The Savitsky State Museum of Karakalpakstan in Nukus, Uzbekistan, is a much-lauded museum that houses an important collection of Russian and Central Asian avant-garde paintings banned by Soviet authorities, as well as a large and important ethnographic and archaeological collection from the region.
History of the museum
How does art survive in a time of oppression? During the Soviet rule artists who stay true to their vision are executed, sent to mental hospitals or Gulags.
Their plight inspires Igor Savitsky. He pretends to buy state-approved art but instead daringly rescues 40 000 forbidden fellow artists’ works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. Savitsky amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art.
But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They develop a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.
Igor Savitsky (1915-84), a painter originally from Kiev, ended up in Karakalpakstan in 1950 after joining an archaeological expedition. Fascinated by the culture and people of the desert, he stayed on after the dig, methodically collecting Karakalpak carpets, costumes, jewelry, and other works of art.
At the same time, he began collecting the drawings and paintings of artists linked to Central Asia, including those of the Uzbek school, and, during the late-1950s/early-1960s, those of the Russian avant-garde which the Soviet authorities were then banishing and destroying. Nukus’ remoteness and Savitsky’s good relationship with local authorities kept the treasures safe from harm.
Savitsky thus became the savior of an important 20th-century art movement, as well as the savior of Karakalpak culture, as locals no longer valued their heritage and were throwing it away. Savitsky was locally known as “the garbage man”, as he dug through rubbish heaps for valuable items.
Today, the Museum houses a collection totaling about 90 000 items, including graphics, paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of artifacts, textiles and jewelry, ranging from the relics of Khorezm’s ancient civilization to the works of contemporary Uzbek and Karakalpak artists.
Much more can be said, and has been said, about the amazing story behind this collection, and its imperiled future. We point you to 3 good documentaries:
- Keepers of the lost art (Youtube, 20 minutes)
- The desert of forbidden art (on various streaming services or DVD, 80 minutes)
- The passion of Igor Savitsky (Youtube, 1 hour)
The museum is divided into 5 galleries
- Uzbek Avant-Garde of the 1920s-1930s
- 20th century Russian Avant-Garde
- Karakalpakstan Contemporary Art
- Karakalpak Folk Art
- Archaeology and Ancient Khorezm
Many of the artists went to Siberian labour camps for their artistry, and continued to work there. Examine for instance the cabinet of palm-sized landscapes, some as small as matchboxes, sent out of the Soviet gulag by the banished artist Mikhail Sokolov, who used to scratch drawings in toothpaste powder on food wrappers.
Next to the forbidden art of artists who refused to work within the narrow confines of the prescribed style, the museum also has a very nice collection of works in the approved Socialist Realism style. You might not agree with the purpose of these paintings, but their power is undeniable. The artists who worked on them are definitely no less than the ones who chose to defy the regime.
Folk art collection
It’s not the greatest carpet museum in the world (you should probably go to Baku for that), but its jewelry section is superb.
How to visit
You will need at least 3 hours to see everything. Culture vultures might have to break the visit up in two sessions.
Prices are 48 000 sum for 1 building, 72 000 sum for 2 buildings. Taking pictures costs 120 000 sum. A tour guide costs 160 000 sum for 2 buildings, 80 000 sum for 1 building.
Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday 9-18, but Thurday only closes at 19, and Saturday and Sunday only open from 10.