A decade or so ago, I was on a 3 year project in Uzbekistan and saw a temporary exhibition of stunning paintings in one of Tashkent’s few public galleries. I was not then in collection mode but was sufficiently impressed to photograph some of them – sadly without noting the names of the painters. Yesterday I was googling “socialist realism” and stumbled across an amazing story of artistic gems hidden in the (western) Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan. One man, Igor Savitsky, saved a treasure trove of Russian and Uzbek art by “hiding” it in a museum in Nukus near the infamous Aral Sea -
A tireless collector of paintings that the Soviet government wanted destroyed, Savitsky traveled thousands of miles in the post-war period scheming, plotting, pleading, doing whatever it took to get his hands on the art he so passionately wanted to preserve.
A frustrated artist, Savitsky was working as an archaeologist when he became fascinated by the indigenous cultures of Western Uzbekistan. He began to collect jewelry, coins, handmade clothing, and other items in danger of being lost as the Soviets sought to devalue distinctively ethnic artifacts. Savitsky even succeeded in convincing government officials to provide funding for a museum in Nukus, far from Moscow’s prying eyes. But then Savitsky discovered his true calling. Pretending to buy state-approved art, he daringly rescued thousands of works by artists banned during the Stalin era for speaking out against authority, for being gay, or for simply refusing to paint in the style they were told. Risking torture, imprisonment, and death, this small group remained true to their artistic vision. Savitsky even managed to cajole the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who had banned it.
Savitsky’s greatest discovery was an unknown school of artists who settled in Uzbekistan after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There they encountered an Islamic culture as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin, and they developed a startlingly original style that fused European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.
It all came to wider light apparently in 1998 when the New York Times published this article.
And all of this was celebrated in a special film earlier this year. Desert of Forbidden Art uses this story of Savitsky and the artists by juxtaposing images from the collection with rare Soviet archival film and stills. Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists and bring to life a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom.
But late last year Uzbek officials abruptly gave the Nukus Museum 48 hours to evacuate one of its two exhibition buildings, so staff members ended up stacking hundreds of fragile canvases and paper works on the floor of the other space. The building has since stood empty, its fate unknown, and more than 2,000 works are no longer on view at the museum. The museum’s director, Marinika M. Babanazarova, who has fiercely guarded the collection for 27 years since Savitsky’s death in 1984, was not permitted to travel to the United States for a trip that was to include a screening of the documentary at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
And over the last year Ms. Babanazarova’s staff members have undergone 15 government audits, in which they have repeatedly been asked to explain their travels overseas and the nature of their contacts with foreigners, she said.
The irony is that the art Savitsky saved — beginning with traditional Uzbek folk art and textiles and blossoming to comprise art by ethnic Russian avant-garde artists — was at the time under fire for not being Soviet enough. Now it seems, 20 years after Uzbekistan won its independence — it is being targeted by the new regime for not being Uzbek enough.
Issues; there are several lessons from this story which, hopefully, I will pursue in future posts. First and foremost - what an exceptional, courageous individual can achieve. This is an issue which has cropped up several times in this blog eg an American who did heroic things during the Smyrna massacres of 1923; a Greek and a Turk who had in the preceding decade or so tried to stem the tide of ethnic hatred; Havel; the good German of Nanjing in the early 1940s.
And, second, the way artists have had to adjust to repressive regimes. I realised only recently just how much the Bulgarian art I admire, for eaxmple, must have been affected by that. A few migrated; many opted for design work in the cinema and theatre; a few courageous ones like Boris Denev refused to compromise and were banned from painting.