Azerbaijan International

Summer 2006 (14.2)
Pages 46-55

Oil Rocks in the Caspian
Birthplace to a New Trend in Soviet Art
by Betty Blair

tahir salahov
Who could imagine that Oil Rocks with its dozens of kilometers of roadway built up on trestles and piers in the Caspian, off the coast of Azerbaijan, would give birth, not only to the world's first successful offshore venture in oil drilling [1949], but also to an art movement countering the calculated artificiality and lies of Stalin's regime (1960s and 70s).

Left: Artist Tahir Salahov in his studio in Old City, Baku. Photo September 205. Antique carpet in background features Nariman Narimanov who lead the Bolshevik Movement in Azerbaijan, standing beside Lenin.

Azerbaijani artist Tahir Salahov (1928- ) was nearly 30 years old at the time. Humiliated by the injustice of his father's death by Stalin, and embittered by personal rejection and disappointment in his own art career, Tahir headed out to Oil Rocks in the summer of 1956. There he discovered something more therapeutic than fresh sea breezes and open seascapes.

He experienced the awe and wonder of nature juxta-posed with the honesty, genuineness and romanticism of oil workers, shaped by the tough realism of sweat and hard work as they attempted to harness the sea. Together, they offered a much-needed healthy setting for Tahir and led to the creation of a new art movement called Severe Style that gradually spread through the Soviet Union. Severe Style was characterized by its quest for truth in the context of life's harshness. Tahir told Azerbaijan International how it happened.

I was set to graduate from the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow in 1957. The summer before, they were sending students to India and I had such high hopes of being chosen as one of the artists who would get to go. The group was to sail from Odessa or Novorossiysk via the Suez Canal and would remain abroad for about two months. Indian motifs were quite popular at the time, especially Indian movies. So, it was such a big deal for students to be selected to go. Besides, I had never been outside of the Soviet Union.

But despite how well I was doing at the Institute, my application was rejected. The problem? My father. It didn't matter that he had been dead for 18 years, executed by the State. In 1938, at the height of one of the Stalin's early purges, my father had confronted and quarreled with the top administrator in Baku-Mir Jafar Baghirov, Stalin's right hand man in Azerbaijan. The result was devastating for him and for our family.

Soviet stamp commemorating Oil Rocks in the Caspian. 1971.
Left: Soviet stamp commemorating Oil Rocks in the Caspian. 1971.

I was nine years old at the time when government agents came to our home in the middle of the night and took father away. Mom was left with five kids. I was the youngest of three sons. They never told us anything about our father's whereabouts. Eighteen years later in 1956, after Stalin's death when things started to ease up a bit, we officially learned that he had been shot shortly after his arrest.

Still so many years following his death and at a time when I was forging my own way as a professional artist, that dark cloud still hung over me since my father was an "Enemy of the People"-wrongfully accused, of course. I was not selected for the trip to India simply because I was his son. They wouldn't let me join the other 10-12 students who were going. It was another blow, a terrible disappointment.

I had struggled so hard for my education and, in fact, the only reason that I had been accepted at the Surikov Institute was that I had not mentioned on my application that my father had been arrested and killed. I simply wrote that he had been an oil worker in Baku and died accidentally from an electric shock. The year before when applying for the Art Academy in Leningrad, I had told the truth, only to be rejected.

So after this big disappointment about not getting to go to India, I returned to Baku and decided to spend the summer at Oil Rocks out in the Caspian. It was my own idea and the plans were carried out under my own initiative. Of course, I had to get special permission from the state oil company, indicating which institute I was from and what I intended to do there.

I had come back to Azerbaijan from Moscow, convinced that my Motherland would help me. How? That, I didn't know. But it really did. You see, oil has since become synonymous with Baku. It is more famous these days than it was back then. People didn't think much about it 50 years ago. The government was pumping out oil, but people didn't give much thought to it. They didn't equate it with gold or wealth or anything that would benefit them personally like they do now.

Click photos to enlarge


Oil Rocks in the Caspian
There are so many changes now, but at that time, very few people spent time at Oil Rocks unless they actually worked there. And, in fact, Soviet exploitation of oil was shifting to territory further east, despite the fact that Azerbaijan had been the major source of oil during World War II.

As far as artists were concerned, I was the first one to go to Oil Rocks. Then Sattar Bahlulzade (1909-1974) and Boyukagha Mirzazade followed. Some musicians also were attracted there such as Gara Garayev (1918-1982) and Tofig Bakikhanov (1930- ). Something about Oil Rocks attracts artists. It's not just the vast, unpredictable turbulent sea. I think its the people with their pure hearts. I found them enamored by the romance and danger of the sea despite how hard their work was. They were very direct and unpretentious in their relations with one another.

