Forty years ago, near the dusty shores of the retreating Aral Sea, Communist Party officials visited the Museum of Igor Savitsky. Savitsky, affectionately called “Junkman” by his friends and associates, was an artist. Under the nose of State officials (and sometimes with their funds), he amassed a collection of over eighty thousand banned Russian avant-garde artifacts. He owned but one suit, which he wore only during inspections. On this day, the museum featured The Bull (Fascism Advances), a painting by Vladimir Lysenko. The officials, appalled, immediately declared the painting anti-Soviet and ordered its removal. As founder, director, and protector of the museum, Savitsky instantly complied.
Once the inspectors left, the director returned both his suit and The Bull to their rightful places. For now, his collection was safe: Nukus, the capital city of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic located inside western Uzbekistan, was far away from the Party nucleus. Inspections were rare.
Savitsky continued to develop his collection. He traveled between Nukus and major Soviet cities, visiting the homes of deceased or disappeared artists to relieve their spouses of the forbidden art. Yet from the tens of thousands of artifacts Savitsky collected, Lysenko’s Bull prevailed as the museum’s unofficial mascot. The long-gone Party inspectors had assessed the painting correctly: known by its alternate title “Fascism Advances,” art critics consider The Bull’s shotgun eyes symbolic–prophetic, even, of the Stalinist repression that branded the early 1930’s.
Who Was Lysenko?
Though historians have constructed a patchwork of the painter’s life, remarkably little is certain about Lysenko. Today, he’s most often recognized as Vladimir, but some records paint him as Yevgeny Lysenko. He first visited Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, in either 1918 or 1919. Between 1925-9, he studied under Kazmir Malevich, pioneer of the avant-garde suprematist movement. This is likely when Lysenko painted The Bull. Malevich’s records state his identity as Vasili Alexandrovich Lysenko, born in the Bryansk province. Lysenko returned to Tashkent without completing his studies and later presented a large number of his canvases at the first Republican Exhibition of the Fine Art Workers in Uzbekistan, from where he traveled through the Caucasus, Pamir, and the Khorezm oasis. Rather than a livelihood, the artist’s work led only to hardship. In 1935, Lysenko was arrested, denounced as a formalist, and sentenced to six years in a mental hospital. Despite that, the artist again presented his work at exhibitions in Novosibirsk and Krasnodar during the latter half of the 1940’s. By 1951 the painter returned to Tashkent, and the State declared him “rehabilitated” two years later. He spent the final years of his life semi-paralyzed and seriously ill in the home of his sister, where he died sometime during the mid-to-late 1950’s.
Nothing of the artist Lysenko would remain without Igor Savitsky. Frightened by the State’s attitude towards the arts, the museum director collected in earnest during the early 1960’s. He discovered four canvases discarded in Lysenko’s attic, so hapless that in lieu of a rag one was used to plug the leaking roof. The Junkman restored them at the Nukus Museum, under whose protection they remain today.
What Was the Avant-Garde?
The Nukus Museum houses the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art. Rather than a specific style, avant-garde refers to a period during which many modernist subcurrents flowed. The phrase is derived from French military terminology and roughly translates to “advance guard.” Soldiers in the advance guard march ahead of the main battalion–they’re scouts and trailblazers; the most vulnerable and the first to die. The artistic movement, which emerged around 1890, unfolded through the extensive flow of art and artists between Paris and Moscow. Russian avant-garde developed alongside its Western contemporaries until the October Revolution, at which point it became an extension of the State. Artists of the avant-garde saw, through art, a way to make a revolutionary break with the old society.
Lysenko studied under Kazmir Malevich at the Institute of Artistic Culture, one of two art academies established by Vladimir Lenin. As the movement’s most influential patron, Lenin’s institutes offered artists such as Malevich and Vasili Kandinsky space to debate freely the ideologies that shaped avant-garde. The abstract images they produced, which involved precise geometry and emphasized proportion and space, challenged commonplace notions of art and reality. During this period, both movement and revolution worked harmoniously to forge a revolutionary society. Suddenly, after suffering two strokes during 1922, Lenin retreated to his dacha outside of Moscow. In his absence, Joseph Stalin began to consolidate power and, once Lenin died in January 1924, assumed his title and responsibilities.
