The State Museum of Oriental Art of Russia, in cooperation with the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum (ANCM), is holding an exhibition called “Echo of Soviet Azerbaijan. Carpet. Embroidery. Poster.” The main theme of the exhibition is the Soviet-era symbolism found in carpets and embroidery from 1920 to 1970. A total 38 exhibits are presented: carpets of the 1920s through the 1970s from the collection of the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum (Baku), textile panels and their sketches, embroidery from the 1920s and 1930s, carpets from 1920 to 1950 from the collection of the State Museum of Oriental Art (Moscow), and posters of the 1920s from the collection of the Mardjani Foundation (Moscow).
The main theme of the exhibition is the Soviet-era symbolism found in carpets and embroidery from 1920 to 1970
The exhibits were selected as examples of the political propaganda of the Soviet era. This particular type of textile propaganda was adopted by the Soviets around the 1920s, beginning with Lenin’s 1918 plan of “monumental propaganda,” which determined specific historical figures that were worthy to be immortalized in sculpture, painting and other works of art. These selections included numerous images of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Leonid Brezhnev, and Fidel Castro. Many other politically aligned figures were immortalized in stone, bronze and even oriental textiles.
Trains, posters and carpets
Interestingly, the Soviet propaganda began with “agit-trains”—locomotives which had their cars repurposed for the display of propaganda. In 1918, the special department of agit-trains was established at the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. The “agitation and decorative” paintings were drawn by artists of the collective IZO-AGIT under the guidance of the artist Ignatius Nivinsky. There were many of these trains, and their names spoke for themselves: “The October Revolution,” the “Red Railwayman,” the “Red Cossack,” the “Soviet Caucasus,” and the “Red East.” Each train traveled on a specific territory, and “the Red East” traveled in Central Asia. In addition to agit-trains, there were agit-steamers (steamboats) that had walls decorated with inscriptions and images calling on viewers to struggle for a brighter future.
The agit-transport was followed by posters. In Azerbaijan, these posters were produced by a state-run artists’ studio, established in the 1920s as the art department of BakkavRost (Baku-Caucasus branch of the Russian Telegraph Agency). This studio was home to artists such as Sergei Gorodetsky, Azim Azimzade, Huseyn Kuli Huseynov, V. Ter-Pogosov and many others, all of whom created colorful print products on hot daily issues. In Central Asia, agitation graphics were launched almost simultaneously. For instance, few people know that in 1915, the “School of Oriental Arts” was opened in Ashgabat. N. Kostenko, O. Mizgireva, A. Vladichuk, V. Nikonov, V. Demidenkov, and many others created the first propaganda posters in Central Asia. The posters added “eastern” features of the target audience: inscriptions were made in Cyrillic and Arabic fonts, vestimentary features were observed, and eloquent symbols were used. This allowed educated people to read the inscription, and Central Asian Muslims who could not read Russian could still understand the meaning of the poster through the picture.
Carpet propaganda began in the 1920s. The “Echo of Soviet Azerbaijan” exhibition will present two of the first such carpets from Azerbaijani artisans: “World Revolution Leader Lenin and Leader of Orient Narimanov” (Karabakh, Shusha city, 1920, Wool, 140×193, the State Museum of Oriental Art) and “Lenin” (1920s, Wool, 193×92, ANCM). In Central Asia, the most famous carpets were produced in Turkmenistan. The first woven portraits of Lenin were manufactured by Turkmen carpet-makers in Mary and in Cheleken in 1925. This was the beginning of the realization of “Leniniana” in carpets and embroidery; for example, one iconic carpet displays a portrait of Lenin. Professional artists collaborated with carpet-makers: “Victory Holiday,” “Likbez,” “Friendship of the peoples of the Soviet Union,” “Leninism wins,” and numerous portraits of the heroes of the communist revolution and Soviet times were all products of this collaboration. The exhibition in the State Museum of Oriental Art features embroidered portraits of Voroshilov, Molotov and Stalin.
