Nukus | The Art the USSR Didn’t Want You To See

The story behind the 80,000 artworks Stalin banned

by Sophie Ibbotson
Oct 28 2019, 12:07pm

I boarded a flight in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and flew another two hours west to Nukus in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. A desert state in Central Asia, remote and sparsely populated, you’re forgiven for having previously overlooked it.

Nukus is low rise; a few public buildings stand side by side with faded Soviet apartment blocks, and now and then there’s patch of park amidst the concrete. The brown dust of the desert creates a film on the trees and the window ledges, and discolours the whitewashed walls. Driving through the streets early in the morning, there’s little sign of life. The city’s Chemical Research Institute was decommissioned and the Aral Sea fisheries are long since closed; the gas reserves beneath the desert and a relocated Chevrolet car plant are just about keeping the local economy afloat.

"The state wanted every vestige of this art wiped out"

At first glance, Nukus is an unremarkable place, under populated, and far away from the recognised hubs of civilisation. Ironically, it is the obscurity of Nukus, its inconspicuousness, that has put the city on the map. There are only so many places where you could hide 80,000 forbidden art works and get away with it; Nukus is one of them. The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art named after IV Savitsky dominates the central square with its striped facade and a glass pyramid atop the roof. Inside is one of the world’s foremost art collections, a treasure trove of Avant Garde art.

'Night of Anguish' by A Stavrovskiy. Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

The curious tale of how and why Nukus became a Mecca for art lovers began in 1932. Stalin -- then at the peak of his power -- issued a decree: On Restructuring Literary-Artistic Organisations. It dictated that writers and artists must work in the prescribed style of Social Realism, which glorified Communist values and lent heavily on Classical conventions. Soviet artists who fell foul of the law -- those working in Avant Garde styles such as Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism, and Neo-Primitivism -- were blacklisted, unable to sell or exhibit their art. Paintings were destroyed, and those who created them imprisoned in labour camps, sent for re-education, or even shot. The state wanted every vestige of this art wiped out.

But Stalin failed to completely destroy these degenerate, bourgeois styles entirely. Kandinsky -- the pioneer of abstract art -- left the USSR for Germany and then France; and other key figures of the Avant Garde movement, such Falk and Larionov, followed suit. The hero who did more than anyone else to preserve the genres’ most experimental, exciting works, however, was a man you’re unlikely to have heard of. His name was Igor Savitsky.

Igor Savitsky -- a Soviet electrician turned artist and collector -- first came to Karakalpakstan in 1950. He fell in love with the landscape and was fascinated by Karakalpak culture. He convinced the Karakalpak authorities they needed a museum in which to showcase regional arts and crafts, but also to display paintings which would inspire the next generation of Karakalpak artists. The museum opened in 1966. Savitsky bought carpets, costumes, and jewellery; archeological finds and plaster copies of Classical sculptures; and also the drawings and paintings of artists linked to Central Asia. He developed an interest in Uzbek Avant Garde and, by extension, its Russian counterpart.

'Laying Water Pipes in Bukhara' by NG Karakhan. Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

Such artworks had already been banned for three decades. “The Karakalpak authorities had some awareness of what he was buying,” explained Mirigul Erekeeva, the museum’s Head of Exhibitions and Education. “They didn’t agree with it but couldn’t say no.” Savitsky was adamant that Karakalpak art should be collected and viewed within the wider context he envisioned, and as Nukus was both a closed city and far away from Moscow, he got his way. There was just one occasion when he was asked to remove a work: Lysenko’s The Bull was deemed unacceptable by visiting Communist Party officials. Savitsky took the painting down in a show of obedience, waited for them to leave, then returned it to its rightful place.

The Bull is a curious piece, and stood in front of it I could see why it made the officials uncomfortable. Savitsky named the work Fascism Advances in a bid to obscure its meaning, but there’s no escaping the bull’s shotgun-like eyes -- symbolic of repression -- which seem to eat into the soul of the viewer. Lysenko had studied under Malevich, and, like his teacher, was purged. He was arrested, denounced, and spent six years imprisoned in a mental asylum. Only six of his artworks survive, all of which were discovered by Savitsky, purportedly discarded in the artist’s attic.

'Bull' by V Lisenko. Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

The unearthing of such a treasure might sound like a miracle, but we have to look at it in context. Savitsky amassed around 80,000 works. He acquired everything he could find, regardless of whether or not other curators would consider it noteworthy. He bought artworks with museum funds and with the proceeds from selling his own possessions. He won the trust of widows, took paintings from artists for safe keeping, and when he had no funds left, he swapped artworks for IOUs. Consequently, the museum now has more than 1,000 paintings and sketches by Tarasov, 1,600 graphics by Stavrovskiy… the list goes on.

Erekeeva’s knowledge of the artists is encyclopaedic. She barely drew breath as we worked our way through the galleries. I learned about Volkov, father of Uzbek Avant Garde, who experimented with Cubism and Constructivism; Nikolaev, who was obsessed with painting boy dancers, arrested for his sexuality, and later converted to Islam and learned the Qu’ran by heart; and Karakhan, who was fed up of painting tea houses and caravans, and turned to scenes of construction and farm workers instead.

'Capital' by Kurzin (1931). Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

Kurzin’s hideous Capital required some explanation: at first it seems the aristocrats are oppressing a tortured proletariat, but that’s only part of the story. It’s also only part of the painting. A photostat copy in the KGB archives reveals the work was originally much larger. The missing part -- probably cut out by Kurzin himself -- showed a self portrait of the artist beside prisoners in the gulag.

The Savitsky Collection is priceless; a single artwork by Volkov would exceed £2 million at auction, and the museum has the largest collection of his paintings in the world. And it’s not just the financial value of the art which must be considered. “There are wonderful artists people have never heard of, including many women,” commented Charlotte Douglas, professor of Russian art at New York University, “and great works from artists we thought we understood but now realize we don't.” The government added two new buildings to the museum complex in 2017 so that more of these previously unseen works could go on show, and to improve the storage and archive facilities.

'Women in Blue Shawl Against a Background of Carpet' by AN Volkov. Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

Savitsky saved the paintings once already, but his collection is still under threat. “The biggest challenge right now is restoration: it’s very urgent,” worries Gulbahar Izentaeva, the museum’s current Director. “We don’t have qualified restorers. We did have a restorer, but she is 85. We dream of sending our restorers to Moscow to train.”

Help, thankfully, is on its way. The Arts and Culture Development Foundation under the Ministry of Culture of Uzbekistan has announced an Open Call for a new Director with international experience. “We can use the methods of Tate Britain, Tate Modern here, but we need a concrete plan,” notes Erekeeva. The incoming Director will be tasked with developing and implementing that plan, with four key priorities: modernising the museum; upskilling staff; introducing advanced museum management technologies; and raising the museum’s international profile.

'Cotton Picking' by AN Volkov. Courtesy of The Savitsky Collection

Only once in the past decade have paintings from the collection been exhibited abroad, but there’s a huge community of museums desperate to exhibit them. Experts from the Smithsonian, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Museum, and the Louvre have already been in touch, eager to help continue Savitsky’s legacy by conserving and celebrating his forbidden artists. The hope is that the museum will soon get the new director it deserves and open up its collection to the outside world. Until they do, you'll have to travel to the middle of nowhere to see these modernist marvels -- but it's a journey well worth making.

Sophie Ibbotson is a London based writer. Keep up with her on Twitter.