As Strong as Boiling Metal
A Discussion of Painting Other Places in the North Caucasus
Vision After the Sermon 1888 Paul Gauguin
‘Here I am on the Breton Shore. Let the towns light up in the evening. My day is done; I’m quitting Europe. Sea air will burn my lungs; strange climates will tan my skin. To swim, to trample the grass, to hunt, and above all to smoke; to drink liquors strong as boiling metal,-like my ancestors around the fires.’ Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell
Magomed Mogamedov the silversmith’s house had overlapping red, emerald and brown carpets covering every bit of floor and wall in every room and every corridor and staircase. There was a wolf skin on the banister and a hyperactive grandchild in blue and white striped pajamas and a plastic Father Christmas mask was tearing from room to room through small, hatch like doors which tunneled the wonky thick set walls. Despite the carpeted interior the house somehow reminded me of the sort of old Dorset farmhouses where I grew up.
Outside, the front door was intricately carved and painted light blue, Arabic calligraphy that no one could translate for me, covered the key stone above. A first-floor veranda overhung the front door, it’s complicated, paneled window stretched its entire outward face, the wooden frames also carved and painted blue, it looked out over a concertinaing of frosted hills, green valleys, contouring tracks and distant mountains. A three-foot-wide ladder, not quite parallel in form, led up to an open door. It was typical of many traditional houses which I had seen in all the mountain villages of Dagestan, Russia’s southern I republic which spans the northern eastern edge of the Caucasus mountain range.
We were in Kubachi, a village famous for its silversmiths, whose reputation for finely worked jewelry, guns and daggers spread throughout Russia and Iran and beyond, by the 12th century it was known as Zerikhgeran, Persian for ‘City of Armourers’. I was traveling with a Dagestani artist called Gabor, and we were sitting around the silversmith’s table at the end of diner eating jam with a spoon and drinking toasts of brandy. A middle-aged woman and a young woman came out alternatively from the kitchen to bring us tea, fruits and a bowl of sweets. An older woman, Mogamed the jeweler's wife arrived and smiled a greeting to us as she unwrapped her white head scarf which was dotted with large embroidered gold flowers. The young boy, the younger woman’s son, was still running around with his Santa Claus mask though the lower jaw and beard area had fallen off creating a more sinister effect which made Mogammed, who had been scolding his grandson, chuckle. This mask and the tinseled Christmas decorations that looped around the room and the pine tree in the corner caused a confusing knot of cultural associations and appropriations in my mind and, being the only one in the room who came from a Christian society, I realised I felt an odd kind of ownership of these festive objects. I was met with blank looks when I tried to explain it was Christmas Day today, at least in western Europe.
The following conversations are a record of what we spoke about that evening.
Magomed - My grandfather told me a story that a Persian Silversmith, jealous of our reputation and skill, sent to us here in Kubachi a fine silver thread with a note attached that read ‘try and replicate this’. The Kubachi smiths sent back the same note with the same thread but they had drilled a tiny hole lengthwise through the thing, turning it into a minute, silver pipe. I like to think it is true. My grandfather taught my father and my father taught me here in this house, every man in this village was a silversmith. By the time my son arrived the Soviets had built us a huge factory where they made us work. The noise was horrendous, the hammering, like a beehive, it was impossible to teach anyone in those conditions. Thankfully it is now a museum.
Me- Ah yes, when we were at the spring earlier some women pointed the huge concrete factory out to us. It looked very out of place. The woman all white headscarves, like your wife. Do all the women here wear white headscarves?
Gabor- Oliver is hoping to find out about the cultures of Dagestan so he can make some paintings about us.
Magomed - Yes, married women wear white head scarves with large gold flowers while the unmarried wear a white head scarf with a small simple flower. We have many traditions here, we even have our own language. You could make a painting of the women collecting water from the spring with the ornate water vessels.
Me- Actually I was reminded there of Gauguin’s paintings he did in Brittany with all the women wearing those white starched head dresses. I think the woman wear different sizes and shape depending on their age and class (Brown 2006). The painting called Vision after the Sermon, especially.
Magomed- I don’t know it.
Gabor- Doesn’t it show a scene from the Bible, Genesis. Jacob is wrestling an angel by a river in the background. It is a vibrant vermillion colour. The wrestlers are separated by an apple tree from 12 Breton women, dressed in black with yellow and blue white bonnets are gathered in the foreground and a pastor, who looks suspiciously like Gauguin, and they seem to be watching the fighters. There is a cow somewhere too isn’t there?
