Russian school (the 1920s to the 1950s), and periods of turbulence, marked by a more varied attention to the world (the 1960s and the 1990s).

Young Kazakh painters returned to their homeland in the 1950s, having trained in Moscow and Leningrad. Immersed in the Soviet culture, they were asked to create art that was ‘nationalist in form and socialist in content’. But in the view of a modern viewer, their works do not meet this instruction – as, instead, they used a classical compositional scheme to fulfil the nationalist content.

The narrative scene of the time was filled with a certain nostalgia for the patriarchal life untouched by civilisation, a lost ‘golden age’. Unsurprisingly, it was the painters of the next generation, those of the 1960s, who began to seek a new national form. They attracted the outrage of their senior colleagues who were shocked by their liberties, so contrary to the rules of the academic school.

As is well-known, small tears began to appear in the Iron Curtain during the 1960s, a thaw through which could wash in information about the wider world. True, that knowledge was regulated: one could learn about Guttuso but not about the Italian futurists; Rockwell Kent was acceptable, but not Warhol; Matisse was all right, but not Duchamp. The filters may have been battered but they were still effective. Along with the inflow of international ideas of art, the Kazakhs began to understand their own values and cultural traditions.

The guest arrives, by Salihitdin Aitbayev. (1969).

The Kazakh version of the Soviet ‘severe style’ differentiated itself with a clear unseverity: they were less reliant on the strict scheme of iconography than the positive/negative system of the Kazakh tapestry with its large patches of traditional ornamentation, and the plasticity and texture of ancient Turkish sculpture. At this time appear the on-the-spot paintings of Aitbayev and Sariyev, and the coarse-grained graphic art of Sidorkin. Senior colleagues focused on the setup of a Kazakh school did not recognise Kazakhstan in these works that initiated original artistic ideas unique to their country.

Then everything reverted to its place – the rends in the Iron Curtain were sealed up, even if not very carefully, and knowledge of ‘bourgeois art’ leaked in a very feeble stream, and would take another twenty years to widen again to a gushing river.

The major directions of art in the 1980s and 1990s are, in principle, a repetition of the confrontations of the art in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1970s and 80s were known as a period of stagnation, given that Russia (still a source, even if diminished, of direction) was stagnating as well. From the beginning of the 70s, Kazakh art appears to be braking, mulling over the discoveries of the previous decade, and – under the guise of aesthetic forms – covering up its own reluctance to face up to the realities of life. There is also a concurrent idea of what Kazakh art should be; on the other hand, the national idea that was necessary and original in the context of the 1960s was by the end of the 1980s anachronistic and irrelevant. As the political and economic situation changed, so did the artistic.

From the mid-1980s, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kazakh art began to actively recycle ‘forbidden’ ideas. The first exhibition of informal art ‘Crossroads’ opened in 1988 and demonstrated all the directions of art from the middle and latter half of the 20th century in their local versions. Artists, as though starved, consumed everything that could inform modern art – posters, magazine pictures, brochures, advertising. Meanwhile, live data from Moscow began to dwindle – journals closed, the Union of Artists collapsed, and Kazakh art began to be threatened with isolation.

Gradual changes in the situation were brought on by establishment of democratic reform and the liberalisation of the economy. Foreign companies and diplomatic missions and buyers appeared.

The Medeo Mountain Skating Rink, by Abylkhan Kasteyev. (1955).

An unprecedented flow of visitors poured into exhibition halls, and one gallery after another opened its doors. A new artistic situation established itself, sharply different in organisation from its predecessors: neither a union nor the ministry but art galleries on their own initiative  organised cultural events in which everyone was able to find their niche.

There is now an annual series of exhibitions ‘Parade of Galleries’ in Almaty, at the chief museum of the country, the Kasteyev State Museum of Art. This started in 1995, and a dozen to a score galleries participate in it; latterly, it’s not only galleries of Almaty that take part, but also those from other towns of Kazakhstan.

For several years now, they have been able to establish a completely new situation for Kazakh art, having carried out a series of large-scale projects.

[Loosely translated from ‘Fine Art of Kazakhstan‘, UNESCO.]