The State’s preference in art shifted along with the regime. Unlike Lenin, Stalin considered the avant-garde bourgeois, instead preferring the more straight-forward and more easily understood realism. Stalin’s preferences were eventually institutionalized in what became known as socialist realism: characterized by the glorified, realistic portrayal of communist values. By 1930, about the time Lysenko returned to Tashkent, Stalin dissolved both of Lenin’s institutes and forced the movement underground. Two years later, the Party took control of artists’ unions and officially imposed socialist realism one year after that. Stalin effectively constrained art to populist, realist, and easily understood iterations of the New Soviet Man and the accomplishments of the first and second five-year plans.
During Stalin’s reign, “formalism” came to be used to decry nearly any form of art that deviated from the norm and was often used in political struggles between artists to denounce rivals. The State fought an escalating campaign to completely eradicate the genre until Stalin’s death in 1953. Savitsky played a major role in preserving that entire generation of Soviet art.
Who was Savitsky?
The collector Savitsky matured alongside the popular height of the avant-garde movement. Born in 1915 to an aristocratic family in Kyiv, he received a good education, travelled abroad, and learned to speak fluent French. In 1934, he began his secondary education at the Moscow Institute of Printing and, in 1941, continued his studies in the Moscow State Art Institute. Both institutions specialized in socialist realism. Exempt from the draft due to illness, Savitsky and other members of the Institute evacuated to Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second largest city, in 1942, as WWII was sweeping Europe. In Uzbekistan, he quickly became enchanted by the people, culture, and landscape of Central Asia. Although Savitsky transferred back to Moscow after two years in Samarkand, he enthusiastically returned at the invitation of T.A. Zhdanko to work with the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition in 1950–around the same time that Lysenko returned to Tashkent the expedition’s official artist, the collector travelled extensively through Khorezm and Karakalpakstan. Khorezm, a small province on the southwestern border of Uzbekistan, is situated about 200 kilometers southeast of the future museum’s headquarters. In addition to his artistic duties, Savitsky collected and distributed Karakalpak folk and applied art to museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He soon relinquished his flat and career in downtown Moscow for a quieter life in Nukus.
Savitsky’s deep respect for Central Asia’s art and traditions earned him the elusive trust of local authorities. Karakalpakstan, a small Turkic nation of nomads, farmers, and fishermen, is nestled within western Uzbekistan: the intersection of Russia, the Middle East, and Asia. The Expedition, commissioned to sketch the ruins of an early civilization on the edge of the Aral Sea, employed the artist until 1957, at which point he left to work at a research institute and develop his then-private collection of artifacts.
Rather than collecting works for their monetary value, Savitsky tasked himself with the preservation of culturally and historically significant Soviet art. To the best of his ability, he compiled a comprehensive collection of each artist he encountered to showcase their career-long trajectory. He purchased with his own capital and borrowed on his reputation–writing thousands of I.O.U.’s that remained outstanding until 1992. Finally, in 1966, the collector convinced local authorities that Nukus needed a museum of its own to display traditional Karakalpak art. He was then able to use his status as a museum worker to surreptitiously whisk forbidden artifacts out of major Soviet cities. Once, after discovering a series of sketches by Nadezhda Borovaya, an artist who smuggled depictions of her daily life out of the Temnikov Gulag, Savitsky persuaded party officials that her art illustrated Nazi concentration camps. Gumption rewarded the collector with state funds to purchase the banned art.
The collector’s acquisitions crossed a vast desert and toxic dust storms to escape Soviet persecution. Once in Nukus, the closest major city to the Aral Sea, the artifacts were safe from censors–but not from the harsh climate. Desiccation of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest body of inland water in the world, left a vast and dusty basin in its wake.
Its destruction began with the American Civil War, when volatility in world cotton markets led the Tsar to contrive his own cotton plantations from the sea’s tributaries. Soon, Stalin’s five-year plans called for the Soviet Union to self-sufficiently produce cotton. Massive irrigation projects began during the 1950’s and the landscape was visibly altered within a decade. One of the greatest man-made environmental disasters in history, a mere tenth of the Aral’s volume remains today. Dust storms, which previously occurred only once every five years, now devastate the area up to ten times each year. Considering the region receives little rain, the canvas used to seal Lysenko’s leaking roof was likely to ward against such dust storms.
The desolation meant that the population plummeted, meaning that the area became even more isolated. Due to this, Vozrozhdeniya, to the north of Nukus, was chosen as a site for testing and producing bioweapons. In 1948, the army established a laboratory which tested weaponized smallpox, bubonic plague, open-air anthrax bomblets as well as other biological agents. Due to security concerns, the army generally denied outsiders such as Savitsky access to the region, which makes the collection’s already unlikely existence even more incredible. As the Soviet Union fell and Uzbekistan emerged an independent nation, outsiders gained more access to the museum. In 1990, while researching the nearby Aral Sea for an environmental publication, then-U.S. Senator Al Gore became among the first Westerners to visit the collection.