Me- Yes, there is. The story of Jacob wrestling the angel is from Genesis 32: 22-31. There is a lot of we can find out a lot about Brittany culture at the time from the painting (I’ve been researching painters who go to foreign places to paint before I came here). In fact, in an earlier 1886 trip Gauguin’s loose impressionist style of painting and drawing showed almost ethnographic details of Breton surroundings, customs and dress. The smallness of the hats denoted that the women are working class. (Brown 2006) The red vermillion in the picture has been said to be the inspired by the reddish dust that clouds up in the Breton fields at harvest (Brown 2006) and also from Gauguin’s interest in the pagan origins of the Breton traditions. The red colour also refers to the red of the banner of St Nicodemus, the saint who is celebrated on the pardon ceremony which the Gaugin painting also refers to. The cow is the pagan horned beast which is associated with St Nicodemus and was once a Celtic, pagan sacrifice which evolved to stands for Christ. It is set on the day of the pardon festival. (Herban III 1977)
Magomed- But what is the relevance of the wrestling?
Me- Wrestling was an ancient Breton tradition called Gouren, A cow was a prize for the winner. Gauguin may also have seen a kind of reenactment of this biblical wrestle in the plays that are performed outside Breton churches which date from medieval times. (Brown 2006) One can also see the Jewish robes and cap that Jacob is wearing befits the biblical era reference and that he has a beard. There was a tradition of young growing beards and then shaving on the day of the pardon. (Herban III 1977) Gauguin is suggesting that the faith of these simple people of Brittany is so pious that they can see these miraculous biblical events that they have just heard about in the church as if they are real (Medium 2016). They are almost childlike in their imagination. Gauguin was also continuing an art historical theme with, for example, Delacroix's Jacob Wrestling with an Angel 1850 and others. It is a primitive reimagining of the bible story of Jacob wrestling all night with an angel and eventually submitting, I suppose, to God. Perhaps it is Gauguin’s analogy of his own wrestle with man’s nature, with his conscience and with God. (Herban III 1977) Perhaps it is the Breton’s ancient pagan customs fighting with Christian beliefs or even the modernizing world.
Magomed- Do you know Wrestling is the number one sport here in and an ancient tradition here in Dagestan too. Even the USA Olympic team come here to train. We also have a lot of pagan beliefs that still survive from before the soviet era. In Dagestan we practice a form of Islam known as Sufism. It is mystical, god is in everything. Here in the mountains we also have a lot of pre-Islamic beliefs, mountain spirits, forest demons, sacred springs. The two types of belief are the same, they are intertwined (Chirikba 2015). Do you see the plastic mask on my grandson? Well that is a modern, Russian or even western influence, we have our own masks, I’ll show you one later. They are fairly demonic looking, felt and in all sorts of animal guises. My father used to wear it when went to the next to village over land disputes. We still use them in wedding ceremonies and many other occasions. We Dagestanis are not simple people though, the Russian used to call us primitive, some still do.
Gabor- I suppose you must think Dagestan is a kind of Russian Brittany!...
Me- Haha, no of course not!
Gabor- I would not read too much into the details of Gauguin’s paintings if you are looking ethnographic detail or the reality of a place. Gauguin was an early example of a western art movement know as primitivism. You know Gauguin went to Brittany in search of ‘le sauvage, le primitif’. (Brown 2006) Primitivism as an artistic movement coincided with the expanding colonial powers of France and Britain. The Idea that these overseas colonies in Asia, Africa and later in the South Pacific were people by races who were inferior to the colonial powers, that they were barbarian or savages, is an old one but was further strengthened by Darwin’s theory of evolution. As so called ‘primitive’ societies were seen as less developed in science, technology and culture it was assumed that they were an example of less evolved people in the Darwinian sense. They were seen as a frozen example of the west cultural past, a forgotten memory of the childhood of western culture. It was this childhood that the primitive artists wanted to tap into. (Rhodes 1994) They saw so called ‘primitive’ societies as inherently more creative, ‘somehow closer to fundamental aspects of human existence’ somehow more childlike. (Rhodes 1994)
Me- And wasn’t the establishment, Academic art at the time of Gauguin based on classicism? (Connelly 1995)
Gabor- That’s right. It was the classical art based on reason rather than intuition that the primativist artists wanted to puncture. The Enlightenment in the west sought to find the origin of culture and, through the writings La Scienca Nuovaa by Giambattista Vico, written in 1725 and which has the first definition of ‘primitive’ art, the west formed an idea of universalism in which all culture once passed through the primitive stage of culture and some still exist underdeveloped in this stage of development. Vico said art from primitive societies was ‘almost all body and no sense’. (Connelly 1995) It was ‘unbridled passion’ opposed to the reason and rationality of enlightenment and classical art. The western art establishment saw primitive art as a ‘dark mirror image against itself’. (Connelly 1995) Gauguin and the other Primitivists wanted to invert this idea that ‘primitive’ society was inferior, it was the civilized world that they saw as morally deviant and degenerate and by seeking out ‘primitive’ cultures they hoped to subvert the West’s superiority. (Rhodes 1994)
Magomed- But what has this got to do with Gauguin and his paintings in Brittany?
