I popped over to Christie’s where Alexander Volkov’s art is being exhibited. Of Sand and Silk closed yesterday after a run of about three weeks. It’s stunningly vibrant, colourful and imaginative, and is – as far as I can make out – being exhibited outside the erstwhile Soviet Union for the first time.
There was nobody else viewing the paintings so I managed to stick around for quite a while without guilt or interruption. Luckily, too, Christie’s had no objections to my taking pictures of the works. I photographed a few which I present below.
Alexander Volkov (Александр Николаевич Волков) (1886 – 1957) was of Russian origin, but born and brought up in Uzbekistan, and combined in himself a simultaneous foreignness as well as nativeness. He studied in St Petersburg and Kiev, and created in his art a synthesis of modern European styles with Uzbek folk art.
The title of the exhibition references ‘the two subjects preoccupying the artist in his early work: Central Asia’s landscape and the life of a city whose prosperity was closely linked to the production of vibrantly-coloured silk. ‘Sand’ and ‘silk’ also allude to the visceral nature of Volkov’s paintings, in which he often mixed sand into the pigment to create texture, juxtaposing the grain with multiple delicate layers of diluted paints and varnish to create very fine gradations of colour.’ 
Volkov’s early work was strongly influenced by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a symbolist painter from Russia. Vrubel insisted that art is inseparable from everyday life, a message that Volkov took back with him to Uzbekistan after studying Vrubel’s frescoes at the Church of St Cyril in Kiev: he closely referenced Vrubel’s art but admitted his own experience and reality in Uzbekistan in his work.
The latter part of the exhibition dealt with Volkov’s Cubo-Futurist period – his compositions are divided into triangles. ‘The resulting highly dynamic works capture not only the movement, but also the sound of a passing caravan, the hub of the bazaar or the rhythm of dance.’  Here are his almost ethnographic studies of the daily life and rapidly changing conditions of the Uzbeks.
‘Volkov rarely painted directly from nature. Instead, he would walk to the mountains (sometimes walking as far as 90 km to see a sunrise) or to the oldest part of a town and then rush home to paint while still under the impression of beauty of the sights he had seen‘. 
Below are two paintings from the series Eastern Primitive, which unites a highly diverse body of work in oil, tempera and watercolour and was regarded by the artist as one of the greatest achievements of his artistic career. The simplified compositions, strong outlines and approach to space testify to the artist’s fervid interest in Oriental miniature painting and Byzantine art. 
In 1911, an American journalist, William Eleroy Curtis, observed (of the people in Central Asia): ‘Everybody wears a coat like a rainbow. The poor make them of cotton prints and the rich of silk and brocades… No matter how humble or hungry a man may be, and even if he have but a single garment, that is made of the most brilliantly coloured material he can find.’ 
At the time Volkov worked, women in Central Asia were in purdah, excluded from social life, their windows shielded, and in the household itself, secluded to a separate area. So ‘women rarely appear in Volkov’s early works, mirroring their absence from everyday life in Turkestan. There are, however, numerous compositions depicting nude female figures bathing, most likely Volkov’s fantasy vision of life inside a harem, which the artist likely never saw in reality.’ 
‘Caravans were a recurring theme in Volkov’s work alongside chaikhanas (Central Asian teahouses), musicians and beauties.‘  Below, you can see how the triangles depict the noise of a caravan passing before the viewer, all discord and moving shapes.
Below, the painter addresses a Biblical subject while incorporating elements of Central Asia’s ancient pagan mythology. Bare-breasted women dressed in bright colours, for example, are more likely to be ancient goddesses of fertility than pious Marys at Christ’s tomb… [a combination of] a sense of tragedy and joy of life, monumentality and intimacy. 
 From the exhibition notes – Biography
 From the exhibition notes – Moonlit mausoleums, 1915.
 From the exhibition notes – An Eastern school, from the series Eastern Primitive.
 From the exhibition notes – Figures at a mosque, 1918.
 From the exhibition notes – Women, circa 1919-20.
 From the exhibition notes – Caravan, 1920.
 From the exhibition notes – Pieta (The Lamentation), 1921.