TWO PAINTINGS BY ALEXANDER VOLKOV FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Alexander Nikolaevich Volkov (Russian, 1886-1957)
'The Child Musicians' ['Дети-музыканты'], 1926 signed in Cyrillic (lower left) tempera on canvas 94 x 94cm (37 x 37in).
PROVENANCE: The family of the artist The Fine Arts Fund of the USSR, 1966 (selected with the aid of George Costakis) Acquired from the above by a distinguished European businessman in 1967 Thence by descent to an important private collection, Europe
EXHIBITED: Moscow, State Museum of Oriental Art, Alexander Volkov, Solo Exhibition, 1967
LITERATURE: Alexander Volkov, The Soviet Artist, Moscow, 1970, illustrated as one of eight postcards The Artists of Soviet Uzbekistan, The Soviet Artist, Moscow, 1974, illustrated M.I. Zemskaia, Alexander Volkov: The Master of 'The Pomegranate Teahouse', The Soviet Artist, Moscow, 1975, pp.61-62, cat. p.131, no.34 illustrated
The Child Musicians, painted in 1926, by Alexander Nikolaevich Volkov is considered to be one of the most important of the artist's works of 1925-1930. After completing the mystical The Pomegranate Teahouse in 1924, Volkov embarked upon a new period, which he described as a 'return to the man, a return to realism'. During this time his interest in spirituality was replaced by a search for the 'joy of life': a key element in the appreciation of Volkov's art. This transition to figurative art was not a step back, but an important and necessary development in his artistic career. While maintaining a strength of colour, monumental composition and plastic expression, he filled his work with life. Life was the main source of Volkov's inspiration, as well as his trips around Turkestan in early-to-mid 20s. During this time he also turned his hand to writing poetry, which put words to the images of his paintings: 'Kirghiz girls of Burato are vivid/ their cheeks are like apples from Bura-Ata'; 'A woman next to the yurt is like a vase/a vessel with boiling kumys', 'How many miles I walked around,/to compare eyes with almonds.'
During this period, Volkov cultivated his particular method of application and consolidation of tempera on canvas: adding the gum of fruit trees to water, he covered the finished works with sandarac lacquer, ensuring high stability, intensity and a transparency of colour simultaneously. He also mixed materials: tempera, oil, coal and lacquer. Works of this period include Fergana. Kishlak (GMINV, Moscow), The Wedding, 1927 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Caravan, 1928 (GMI RK Savitsky, Nukus), and Caravan at the tea house (GMI Tashkent).
Alongside the subjects of caravans, tea-houses and working peasants, the theme of music is one of the most important for the artist. Recalling a concert of the violinist Michael Erdenko, which he attended in 1903 in Orenburg, Volkov wrote: 'Maybe I became an artist because I heard it once'. He was raised in the family tradition of music and studied in St. Petersburg, where he took lessons from an opera singer at the Mariinsky, who predicted a great musical career for Volkov. The orientalist Y.N. Zavadovsky wrote 'in all of Volkov's works the rhythm of brush strokes comes into contact with the rhythm of music'.
In addition to the musical rhythms apparent in his works, from 1910 to the mid-1920s, Volkov devoted some of his paintings to musical themes: Listen to music, 1918, (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Musicians, 1921 (Private Collection), Three musicians, 1926, (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), Musicians, 1926 (GMI Uzbekistan), and, notably, the offered lot, The Child Musicians. M. I. Zemskaia describes the offered in remarkable detail in her monograph, the first on the artist:
'The painting Singing children on the cart [another title for the offered lot: The Child Musicians] could be described as a summation of the artist's quests in several areas: movement (the motif of the cart), the portrayal of children, to whom he devoted a series of works studying their characters, gestures, postures, and finally, music. Three figures are placed at the bottom of the cart between its wheels; in the lower left corner is a quarter of the wheel and only half of the second wheel can be seen. The rhythm of the painting is conjured by the use of everyday things like a cart, while the symbolic motif of the sun creates a subtext. A sphere, circle, and semi-circle form the compositional base of the picture and the circular shapes are varied in scale, colour and movement: cart wheels, skull caps, heads, bracelets, hands, red fruits in a cup with a green background and rounded singing lips. In the composition, all of this appears to have been cropped by the artist who manages to achieve a rare unity, consistency and isolation by connecting all the parts. The drum, held naturally by the girl in red, is cut in two and corresponds to the semi-circle of the cartwheel. The children's hands are accustomed to work, but artistically sensitive, curved and full of musical expression. The main sitter is the girl in yellow: her expressive figure seems to be dancing, even though she is depicted seated; the child musicians admire and are in awe of their friend, who conducts them, leading the song with the expression of her hands, head and entire being...
The girl could be either Uzbek or Tadzhik, and her face is characteristic, but very typical.. There are three main colours dominant in the picture and the artist makes them sound loudly and harmoniously, even gently; the way it was done by the great colourists. Compared to Pomegranate Tea House, which draws the viewer into its depths, The Child Musicians is a very clear and monumental work which expresses a new concept of beauty in music, art, and man.' (M.I. Zemskaia, Alexander Volkov, The Master of 'The Pomegranate Teahouse', The Soviet Artist, Moscow, 1975, pp. 61-62; cat. p.131; ill. no.34).
The Child Musicians is a work with an unusual fate. Painted in 1926, it is most likely to have been exhibited at the end of the 1920s, however in the 1930s and at the last lifetime show of the artist in 1957, the work was not present. The painting was kept in the collection of the family of the artist and brought to Moscow in the mid-1960s, along with the rest of Volkov's estate. In Moscow, with the support of George. D. Costakis, The Child Musicians and Tomato Harvest (from the same collection) were selected for sale at the Fine Art Fund of the USSR, a foundation which aimed to support artists by offering their works to foreign buyers. Prior to the foreign purchase of the offered lots, the only other exposure of Volkov's works out of the USSR was in 1934, following an exhibition and sale of Soviet art in Philadelphia, USA.
In 1967, The Child Musicians, 1924, and Tomato Harvest, 1944, were bought by an important European businessman, one of the major lobbyists for a deal between the USSR and a large European car manufacturer, which planned to build an automobile factory in Russia. At the time of the purchase of the paintings, the first post-1923 solo exhibition of A.N. Volkov in Moscow was about to open at the State Museum of Oriental Art. It was crucial for the artist's sons to show his most important works and the buyer agreed to collect his purchases when the exhibition closed, after which point the paintings joined his collection of important Russian art.
Andrei Volkov, 2013
We are grateful to Andrei Volkov, grandson of the artist, for providing this note.