Monday, 13 February 2012

Nukus & Savitsky: The Desert of Forbidden Art by Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen

The Savitsky collection at the Nukus Museum has been steadily gaining attention in the Western world over the last couple of years. It is said to be one of the most significant collections of Russian avant-garde art outside of Russia and is ‘second only to that at the Russian Museum’. Situated in Karakalpakstan – part of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian republic of the former Soviet Union – it attracts visitors from all over the world. However, various issues have divided opinion as to the future of the museum, including the quantity and quality of the works, their origins, the remoteness of the location, and the present state of the collection.
Igor Vitalievich Savitsky


Karakalpak Museum of Arts, Nukus
Selected and introduced to the museum by Igor Savitsky between the late 1950s and his death in 1984, the collection consists of 90,000 items and includes paintings, works on paper and sculptures, as well as examples of the applied arts and antiquities. While the applied arts section represents Karakalpak history, the fine arts section is mostly Russian. However, there is also a large number of works created by Uzbek artists who received training from Russian artists living in Central Asia during the early twentieth century.
The museum presents a very unusual slice of the cross-cultural history of the former Soviet Union; from its inception, through the years of the toughest repressions, and its later thaw and stagnation, culminating in perestroika. It shows not only the artistic history of one place, but a cultural exchange between Russia and Central Asia which was only possible within the political structure of the Soviet Union. Here Moscow stood at the centre, Uzbekistan at the periphery, and Nukus in so remote a position that even the steely grip of the central powers could not reach it with its full strength.

Resting between the forbidden and the official, Nukus managed to satisfy both those in power and those against it for decades. The key reason for this success was the personal nature of the relationships that Savitsky developed with the artists and the authorities. The current keeper of the collection and director of the Museum since Savitsky’s death, Marinika Babanazarova, is following in his footsteps with her diplomacy and her dedication.

In 2011 London was the location for two events associated with the Nukus Museum. One was the UK premier of a documentary film and the other a book launch. The film shown on the 27th of May was The Desert of Forbidden Art by Tchavdor Georgiev and Amanda Pope. Organised by Samuel D. Omans, the screening was followed by a panel discussion between Dr. Alisher Ilkamov (The Open Society Foundation/SOAS), Professor Sarah Wilson (The Courtauld Institute of Art), and myself. Both admirers of the museum and those who were encountering this gem for the first time watched the film, filling the room to capacity. The film tells the story of Savitsky’s collection through interviews conducted with descendants of the artists, the staff of the museum and former party officials.

The Desert of Forbidden Art centers on the collection of the Russian and Uzbek avant-garde. Romantically dramatised, the story of Satvitsky and current state of the museum are interlinked and questions of maintenance and safeguarding are raised. According to the film the current Uzbek government offers only reluctant support to this museum because although the museum attracts international attention it does not constitute a collection of Uzbek art. The museum and its treasures are shown to be in an alarming condition with the only hope for their future preservation being the dedication of the museum director and staff.

The director was the central focus of the second event relating to the museum that took place in London. On the 9th of November Pushkin House organised a book launch of Marinika Babanazarova’s publication Igor Savitsky: Artist, Collector, Museum Founder (Silk Road Publishing House, 2011), which is available in both Russian and English. Exploring the life of this extraordinary man, the 72-page-book also includes a list of all the artists, both Russian and Uzbek, represented in the collection, as well as listing a number of works held for each and fourteen colour illustrations.

It is widely agreed that the Nukus Museum possesses a significant art collection, yet only a few publications exist in relation to it. The two most notable catalogues were both published outside of Uzbekistan. The first is Les Survivants des Sables Rouges: Art russe du Musée de Noukous, Ouzbekistan, 1920-1940 (les editions L’Inventaire/Conseil Regional Basse-Normandie, 1998). The second one is Ildar Galeev, ed., Венок Савицкому. Живопись, рисунок, фотографии, документы (Галеев Галлерея, Клуб Коллекционеров Москвы, 2011), which was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Galeev Gallery in Moscow.

These publications are graced with detailed texts devoted to exploring Savitsky as a collector and artists as the creators of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. Both are lavishly illustrated, the former with photographs of works from the Nukus Museum and the latter with examples of other works created by the same artists.

The works that comprise the collection were saved from potential loss or destruction. This has put the artists represented in a rather unusual position; on the one hand their art is known and admired, yet on the other they have not gained the same fame and recognition as some of their contemporaries whose works were either stored in museums in the Russian centre, such as museums in Moscow and St Petersburg, or taken abroad. Without a broad exposure culturally, dedicated exhibitions and publications some of the names of the artists represented in the collection are known by only a few experts on Russian and Central Asian art.

The collection includes works by over one hundred artists, including Pavel Benkov, Nadezhda Borovaia, Robert Falk, Nadezhda Kashina, Nikolai Karakhan, Elena Korovai, Mikahil Kurzin, Ruvim Mazel, Alexander Nikolaev (Usto-Mumin), Lubov Popova, Alexander Shevchenko, Ural Tansykbaev, Viktor Ufimcev and Alexander Volkov. Two paintings by Alexander Volkov were successfully sold during the Russian art week in London, one at Christie’s and another at MacDougall’s; the extent of international recognition for Volkov’s works is just now starting to become apparent.
Another form of international recognition, support and dedication comes from the Friends of the Nukus Museum, a group of individuals interested in keeping the collection alive. Having existed informally since the 1990s and formally since 2001, it is the main source of outside backing for the museum. Another support group is set up on facebook under the name ‘The Savitsky collection (Nukus, Uzbekistan)’.

Nukus is located close to the Aral Sea, the rapid shrinking of which has become a natural disaster of global import. In order to avert an artistic disaster and the loss of a truly significant cultural monument, the Nukus collection also needs to survive and evolve.  

Further information:                                                               

Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen is an art historian specializing in twentieth-century and contemporary Central Asian art. In 2010 she completed her doctoral dissertation ‘Socialist Realist Orientalism? Depictions of Soviet Central Asia, 1930s-1950s’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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