The Desert of Forbidden Art is a fascinating documentary by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope, exploring an unknown art world made up of amazing artists whose work was condemned in their lifetimes largely because of Stalin’s regime, and consequently not recognized until recently. The film centers on the story of how one man, Igor Savitsky (whose narration is voiced by Sir Ben Kinglsey), made it his life’s goal to collect the work of Russian artists who had worked during the 1920s and 30s. He collected 44,000 paintings and drawings by these artists and created a museum in the middle of rural Uzbekistan. It is a straightforward documentary, with conventional techniques, but the subject makes it somewhat extraordinary, as it is story that has never been told on film before.
The film transports the viewer to Uzbekistan, specifically the rural town of Nukus in the sovereign state of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan, where this unique museum is. Why would Savitsky choose such an obscure location to show these amazing works of art? He did this for a number of reasons. First, he loved the desert and was attracted to the Uzbekistan culture, as the artists he collected were. Most of these Russian artists came to live in Uzbekistan during the 1920s, after the Communist revolution, and their avant-garde styles sometimes merged with the aesthetic of folk art in that part of Central Asia. They were inspired by their surroundings. The other reason for the museum’s location was to maintain a distance from the political headquarters of Moscow. The rural location protected it from being shut down by the Soviets, who would not have favored the art displayed, had they seen it. So its location is an important aspect of the museum, and although the dangerous Russian regimes that it was escaping from have been replaced by the very present Islamic regime, the museum’s director would never move it or sell their collection, as the art is a part of the Uzbekistan culture.
The individual artists’ stories are as interesting as the story of Savitsky and the museum. The filmmakers interview many of the artists’ children to get first-hand accounts of their often intertwining stories. The artists include Volkov, whose art was condemned by Stalin because it didn’t fit with the false idealism of Socialist art, but who eventually spoke against his fellow artist Kurzin for being anti-Soviet due to pressure of the KGB; Borovaya, a woman who made drawings of what she experienced in the Gulag, Stalin’s work camps; and Tanskybaev, who was a master of Stalin’s ideal Socialist art, but had been a student of Volkov and had his early masterworks hidden away until Savitsky convinced him to reveal them. The art of these and many more artists who were collected painstakingly by Savitsky ranges from gorgeous brightly colored paintings of life and culture in Uzbekistan, to dark paintings and sketches communicating the bleak time of Stalin’s control which contrast with the joyful propaganda art of the regime. Some works by these artists were meant to speak against the regime that was oppressing them, but other works were condemned simply for being art; whether it was reflective of the avant-garde movement in Europe or of local folk art, it went against the dictating vision of Soviet Socialism, and was therefore hidden away.
As many of the people interviewed state, it’s amazing that so many works survived such a difficult time, hidden rather than destroyed by the regime, and that they were kept safe by the children and grandchildren of the artists until Savitsky discovered and exhibited them. But thankfully, they are still in existence and faithfully kept safe by the museum. It is a moving portrait of one man and his amazing love for art, of many artists’ incredible stories, as well as a wonderful display of works of art that should be seen and renowned. If one can’t make the trek to the museum in Nukus, the film can at least give an idea of the treasures kept there.
Opens March 11th in NYC
In English and Russian with English Subtitles