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The Nukus Modern Arts Collection

“Few Westerners have seen the Savitsky collection, but when they do, a chapter of art history may need to be rewritten”.
(N/Y/Times 04.01.98)

Article: Igor Savitsky and the Museum he has created

How this collection came to this outlying place related not only to the Aral Sea crisis, but to the long and rich history of a once flourishing civilization. In Karakalpakstan you can find specific, varied landscape and magnificent ruins of historical monuments and archeological sites. This magnificent and mysterious land attracted a moscow artist Igor Savitsky, who came here in 1950 as a member of the Khorezm archeological-ethnographic expedition of the USSR Academy of Sciences led by Sergey Tolstov. The activities of this famous expedition is well known for the experts of archeological studies. Discovery of ancient Khorezm is appraised as Troya’s discovery by Schlimann, Carter and Carnarvon’s excavations in Egypt, Stephens and Thompson’s in South America. This was one of the greatest archeological discovery of the 20-th century.

Savitsky worked in this group as an artist for 6 years (1950-1956). First, he started with documenting excavations by sketches and drawings of the monuments and finds. Then he joined the team of ethnographers led by the outstanding Russian scholar T.Zhdanko. Her group was studying the Karakalpaks, their ethnogenesis and culture. In those years habituaries of Karakalpaks were not known and properly investigated, even in the USSR.
Taking part in gathering samples of Karakalpak folk art for this expedition and for Russian museum, Igor Savitsky became ‘so ‘fascinated by the unique culture of this small ethnic group, lost in the lower reaches of the Amudarya river and the nearby Aral Sea, that he made a decision to abandon Moscow, a nice flat in Arbat, which is the heart of the city, and left for Nukus - the capital of Karakalpakstan. Since 1956 to 1966 he worked in the local Branch of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences in the laboratory of Karakalpak applied art. During those years he collected several thousand objects of Karakalpak folk crafts - samples of jewelry, embroidery, woven textile items, stamped leather and carved wood. Nobody cared about this art at that time. People stopped to use and produce those artifacts. Civilization and the political situation had broken the links between generations. In the result of these activities (Savitsky walked over almost all the northern part of Karakalpakstan, where Karakalpaks are settled), he managed to gather about 7000 exhibits. This collection may be called a genetic fund of karakalpak culture. He rescued the art that could have been lost after some years.

At the same time while Savitsky was passionately gathering, restoring and promoting the indigenous craftsmanship, he was making paintings and studies of local scenery, observing magnificient desert landscapes and the changing faces of ancient and medieval ruins at different times of the day or seasons of the year with the same passion. He had in fact fallen in love with the Karakalpak land. Karakalpakstan became his Polinesia and, like Gauguin, he introduced his own style and, in general, European influence to that of the local tradition through his painting of local subjects.

Savitsky is the founder of the Karakalpak School of Art and encouraged the first Karakalpak artists. He then persuaded the local authorities to open an Art Museum and was appointed its first director. He officially proclaimed two objectives of the newly opened museum: 1) to create a collection with ‘its own face’, i.e. not repeating the model of all Soviet museums, which were following method of the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow and 2) to show the local artistic community the ways of their predecessors in Russia in 1920-30s (period of formation of Soviet School of art). In fact, Savitsky, having lived through the height of repression in Stalinist Russia, also realized this was an ideal spot to bring artworks he knew to be hidden away in Russia’s major cities - art painted mostly during the 1920-30s, before stalinist repression reached its peak in the era of “Socialist Realism”.

