The Desert of Forbidden Art is a fascinating documentary film about the Nukus Museum in Soviet Uzbekistan that houses thousands of works of art by Russian artists. The man responsible for this extraordinary collection was Igor Savitsky, whose mission was to acquire and safeguard important works of art that had been condemned by the Soviets. The film is rated PG.
Beginning in the 1930’s, the Soviet government forced artists to depict images that promoted Soviet tenets. Some artists complied and painted canvases of factories and farm workers, happy comrades and families existing under the regime of Stalin. Other artists who would not paint along party lines were arrested and locked up as dissidents, or worse yet executed, with others sent to Gulags or mental hospitals.
Igor Savitsky was an art lover and collector extraordinaire. Fascinated by the art created by Russian artists who were suppressed by the Soviet government, he bought thousands of works of art from the creators or their family members. Savitsky was perceived as honorable and trustworthy, convincing the families of the artists to sell the works to him for safekeeping and eventual display in a less dangerous place. The art had often been hidden in a family’s attic or storeroom to evade confiscation by the KGB.
Savitsky transported the art, often under arduous conditions by rail and car, to the remote northwestern desert town of Nukus. He had visited Nukus in Uzbekistan on an archeological expedition, and decided this was the perfect remote place to keep the controversial pieces of art safe.
The art we see in the film is indeed beautiful, some very unusual, most with a political statement in their character. The fact that the government did not wish these artists to express themselves is a testament to the repressive conditions that countries endure under corrupt and fearful leaders.
The director of the museum, Marinika Babanazarova, has guarded this collection for three decades. The museum’s works include the early 20th century art by these Russian innovators in the style of Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism and Constructivism. Savitsky eventually accumulated approximately 40,000 works of art that he brought to the remote desert location, far, far from the KGB.
The vocal talents of Edward Asner, Sally Field and Ben Kingsley (as the voice of Igor Savitsky) add to the pleasing quality of the film as they voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky, and of the artists that he approached for his collection. The story is told well, and the cinematography, especially of the art itself, is first rate. There are many interviews with experts in the field of art, and great archival footage.
What Savitsky did to safeguard art for future generations unfortunately does not end with the museum he filled. The art remains endangered, the threats being Islamic fundamentalists, art profiteers, and corrupt bureaucrats. I highly recommend The Desert of Forbidden Art. Whether you are a lover of art, a lover of travel, or of the truth, this documentary has something in it for you.