Summer 1999 (7.2)

Azim Azimzade

Baku's Art School Named After Self-Taught Artist

by Ziyadkhan Aliyev

Azim Azimzade is often referred to as the "Sabir" of Azerbaijani art. Just as Sabir (1862-1911) was famous for writing sharp satire on social issues in the early 20th century, Azimzade was famous for illustrating these same concerns in his paintings. He often focused on the inequalities and injustices in society-poverty, women's rights and educational opportunities. He also scoffed at religious traditions and often ran a "one-man campaign" against what he considered to be superstitious thinking.

Azim Azimzade was born April 30, 1880 in Novkhani village near Baku. Here the men were involved in farming, sheep raising, vineyard and mulberry cultivation while the women were famous as carpet-weavers. Azim's father Aslan was a farmer and stone cutter but after the oil industry began to boom, he joined the rush of laborers flooding Baku to work in the oil fields. Of five children (four girls and a boy), Azim was the only child in his family to survive past the age of ten.

When he was eight years old, his father enrolled him in the local Muslim school (madrasa), but the child soon ran into difficulties. Once while the Koran was being recited (in Arabic), Azim was absorbed in making sketches instead of paying attention. As a consequence of his "sinful deed" (as the mollas called it), the child was severely beaten. The incident embittered him, and he spent the rest of his life fighting what he considered to be unreasonable practices associated with religion.


Artwork by Azimzade. Covers of Molla Nazraddin, a satiric magazine, all 1928. (Left) Telling God not to wake the sleepers for prayers because they will only ask for 1,000 angels. (Center) Workers oblivious to the most religious Muslim holiday. (Right) British official approving of Japanese mistreatment of Chinese.

With the assistance of his grandmother (but unknown to his father who was a deeply religious man), Azim started attending a secular school where both Russian and Azeri were taught. It was here that he was encouraged to illustrate fairytales with watercolors and where he got his first introduction to art. He finished primary school but was unable to pursue further education because his father insisted that he start working.

He was 15 years old at the time. Azimzade wrote: "From early childhood, I became a wage earner, working as a messenger or shop assistant. Only in my spare time was I able to draw or educate myself."

While working as an errand boy in the mill of merchant Agabala Guliyev, Azim became acquainted with the Russian painter Durov, who happened to be involved with decorating Guliyev's newly built house at the time. Azim was invited to help the painter decorate the interior walls with oil paintings. Durov recognized Azim's talent and encouraged him to study painting.

Art: Azim Azimzade. "The Old Wife and the New One", 1935.

But the problem was money. When Azim approached a wealthy landowner to assist him in going to art school, the man scoffed. "Wake up!" he told him. "Go choose another profession. We need engineers, not painters." Thus, Azim never received any formal instruction in art. Nevertheless, he managed to build his career as an artist.

In 1914, Azimzade published his first major work to accompany Sabir's satirical verses in a volume called "Hop-Hop Name" (The "Shush-Shush Journal"-"hop" meaning "be quiet, don't tell").

During the 1920s and 1930s, he worked with various newspapers and magazines, managing to get one of his caricatures published in the satiric magazine, "Molla Nasraddin" (1906-1931). Eventually, he was named its Head Artist.

In the 1920s, Azim devoted considerable time to illustrating literary works-especially short stories by Akhundov, Mammadgulizade, Narimanov, Shaig, Vazi and others. In 1923 when Azerbaijan celebrated its 50th Jubilee for Dramatic Works, Azim had been assigned as chief artist for the State Theater and responsible for organizing the set designs of numerous works including "Haji Gara", "Nadir Shah", "Othello", "Leyli and Majnun" and others. In 1927 Azim was honored as "People's Artist of Azerbaijan"-the first artist ever to receive this award.

Criticizing Society
The most fruitful period of Azim's creative activity took place during the 1930s when he dedicated works to the old Azerbaijani traditions and customs. Well-known works during this period include "Ram Fight," "Kos-Kosa,"(a clown-like character at Noruz spring festivities), "Tight-Rope Walker," (a tradition at Noruz) and "Dog Fight." In addition, he worked on a series called "Old Baku".

In his attempt to expose the inequalities of the society, he often developed contrastive scenes comparing wealth with poverty, as well as societal attitudes towards men and women. For example, he drew "Wealthy Wedding" and "Poor Wedding" (1931). In both paintings, the scene features the woman's celebration of the wedding. In the rich home, a large bright room is crowded with women wearing elaborate dresses and dancing. One woman plays an accordion, another the "gaval" (like a tambourine). Everyone is clapping to the rhythm of the music. The carpeted floor is laid with trays of candles and sugar cones (a traditional symbol of abundance).

