The path taken by Nikolai Karakhan, Aleksandr Volkov’s talented pupil, was a typical one for the Uzbek avant garde – from conventionally decorative canvasses in the 1920s, to singing the praises of heroic labour in the 1930s and, in the end, post-war landscapes.
When Uzbekistan began the “struggle to create thematic painting” embodying modern life, Karakhan, as a member of Volkov’s Izobrigada group, actively involved himself in the task of developing this theme. He would enthusiastically sketch designs for frescoes and monumental panels to reflect the scope of Soviet construction: Building, Foundry (both 1933), Walking to Work (1934), Lunch Break (1935) etc. Among the artist’s most important monumental works is the two-metre canvas entitled Constructing Lake Komsomol, painted in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
The townsfolk of Tashkent and young Komsomol members were brought in as unpaid labour in their free time to lay out the city’s park and artificial lake, and this could not escape the attention of the Izobrigada. Karakhan set off for the left bank of the Ankhor canal where they were building the Stalin Park of Culture and Recreation. There he observed everything, painting from life, sketching landscapes and portraits of the building workers – Komsomol, housewives, and prisoners. But most of the work on his monumental canvas took place in the studio, where the artist strove for a generalised image of everyday life, lived in joyful elation. It was in the studio that his sketches, gouaches and watercolours drawn from nature were transformed into this powerful, optimistic paean to youthful “Komsomol construction”.
Karakhan uses the breadth and space of the landscape to reveal the scale of the work going on and the confrontation between elemental nature and human will. To reinforce its monumentalism, the artist focuses attention on the bold figures in the foreground, exaggeratedly massive and finely painted in transparent colour. The middle ground is filled by a single swathe of labour in a human mass. The distance is brightly lit and despite the diversity of the landscape – a looming mountain, smooth shoreline, trees and shrubs – it is a mere backdrop to this collective portrait of builders.
Despite all the conventionality in his portrayal of historical realities, Karakhan managed in Constructing Lake Komsomol, to embody the main point, the ideal of his time – youth, the International, the free working woman labouring with a man as his equal, and Uzbek land transformed by selfless labour.