Russian art of the first quarter of this century had a profound influence on everything we call modern. A brilliant constellation of gifted artists emerged at a time when many Russians believed they were on the brink of a new epoch, where the human spirit would be truly liberated for the first time. They were seeking for new ways of conveying their sincere ideals, excitement, the originality of their works was so extraordinary that the Soviet system could not tolerate it. Its exponents were silenced, imprisoned, exiled, driven mad or murdered in their motherland. In the West, on the contrary, they were recognized long time ago. Many of them left the country forever. We can find their names in the catalogues of many famous exhibitions in Paris and Munich in the first two decades of the 20th century. However, in Russia building a collection of their art, when mere possession of these works meant risking imprisonment or worse, it could only have been a work of madness. In our case it had become the product of one man’s grand obsession. Realizing all these and at the same time having almost no competitors Savitsky undertook the greatest rescue campaign. This idea strengthened in his mind when he started to collect the works of artists who lived in Central Asia, or spent some years there, or just worked on this subject (A.Isupov, R.Falk, R.Mazel, V.Ufimtsev, A.Volkov, N.Karakhan, Usto-Mumin, E.Korovay). Central Asia for Russian artists gave way for realization of their strivings for orientalism. The Central Asian subject was expressed by them in the spirit of time. It is very important to know, that artistic investigation of Turkestan and mastering was much ahead of its scientific study.

Each artist had his own approach to Central Asian subject - some regarded Central Asian art should be built on a decorative base and on primitivism, which were characteristic of indigenous decorative - applied art with its specific way of vision the reality by simplifying forms and giving them geometrical shapes (A.Volkov) - others have chosen fauvism as the most expressive way of their vision (E.Korovay) - some regarded impressionism as the best way of conveying their new perceptions(P.Benkov) - some based on expressionism combining together cezannizm, fauvism and other manners and styles of European school (M.Kurzin, R.Falk, etc.)

In general, those artists, who formed, in fact, the Uzbek School of Art, brought to this area the spirit and traditions of the Russian avangarde and modern western art, which were transformed and enriched by oriental culture and philosophy. This synthesis gave life to a unique school, which was admired by experts in the early 1930s. However, Stalinism stopped this development. Many artists were accused so called “formalism”. The world knows about the methods of cultural policy in the USSR: many artists disappeared in concentration camps and prisons, mental hospitals, those who adapted to the regime, they changed themselves and their art completely. Socialist realism became the official and the only trend in art. For many years, up to 1985’s Perestroika, the whole layer of art, was excluded from official life. It was Igor Savitsky who, already in the 1960s, started to save this art, collecting the works of forgotten, forbidden artists from their descendants and widows, who were happy to give hundreds, thousands of canvasses, cartoons, paperworks, which were languishing in the attics, basements and closets. Though Stalin’s rule has ended, it was still a period of strict prohibitions, a period of stagnation. Savitsky was paying to the owners outright: he was the only official, the only museum director, who expressed interest in the legacy of their relatives. Many of them were dragging miserable lives, and Savitsky was giving them money, at least, for bread. In cases when he couldn’t pay at once, he was giving his letter of guarantee (iou), promising to pay out in 5-10 years. Month by month, the boundaries of his activites expanded and he started to collect the artists of Moscow, St. Petersbourg and other places of Russia. Being aware of what was happening in cultural policy and about the attitude to the art, that was real and unique, he couldn’t pass by and was gathering whatever interesting things he could find and take. Tens of thousands of works were saved by him from neglects and oblivion, or even from physical destruction. He found many marvellous pieces in a special prison for artworks - the Zagorsk Archive of Art Values, near Moscow - where some exhibits from the Tretyakov Gallery and other central museums were sent in “exile”. Method of collecting, worked out by Savitsky, is of special interest. He wanted everything from sketches to the mature works in order to show the entire artistic development of the master (“to show his kitchen”, as he said). As a result, the Nukus museum demonstrates the development of individual artists as well as of the entire Russian avant-garde, a broader perspective than that of any other collection. For instance, Ivan Kudryachev who has several works in Guggenheim, New York is represented in Nukus by 261 of his works. Similarly Kliment Redko, whose work is scattered all over the world has more than 100 works in Nukus. Our museum also boasts of 1400 works of Ruvim Mazel. Some names are represented only in Savitsky’s collection (N.Tarasov, A. Stavrovsky). These still unknown, due to remoteness of the museum, to broader public artists, together with key figures (like L.Popova, A.Shevtchenko, K.Redko, S.Nikritin, D.Burliuk) has made the Nukus Museum a Mecca for Russian art scholars. The Savitsky collection tells a very different story about the development of Soviet art than the doctrine of Socialist realism would suggest. It does not sterilise the epoch, but give objective evaluation of very diverse art life of the 1920-30’s.

