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Of Silk and Sand

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:08 UK time, Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Christie's auction house in London is currently running an exhibition called Of Sand and Silk.

The exhibition showcases the works of Aleksandr Volkov (1886 -1957), who belonged to the Turkestani school of Russian avant-garde art at the beginning of the 20th century.

Both the history of that particular collection from the Nukus State Museum of Karakalpakstan and the life of the artist are fascinating stories so I'll just touch upon them here.

At the teahouse (During a journey), 1917

At the teahouse (During a journey), 1917, by Alexsandr Volkov. © Christie's Images Limited 2012

First, the life of Aleksandr Volkov. His father, Nikolay Volkov, came to Central Asia with the Russian troops, conquering this vast area with its ancient culture in the middle of the 19th century. He served as a military doctor.

After Central Asia was conquered by Russians and became known as Russian Turkestan, Volkov Senior, like many other colonisers, decided to stay there and he settled down in a town called Skobelev (today's Ferghana). According to family legend he got married to a local gypsy girl and Volkov Junior was born in Ferghana following that marriage.

Though the artist had studied in Russia for a short period, he grew up and spent all his life in Central Asia.

The Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War, Stalin's repression and World War Two - all of that he lived through and witnessed in Uzbekistan.

Therefore all his artwork was about that place made of sand and silk.

His son, Valeriy Volkov, tells us that the artist didn't receive much recognition during his lifetime, but he knew his place in the star charts of art, saying that all artists around him were of republican importance, or in some cases of Soviet Union-wide importance. "But what about you?" the son asked once. Volkov left a pause and then said: "I'm on the global scale..."

Caravan, 1920

Caravan, 1920, by Aleksandr Volkov. © Christie's Images Limited 2012

Here's one of his poems, which shows his not just artistic, but also literary genius.

The orange steppe is burning,
Far away the stream tolls the bells,
The obsession of hashish -
This is my land.

Dreamy mud of the
Walls, the sun
Which eats up the earth
This is my land.

Mystery mixed with sadness
Hidden behind the veil
Wild and native
This is my land.

The bell of a camel
Intertwines the golden ornament,
The cry of a donkey -
This is my land...

I mentioned that this art collection belongs to the Nukus Museum. Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region within Uzbekistan. No offence, because I dearly love Nukus and Karakalpakstan, but the phrase 'the middle of nowhere' is one of the epithets of that town. The great Russian writer Andrei Platonov, describing those places in his novel The Soul, wrote that "the hell of the earth was situated here" - so rough is desert terrain. And yet one of the best museums in the world for the Russian avant-garde is in Nukus. How did that come about?

The answer is there was a collector, Igor Savitsky, an artist himself, who under the pretext of maintaining local culture in the sixties and seventies used Communist funds to obtain hidden gems of the Turkestani and Russian avant-garde, and Volkov's works were the first in his collection.

Pietá, 1921

Pietá, 1921, by Aleksandr Volkov. © Christie's Images Limited 2012

These lines of Aleksandr Volkov seemingly describe this wonderful collector Igor Savitsky, who saved all that joy for us from oblivion:

The stork came - the sun throws its feathers.
We meet the spring - a joyful feast.
Arbas (oriental carts) murmur, rolling the spokes,
The steppe was crossed by the rattling mudslide.

The stork will go - the pomegranate will ripe,
Bosoms of girls will get juicer after the summer.
The stork takes away the warmth,
Turning his tail to the sunset...

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