One Muscovite's Mission To Save Censured Soviet Art

The Igor Savitsky Art Gallery, by the Aral Sea, is a treasure-trove of avant-garde works

From the outside, the building is a drab, Soviet-style structure set in the middle of this dusty city in a remote corner of the former Soviet Union.

Yet the building houses one of the world's greatest collections of Soviet avant-garde art - works that were painted, sculpted, or crafted and then hidden away from the Communist authorities who considered them to be "ideologically impure."

How this collection came to this desolate place is a story of one remarkable man's passion for art and his powers of persuasion, as well as his skill in overcoming resistance on the part of Communist authorities.

Igor Savitsky was a Moscow artist who first arrived in the region in 1950, the official artist documenting an archaeological expedition uncovering several ancient city fortresses that dot the desert landscape.

He quickly fell in love with the area, the delta of the Amu Darya River, which fed into the nearby Aral Sea and, like the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, gave rise to ancient city-states as far back as 500 BC.

Yet it wasn't just archaeological ruins or the hotter climate that appealed to him. Having lived through the height of repression in Stalinist Russia, he also realized this was an ideal spot to bring artworks he knew to be hidden away by friends and colleagues back in Russia's major cities - art painted mostly during the 1920s and '30s, before Stalinist repression reached its peak in the era of "socialist realism."

"Savitsky started to collect works by regional artists, but soon he was making trips back and forth to Moscow, carrying as many works as possible here," says Marinica Babanazarova, current director of the art museum and an adjacent regional ethnographic collection. "The place was far enough away that the authorities didn't bother him."

Many of the items came from the descendants of artists who were only too happy to give him works that had languished inside closets, attics, or basements for decades. Mr. Savitsky paid outright for some works, or gave out IOUs.

Most of his collecting was done in a Moscow neighborhood known even today as "Artist's Village." In a small studio still crowded with innumerable clay busts and paintings, Yuri Arendt reminisces about how Savitsky came and took many works off to Nukus, including some by his mother, Ariadne.

"I helped him to the train station with all his bags, each one crammed full of art, but there were already people in his cabin," he says with a chuckle. "We hustled him on board with just minutes to spare, and he ended up sleeping on the floor among all the bags. He was so absorbed by the collecting he didn't realize until later his ticket was for the next day!"

Savitsky kept at it until he died in 1984, having amassed more than 40,000 works of art from the avant-garde period.

Sadly, his passing came just as the Gorbachev era was about to begin, when the old strictures placed on what constituted "politically correct" art ended.

"People had heard the collection existed, but few had ever had the opportunity to come all the way down here," Ms. Babanazarova says. "Many experts were surprised to discover paintings they'd long thought had disappeared were in fact here."

Such a work is "Old and New" by Solomon Nikritin, a large canvas that shows a Venus-like goddess looking at three other figures, one of which holds a small globe.

More than a dozen rooms in the Igor Savitsky Art Gallery, as it is called, are crowded with paintings depicting everything from colorful landscapes to abstract geometric shapes to delicate portraits. Some of the artists are better known in the West, as either they (as exiles) or their works ended up in museums such as the Guggenheim in New York.

An example of such an artist is Ivan Kudryashov, whose abstract works are the highlight of one section of the gallery. The museum has close to 300 of his works, all but a handful of which are in storage.

Other paintings are by artists who later died in Stalin's gulags. One particularly moving series includes paintings that show tables covered with baskets of fruit, fish, and cuts of meat.

"These are by Mikhail Kurzin, who at the time was suffering from malnutrition," Babanazarova says during an extensive tour of the gallery. "Unfortunately, he was forced to use poor quality materials, which represents a real challenge for us now in conserving the canvases."

Other challenges arise from the increasingly dry and dusty landscape around Nukus because of the gradual disappearance of the nearby Aral Sea, the result of a massive cotton irrigation scheme that began in the 1950s. Huge windstorms often whip up sand and salt from the increasingly saline soil as waters continue to be diverted from the once-mighty Amu Darya River.

Some help has come from places such as Paris, in the form of museum conservation experts. Certain income is also derived from exhibition loans made to foreign countries; in 1995, a collection of graphic drawings traveled to Germany, and an exhibition of paintings should soon go to Austria.

Most of the money never reaches the museum itself, however, as it is paid to the Ministry of Culture in the distant capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent.

Although the region is technically an autonomous area known as Karakalpakstan, after the dominant local ethnic group, it is still part of Uzbekistan.

"The only money we receive is barely enough to cover the salaries of museum personnel," Babanazarova says. The Igor Savitsky Art Gallery is part of the Karakalpak State Museum, which also includes Karakalpak carpets and crafts in a separate building and a History and Nature Museum.

Babanazarova has started to implement new methods of raising revenue, such as a "Friends of the Museum" club, an idea that she learned on a month-long visit to the United States. Her American stay was in turn the result of a visit to Nukus by Vice President Al Gore in 1990, when he was still a senator and doing research on the Aral disaster for his book on the environment.

"Mr. Gore came and spent three hours in the museum," she says, proudly showing the message of thanks that he wrote in the museum guest book. "Like many people who arrive here knowing only about the Aral problem, he was surprised to learn that our museum even existed."

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