Desert of Forbidden Art,
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.