How Might Painting Be Used to Document an Idea of Place
Unit 2 Essay
Mogamed 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 and Arabic calligraphy that no one could translate for me covered the key stone above. A first-floor room, almost a conservatory or a veranda, overhung the front door, a complicated, paneled window stretched its entire outward face, the wooden panels 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 republic which spans the northern eastern edge of the Caucasus mountain range.
We were in Kubachi, a village famous for its silversmiths, its reputation for finely worked jewelry, guns and daggers spread throughout Russia, Iran and beyond. I was traveling with an artist called Gabor and Shamil, a photographer, both from Dagestan, and we were all 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 I assumed, 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 I thought, was still running around with his Santa Claus mask though the lower jaw and beard area had fallen off to the amusement of Mogamed. This mask and the 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 as 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. (Shamil the photographer spent most of the time submerged in his Instagram account)
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’. They sent back the same note with the same thread but they had drilled a 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- Oh yes, when we were at the spring earlier, some women pointed the huge concrete factory out to us. 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 (Brown2006). The painting called Vision after the Sermon, especially.
Magomed- I don’t know it.
Gabor- Ah yes, doesn’t it show a scene from the Bible, Genesis. I think. 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 to 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 too isn’t there?
Me- Yes, I think there is. The story of Jacob wrestling the angel is from Genesis 32: 22-31. From a very superficial reading of the painting we can find out a lot about Brittany culture at the time (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) Obviously they are Christian and apparently very religious, in fact Gauguin is suggesting that the faith of these women is so pious that they can see these miraculous event the happened in the Biblical past as if they are real (Medium 2016) we know the wrestlers are a vision because Gauguin mention that it ‘only exists in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon’ (Gauguin 1888) in a letter he wrote to Van Gough. (medium 2006). It has been suggested that the almost abstract vermilion red of the ground is the colour of the red haze of dust from the poor Brittany soil during harvest time. (Brown 2006)
Magomed- But what is the relevance of the wrestling?
Me- Wrestling was an ancient Breton tradition called gouren, the 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) Perhaps this is why he felt the need to tell Van Gough it was “in the imagination of the Bretons’' (Gauguin 1888) as he actually saw it. Gauguin was also continuing an art historical theme with, for example, Delacroix's Jacob Wrestling with an Angel1850 and many 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, with god. Perhaps it is the Breton’s ancient pagan customs fighting with Christian beliefs or even the modernizing world.
Magomed- 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. Actually, you know we have this terrorism problem here, Wahabists, Isis? Well, traditionally we practice a Sufism form of Islam. 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) The Authorities, are trying to popularize these beliefs through journalism and media to stop young men and women turning to Wahhabism and becoming radicalized or going to the forest as we say. They are also making sure all boys learn to wrestle, to have a sport, to no not feel disenfranchised by society and turn to the forest. (Panomarev 2018)
Gabor- Actually, I sometimes teach in the art school in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. We have been told to promote the old ideas there too.
I suppose you must think Dagestan is a kind of Russian Brittany! This is an old Russian colonial idea that is still prevalent today. You know Gauguin went to Brittany in search of ‘le sauvage, le primitif’. In the philosophical path of Rousseau and his association of people with simple minds having simple thoughts, Gauguin was reviving not just mysticism in art but a primitivism tradition and a belief, key to symbolist and synthesis art, that the primitive mind is linked to creativity and modern art. (Varnedoe 1984)
This new art was a break away from impressionism and the purely visual to portraying a more emotional experience of the world they saw, combining this with abstract form and colour and simplicity in shape. This is all very clear in the Visionwith its intense colours and crude shapes (Boyle-Turner 1986). Gauguin, however found the style for his Visionnot entirely in the Breton people and landscape but in other art and cultures. Emile Bernard’s Breton Women in The Meadowis 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 1977)
Me- That's interesting, it reminds me a bit of how Peter Doig uses diverse references for his paintings. The painting Pelican,was a scene that he with his artist friend Chris Offilli saw in Trinidad of a man on the beach catching,
and then dragging along a pelican. Unable to paint the scene without a photograph to as reference, in the end he 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) So disparate things can come together to form a scene and a sense of place even if the things or reference have no local flavor as it were. The important thing is that the artist is there to witness it. 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, a sort of colonial gaze, wanting to find a culture to oppose his western world. Orientalism was a term coined by Edward Said in his book of that name. 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. There is also a sense of projecting a society's vices on to this ‘other’ place and, a sexualized element to it. (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. The term can also be involved with the kind of romanticism we find in literature. For example, the Russian writer Pushkin, came here to the Caucasus looking for adventure. Dagestan, Chechnya, have, since Pushkin, become very much been Russia’s ‘other’. He Romanticized it, wrote of it’s great beauty, and of its primitive societies that were not Christian or civilized. Pushkin is a great writer though and filled his poems about the Caucasus with accurate ethnological detail of the local people.
Gauguin’s orientalism was conflicted with a genuine desire to experience difference in culture and to reverse the orientalist ideas of his French homeland. By seeking out the primitive he wanted to demonstrate that the modern west was the corrupt and sick society. However, he also 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. 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. 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)
Magomed- Ah yes, here is Gauguin's Visionon google. Even on this small screen it looks like it is somehow part of a larger mural, 'it looks like it’s about to burst the frame!' (Foster 2014) Have you heard of the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani? He is very famous here.
Me- Yes, I have, I saw his paintings in Tbilisi a few years ago. But couldn't find out anything about him.
Magomed- He was a simple, self taught, very poor painter who died penniless. He painted everything he knew and saw and imagined in his native Georgia. The food and drink, the feasting, famous battles, generals, peasants, farm animals, even polar bears and giraffes that he saw in the Tbilisi zoo. He painted always on black oil cloth giving his figures on odd glow. They were his versions of Byzantine imagery. I mention him because he, I think, really captures a culture in simple terms and he seems the complete opposite of what you say about Gauguin. Niko was at the bottom of society looking up.
Gabor- Actually I read that Pirosmani was included in a modern show with western artists both current and past, Damien Hurst, Sigma Polke and others. Pirosmani's paintings were meant to contrast with the western art as innocent attempts at painting the wondrous of the world around him, as a naive mystic, untouched by cynicism of the modern world, a primal innocent, an 'other', what Gauguin was looking for... (Janus 1997)
Magomed- Ha! There is nothing innocent about the Georgians, they know how to enjoy themselves, I've been there...
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 colonised). The Persian invaders called these unattainable peaks the Language Mountains, even today there are over 30 commonely spoken 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 stylised 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 Icanrecognise. 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.
On the way from Gamsutl' to Kubachi we passed through the village where Gabor grew up. It lay beneath ahigh terracedridge which was turreted along the top with a sentry of natural obelisks. Driving up themud road to the village we stopped the Land Rover to pull cannonballshaped 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.
Back at the silversmith's we went on to talk about Bruegel.
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Ware, R. and Kisriev, Ė. (2010). Dagestan. London: Routledge, pp.1-13 88-97
Vision After the Sermon1888
Shepherd, Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918)
Pillar and Moon (1932-1942) Paul Nash