I painted so many works while living there among the workers. Oil Rocks, of course, has its place in history as being the location where oil was first extracted from beneath the sea. It was the first time that such a feat had been achieved in the world. In late 1949 oil was discovered there at 1,100 meters beneath the sea.
It seems to me that a comparison can be made between the oil workers of Oil Rocks and mountain climbers who succeed in reaching the summit of Mt. Elbruz [the highest mountain peak in Europe in Georgia's Caucasus Mountains at more than 5600 meters]. I didn't find the workers so much concerned about the danger that they were in or what could happen to them, as much as I discovered them to be deeply passionate and driven to accomplish the task at hand. They had pure hearts and pure intentions in their efforts to harness nature. There was something idealistic about their sacrifice.

So many of them had pinned family photos on the wall above their beds. In that sense, their wives and children were always with them. They worked hard, but they did it with a pure heart. It was an atmosphere that I needed to be immersed in, especially at that period of my life.

As a consequence of their success in finding oil there at Oil Rocks, they started to build a city on trestles right in the sea. Today, many of piers and roadways have since collapsed under the constant pounding of the waves, and many of the piers are in serious disrepair. But back then, those roadways stretched out along the piers for tens of kilometers from a central hub where the oil wells were located. At the central camp, there were numerous facilities, including large dormitories with multiple floors, a cafeteria, a clinic, a cinema and some repair shops.

By the 1970s and 80s about 3,000 men and women lived and worked there on one-to two-week shifts. Families didn't go out there, nor were children allowed. An enormous amount of care had to given to maintain these workers, both physically and mentally. One of the dormitories that was constructed was nine stories tall; four others were five stories. Water had to be shipped in for consumption. Food had to be brought in, too, although a bakery operated on the premises, which meant that flour, not bread, was shipped or flown in.

The oil workers seemed quick to embrace me as their "artist in residence". They sensed that I appreciated their work and treated me well. I would hang out all day with them. We would get up early in the morning at 6 or 7 a.m., breakfast together in the cafeteria, and then go out on trucks to the oil rigs. And I would watch and sketch. I did most of my paintings out there. Looking back, I can say that all of them were done from the depth of my heart. The workers liked my portraits and sketches. I still keep in touch with some of them.

"The Shift is Over"
The single work that gained the most attention from my experience at Oil Rocks was the one I did for my graduating diploma in 1957, entitled "The Shift is Over". I did the actual painting when I returned that fall to the Art Institute in Moscow. The workers are obviously tired, dirty, and relieved that the day is over. The faces of the men and women were of specific people whom I knew.

They weren't drawn abstractly. I knew their names. I had lived with them and studied their personalities. I wanted to capture the hard work intertwined with the romance of the people who worked there. Curiously, the art experts accepted it. I think it was primarily because they saw something new in it. The following year it was exhibited at the Moscow All-Union Art Exhibition where it drew a lot of attention and critical acclaim. Then in 1959, it was exhibited at the International Artists' Exhibition of Socialistic Republics that was also held in Moscow. Then it was sent to China for an exhibition for China. Actually, there I am still remembered by this work.

Of course, it was impossible in those days to know how people genuinely felt about the Soviet system. Even though Stalin was gone, still people didn't discuss things openly. Eyes were everywhere. "Even the ground had ears," as we say. So, most people were afraid to talk about such things, even though, no doubt, they had much to say.

I'll never forget once when a man by the name of Nadir Gasimov invited me to his home in Turkan on the Absheron Peninsula. Despite the fact that those people worked under such difficult conditions at Oil Rocks, extracting the black gold deep from beneath the sea, at home, they grew flowers. I remember being so impressed when they went to board the boat to return to Oil Rocks, they would carry roses in their hands. Those tough, sun-and-sea weathered men with their muscular hands were holding roses. It amazed me. Take a look at "Morning Train" crossing what used to be known as Baghirov Bridge-named after Mir Jafar Baghirov [because he had the underpass built after having to wait for a train to pass one day while he was on his way to airport to catch a flight to Moscow]. In the painting, you see the vehicles and trucks driving down under the street and oil tankers on the train passing on the bridge above. Such works represented a new trend in art. Actually, I received an award for that work in Vienna.

These works were viewed as establishing a new trend in art. You have to understand the context in which we were painting at that time. Every work of art - literature, music or paintings - had to fulfill the criteria of Socialist Realism that had been established in the early 1930s during Stalin's era. Socialist Realism tried to convey the message that everything was perfect. That everybody was happy, laughing, applauding and approving of the things that were going on.

Socialist Realism in Art
Essentially, Socialist Realism stripped art from being able to address social issues. During Stalin's period, art could express no problems. That meant that all the art people - writers, artists, musicians, architects - all of them had to show their art devoid of the ability to grapple with any issues or challenge the way things were being run.

Here's another work similar in nature. It's the orange painting-the one with large storage oil tanks in the background. I was strongly criticized for this work. They said: "Look at that man stooped a bit there in the foreground, walking with his head slightly bowed. He looks depressed. Look at the dark colors of his palette. This doesn't fit into the concept of Socialist Realism at all." It's true that my works often have a touch - an accent of red - in them. I can't exactly explain why. It comes from within. Somehow when you add a touch of red to your canvas, you don't quite feel at ease. You're not quiet and calm. Red somehow introduces tension. I guess you might say that this was an element of subtle protest that I injected into many of my works. In a sense, it's one of my signatures.