Savitsky was experimenting also with method of displaying artifacts in the rooms of the exposition. Numerous treasures of his collection needed space, but even now, when we got one more building after Savitsky’s death, we have space only for about 2000 objects (2,5%). All the walls, corridors, corners are covered by paintings and other exhibits. The rest are stored in narrow storage rooms.

Savitsky’s activities has no analogy in the world practice of museum collecting. Within a period of about 15 years he managed to gather collection in a quantitative and qualitative scale that is immense. Although he lived in a more or less safe distance from the corridors of soviet power he constantly ran the risk of being denounced as an enemy of the people. Sometimes comissions were coming to his museum, and they prohibited to show and acquire the art of dissidents. Despite the obvious threat, the Nukus museum director used various tricks finding the way out of predicaments. With great audacity he amassed over 50.000 examples of Soviet avant-garde and post-avantgarde art which could have been lost to posterity. His achievement ranks him with other great Russian art collectors like Tretyakov, Morosov, Costakis. But these had money, Savitsky had none. He had passion for art and commitment.

This is a story in short telling how the whole layer of Russian art of the period from the turn of the century up to 1930’s which was crushed at its peak had found a shelter in deserts of Kzyl-Kum.

It is very hard to avoid emotions while speaking about the history of formation of the Nukus museum. Nowadays, great changes in our ex-Soviet states gave more freedom, and successful exhibitions from Russian museums, which opened their store rooms, where they kept for more than fifty years proscribed art, bring them fame and recognition. But many of the central museums prefer to silence the significance of the Nukus museum and its late director I.Savitsky, who started this process already in the 1960s. Being the evidence of his heroic efforts, we knew that this genius and fanaticism cost Savitsky very much. The triunph of his museum, which in fact, was all that he needed, cost him health and wealth. Savitsky had enemies: he saw jealousy and meanness, he suffered from the "dirty" business around him and different kind of accusations. Nevertheless, he continued to work: sometimes he slept only 4-5 hours. He had no holidays or vacations. He did not care about his health. He had no family: the museum replaced all human joys. But he had true friends. Those who supported him, forced him to be cured, when he fell seriously ill. For example, his last year Savitsky spent in one of the Moscow hospitals, where one of his friends, Doctor Efuni arranged everything possible to save Savitsky’s life - best consultants, good treatment, the hospital ward was transformed into the study of a restless patient. Doctors were praying to stop working so hard, but Savitsky was writing articles, letters, applications. He was using even his helplessness, illnesses for the sake of his museum, asking for money to cover the debts. When he left the hospital and was recommended to go to sanatorium, instead, he undertook gatherings, still revealing more new names, visiting former friends and owners. As a result, he was sent twice to hospital. Third time was the last. He died on July 27,1984. He was buried in Nukus, on his second motherland.

The last collections of Savitsky were brought by us to Nukus in 2 big containers. Those were not only paintings and works on paper, sculpture, antique furniture and also pieces of decorative art and rare books for the museum library were squeezed into transport containers.

Some people ask us, why we, the staff of the museum still continue to work in a place, where our work is not appraised and understood properly , what makes you be there? Though Savitsky had no special pedagogical principles, his own deeds, his own examples can not make us betray his creation - the museum.

Savitsky believed that one day our people will understand the value of the museum. He also said: “Time will come when people from Paris will be visiting the Nukus museum”. This day has come and we feel great satisfaction, hearing their impassioned appraisals.

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