On the trail of Molla Nasreddinists…
A number of cartoons published in the 1912-13 issues of Molla Nasreddin magazine are signed “Kh.M.” or “Musayev Chokhski”.
Before then, talented artists such as Schmerling, Rotter, and Azim Azimzadeh used their brushes to open the readers’ eyes to the ordinary but bitter truths expressed in this magazine in the words of prominent satirists of the time.
Khalil Bey Musayev joined those artists when the publication had existed for six years, but his name probably means nothing to most of us…
However, the cartoons signed “Kh.M.”, “Musayev Chokhski” or “Khalil Musayev” were as good as those created by better-known names both in content and in artistic merit.
One of those cartoons highlighted the attacks on Molla Nasreddin. It depicted a large crowd following the magazine and a reactionary group standing aside threatening the magazine: “Stop! As long as we live, we will not let you lead the people astray!”
But who was Khalil Bey Musayev, or, as he is known in the West, Halil Beg Mussayaassul?
According to his biography, he was born in 1890 in the village of Chokh in Dagestan (hence the pseudonym “Chokhski”). Some sources give his year of birth as 1897, which we do not find very probable. At any rate, based on the year when Khalil Bey’s signature began to appear in Molla Nasreddin (1912), it is hard to believe that he began to draw caricatures for this magazine at the age of 13.
The artist’s father, Israfil Bey Musayev, a descendant of the Avar dynasty of Manizhal, served in the tsar’s personal guard, and later became a district naib.
Khalil Bey first studied at the School of Painting and Sculpture under the Caucasian Society for Encouragement of Fine Arts in Tbilisi (Georgia) in 1912, and then at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in Germany at the recommendation and with assistance of Molla Nasreddin‘s Oskar Schmerling, Russian cartoonist of German origin. As we can see, he was a professional master of paintbrush.
Khalil Bey Musayev was 22 years old when his signature first appeared in Molla Nasreddin, which shows that the young artist had developed not only in terms of talent and professionalism, but also as a healthy person with a modern outlook and modern mindset.
Many of his topical cartoons also appeared in the satirical almanacs Kalniyat (published by Seyid Huseyn) and the Russian-language Baraban (published by Isa Ashurbeyli and Behbud Shahtakhtinski) in Baku, as well as Mezeli (published by Hashim bey Vazirov).
After returning from Munich, Khalil Musayev went to live in Temirkhan-Shura (now Buynaksk) District of Dagestan, now painting portraits instead of drawing cartoons.
According to researcher Vilayat Guliyev, Khalil Musayev made an important contribution to illustrating Tang Cholpan (1919), the first literary and artistic magazine in Dagestan. The artist’s first and last exhibition in the Soviet Union opened in Vladikavkaz in 1919. It caused a great interest, and a number of glowing reviews were published in the Russian-language press.
Guliyev writes that after the sovietization of Dagestan in 1920, the local authorities tasked Khalil Musayev, who at that time headed the art department of the local People’s Commissariat for Education, with decorating the special train car that they wanted to send as a gift to Lenin with Caucasian motifs.
However, Musayev had no fondness for Bolshevism or sovietization in general. He was skeptical of the new government system and was looking for an opportunity to escape its claws. This is why he wanted to flee to Europe again and continue his unfinished education in Germany.
At that time, one of his cousins was executed by the authorities without charge or trial, reinforcing the young artist’s intentions.
Under the pretext of buying paint, Khalil Bey paused his work on Lenin’s special train car and went to Baku, where he tried to meet with the Commissar for Foreign Affairs and the Commissar for Military Affairs. He befriended the private secretary of the then head of the Soviet Azerbaijani government and even painted a portrait of him. Musayev recalled this much later, in the autobiographical novel The Land of the Last Knights published in Munich in 1936.
According to this book, written in literary form by German author Luise Laporte, all of “Musayev Chokhski”’s efforts failed, but he was able to cross the border eventually with the help of an Azerbaijani friend who had studied with him abroad.
In 1925, he completed his artistic education in Munich.
A year previously, the People’s Commissar for Education of the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, Alibay Takho-Godi, wrote to him asking him to return to the homeland as soon as possible. Quote: “In the current difficult situation of our people, the value of every worker of culture is very high… If you were in your homeland now, you could be at the center of artistic and aesthetic impact on the people through art, theater, school” (from V. Guliyev’s article about the artist).
However, Musayev had no intention to return to Dagestan. When he was still a student, he had his first exhibition in Munich, and later became a member of the guild of local artists in Bavaria, Germany’s largest province.
It is possible that the artist’s decision not to return from Germany played a significant role in the repression of his brother, his sister’s husband and other close relatives during the “red terror” of 1937. Needless to say, the Soviet relatives of those who emigrated to Europe at that time were treated with particular aggression and cruelty.
The Molla Nasreddin artist lived in Germany from 1921 to 1947, had exhibitions in Geneva, Munich, Berlin, Rome, Florence, Istanbul, Madrid, Tehran and New York, and his paintings enjoyed a great success.
The artist married Baroness Melanie Olivia Julia von Nagel, a member of an aristocratic family, in Berlin in 1938, and had to emigrate to the United States nine years later, after World War II.
At that time, he was the last surviving Molla Nasreddinist.
Khalil Bey lived only 52 years. He passed away after a grave illness in 1949 in the United States, where he lived for about two years, and was buried in the small town of Bethlehem, about a hundred kilometers from New York.
The baroness, his beloved wife and muse, died only recently. A poet and a translator, she lived for 96 years, 50 of them as a nun known in her religious life as Mother Jerome von Nagel Mussayassul. She kept her late husband’s personal belongings and more than 100 paintings, preserving his memory with utmost reverence, and sent them to Dagestan after the collapse of the Soviet empire.
It is said that this was the last wish of the last Molla Nasreddinist.
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