In 2014, the University of Denver’s Dalbey Photographic Collection published a trove of photos taken by a Soviet journalist, Semyon Osipovich Fridlyand, who travelled the USSR in the 1950s for the magazine Ogonyok, which was kind of the Soviet version of LIFE Magazine. Hidden in the massive collection are three remarkable photographs that made my eyes light up. They show Nikolai Tsivchinskiy, the father of tapestry and mosaic art in Kazakhstan, in the studio of the Kovroschitsa Artel, later renamed to the Alma-Ata Carpet Factory (and known today, in a much diminished form, as Almaty Kilem). When Tsivchinskiy was sent to Kazakhstan from his homeland in Ukraine, he founded the country’s first major workshop for tapestries, and later he would produce the republic’s very first wall mosaics. Yet despite this groundbreaking role in the history of Kazakhstan’s monumental art, I’ve only found two photographs of Tsivchinskiy until now, one a pixely photograph of a younger artist, and another from when the man was in his 60s and the peak of his career had already passed. Here, we not only see the man in full, but we get to see the products of his workshop that represent some early examples of Soviet tapestry art in Kazakhstan.
In the photograph with Tsivchinskiy, it looks as if the artist has just stepped out of the military hospital. On March 13, 1942 Tsivchinskiy was sent to the front, ending up in Stalingrad as a mortar operator. On September 18 of that year he seriously injured his leg, and while being treated in the Russian city of Nizhny-Novgorod, he painted the auditorium of the House of Officers and worked as a caraciturist for a military newspaper. He returned to Alma-Ata in April of 1945. During his first five years in Almaty, from 1937 to 1942, Tsivchinskiy had set up the tapestry-weaving artel, and now we know that he must have returned to his duties after the war: the artist is seen with a cane, likely evidence of his war injuries, and his look is positively military, with his jacket starched and buttoned, his feet in high leather boots, and his haircut trimmed and tidy. Yet the photo was apparently taken in 1957, years after his service and just a few before he would create his first mosaics. He offers a ball of yarn to a young Kazakh girl, one of six braided textile workers sitting at a bench before a loom.
The photographs’ dating is also clear from the subject matter. One photo shows two figures holding up a finished tapestry in a dirt-floored courtyard; the man to the left, mostly hidden behind the carpet and a shed post, looks like Tsivchinskiy. Ringed by iterations of the Kazakh ornament koshkar muyiz, or ram’s horns, the field of the carpet is divided in two, with the legendary female machine gunner Manshuk Mametova up top and her weapon below, accompanied by her name and her esteemed title, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Mametova was killed in 1943 while fighting in Russia, and was named a Hero with a big H in 1944. We can see that in 1950s, the heroic cult around Mametova was still being constructed.
In a third photograph, we get a better view of the workshop’s interior, with four looms in sight, two workers at each. Balls of yarn hang down from the loom. It very accurately mirrors a sgraffito by Aleksandr Simakov that would be installed on the wall of the same textile factory complex in the 1970s.
Many art historians consider Tsivchinskiy’s tapestries to be as deserving of the label “monumental art” as his mosaics. The legendary modernist architect Le Corbusier called tapestries “nomadic murals,” and indeed they might be considered the original Kazakh monumental art, as Kazakh nomads used tapestries and other textiles to decorate the walls of their yurts. It’s with hesitation that I chose not to include tapestries in the Monumental Almaty project, as I felt that there were too few surviving tapestries to document in situ. After seeing Semyon Friedland’s photographs, I realized that Tsivchinskiy must have spent nearly 20 years in his tapestry workshop, and he deserves to be remembered not just as a pioneer in Kazakhstan's mosaics, but also in its textiles.