To look at the paintings of Tal’at Shikhaliyev is not simply an aesthetic experience – it is an emotional encounter. His exceptional feel for color, his mastery of form, and his honesty, result in a body of work that goes beyond powerful formal expressions: these are paintings that act as psychological revelations.
The motifs he is drawn to are both immediate and timeless. Kids playing outside, a mother reading a book to her children, a napping girl, images that appeal to our empathy, our feeling of solidarity with fellow man, and images that enable us to examine our own humanity.
The circumstances of the early life of Tal’at Shikhlaiyev remain difficult to reconstruct in full. He was born in 1928 in Massali District of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This was a time of great social upheaval. The traditional way of life, existing for thousands of years, was crumbling under the assault of the Communist regime. The newly installed government declared his family members “Enemies of the People,” stripping them of all of their property and rights. Some of them were killed or sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Many others had to conceal their identity in order to avoid prosecution. In 1934, the six year old Tal’at lost both his parents and grandmother within a span of two months. He ended up alone in the capital Baku with no immediate family to care for him.
For years afterwards, he suffered extreme poverty and hardship, yet pursued his studies of art, graduating from the Azerbaijan State Arts College in 1951. In 1952 he traveled to Kiev where he spent the following decade and graduated from the Kiev State Arts Academy in 1960.
The only work remaining from that period is Road - a small study most likely painted during his stay in Ukraine in 1958. In this seemingly simple street scene viewed from above, he creates an almost idyllic harmony through the subtle blue-gray palette in the lower part of the image, allowing the beholder to imagine the feeling of a warm sunny day in a quiet neighborhood. The main motifs are a small bridge, a big tree, and a few town folk going about their usual business. The true source of his inspiration, however, is the glow of the setting sun. An intense, almost golden light cuts through the composition in a dramatic diagonal that remains unnoticed by the people who continue through their motions. The only person for whom this diagonal carries a deeper meaning is the artist. Seen through his eyes, this diagonal becomes a metaphor for the fork on the road and a question for the viewer: should we continue to follow the path in the shade, or should we turn toward the sun vanishing around the corner?
The emotional tension created by purely visual means is a very important characteristic of Tal’at’s art in general. Indeed, it is probably not an accident that the powerful golden yellow that transforms this study became a hallmark of his painting.
In 1962 Tal’at returned to Baku and started exhibiting throughout the Soviet Union. By 1964, he was a member of the Artists’ Union of USSR. The dominant artistic theory of the time was the so-called Socialist Realism, with emphasis on class struggle, the heroism of the proletariat, and a pseudo-classical style intended to affirm this ideology as an absolute truth.
Towards the end of the sixties, this ideological climate softened a bit, allowing artists to begin questioning some of the official dogmas. In Tal’at’s recollection, this was an intensely creative period, with long hours of studio work followed by hours of arguments with fellow artists in the tea houses in the “Molocan” garden, merely few blocks from the Artists’ Union offices. Those tea houses provided an environment that encouraged intellectual curiosity and wide ranging conversations on all kinds of questions pertaining to art and life.
An avid reader, Tal’at loved poetry, philosophy and history. He had a special affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. In addition, his travels through Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, as well as in Western Europe, in countries like Holland, Germany, and Spain, gave him first hand insights about different cultures and ideas. All of this experience became part of his creative DNA.
His early works were marked by a strong desire for finding an individual voice within the language of Modernism, as evidenced by the Fauve-like intensity of Girl with a Mirror (1968) or the near-Cubist space in Giz Galasi (1971). By 1972, that individual voice became much clearer in his golden-yellow palette and fiercely energetic brushstrokes. In the paintings of this period, the artist grew ever bolder, often using his fingers to achieve a more fluid, emotively active pictorial field. Yet this was not a matter of formal search alone. These experiments were part of his search for tools that could trigger an emotional response to the canvas. Their result was a complex visual language, where categories of realism and abstraction, old or contemporary, folk or classic dissolve into a powerful visual experience.
Throughout his career, Tal’at focused on human experiences that connect us on a most basic level: the childhood play in Guess Who (1973), the tenderness of family life in Sleeping Daughter (1978), the fragility of life in Surgery or the hopes for the future in Motherhood (1976). He also strove to show his subjects in intimate moments such as the Evening Toilette (1984), or in moments of vulnerability and fragility – At the Doctor’s and The Window (1985).
Yet these vulnerable and fragile characters are always there, quietly persisting along their paths. This inner strength is expressed in the intensity of color, the energy of brushstroke and the texture that heightens the emotional response of the beholder.
This ability to convert optical impressions into psychological experience bespeaks of the artist’s emotional sensitivity and intuitive understanding of sensory information. For Tal’at, this was the essential goal of his creative process, and one that he felt could only be accomplished by studying nature, as shown in the countless sketches, drawings, and pastel studies made from direct observation.
The complexity of his art reflects the complexity of his personality. During his short, but prolific career, Talat became one of the most powerful voices in the visual arts of Azerbaijan. This was acknowledged even by Soviet critics such as Victor Trofimov, who remarked on his “splendid” artistic gifts and the uniqueness of his languages. This recognition was won via struggle – both in a personal and artistic sense. But it is only in this struggle, manifest throughout his work, that one can fully feel his legacy as a painter and a humanist.