Gabor- This western term ‘primitive’ was used, really, to denote any culture that the West saw as less advanced than themselves, which was pretty much everyone. So, art as diverse as Japanese prints, Egyptian hieroglyphs, African masks and European medieval and pagan art were all called ‘primitive’. It can therefore be seen that this idea of the ‘primitive’ is a western fiction. (Rhodes 1994) Gauguin, before he went to Tahiti, first went to find the primitive in Brittany. As with all primitivist artists, he had this myth of the primitive in his mind and superimposed this fiction on his paintings of Brittany as he also did later in his Tahitian paintings. By the time Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven on the Breton coast it was already an established tourist center. The imagery for the wrestling in Vision After the Sermon may well have been seen by Gauguin as a spectacle for tourists. The Brittany of the late 19th century was not at all a peasant society but an economy that was growing wealthy through modern agricultural techniques. The white bonnets that the women wore were actually a fairly new addition to show the status of the newly rich peasant farmers and not a throwback to Celtic pagan times. (Rhodes 1994) Gauguin, therefore had to look else were for his primitive ideas and his painting are actually a hybrid of all sorts of influences. (Rhodes 1994) Emile Bernard’s Breton Women in The Meadow is frequently cited as the inspiration for Gauguin’s new style and the wrestlers, so claims his friend Bernard, were taken from the Hokusai’s prints of Sumo wrestlers as was the diagonal apple tree separating the Bretons from the wrestlers. (Herban III 1977) This, however does not take away from the importance and inventiveness of the painting and it still demonstrates a sense of place, and the opening up of creativity that seeing new horizons can excite in the artist, in the landscape at least, but it goes to show how problematic this idea of the primitive is.
Me – In a way it reminds me of how Peter Doig uses diverse references for his paintings in Trinidad. The painting Pelican, was a scene that he with his artist friend Chris Ofili saw in Trinidad of a man on the beach catching, and then dragging along a pelican. Unable to paint the scene without a photograph as reference, he eventually painted the figure from a postcard he found in a London shop of a fisherman in South India dragging a net along the sea. (Shiff 2008). Doig turned a fisherman and his net into something that he saw and that was emotionally distressing to him; the killing of a pelican, savage even…
Gabor- Unlike Gauguin though, Doig wasn’t setting out to look for savagery. Gauguin was very much looking for the savage and the primitive and even though he saw ‘primitive' societies in a positive way and as superior to Western civilization, he still had the prevalent western mindset that these 'primitives' were people who were different from western people, on a lower evolutionary wrung, ‘like my ancestors round the fire’ (Rimbaud 1873) as the Rimbaud poem goes. Doig, on the other hand, is working in post-colonial times where this idea of the primitive does not exist. Doig’s use of the south Indian fisherman also references the Indian element of Trinidad’s population and its colonial past. (Shiff 2008)The mind-set of the Colonial era Gauguin was very different.
Perhaps his friend Chris Ofili, who also went to Trinidad in search of fresh inspiration, is a better example to compare to Gauguin. His work in Trinidad at times references Gauguin, Matisse, the expressionists and the myth of the primitive artist, fully aware of his own otherness as an outsider in Trinidad (Gioni 2016). His series of work entitled
Blue Devils, 2014.. Chris Ofili
Blue Devils references young men in carnival time in Trinidad who, painted blue, enter the town from the hills to cause mischief. Ofili subverts this by making the blue devils refer to the police in the UK and America who victimise young black men by stop and search. (Adams 2017) One can see the echoes of what the primitivist artist were trying to do in his using of a foreign culture to subvert their own but today the idea of an inferior race does not exist. Also, when we consider that Ofili’s cultural heritage (his parents are Nigerian) and he is referencing primitivist art, it starts to make his critique of western society that much stronger than any original primitivist art. As an outsider to Trinidad, Ofili, like Gauguin in Tahiti and Brittany, finds the environment exciting ‘nature becomes your secondary palette, sublime beauty, incredible rawness’ (Little 2010) Perhaps it is mother nature that Gauguin was really inspired by, even if he didn’t know it. It was the finding of the west’s fantasy of the other that kept driving him on.
