Igor Savitsky, painter, obsessive art collector and founder of the remarkable Karakalpak Museum of Arts in Nukus, Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan—in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere, Uzbekistan—came to the region in 1950 as an artist with a Soviet archeological dig. Last month, I traveled the Kyzylkum Desert, and experienced the colors and the light, that captured Savitsky’s imagination. Our travels in Uzbekistan had already introduced us to splendid Uzbek embroidery, and to the Soviet photography of Max Penson. Traveling to Nukus provided the perfect coda to a Central Asian journey that was already an outstanding cultural experience.
Savitsky, artist and collector
As an artist, Savitsky found impressionistic inspiration in the subtle and changing hues of desert landscapes. As a collector of folk art, he helped the people of Karakalpakstan preserve a threatened artistic heritage. As a collector of Russian and Uzbek avant garde works, he dramatically enriched an otherwise barren artistic landscape. His stunning collection of more than 44,000 works was built during years of enforced Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union.
The remoteness of Nukus, coupled with Savitsky’s impassioned collecting, made the museum possible. The museum’s director and staff have remained faithful to the founder’s vision. The result is a collection quite unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, in terms of size, quality and presentation. Where else would you find the Soviet avant garde and Socialist Realism—sometimes by the same artist—hanging side by side?
Savitsky’s struggle & triumph
How this incredible collection came to be, and the extraordinary efforts required to maintain it, are worth knowing. An award-winning film, The Desert of Forbidden Art, by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, does a beautiful job of presenting Savitsky’s life and work, and comes highly recommended as an introduction to anyone planning a trip to Nukus. An article in the New York Times in 2011 updated the story told in the film, highlighting the continuing challenges facing the museum’s management.
The timeless landscape of Kyzylkum
Traveling overland from Bukhara to Nukus via Khiva with Uzbek Journeys took my companions and me through the vast Kyzylkum desert that Savitsky loved to capture on canvas. Most importantly, it brought us to Nukus, and to the wonderful collection he created.
In the meantime, here is a glimpse of Uzbekistan’s far western desert, source of Savitsky’s Kyzylkum inspiration, as it greets travelers nowadays: