By Caitlyn Collins | March 23, 2011
Director: Tchavdar Georgiev, Amanda Pope
Writer(s): Amanda Pope, Tchavdar Georgiev
Starring: Edward Asner, Sally Field, Ben Kingsley
Imagine traveling 1,700 miles by train. From Austin, Texas that is the approximate distance to New York City (for those who like train travel, I’ve actually done this trip—I recommend it). But let’s say it’s not the Amtrak you are boarding in 2011, rather it’s a train during the early stages of the Soviet Union taking you from the cultural center of Moscow to, what many then, and now, would consider an abominable town in the desert. Can you imagine being so obsessed with something that you’d make this journey twenty times? With 40,000 pieces of coveted items? Igor Savitsky’s journeys, struggles and intrigues are told in The Desert of Forbidden Art, written, directed and produced by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev.
Savitsky, brought to life by the voice of Ben Kingsley, is portrayed as a man who almost single-handedly amassed an entire collection of forgotten, and subsequently forbidden art. Born into a privileged family, he becomes an electrician after the rise of Communist Russia in order to prove his state loyalty. Savitsky, however, strongly desires to be an artist, and a paid opportunity arises as an illustrator of an archaeological dig. With the rise of Stalin, he sees the increased oppression of Russian, particularly avant-garde, artists, which in turn come with the increase of government-sponsored Socialist Realist works (not to be confused with Social Realism as portrayed by artists such as Kathë Kollwitz).
Savistsky decides to build a collection in the one place he believes is safe enough to do so, the desert city of Nukus in the Western region of Uzbekistan. The tale unfolds through first-hand accounts of people who knew Savitsky, the majority of whom are the children of the artists Savitsky sought for his collection. The interviews provide great depth and insight into the lives of not only the parent-artists, but also Savitsky’s great desperation to collect anything he liked and could reasonably acquire.
Pope and Georgiev’s telling documentary is not simply about one man and his collection of art. They delve into the issues of the rise of communism where the individual is replaced by an often expendable collective proletariat. The juxtaposition of the works from the Savitsky Museum with those of the falsely happy, productive and government sponsored works prove that the Soviet Union went to great lengths to repress individual taste while at the same time promoting their brand of art and thus life. Unlike the treatment of art in Nazi Germany, which of course spent great amounts of time and money on various forms of propaganda, the Soviet Union sought out its best (and cooperative) artists and commissioned them to paint these eerily serene depictions of happy workers in factories, fields and households. The Tate Modern has an extensive collection of Soviet Union propaganda posters where everyone looks like they are on ecstasy. Any works of art not depicting creepy happy proletariat were labeled degenerate and shunned. Nazi Germany went to great lengths to collect what they considered “degenerate” works of art and displayed them! The exhibitions were generally perceived as grotesque by Germany’s wealthy while the Nazis used these exhibitions as justification for purging the country of such vile creatures.
Nukus became an artist haven (think Gauguin’s Tahiti) shortly after the fall of the bourgeois and therefore many works depict the vibrant costumes and customs of the local villagers. It is this use of bright color and preservation of local tradition that proved so offensive to the Soviet leaders. These qualities, however, are precisely what drove Savitsky to collect. Later images depict a much darker realism that was certainly forbidden by the Soviets. Workers in concentration camps are passed off at the borders as German Jews when really they were depictions of loyal Soviet citizens forced to toil for their government. Incredibly, he worked with the President of Karakalakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan of which Nukus is the capital) to obtain illegal sums of money in order to build his collection and house it in a museum. Savitsky risked becoming an “enemy of the people” in order to save a great part of Russian culture. Those interviewed in the film remember him and his fanaticism fondly.
Pope and Georgiev’s telling of this collector, the artists he knew and collected from as well as the Savitsky Museum is straightforward yet tender. As directors they seem to catch a bit of the desperation Savitsky seems to have exuded but their telling does not reek of exoticism or condescension. Pope and Georgiev nicely weave images, letters and interviews together to form this epic tale. Their concern does not simply lie in the past but also looks toward a rather uncertain future for the museum. Most of the collection is in dire need of repair and restoration. Not only is immediate attention necessary for the maintenance of the works, but religious fanaticism in the region could produce yet another cultural purge leaving the works of art in a perpetual state of jeopardy.
The Desert of Forbidden Art is a great documentary for lovers of art, politics and history. To be perfectly honest, I’d never heard of Karakalakstan, Savitsky or many of the artists in the film. This documentary makes me want to do further research, in true nerd fashion.