Alexander Volkov’s Beauty was painted in 1921. This period is distinguished not only by Volkov’s tremendous creative activity, but also by his significant involvement in social and cultural life in Turkestan. He directed art studios, lectured at the faculty of education at the University of Turkestan and worked as an instructor for the Committee of Education. In 1921 his second solo exhibition took place, becoming the subject of intense discussion and debate. All significant visitors to Tashkent, artists, musicians, poets, visited Volkov’s studio, including Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) in 1921.
This stage was marked by the bright creative experimentation which formed the style the artist himself writes about in his 1933 autobiography: ‘After experimenting with a number of artistic styles - Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, I progressed to the Primitive, into which I introduced a system of triangles, seeking a simple but strong and expressive composition. This cycle was completed in 1924 with the painting Pomegranate Chaikhana...’.
At this point the structure of his compositions is not so much composed of the crystals or mosaics that had united him with Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) but rather of much simplified geometric shapes, among which the triangle and the circle, both their segments and combinations, played a predominant role. 1921 marked the creation of seminal works such as The lament (Private collection), A black woman (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg), A musician (Private collection), Caravan and Arba (both State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) and the series of ‘stained glass compositions’ (State Russian Museum).
One of the qualities distinguishing Volkov’s art is the special relationship between geometric clarity and emotion; he locates a balance between the subject and its formal incarnation, resolving the motive via the complete freedom of a generalisation and geometrical forms filled with living content. Take for example, a circle or a segment of a circle: it is the sun, a turban, a flower, a breast, a knee, but also movement, sound, rhythm; a triangle is a human figure, a camel hump, a ray of sunshine, and simultaneously a symbol of dimensions, solidity, peace. This is precisely why his work cannot be reduced to exotic ornamentation, decoration borrowed from the East or to scholastic modernist experimentation.
Beauty is one of the archetypal examples of this period; here the typical ‘Volkov’ compositional structure, rhythm and colour are clearly expressed. Many of his discoveries evident in this work were used many years subsequently. One of these techniques is the combination of shapes filled with a single colour (around the figure), and the composite fused, pulsating colours in the figure itself. From a technical perspective, he uses a rare combination of glaze and impasto, painted with expressive strokes. The contrasting black contours enhance the sound of the colour and give a monumental character to the whole composition.
Images of women are an important part of Volkov’s legacy, providing the key to a more accurate understanding of the specifics of each distinct stylistic period. In many of his works throughout the twenties, the main focus of his work is expressed via the subject of ‘Beauties’; his intention to express the joy of life, the delight of a pantheistic existence. A woman is not only a manifestation of beauty, but also a symbol of the infinite cycle of rebirth, the continuous process of creation. Volkov is highly sensitive to the passing of time, which is why these images speak to the inevitable brevity of beautiful moments flashing by.
Experimentation with materials is characteristic of Volkov’s work in the early 1920s. Many are painted on unprimed canvas, plywood, cardboard, some are on paper covered with a varnish of the artist’s own making. Volkov often combines these mediums in one work: oil, tempera, dry pigment, sand. Beauty is no exception - it is painted with oil on paper glued onto thick cardboard (on which maps were apparently painted) and varnished.
We are grateful to Andrei Volkov, grandson of the artist, for providing this note.