Desert of For­bid­den Art,

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Part of Stalin’s mis­sion af­ter the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion of 1917 was to con­trol the aes­thetic bent of Rus­sian art, in which only the most ro­bust and hard-work­ing mem­bers of the pop­u­la­tion were to be por­trayed. Whether gath­er­ing crops from the coun­try­side or forg­ing met­als in an in­dus­trial set­ting, work­ers were de­picted as healthy, happy, and con­tent mem­bers of the pro­le­tariat. (Sound fa­mil­iar? Think of Ger­many 20 years later.) Un­der the Soviet Union, artists who re­fused to adopt the So­cial Re­al­ist style were at risk of be­ing sent to mental in­sti­tu­tions, put to hard la­bor in gu­lags, or sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted.

Sav­it­sky, who came from a fam­ily of priv­i­lege, was im­me­di­ately in dan­ger, sim­ply be­cause of his aris­to­cratic up­bring­ing. As a ruse to de­flect sus­pi­cion about his her­itage, he worked as an elec­tri­cian for the state un­til, in 1950, he was as­signed to cre­ate draw­ings of ar­ti­facts found in an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig in the desert of western Uzbek­istan. Once he ar­rived there, he be­came im­mersed in Cen­tral Asian civ­i­liza­tion, be­gan col­lect­ing Uzbek cul­tural ma­te­ri­als, and started a mu­seum in the town of Nukus to show­case Uzbek art and crafts — funded in large part by the Rus­sian Min­istry of Fi­nance. He also learned that, dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s, a group of Rus­sian avant-gardists ex­iled them­selves to Uzbek­istan — 1,700 miles from Moscow — as a haven to con­tinue their work, which was banned by the Soviet Union.

Act­ing as an ad­vo­cate for free­dom of ex­pres­sion and know­ing that the work of this group of artists needed to be pre­served, Sav­it­sky be­gan col­lect­ing their draw­ings and paint­ings wher­ever he could find them, of­ten in hid­den places in Moscow, where heirs of the artists still lived. “I found these paint­ings rolled up un­der the beds of old wid­ows, buried in fam­ily trash, in dark cor­ners of artists’ stu­dios, some­times even patch­ing a hole in the roof,” he wrote in words that are read in voice-over by ac­tor Ben Kings­ley in the film. The on-cam­era in­ter­views with sons and daugh­ters of some of the artists who as­sisted Sav­it­sky in his mis­sion are en­dear­ing and bit­ter­sweet. One son ex­plains that his trust in Sav­it­sky led oth­ers to hand over art­works by their fa­thers and moth­ers. They made this leap of faith with­out know­ing the out­come of Sav­it­sky’s dar­ing at­tempts to sur­rep­ti­tiously trans­port banned art­work from Moscow to Nukus, a jour­ney he un­der­took as many as 20 times be­fore be­com­ing phys­i­cally un­able to do so.

Dur­ing the last 17 years of his life, Sav­it­sky col­lected more than 40,000 pieces of work by Rus­sian avant-gardists, which are still housed in the Nukus mu­seum. In 1985, one year af­ter Sav­it­sky’s death (and the year that marked the be­gin­ning of per­e­stroika), his in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment came to light. Six years later, Uzbek­istan gained its in­de­pen­dence from the Soviet Union, which ended Nukus’ “closed city” sta­tus; it has since been ac­ces­si­ble to out­siders.

To Sav­it­sky’s credit, the Nukus mu­seum — now known as the Sav­it­sky Karakalpak State Mu­seum of Art — is a sanc­tu­ary for more than 82,000 ob­jects, rang­ing from an­tiq­ui­ties to lo­cal folk art and the Nukus col­lec­tion of avant-garde art, the sec­ond largest col­lec­tion of Rus­sian avant-garde art in the world af­ter the Rus­sian Mu­seum in St. Peters­burg. But the safety of the col­lec­tion is ten­u­ous, given that Is­lamic ex­trem­ists in the re­gion could de­stroy the col­lec­tion, the govern­ment might con­sider sell­ing it for eco­nomic rea­sons, and there are art prof­i­teers who would dis­man­tle the col­lec­tion for per­sonal gain.

The power of art — par­tic­u­larly that deemed avant-garde — never ceases to amaze in terms of how it can strike fear in the hearts of those who would re­press it for so­ciopo­lit­i­cal rea­sons. This hap­pened with Hitler in Ger­many and with Stalin in the U.S.S.R.; and in lesser-known in­ci­dents around the world, new art con­cepts are still viewed with skep­ti­cism. Orig­i­nal­ity in the arts is a rare com­mod­ity and should be rec­og­nized and pro­moted, de­spite the risk of ridicule or worse. Igor Sav­it­sky did just that, and his story is well told in The Desert of For­bid­den Art.

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