Friendship, Love, Eternity (Old Bukhara) is a key work within Uzbekistan’s fine art of the twentieth century. On moving to Uzbekistan, Aleksandr Nikolayev found himself fascinated by the East: he adopted a Muslim name (Usto Mumin) and became interested in Islamic mysticism in the form of Sufism.

The painting presents an allegory of the soul’s quest for divine love (in Sufism, the goal of human existence is the love of God). The young man on the right is holding a rose, a symbol of that love. Its thorny stem represents the obstacles on the path to divine love and the flower the bliss of attaining it. On the left of the two young men is a jug, which is probably another metaphor for knowledge of God: every human has a jug to fill with the love and understanding of God. Above the jug, two old men with white beards are descending the stairs: they may be the same youths toward the end of their lives. Their faces are serene, like the faces of saints who have unraveled the mysteries of existence. The mazārs (mausoleums of Muslim saints) in the background symbolize eternity. The stork flying above them is associated with love and devotion.

According to Usto Mumin, this painting tells the story of two inseparable friends. One of them went on a journey to distant lands and disappeared. The other youth waited for the return of his friend but in vain, and eventually went to look for him. Despite many  obstacles, he found his friend and they were reunited. Friendship, Love, Eternity was Mumin’s gift to his close friend, the composer Alexei Kozlovsky. He later designed the set for a production of one of Kozlovsky’s main works, the opera Ulugbek. The story behind the painting was preserved by the composer’s widow Galina Gerus-Kozlovskaya and written down by East Asia scholar and music historian Alexander Dzhumaev.

Tigran Mkrtychev