"The Desert of Forbidden Art" tells a tale that is stranger than fiction several times over. Viewers of this remarkable documentary will be astonished at not only what this art looks like and why it's forbidden, but also where it is and how it got there.
The where is Nukus, the capital city of Karakalpakstan, an independent republic inside Uzbekistan that is every bit as remote as it sounds. A place where it can easily be 120 degrees in the shade, this is not a location where one would expect to find one of the world's great art collections, but the Nukus Museum defies any and all expectations.
Inside this building resides one of the largest and most impressive gatherings of Russian avant-garde art. It's work so staggering and so little known that Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times central Asia bureau chief and the man who first focused Western attention on the place, remembers that "it didn't take me more than a few minutes of walking around this museum for my jaw to drop."
It took co-directors Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev six years to complete this film, which displays gorgeous works by artists such as Alexander Volkov and Mikhail Kurzin. It took the man who created the museum, the gifted and obsessed collector Igor Savitsky, even more years to track down and acquire the 44,000 works of art (no, that is not a misprint) that became his life's work.
As Savitsky himself described it (actor Ben Kingsley reading his words), "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."
How did this all happen? With Savitsky and his artists all dead, directors Pope and Georgiev have tracked down their children and their friends as well as long-buried archival footage to give us a sense of how it all came to pass.
Savitsky wanted to be an artist himself, but when his dreams did not work out, he exiled himself to Uzbekistan. At first he used his exceptional eye to collect the local folk art that the Soviets, with an eye toward repressing ethnicity, were trying to destroy.
Then he began hearing about what had happened in the area in the 1920s and '30s. Young Russian artists — attracted to the exoticism of Uzbek culture in the same way, says one art historian, as Gauguin was to Tahiti — came to the place and fused their avant-garde sensibilities with the central Asia influences that were everywhere.
Though these artists felt themselves to be far from the cold hand of Stalinism, they weren't far enough. As straight-ahead Socialist Realism became the only acceptable artistic style, these people became enemies of the state, so legitimately in fear of their lives, the film reveals, they sometimes informed on one another.
Once Savitsky found out this art existed, he allowed nothing to stand in his way. He tracked down the artists' children in Moscow and Leningrad, making the arduous 1,700-mile round trip from Nukus more than 20 times. He acquired the art without official permission and later talked Karakalpakstan's leader into creating the museum. Even as he was dying, he refused to stop working.
Though it seems like a miracle that these paintings survived, their trials are not over. A recent New York Times story revealed that officials in Uzbekistan continue to harass the museum's director, Marinika Babanazarova, and the ultimate fate of the art is far from clear. See these images now in this significant documentary and cross your fingers for their fate.