But at the poor people's celebration, the room is small and quite dark, lit by one small lantern. The peasants wear what seems to be their everyday clothes. Even a few men are present at the lively festivities.

Another paired theme was "Ramazan of the Rich" and "Ramazan of the Poor" (1938). (Ramazan identifies the month of fasting on the Islamic calendar. Customarily, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, refraining from eating, smoking and even drinking water. But at night, they enjoy elaborate dinners where it's not uncommon for them to make up for the rest of the day by gorging themselves.)

Once again, the rich man's home is bright and ornate; food is plentiful on the "sufra" (tablecloth spread on the carpeted floor) and even the cat is eating from its own bowl.

In the poor man's home, the room is dark and there is no furniture. Bed covers are stacked in a niche in the wall of the one room that serves for living, dining and sleeping. The plates are nearly empty on the "sufra" and a cat with a forlorn expression appears in the center foreground staring out in misery at the viewer.

Azim also employed single scenes to describe contrastive situations as in the painting called "Division of Property" (1935) where a woman completely shrouded in black veil has been allocated five tokens, whereas the man (her husband) has twice that amount. In the center of the painting is a fat, turbaned Molla with his finger pointing to the section of the Koran that authorizes such division.

Women's Rights
Many of his paintings expose the harsh conditions imposed on women. Works like "The Girl Married Off Against Her Will," "Husband Beating His Wife," (1937) and "Difficult Labor" show the hardships that women faced. In his painting "The Old Wife and the New One," (1935) Azimzade shows a plump, colorfully dressed woman enjoying tea with her husband, while another woman (obviously the "first wife") veiled in black, crouches in the corner hiding her face in her hands, her crying infant leaning against her.

Another scene is entitled, "A Daughter is Born" (1937). A man and older woman, obviously disappointed that the infant has not turned out to be a boy, are shown with their backs turned on the wife in bed and her assisting midwife.

Some of Azim's drawings are signed with the initials "AA" either in the Arabic script (ain-ain) or with the "upside down e," a letter used in both the early Latin script (1928-1937) and Cyrillic which followed afterwards. On other occasions, he adopted an assumed name to protect his identity. Often, he did not sign his works at all, especially on those he knew to be provocative.

Religious Caricatures
Azim was known for caricaturing religious authorities. But there was a price to be paid: his house was located right next to a mosque. The mollas reportedly situated the mosque's toilet so that the stench would fill Azim's house.

According to academician and "People's Artist" Mikayil Abdullayev, Azim used to retaliate by painting caricatures of mollas on pieces of paper and scattering them in front of the mosque each evening. Sometimes Abdullayev would "steal" those caricatures in order not to let them fall into the mollas' hands, knowing they would be immediately shredded to pieces.

Azim's first personal exhibition was organized in Baku in 1940 and included 1,200 works, representing 35 years of creative activity. That same year, exhibitions of his works were organized in Moscow and Yerevan.

A Close Call
Even though Azim had been very supportive of the Communist Revolution, he himself was targeted in 1937 (the year known as Stalin's Repression). During that period, "black ravens", or "one-eyed cars", would stop in front of homes in the middle of the night and arrest people. ("One-eyed" refers to the fact that one headlight was turned off so that other vehicles would give them the right-of-way.)

One night, one of these cars stopped in front of Azim's house and he was arrested, allegedly for cursing Lenin and Stalin. Azim insisted that he was a Communist Party member and that he had been slandered. (It was later learned that a former apprentice had turned him in.) Only after intervention by Mirjafar Bagirov, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan and familiarly known as the "local Stalin", was he released.

Azim had five children. He was especially fond of his son Latif (1924-1943), who became an oil engineer. Latif was called up to serve in World War II. His last letter home was dated February 1943. Azim was devastated when he received the news of his death and never recovered. He died of a heart attack on June 15, 1943, exactly four months later.

Since then, Baku's Art School, which Azimzade had directed from 1928-1938, was named after him. Most of Azerbaijan's greatest artists have received training in this institution. They tribute Azim as being one of the first major artists in their country and for his social conscience.

Azim Azimzade's Home Museum is located at 157 Dilara Aliyeva Street in Baku. His daughter Zahra is Director of the Museum. Tel: (99-412) 94-05-69.

Azerbaijan International (7.2) Summer 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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