Alexander Volkov painted Moonlit mausoleums in 1915, during a period of synthesis between his own plastic language with one of symbolism and expressionism. This period spanned from 1910-1916, at a time when Volkov was devoting half the year to his studies in Kiev and the other half to his own work at home in Turkestan - the main source of his inspiration. It should be noted that Volkov was a relative late-comer to fine art and had already fully formed his character, which is exactly why, from the earliest works that have survived (works which did not meet Volkov's own standards were destroyed by him), he emerges an independent artist, having developed his own rhythmic and colouristic system. During this period we see the creation of such significant works as Woman on a background of mausoleums, Nude (Golden), Nude (Striped) and Self-portrait, as well as a series of landscapes executed in watercolour and oil, which Volkov himself described as 'My pot of gold'.
Moonlit mausoleums is undoubtedly one of the finest works of this period. The first striking aspect of the work is the subject matter: landscapes in which architectural motifs are prominent features are extremely rare in Volkov's work. As a rule, architecture usually plays a minor role, appearing as a detail in the landscape (Pilgrim, 1915, Sheyhantour, 1917), or appearing as the background in compositions with figures (Caravan (A procession of caravans on a background of mausoleums) 1917, People at the mosque, 1918). Here, mausoleums fill almost all the space of the canvas, leaving only a small strip of sky. They grow from the earth and both metaphorically, and materially, built from raw brick, almost from clay, become a bridge of sorts between human and natural origins. In the far background of the landscape structures are transformed into ruins embodying a return to the earth, to death. In this we see Volkov's philosophy, his ideas on the mystery of earthly existence and the universal, pantheistic unity of being.
The choice of mausoleums as the main architectural element is not accidental but is rather consistently present from work to work and can be seen framing Volkov's caravans, nudes and self-portraits. In a similar fashion, they can be found just as often in his poetry. However, it is not only the architectural landscape that sets this work apart: the image of night, of moonlight, is also rarely encountered in his work, as Volkov is, without doubt, a artist of the sun. The moon reappears again only in later works: Crossing the Stream (1944), The moon is low. Landscape. (1946-47) and Moonlight (1941-51).
Volkov paid much attention to the technical aspect of painting, which is one of the secrets to the brightness of his palette. The artist's surviving notebooks are full of recipes for the preparation of paints, varnishes and glues. Different mediums are often combined: watercolour and varnish, gouache and pencil, oils and pastels. In Moonlit mausoleums he combines oil and tempera, and, it would seem, a tempera of his own preparation in which he uses an orange pigment, also found in his later works, whose recipe has long been held in the family.
A curious feature of Moonlit mausoleums is the presence of an academic study from an earlier period on its reverse. He did not paint over it because he was looking at the time for a way to create an earthier and warmer tone, painting a series of works on ungrounded canvasses, a technique he used until the mid-1920s. In this manner, the reverse of his student work (fragmented but well-preserved as it had been laid down for many years) was the ideal surface for experimental painting, the brilliant, warm, and naturally-toned canvasses combining with the impasto of the mausoleums and the almost watercolour-quality of the sky.
The painting Moonlit mausoleums has remained with the family of the artist from the moment of its creation, shown only at exhibitions in the 1920s. However, as stretching the canvas was almost impossible at this time, the canvas was previously mounted on cardboard, slightly smaller in size, the edges bent. The work remained in this condition for several years and was first shown in its restored condition in 2012 at the Christie's exhibition Alexander Volkov. Of Sand and Silk.
We are grateful to Andrei Volkov, grandson of the artist, for providing this note.