Me- This ‘otherness’ is written about by Edward Said and his term ‘orientalism’ must have had a lot to do with ideas of the primitive. He states that the West (traditionally England and France) like to study the orient (the middle east) in order to understand it and so better control it and have authority over it. Implicit in this is the setting up of the orient as a ‘sort of surrogate and even underground self’ (Said 1978) an immoral place to oppose the moral west, a primitive place to oppose the progressive west, a place that is seen as ‘other’ than the west, something that the west is not. Much like the way you said the ‘primitive’ art was a ‘dark mirror of classical art’ (Connelly 1995) There is also a sense of projecting a society's vices on to this ‘other’ place and in order to justify colonialism (Said 1978) Orientalism has now come to mean all types of otherness where the dominant party feels superior to an ‘other’ and a sense of the exotic. In his follow up book Culture and Imperialism Said explores how the novel helped proliferate colonial ideas of otherness and how they can still effect views today. He explains how Conrad, even though he was an anti-imperialist and saw the west’s exploits in colonies as morally corrupt, he still does not give a voice to the colonized people he writes about, their history and culture, their identity is given to them by the west, they are as ’silly children’ when compared to the westerner and if they are described it is in a highly stereotypical way. (Said 1993) Look at recent history of The USA’s involvement with Iraq. (Said 1993)
This preconceived authority over another culture could be seen in the way in which Gauguin relates to the local cultures he finds, even though he seeks to reverse western orientalist ideas he still imposes his own culture’s idea of how the culture should be. The problem being that this racist view of the ‘primitive’ societies was perpetuated in western society by Gauguin, Picasso and the German Expressionists long after the painters moved on to other subjects.
Mogamed- Well you can certainly find this idea of the ‘other’ when you read Russian literature about us here in the Caucasus. Lermontov and Tolstoy very much portrayed Dagistani and Chechen culture as primitive they romantised the whole area as a land of great beauty which was full of ferocious mountain warriors, sensuous yet chaste women and a simple culture. These are ideas that carry on to this day. But we are definitely now, at least part Russian. Look at this Christmas tree (we use it to celebrate new year), we are speaking Russian to each other too. There is no such thing as a pure culture as Gauguin was looking for or as one’s own cultural identity. Culture is in fact a fluid thing and always changing and diffusing with another culture. (Bhabha 1994)
Gabor- Yeah, your right, identity is very hard to pin down. Gauguin desired to find a stable identity in otherness, to be a treated as a ‘sovereign subject’ and was appalled to find, in the case of Tahiti, that the west was already there and the two cultures had mixed considerably. He found himself somewhere in the gap between the two. He was seen as an interloper by the locals and as a mischief maker by the colonial authorities. It was not exotic enough, so he invented or took from other 'exotic' primitive societies to make his painting, his own hybrid culture. This has been called his 'Primitivist's Dilemma, a dilemma that was unresolved in his painting and what makes them such brilliant works of art, his ongoing struggle with these ideas. (Foster 2014)
At this point Magomed showed us a black and white, Russian Documentary film about Kubachi that was shot in 1967. He held out his iPhone in his arthritic fingers. All the way through the film the silversmith kept shaking his head nostalgically and clicking the corner of his mouth. It is summer and women in white headscarves beat dust from Dagestani carpets on the rooftops over the warrens of ancient houses that make up the old village. Men and boys tap away at their silver. A close up shows the ankles and bare feet of young women stamping the soap out of wet cloths by the spring. A festival where a tightrope walker bounces and men drink toasts echoed smiles all round. A truck pulls up and a gaggle of white scarved women barter for broaches.
