Igor Savitsky: One Man’s Passion for Forbidden Art

By Nigel Cox

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous region in the magically historical country of Uzbekistan. A country famous for its ancient cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, with their beautiful architecture and magnificent mosques.

However, very few people are aware that this region’s  capital, Nukus, is home to one of the World’s great art galleries, displaying Central Asian Folk and 20th Century Russian Avant-Garde art. The story of how this stunningly beautiful museum came to be situated here is almost as fascinating as the museum itself. A story that unfolded  both in Russia and in “the tender and beautiful sands” as Igor Savitsky lovingly described the deserts of his second homeland.

The story begins when the young Ukranian-born Igor, archeologist, painter and collector, travelled from Moscow to Samarkand with the Surikov Art Institute, during the Second World War. His job was to work on, and paint local archeological sites. He painted local artifacts and landscapes. The catalyst for his dramatic change of direction from enthusiastic and talented creator to avid collector of art, came when one of his pictures was criticized by a prominent Soviet artist, after which he gave up painting and concentrated on collecting and restoring other people’s works of art. However, in later life, he did start to paint and sculpt again.

He soon realized that throughout the Soviet Union, but especially in Moscow, there was a huge cache of fantastic, yet hidden art, created by artists in a style frowned upon by the Soviet Authorities, who usually only allowed Soviet Realism style works to be put on public display.

From then on, he avidly and tenaciously went about obtaining such works and trucked them back to the desert land of Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, eventually building a museum and displaying them there.

He realized in doing so, he risked being denounced as ‘an enemy of the state’ and could be sent to a gulag labour camp or even executed.  Nevertheless, he doggedly sought out the works of Soviet Avant-garde artists, living or dead, then journeyed back to Nukus with trucks full of stunningly, beautiful, modern creations. For him, these were the artists who, by their work, opened a new vision of the World. They searched for something unknown to conventional artists. It became Savitsky’s life purpose to save it and display it.

In Moscow, he said he found most of the old paintings rolled up under the beds of old widows: buried and forgotten in the family trash. He further stated that these were done by artists who had stayed true to their artistic vision, very often, at a terrible cost.
He would approach living artists, telling them he was the curator of an art museum and would put their works on display for them. After giving them scraps of paper as IOU’s, he would leave with their masterpieces. The artists were seldom paid but their work has survived and is now openly viewed by thousands of people. Despite the pictures’ high values today, they probably thought it was worth it.

Impressed by the marvellous collection that Savitsky had created, the head of Soviet Karakalpakstan, committed to subsidize him if he opened a museum. This was set up in 7 rooms in a library in 1967. The current, large, modern building,  which is called the ‘Igor Savitsky Museum of Art,’ was built in 2003.

Igor Savitsky died, just short of his 70th birthday in 1989.  His death was due to the constant inhalation of fumes from the cleaning agents which he used to restore bronze objects. Sadly, it was passion for Art that indirectly killed him. His epitaph reads: ‘To the Genius Saviour of Beauty from Grateful Descendants.’

Today there are more than 40,000 works on display in the museum, almost all collected by Savitsky. It is chock full of previously banned masterpieces which, if not for him and his passion, would never have been able to enchant art lovers with their incredible beauty. The museum represents the spirit and power of art and creativity, to express itself and flow forth even against oppressive tyranny. Anyone who loves Art should try and visit the land of tender and beautiful deserts and seek out this outstanding museum.