Interview with curator
Maria Filatova, one of the curators of the exhibition and a researcher at the State Museum of Oriental Art, describes the collection as follows:
“We have a very bright and dynamic exposition – a story about a certain epoch in which our countries were united and had a common path, about political ideas of building a new world and methods of visual propaganda in the Soviet period. We showed how the language of this propaganda was changing from decade to decade and how the cultural code, traditions, and culture of Azerbaijan influenced this political art in its basis.
The 1920s are the most avant-garde. During this period, no clichés or definite iconography of leaders’ images had yet emerged. Artists could experiment by creating unexpected—even from a modern point of view—curious variants of carpets, embroideries and posters. Later, by the 1930s, the artistic rules became stricter; instead of three-dimensional texts often using Arabic script (even poems were printed in the posters), there were short, succinct slogans, and the plant and bird images were replaced by large human figures. The avant-garde was replaced by social realism. These are carpets created manually on machine tools using the best wool by the masters of the “Azerkhalcha” production association. Pictorial works of famous Azerbaijani artists were often used in carpet, and the carpets were of huge sizes. The work of the masters who wove these images in various shades of color and forms is admirable.
“Removal of the veil” shows an image of a freed woman with a red flag in her hands (Author: Gulbike Iskanderova, the end of the 1920s, the State Museum of Oriental Art). The design is traditional for Azerbaijani embroidery, with images of birds and plants, fine color solutions, and competently constructed composition—organically adjacent to the red flag, sickle, and hammer. The flag carries the image of a five-pointed star and crescent (often used in early propaganda images), and the crescent is also embroidered above the sickle and hammer. Traditional plant ornaments, elegantly made with silk and gold threads, are combined with the narrative of the actual plot/storyline. It depicts the emotional scene of a young girl’s rejection of old life principles. One can only guess how the families of the female artisans who had actually woven the carpets treated this message. After all, the older generation—mothers and grandmothers—were just representatives of the old world. The purpose of these images is to convey important political ideas to the masses and to familiarize them with new social norms.
“Oil worker” is a handmade carpet. The carpet was made under the guidance of Latif Kerimov and is remarkable for its composition. The central field is fully occupied by a picturesque thematic composition depicting the builders of communism against the background of the industrial landscape of the capital of Azerbaijan. There are four main characters of the painting, three of which are probably a family: a man, obviously an oil worker; his wife, a woman holding a basket of cotton buds and who is likely a villager; and a child-pioneer. Next to them, however, stands a free woman–a woman who dropped her veil–an educated woman, perhaps an engineer herself. These are all heroes of the new era, transforming the world around them. The carpet is absolutely amazing and informative; it seems to contain all elements, attributes and symbols of Soviet Azerbaijan. We see crafts and industries characteristic to the Soviet republic and all its main attractions, leisure activities, and typical work routines. This carpet unfolds before us a broad picture of existence, revealing all conceivable facets of everyday life of its time. But the most amazing thing is the small edging of the carpet, in the ornament of which stretches a rhythmically organized oil pipeline! This is an early example of the perfect know-how of ornamental art and the best evidence that one can point to in order to show that the carpet at all times is a reflection of its era, absorbing the most characteristic aspects of the artistic style that time.
Images on Azerbaijani posters of the 1920s are largely reminiscent of textile panels. However, unlike the latter, the posters usually contained text, and the text was often extensive in the early stages. In the sheet “Life in the East Was Slow…”, printed in the Baku branch of the “ROSTA Windows” studio of “HOBR BakkavRost,” the artist seems to be unfamiliar with Azerbaijani culture and created a syncretic image of an Eastern revolutionary, depicting a rider similar to a Turkish janissary, but under a red banner similar to the star and crescent moon, all against the background of the Egyptian pyramids. The picture illustrates an amateur poem by an unknown author:
Life was slow in the East,
A thousand years of oppression weigh down
Bourgeois, hiding behind the Book of the Prophet,
Deceived a downgraded people.
But the time has come, and the light shines
Like a five-pointed star,
There’s a dashing cavalry
Ahead towards freedom with a battle song.
The author thanks Maria Filatova for the photos from the exhibition.