Severe Style in Art
These paintings along with those of some of my friends in Baku and Moscow caused a major stir in the fine arts of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. They started calling this direction in art "Severe Style". Eventually, it was recognized and opened up a new path. We prided ourselves with depicting true realism.

The Russian Soviet encyclopedia identifies me as one of the artists who started this movement along with Victor Ivanov and Pavel Nikonov. We set the course that many artists later followed throughout the Soviet republics.

Of course, it was dangerous to chart such a course at that time. But I followed my heart. I did what my heart told me to do. We were severely criticized. They tried to stop us. They wouldn't allow us to go abroad. They publicly criticized our works. Sometimes on the day just prior to the opening of a major exhibition, officials would come and demand that certain works be taken down. The excuse was that they simply did not fit into the broader scheme of Socialist Realism.

Again, look at my painting of the Women of Absheron. It provides another example of Severe Style. These women are waiting for their men to return from Oil Rocks. They're worried. The families of those workers, their wives and children, were always waiting and anticipating the return of their men. They were always anxious about them because the sea can be dangerous. Suddenly tornadoes can whip up out of nowhere. So, they were always worried for their fathers, husbands and brothers. Their work was very difficult.

I'll never forget the time when one of the oil rigs collapsed and some of the workers died in the accident. Among the casualties was one of the pioneers who had been among those who first extracted oil at Oil Rocks. His name was Koverechkin. He and several of his friends died in that accident. This painting here in dark blue depicting the helicopter hovering above the pier commemorates that situation. That's not Socialist Realism; that's Severe Art. Few dared to paint like that. But my father had already been executed. So what else was there to be afraid of?

I never asked permission to paint anything. I just did whatever came to mind. Sometimes there were people who would criticize me publicly while privately they would tell me that they liked my works. For example, there was Sergey Gerasimov, the First Secretary of the Soviet Artists' Union. He was a distinguished artist himself.

At the time, they were criticizing my painting of an oil worker with the red cigarette in his mouth. They were criticizing it at forums on the floor at assemblies. They were saying that it was very pessimistic and had employed such dark, unappealing colors. And the pessimistic expression on the man's face, they said, looked like he was posing some question. Certainly, it wasn't a good candidate for Socialist Realism.

But after that session, some artists from Azerbaijan and people from our Ministry of Culture, including the minister himself, were standing around together and Sergey Gerasimov came over to me and said, "Tahir, they were criticizing you up there, but I have given it some thought. There was nothing in that painting that merited those comments." And he shook my hand in front of all those people. It calmed me and eased my burden after so many attacks. He told me everything was fine and to continue my work. In that work, I was simply trying to show that man as I saw him and to reveal the truth that I knew about him. This painting is of a specific person-a man that I knew there. He didn't pop out of my imagination. I knew that person. You can see how tired he is-exhausted from labor. That's what they identified as Severe Style, but we were convinced that it was simply the truth.

Tahir Salahov is featured on, a Web site created by Azerbaijan International to spotlight some of Azerbaijan's remarkable artists. The site launched in 2000 and now has nearly 4,000 works by 170 Azerbaijani painters and sculptors.

Salahov is one of very few Azerbaijani artists who has already been included in an entry on the Web at"The Free Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit". At the end of May 2006 when we went to press, Wikipedia had more than 1.1 million articles in English and the concept of shared information had become so popular that Wikipedia now exists in 70 languages, including Turkish, although Azeri has yet to have its site.

Other Articles about Tahir
For more articles in Azerbaijan International magazine related to Tahir Salahov, search at
(1) "A Hint of Red-Pushing the Limits of Socialist Realism," by Azad Sharifov and Jean Patterson. AI 7.2 (Summer 1999).
(2) "Teymur Salahov: Deafening Silence: Waiting 18 Years for Father to Return Home," by the Salahovs-brother and sister, Tahir and Zarifa. AI 13.4 (Winter 2005).
(3) "Perspective: The Making of an Artist: The Impact of Stalin's Repression on Tahir Salahov's Art." AI 13.4 (Winter 2005).

Portraits by Tahir Salahov
Some of Salahov's famous portraits of composers and musicians are used to illustrate the following articles:
(4) "Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony: The Azerbaijani Link (Elmira Nazirova)" by Aida Huseinova. AI 11.1 (Spring 2003).
(5) "Rostropovich: The Home Museum" by Gulnar Aydamirova. AI 11.2 (Summer 2003).
(6) "Remembering Gara Garayev: A Legend in His Own Time: His 80th Jubilee" by Azad Sharifov. AI 6.3 (Autumn 1998).

Related Articles
(7)"Oil Rocks: Legend and Reality" by Seyyad Ibrahimov. AI 5.2 (Summer 1997).
(8) Azerbaijan's Oil History: Brief Oil Chronology since 1920 (Part 2) by Mir-Yusif Mir-Babayev. See Oil Rocks (1949-1951). AI 11.2 (Summer 2003).

Back to Index AI 14.2 (Summer 2006)
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