A Triumph in the Desert: Capturing the Savitsky Collection

Photo Credit: © Militza Zemskaya
By Ferren Gipson Lloyd

The Desert of Forbidden Art sounds like it could be the title for a film adaptation of a lost tale from The Arabian Nights, but the documentary of Russian art collector Igor Savitsky is no fairy tale.

The documentary explores the trials and triumphs of the young artist and collector at the height of the Soviet state during the 1950s and 1960s. As the KGB was cracking down on Avant-garde artists and championing the state-approved Socialist Realist mode, Savitsky collected 40,000 works from fellow artists and established a museum in the deserts of Uzbekistan. Partially funded by the government, he purchased banned art works under the guise of buying state-approved pieces and discovered new artists along the way. The result of this dangerous endeavour is what has come to be one the most noteworthy collections of Soviet Russian art in the world.

In part, directors Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev view the documentary as a commentary on East-West relations, as the Savitsky Collection at the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art remains threatened by those who wish to remove or destroy works from both sides. The museum is in the remote desert of northwest Uzbekistan, and as the museum contains a wealth of Russian art, the Russians have expressed great interest in retrieving the works from the museum. Also threatening the collection are religious fundamentalists who deem the works inappropriate.

On an aesthetic level, some of the works Savitsky acquired are an amalgamation of Eastern and Western painting traditions, as some of the artists who moved to flee persecution encountered Islamic art traditions and incorporated these styles into their own painting modes. These transcultural works have planted roots on two sides of the socio-political fence and speak to a specific point in Russian history with continued global relevance.

From an art historical perspective, the Karakalpakstan Museum’s decision to display Socialist Realism alongside Russian Avant-garde art is uncommon and highly significant. The pendulum of acceptability in art swings wide, and has the effect of excluding various trends at any given time as it moves. In the 1920s, artist Pyotr Fateev was interested in space travel- an idea that later sparked a space race alongside the arms race between the Soviet Union and United States in the 1950s and 1960s - and led a collective of cosmist artists that called themselves “Amaravella”. The group showed in New York City and Chicago, as well as Moscow before Soviet authorities eventually arrested them. The content of their art works were deemed unacceptable by the standards of the Soviet state and until recently have been relegated to decades of obscurity.

Savitsky was able to salvage some of their works, and due to the efforts of Pope and Georgiev’s documentary, these artists and those with similar fates have received renewed interest; “Amaravella” works in particular were exhibited in May 2010. Twenty years on from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there is still much to discover about the art from this period, and challenges lay ahead for scholars who wish to tackle these multifaceted art works as information becomes available.

Conversely, Socialist Realism is largely neglected in art discourse in favour of competing Avant-garde movements. Poster art shares this fate for the most part, although there has recently been more interest expressed in this subject. Tate Modern in London, for example, has a room filled with Russian propaganda posters hanging in salon style. However, gallery viewers will search in vain to find Socialist Realist paintings hanging alongside their printed counterparts.

What is it that causes this prejudice against Socialist Realism in art? Perhaps it is some leftover feelings of yesteryear, when the enemy was clear and anything communist was labelled offensive. Perhaps the problem is that in today’s aesthetic world, where design is king, we can forgive the communist content of some poster art if the intriguing visuals are there, while with Socialist Realism, the straightforward, pleasant scenes filled with happy comrades lacks the savvy design work to be forgivable. The artists executing these works in China as well as Russia were highly skilled, representing an important part of our global history. To segregate these works from the realm of fine art is to deny an important part of our history and political development.

Residing somewhere in the middle of these issues within the Savitsky collection are artists like Georgiy Echeistov. He considered himself to be a Futurist, which was fairly inoffensive at the time, and his 1924-25 gouache painting Funny Geometry is a triumph in design. His use of colour and geometric forms are executed in a way that transcends time and holds its own against designs from any era. It is works like these that can help bridge the gap between the Avant-garde and Socialist Realism by providing a mental rest between works.

Alhough the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art was clearly founded in the effort to preserve the work of persecuted artists choosing not to work in the state-approved mode, the museum’s decision to show these works together with state-commissioned pieces provides a more complete view of an important era and illuminates the juxtaposition between what is accepted and cast aside.

The Desert of Forbidden Art is a travelling film with screenings across the world. The documentary will next be shown in Cedar Falls, Iowa on 2 April and will be showing in London from 13 t0 28 May at the London International Film Festival.


Ferren Gipson Lloyd holds an MA in the History of Art and Archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies and has worked closely with museums and cultural exhibits in the US and the UK. 


31 March 2011


Photo Credit: Militza Zemskaya