Every Dagestan village had an artisan trade, and every village was a fort, built high on cliffs and mountains, testament to the violence of its history and the constant attempts at invasion (history first records Arab invaders coming in the 7th century, it was to take until the 19th century before Dagestan was finally colonized). The Persian invaders called these unattainable peaks the Language Mountains, even today there are 31 commonly spoken distinct languages in area the size of Scotland. (Ware and Kisriev 2010)
Magomed asked if we had noticed the village next to Kubachi in the film. In 1967 Amzegi was a thriving village on top of the nearby hill. It made daggers and guns, Magomed said he made a good living inlaying these arms with silver. Earlier in the day he pointed out Amzeigi's broken black teeth on ridge a valley away. Gabor explained that it's not so much the lack of jobs that make people abandon their villages, it's more to do with not needing to live in mountain forts anymore.
Yesterday, Gabor and I discussed the English artist Paul Nash as we explored the remains of Gamsutl', a village high on a remote rocky crag. The ruins had reminded me of Corfe Castle, near to where I grew up in Dorset and of the paintings and photographs Nash made there and in the surrounding Isle of Purbeck.
The walls of Gamsutl' crowded a gloomy, mountain ridge hundreds of meters above the valley. Ornate, paintless doors lay in collapsed frames with Arabic carvings in the stone and goat hooves had printed muddy tracks between the former dwellings. All the walls were roofless except one lone house. The last resident of Gamsutl' moved out 4 years ago. Inside pans and jugs and bottles were neatly resting on shelves, a stained, sagging Soviet era world map was pinned to the wall, a trainer, electrical wires and an upturned draw of medicine scattered one corner of the clay floor. It was a temporary, unintentional museum which will soon disappear for good when the roof collapses. Up on the flat roof, in the snow, an adult's chair stood next to a child's chair looking out over the valley. Beside the chairs an oversized stone rolling pin lay, I had seen these things discarded all over the abandoned village. Gabor explain they were used to role the flat earthen roofs to keep them compacted and strong, without the daily rolling the earth will rot and the roof will soon collapse. There was an odd poetry to all these objects that now had no purpose, no human context.
Nash's photographs show three concrete steps in a field with a bramble, a disused stone gate post, ivy covered ruined castle walls. Things that hint off past human activity. Surreal objects. They are objects out of context that take on new meaning, meanings that are just out of grasp. In his paintings, the same objects keep cropping up, ladders, windows, hills, birds, moons making 'a veritable language, a system of signs' (Cardinal1979)
Having grown up around the places Nash painted I am amazed I can always tell exactly were the scenes are. The Paintings seem stylized to Nash's view of the world, they are Nash places that he has sought out but he still manages to capture the sense of place and the character of the Purbeck hills that I can recognise. Pillar and Moon 1932-1940 shows a line of trees and a pillar with a ball on top that is given mystical importance as the ball is echoed by a moon which is almost identical in size and colour. (Cardinal 1979) Perhaps Nash painted in the Purbecks because these are the types of things he found there. It is a Nash world where Neolithic hillforts and burial sites carve and sculpt many of the hills, man-made features that have subsequently been reclaimed by the landscape and turfed over millenniums ago (Cardinal 1979). Nine tumuli (burial mounds) lie on the ridge that stretches from Swanage to Corfe Castle. They were built on the false summit of this long hill so they can always be seen from the valley below, following you, silhouetted against the sky. Nash created a sort of animism when dealing with the ancient landscapes of England, mixing surrealist evocation of the unconscious with romantic traditions of English mystic artist such as Blake and Palmer. (Smiles 2003) He found a genuine ancient culture in his art, a shaman within himself perhaps.
Pillar and Moon (1932-1942) Paul Nash
On the way from Gamsutl' to Kubachi we passed through the village where Gabor grew up. It lay beneath a high terraced ridge which was turreted along the top with a sentry of natural obelisks. Driving up the mud road to the village we stopped the Land Rover to pull cannonball shaped fossils out of soft sandy cliff. The walls of the village houses themselves are pitted with these bulbous fossils. Gabor now lives with his wife and son in a tower block in Makhachkala. The interior is stripped back to the concrete and half the apartment is a studio. He regularly flies to china, where he used to teach art at a university, to spend a week painting portraits for rich Chinese. Gabor had a local carpenter make all the furniture in the apartments from the giant ribs of an old wooden sailing junk he found rotting on the coast near to where he and his family had lived on the South China Sea. A painting of some imaginary hunters returning with a dear in the snow which Gabor had heavily worked on course canvas as a young man hung amongst many others on the apartment wall.
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