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The combination of cheap high-end video technology and a billion cable outlets means we are now living in a golden age of documentaries. Just by fluke last night, I happened to catch one of the best and most unexpectedly fresh I've seen in a long time: The Desert of Forbidden Art.
This beautifully shot film is basically the story of Igor Savitsky, a failed artist from a wealthy Tsarist-era family who, in the 1940s, ended up working as an archaeologist in the 'Soviet Republic' of Uzbekistan. Bizarrely, in the post-Revolution period, isolated Uzbekistan had been a destination of self-imposed exile for many prominent Russian avant-garde artists fleeing the threat of arrest and execution in Moscow. In a relatively short span of years, they produced a large body of unique paintings that melded the Russian avant-garde with influences from the indigenous variety of Muslim culture. Years after most of these artists were already disappeared into the Gulag, Savitsky discovered their legacy and, risking his own destruction, began collecting their works.
By the 1960s, Savitsky had amassed so many paintings he had nowhere to put them. Communist oppression had relaxed somewhat by this point but, in what still has to rank as one of history's great acts of chutzpah, Savitsky went to the local party boss to get money for a museum. Even more amazing: he got the cash. He then created the Nukus Museum of Art and, from that point until his death in 1984, he continued to search out and collect works by forgotten local artists as well as other Russian avant-garde painters who had been banned for failure to conform to Soviet standards.
You can only see two works from the Savitsky collection here, but they really have an otherworldly, almost sci-fi, feel. Sadly, the paintings are still endangered by politics since the now-independent Uzbekistan remains a particularly backward and unpleasant little dictatorship ruled by former Communist official Islam Karimov. Just as menacing is the reality that radical Muslims are gaining more power in the region. If you're so inclined, you can help the Museum by donating here.
I do hope this movie becomes more widely seen, not just because the material is so compelling, but because too many people remain unaware of the depth of Soviet oppression. The film is also a great antidote for those jaded types who believe every story worth telling's already been told. And if you're an art student, forget the Louvre. Go to Uzbekistan!