The Desert of Forbidden Art
Written, produced and directed by Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev
Opens March 11, 2011
The remarkable saga of Igor Savitsky is one of the most amazing—and least-known—stories in art history, and The Desert of Forbidden Art finally brings it to light. If it weren’t true, it would be too outlandish to be believed: a young and struggling Soviet artist, under the constantly watchful eye of the KGB, coaxes the very same authorities that are banning what they consider “degenerate” modern art to give him the finances to purchase and house those very same works.
As Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev’s film so compellingly recounts, Savitsky found kindred spirits in the artists who were mistreated by Stalin’s henchmen. Many of whom were placed in mental hospitals or sentenced to Siberian gulags, like other undesirables, simply for refusing to paint in a prescribed style, being homosexual, or daring to speak out against the authorities. Savitsky started purchasing their artworks, along with much indigenous folk art and antiquities from Uzbekistan. The Nukus Museum now holds tens of thousands of ancient artifacts and modern artworks, an incredible oasis of art situated in one of the most unlikely places in the world, the Uzbekistan desert of Central Asia.
Directors Pope and Georgiev structure their absorbing film around, first, the telling of Savitsky’s life and work through his own words, spoken eloquently by Ben Kingsley, and, secondly, the celebration of Central Asian artists, who, combining their own avant-garde styles with traditional Eastern techniques, would come to be known as the Uzbek School. Influenced by the likes of Kandinsky, Chagall, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat, their sublime, eye-catching, colorful work constitutes a primer in heretofore unknown 20th century art.
The exquisite, boldly detailed works we see by painters such as Alexander Volkov, among many others, is reason enough for this film to have been made since it highlights how much of a rich artistic heritage would disappear if these works were stolen or destroyed from an area with little security and even less interest in art. Marinika M. Babanazarova, the Nukus Museum’s current curator and director, demonstrates how the poorly financed museum gamely tries to protect its treasure trove from the desert region’s arid climate (water in trays that evaporates in the heat to provide some humidity), but the unspoken assertion is that dry heat is the least of these priceless artworks’ 21st century problems.