Alexander Volkov (1886-1957) was an important Russian artist working at the beginning of the twentieth century. Born in Uzbekistan to Russian parents, his work often depicts Central Asian scenes through more Western painterly techniques. Although relatively unknown in Western Europe, Volkov’s works are featured in many major Russian museums. ‘Alexander Volkov: Of Sand and Silk’ is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work to take place outside of Russia and the CIS and features over 50 paintings from private collections. Russian Art and Culture Editor Theodora Clarke met with  curator Meruyert Kaliyeva at Christie’s to learn more about Volkov and his paintings.

Alexander Volkov, Beauties, 1920, coloured pencil on card (private collection)

Theodora Clarke: The first question I’d like to ask is why is Christie’s holding an exhibition that is not selling pictures but showcasing them instead? Meruyert Kaliyeva: Christie’s has a long tradition of doing shows and producing new arts to the public. Two years ago in 2010 we did this exhibition with Kasteev Museum of Arts, which was a non-commercial exhibition and it was very successful and was attended by a lot of people. We had an opportunity thanks to our sponsors Oracle Capital Group to do the show. We have interests in the central Asian region and Russian artists. Alexander Volkov is one of the most prominent artists of the beginning of the twentieth century but he has never been given a solo show outside Russia or the former Soviet Republics.  We also have very close links with the family of the artist and they have been very helpful in organising the exhibition because they know the locations of his works. We had the chance to do the show and I really believe Alexander Volkov to be one of the greatest artists of the beginning of the Twentieth Century. TC: He is an artist that our readers are less familiar with; can you explain what it is that makes Volkov’s work so important in the history of Russian art? MK: Well basically because he was an outsider. If you look at history of art in general we always have these outsiders coming to exotic places and creating pictures which are often described as Orientalist. On the other hand you have artists like Alexander Volkov who was born there. He was born in Uzbekistan, which was part of Russia at the time, and his father was a military worker there although he was Russian. He was educated in St Petersburg and Kiev so he became familiar with all the Western art styles and he combined them to create amazing scenes of Central Asian art and life. Because he was an artist he was interested in combining these different influences and he mixed everything. For example if you look at his picture depicting the Lamentation you can see three bare breasted women which would have been impossible to depict in Christian iconography. Some historians reference some central Asian myths where there was a god who was lamented by these three women. For them the death of this god was at the same time tragedy and celebration because they expected his resurrection. It is a very Christian idea as well but on the other hand it also has this pagan mythology. In Volkov’s art he combined all these differences. It is really hard to describe him because he is so unique.

Alexander Volkov, Pieta (The Lamentation), 1921, oil and tempera on wood (private collection)

TC: It seems to me that Volkov’s work is a mixture of more traditional Russian art and European Modernism. Who was his greatest inspiration as an artist? MK: If you were to say just one name it is probably Mikhail Vrubel. If you look at Volkov’s works from his Kiev period until 1916 it is heavily influenced by Vrubel in terms of composition and subject. But what differentiates Volkov from Vrubel is that Vrubel is all preoccupied with a sense of tragedy whereas Volkov’s work is more a celebration of life and joy. Yes he did paint demons but they are not like the tormented demons of Vrubel. They are very different. I think what is most important about Vrubel’s influence on Volkov is that Vrubel didn’t see art as separate from life. He would do a lot of applied arts, ceramics and fireplaces for example. That was a major part of Vrubel’s work and Volkov was similarly occupied by the applied arts. If you look at a lot of his compositions they are designed as frescoes to decorate churches. He wanted them to be part of architecture in Uzbekistan. TC: Which would you say is the highlight of the exhibition? MK: Lamentation is one of Volkov’s most important paintings ever I think. The subject and the treatment makes it a really outstanding work.  Another standout work is Dance from 1924, which will be on the cover of the catalogue. These are the highlights that show the diversity of Volkov’s works.

Alexander Volkov, Dance, 1924, oil on plywood (collection of Valery Dudakov and Marina Kashuro)

TC: Are there plans to do more exhibitions like this? Obviously you’re an auction house and it is quite unusual for you to have an exhibition rather than a sale. MK: We are likely to be working with Oracle again because of the popularity of the 2010 exhibition and of course this exhibition. I think we will co-operate on quite a regular basis giving us a chance to perhaps show artists that are less mainstream. Volkov for example is super famous in Russia but in the West he is not so well known. I think the problem is that he is almost non-existent on the art market.   Alexander Volkov: Of Sand and Silk runs until 21 September 2012. Christie’s 8 King Street, St James’s, London 10am-5pm daily (free public entry)