Why a Secret Museum of Lost Russian Modernism Remains in Danger Today

Why a Secret Museum of Lost Russian Modernism Remains in Danger Today
Imagine a stunning modern art museum in an obscure desert city in a country that few in the West know anything about. It sounds impossible, but that's just the situation revealed in a new documentary, "The Desert of Forbidden Art," which tells the amazing story of Igor Savitsky and the collection of Russian avant-garde art that he established in a museum in Nukus on the far western edge of Uzbekistan.

Far from the reach of Stalin's Socialist Realist dictates — and the KGB — Savitsky's collection of modern Russian art grew to 40,000 objects, and he also preserved jewelry and folk art of the region's nomadic Karakalpak people. The museum survived the Soviet Union, but its fate once again hangs in the balance, with Uzbek officials looking on the collection with suspicion and even refusing to let museum director Marinika Babanazarova leave the country to attend a screening of the documentary at Washington's National Gallery.

The film opens in New York this weekend at Cinema Village, where the filmmakers will be present for Q&A sessions at all showings, before showing in L.A. at Laemmle Theaters from March 18-25. ARTINFO sat down with filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev to talk about how a former chemical weapons development site in central Asia came to house a unique collection of modern art.

Tchavdar, you grew up in the former Soviet Union. Were you aware of the Nukus Museum?

TG: Not only had I not heard of the collection, I hadn't heard of the city of Nukus. It was a closed city, where they made biological weapons and chemical weapons. It is really not on the map. Furthermore, nobody in Russia knows about this collection or the city of Nukus, except top art historians and people in the business, so to speak.

AP: In the same way, if you go to the Washington area, there are no big signs outside the C.I.A. buildings. So you can imagine, here is a city doing research in chemical weapons. The Soviets didn't want anybody knowing about it.

TG: And yet, at the same time, it houses the second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, with over 40,000 paintings and graphics.

So tell me about the collection. How did Igor Savitsky manage to collect this art at a time when it was banned by the Soviet Union?

TG: He was a fox, as Amanda would say. He was a very charming man, completely obsessed with what he was doing. He lived in the museum, literally. He had one suit hanging on a hanger for the bosses. When they visited, he would put the suit on. So he did everything himself in this museum. And when the local Communist leader gave him an apartment, he gave it right away to two restorers from Moscow who needed a place to live.

AP: Savitsky had no money, but he was inside the art community, so he would go from one widow to another. This art was done in the '20s and '30s, and Savitsky started collecting it in the late '60s, over a twenty-year period — he died in '84. And he would go and he would look at the paintings, he would get the widows to unroll them, and the widows could tell that he really loved art. They could tell that he really had an eye. And so they wanted their husbands' work to be in a museum. One of the touching things that we found when we were filming is that there is such a love of art ingrained in the Russian people. And for them, what is interesting is not how much a painting can bring at an auction, but that it is on the wall for the people to see, that it's at a museum.

What are some of the highlights of the collection?

TG: Even though there are some incredible pieces by Moscow and St. Petersburg artists, the true gems of the collection are the so-called "Eastern avant-garde," which is these incredible artists who came from Moscow and St. Petersburg, even as far away as Siberia, to bring the revolution to Central Asia. And what they discovered is what Tahiti was for Gauguin: These beautiful colors, Islam, Sufism, the Silk Road. And they brought European modernism and the Russian avant-garde and combined them with Islam. And made this incredible new movement in art that hasn't been seen anywhere else in the world but Uzbekistan.

AP: There are camels in the desert, but they're Cubist camels. It's a fascinating style, and it is unique. One of our hopes — aside from encouraging the Uzbek government to really adopt this and encourage it and stop sort of hiding this collection — is to show the art so that there is a possibility that there could be traveling exhibitions from the Nukus Museum, which there could be easily, if the Uzbek government cooperates.

I understand that some art dealers from the West have approached the museum's director recently to try to buy pieces from the museum's collection. Has she been tempted to sell off any items to pay for the collection's upkeep?

AP: I don't think she's been tempted, but she has certainly had offers. And the trick is that it's a government museum, so she could be ordered to sell X, Y, or Z.

TG: If the daughter of the president comes in tomorrow and says, "Oh, I love this jewelry," what are you going to do?

Do you have a favorite piece from Savitsky's collection?

AP: Yes. Ural Tansykbaev's "Purple Road."

TG: I have two favorites. One is "The Bull," also called "Fascism is Advancing," which was painted by this artist Yevgeny Lysenko. He saw these animals in his dreams with eyes like the barrels of a gun and his work can be seen only in the Nukus Museum. He called it "Fascism Advancing" because it was this scary-looking animal, in an Expressionistic, avant-garde style. It was a prophecy of what would happen to the Soviet Union because he painted it before Stalin's repression. And my other favorite painting is by Alexander Volkov who was a Russian artist born in Uzbekistan, "The Green Tea Room." And it's very interesting because "The Green Tea Room" was not on the walls of the museum when we discovered it. It was in storage. It's this incredible image of these Uzbeks having tea. Except there is a problem in the background. There is a portrait of Lenin. Because obviously when Vollkov painted it, it was Soviet times and there would be portraits of Lenin everywhere — just the way we would have Obama today — and that is not encouraged at the moment in Uzbekistan. So that painting sits in storage and people cannot see it. The only place where you can see it is in our film.

AP: And it's on the level of Picasso's early work. It is an amazing, amazing painting. And the idea that it's in storage because there's a portrait of Lenin on the wall…

So art is still caught up in politics.

AP: They're still entangled. Politics was a central character in Savitsky's life and in the collecting of this art, and it hasn't stopped.