How a World-Class Modern Art Collection Ended Up in Karakalpakstan 

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The Desert of Forbidden Art
Directed by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope

In the art world being at the center of it all is essential, but for Igor Savitsky isolation was key to amassing the richest collection of Russian Modern art from the 20s and 30s. His museum, how it came to exist, and how it just barely continues to do so, are the subjects of The Desert of Forbidden Art, an intriguing, beautifully shot, pleasantly narrated (by Ben Kingsley) and exhaustively researched documentary by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope. Its narrative of how a hoarder assembled an entire repressed chapter of art history in the Uzbek desert abounds with appealing classical resonances, from Noah setting off, his Ark filled with endangered specimens, to David's unlikely victory over the larger, stronger Goliath.

Until 1932 Soviet artists had been at the forefront of European Modernism, but that year the state banished all art other than Soviet Realism, rendering the U.S.S.R. a cultural desert. Of the condemned art that wasn't destroyed, hidden or sent abroad, some 40,000 pieces ended up in Savitsky's hands. He created a museum (with slyly obtained government funding, no less) in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, a distant autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, a figurative oasis in an actual desert. Many of the artists whose works he preserved—often by bargaining with their widows and children—ended their days in the Gulag. Others, like Ural Tansykbayev, renounced Modernist aesthetics to paint in the Soviet-sanctioned style. While official artists portrayed smiling peasants and factory workers, the state confiscated artworks in Cubist, Fauvist, Expressionist, Pointillist and Dadaist styles, to name only a handful of the Modern movements represented on the walls of the Savitsky Collection.

Georgiev and Pope preface all this with a biography of Savitsky, who was born into an aristocratic Kiev family that was forced to pass for proletariat after the revolution. He became an archaeologist, drawing dig sites and newly excavated artifacts, honing his painting skills during breaks. A famous artist criticized the aspiring painter's work, and that was the end of that. But in the meantime he'd discovered the folk arts of a distant Uzbek region, which he began to collect, as he then did the local avant-garde, and eventually all that Modern art deemed "degenerate" back in Moscow. Friends, relatives and colleagues of Savitsky, and of the artists whose work he saved, recall his Biblical three-day train ride that brought most of the collection from right under the Kremlin's nose to a remote Soviet outpost.

The singularity of his vision and the threats which now face his museum—preservation challenges, storage shortages, lack of funding and, increasingly, Muslim extremism—evoke another recent documentary about one determined man's institution, Art of the Steal, which exposed so powerfully the machinations that led to the current displacement of Albert Barnes's Barnes Collection, against its charter, to downtown Philadelphia. A scene in which one work from Savitsky's collection is sold at auction underlines the frailty of his legacy and, in the emotional response of the artist's elderly son, the pain of selling off national heritage. Minutes later museum staff put pans of water throughout the galleries to create a smidgen of moisture amidst Nukus's dry, triple-digit temperatures while the current director explains the institution's chronic funding shortages. What was once forbidden now struggles to survive in forbidding conditions.

Opens March 11

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