Under Review: ‘The Desert of Forbidden Art’


“I found these paintings rolled up under the beds of old widows, buried in family trash, in dark corners of artists’ studios — sometimes even patching a hole in the roof. I ended up with a collection that no one in the Soviet Union would dare to exhibit.” This is said in the gentle voice of Ben Kingsley, who plays the voice of Igor Savitsky describing an obsession with collecting contraband art throughout 20th Century communist Russia.

What is the story behind secretly collecting these paintings and why were they so blasphemous to the communist party?

Sally Field, Ed Asner and Igor Paramonov join Kingsley to bring to life the answers in “The Desert of Forbidden Art.” This film chronicles the life and times of Igor Savitsky, beginning with his early artistic endeavors and work as an archeologist. It is the story of how, penniless, he accumulated over 40,000 forbidden pieces of art over a period of several decades and drove many of them, in over 20 trips, to the remote desert region of Uzbekistan, 1,700 miles away.

It also is the story of the art of Stalinist era dissidents. As the filmmakers have explained, “Artists often are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ identifying the darker elements in society. Repression always starts with silencing their voices.”

In its capital, Nukus, Savitsky ends up establishing, through dangerous but tricky cleverness, a government-financed museum that now houses what has become known as the Savitsky Collection at the Karakalpakstan State Art Museum. It is only through the extraordinary vision of Savitsky that these artistic masterpieces were saved.

Coincidentally, Savitsky also discovered works by artists who had moved to this remote region in the ’20s and ’30s to more freely practice their craft. The narrator says, “These were forbidden works by artists who stayed true to their vision at a terrible cost.”

This art-doc is a great introduction to the challenges faced by 20th Century Soviets. During the totalitarian regime of Stalin and suffocating Russian nationalism during the Cold War, art in the USSR was viewed as a form of media expression. Adherence and loyalty to party policy was expected and deviation was considered treasonous.

All artistic expression had to be approved through the state-mandated artistic genre known as Soviet Socialist Realism, a genre of smiling, robustly healthy, fair-haired Russians busy industrializing their motherland. Period pieces show smiling athletic women with rosy cheeks and hammers, exuberant steel mill workers with shiny tools and city scenes of smokestacks and bustling progress. Through cleverness and charisma the film reveals how Savitsky collected the art hidden by artists in attics or confiscated by government authorities.

In this grand plan of homogenization for the greater good, individualism and regional pride were treasonous. In Stalin’s purges, three million to 60 million people (there was no accounting) were systematically eliminated in specific campaigns against Polish, Korean, Finnish, German, Greek, Mongolian, Catholic, Baptist, Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish communities. Even indigenous citizens like the Ukrainians and Armenians were gunned down before football field-sized burial ditches.

Since total commitment to the unification and industrialization of the Soviet Union was expected, even the traditional dress and customs of the various regions forming the USSR quickly became regarded as motions towards secessionist rebellion. So Savitsky collected them.

Those with aberrant ways of life or thought, the artists, intellectuals, teachers and homosexuals, were put in insane asylums, Gulag labor camps or exterminated. Many of the artists whose work Savitsky saved were victims of this injustice.

In his resulting collection of Avant Garde art from the 1900’s there is startling originality and incredible mixtures of styles, blending Asian techniques and visual content with Middle Eastern and Russian peasant values. The congruent influence, coincidental or not, of Gaugin, van Gogh, Seurat and Chagall will lead curators and art historians to broaden their scope of artistic reference.

    The Desert of Forbidden Art Screenings
    Cinema Village, Manhattan beginning 3/11/11
    Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles, beginning 3/18/11

Written, Produced and Directed: Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev
Voices: Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, Ed Asner and Igor Paramonov
Score: Miriam Cutler
Runtime: 80 minutes
Language: English and Russian with English Subtitles
Awards: Cine Golden Eagle Award, Best Doc Palm Beach Int’l Film Fest, Audience Award Beijing Int’l Film Fest

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