The Museum and Collection Today
Savitsky collected until his death in 1984. During his final days, the collector named Marinika Babanazarova as his successor. The daughter of a close friend, Babanazarova jealously protected the collection for thirty-one years. In January 1998, a New York Times article about the museum prompted 85 artists and scholars to charter a flight from New York to Nukus solely to satiate their curiosity. Eager to own a piece of history, some of the visitors offered massive sums of money in exchange for original artwork, but Babanazarova refused, fearing that selling even one piece would give way to a massive government auction.
In 2003, the Nukus Museum, which began as a modest one-story building without air conditioning, expanded into a three-story complex. Despite the expansion, the museum can only display about 3% of its collection, which boasts over 82,000 objects ranging from Khorezm antiques and Karakalpak folk artifacts to Uzbek fine art and, of course, Russian avant-garde. Though the collection remains intact, the museum’s remote location in Uzbekistan’s far-off desert prohibits many would-be patrons from viewing the exhibits. Babanazarova managed exhibitions in Germany and France during the 1990’s but, excluding a 2011 display of three paintings in the Netherlands, the Uzbek Ministry of Culture refused all subsequent invitations to display the collection abroad.
The now-independent Uzbek government displays ambivalence towards Soviet Russia’s Cold War imperialism and, by extension, the Russian avant-garde that remains. Preferring instead to promote regional folk art, such as weaving and engraving, Savitsky’s remarkable collection of predominantly Russian artifacts challenges the Uzbek government’s narrative much in the same way that it challenged Stalinism’s censors. In November 2010, while Babanazarova was out of town on business, officials suddenly declared the original museum building condemned. Granted just forty-eight hours to evacuate its contents, employees haphazardly piled fragile canvases on the new building’s exposed basement floor. Despite the fall of communism, socialist realism, and the Soviet Union, the avant-garde collection remains vulnerable.
“The Desert of Forbidden Art,” an American made documentary released earlier in 2010, provides a possible cause for the State’s abrupt behavior. By highlighting the various challenges facing the Nukus Collection, the directors hoped their film would renew efforts to exhibit works abroad. Babanazarova accepted invitations to premiers in Greenwich Village and Washington, DC, but at the last minute, Uzbek officials denied her transit. As an influential woman with a degree in English and who promotes dissident art, authorities were suspicious of her relationship with foreigners and growing international prominence. During the summer of 2015, her troubles, far from over, erupted in scandal: authorities accused Babanazarova of pilfering from the museum and fired her from her position. Her supporters claim that Uzbek authorities fabricated the story to offset their jealousy of the Savitsky collection’s international acclaim. Babanazarova’s dismissal sparked rumors that the government hoped to move the collection to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Cynics suspected that many of the artifacts would disappear—much as their architects did—during the move.
Finally, in 2017, the Savitsky collection travelled West. In a gesture of goodwill engineered to strengthen cultural and state relations, Uzbek authorities worked with their Russian counterparts to schedule the “Treasures of Nukus” exhibit to coincide with a State visit between Uzbekistan’s newly inaugurated President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Vladimir Putin. In the first change of leadership since the fall of the Soviet Union, Mirziyoyev assumed power in 2016 and worked, successfully, to build ties with Russia.
The event was hosted at the renowned Pushkin Museum and displayed about 200 of the collection’s most iconic items. The Pushkin, which bears no direct relation to the poet, boasts Moscow’s largest collection of European art. Ironically, its most distinguished pieces are works of impressionist and post-impressionist painters, including Van Gough, Picasso, Derain, and Matisse—the same artists castigated by the avant-garde. While the exhibit officially ran from 7 April to 5 May, its unprecedented popularity prompted administrators to grant the exhibition a three-week extension.
The Savitsky collection remains highly politicized. Two days before the exhibit opened to public audiences, Mirziyoyev and Putin studied the collection, which featured Lysenko’s Bull displayed for the first time outside of Uzbekistan. Considering how little we know about the life and work of Lysenko, it’s possible that Savitsky fabricated its alternate title, Fascism Advances. Regardless, the work resonates with those who know and understand avant-garde’s historical significance. As for the Savitsky Museum, now considered the “Louvre of the Steppe,” Babanazarova once said that “[Savitsky] always said people would come from Paris to see it, and now the French are our number one visitors.”