March 30, 2011

On PBS next week: Desert of Forbidden Art

"These works are a physical expression of a collective vision that could not be destroyed."

The words of Igor Savitsky, a man who single-handedly saved over 40,000 works of avant-garde Soviet art by hiding them in plain sight. Well, in plain sight in a completely out of the way museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan).

"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. I ended up with a collection that no one in the Soviet Union would dare to exhibit."

– Igor Savitsky

Savitsky's story is one of amazing determination and singular vision, of a man completely obsessed with his work, denying all other things, including his health (which lead to his early death). He traveled all over the Soviet Union, gathering up hidden, forgotten, forbidden works of art, and promised to pay widows and children, artists and collectors, if only they gave him their works for safekeeping at his museum. Savitsky's work brought to light artists whose legacy might have otherwise disappeared into a black hole of obscurity, because they did not fit within the bounds of officially sanctioned Socialist Realism. Artists like Volkov, Kurzin, Borovaya, Rybnikov and Korovay, all profiled in this wonderful documentary, might never otherwise have been known.

The interviews and film clips of Savitsky, of the museum, interviews with the current director, etc. make this a beautiful, engaging documentary. But the images of the paintings themselves are just breathtaking. The brilliant, vibrant colors, the fascinating melding of styles from the East and from the West (oriental miniaturism with icon painting with Impressionism), are not to be missed. And, barring a trip to Nukus, this may be the only way you see them. Because the museum, despite being financially strapped, has refused to sell off any of its works to finance ongoing operations, because they know it would not stop there, that the sell-off would be used to buy tractors and medical supplies...

Be sure to catch this excellent work on Independent Lens, next Tuesday (April 5). But check local listings as times may vary. For more information, check out the PBS page for the film.

p.s. This just in: a NYT article reports that the museum is again facing political censorship issues.

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