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Art lovers making the trip to the remote town of Nukus in western Uzbekistan to see the improbable collection of early Soviet avant-garde paintings should brace for disappointment. The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art — best known as simply the Savitsky Museum — has temporarily sent 233 of its masterpieces to Moscow for a landmark show.
The “Treasures of Nukus” exhibition, which opened at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow on 5 April, marks the first time the Savitsky Museum has shown its works beyond the confines of Uzbekistan since 1966.
Getting the exhibition to happen at all involved a bit of politics and a lot of negotiating.
The opening was timed to coincide with the inaugural state visit to Russia by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was in the country from 4 to 6 April. Mirziyoyev visited the exhibition with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to whom he gifted a glossy album about the Savitsky Museum.
The symbolism was clear: Uzbekistan is not just a land of cotton and labor migrants, but also the home to an enviable cultural heritage.
Russian art specialist Olga Spiridonova said that it took eight years to broker the loan of the artworks to Russia. It was only the sudden change in the political mood ushered in by Mirziyoyev’s rise to power following the death of the late President Islam Karimov that made the event possible, however.
“I have discovered all kinds of new names here,” Spiridonova said of her visit to the Pushkin Museum. “Nadezhda Kashina’s ‘By Shir Dor’ is just unbelievable, there is Elena Korovai’s ephemeral ‘Bukharan Women,’ and [Konstantin] Istomin with his Moscow landscapes. It is so sad that the exhibition is here for such little time, less than a month.”
The process of selection was done by Pushkin Museum director Marina Loschak, who traveled to Nukus in January.
“They were only interested in Russian and Turkestani avant-garde,” said Anargul Fahriddinova, deputy director of the Savitsky Museum. “Particularly, Vladimir Lysenko’s ‘Bull,’ Alexander Volkov’s ‘Workers Going to the Fields,’ and V. Rozhdestvensky’s ‘Ubaida.’ It is basically forbidden to take these paintings out of the museum, but after negotiations we decided to loan them out after all.”
In addition to exposing a trove of little-known art to new audiences, the exhibition highlights the remarkable story of how the collection came into being.
On the outskirts of Nukus, there is a Russian cemetery and in it a grave topped by a statuette of a winged boy playing a pipe. The inscription on the black granite headstone is badly worn, but the words can still be made out: “Igor Savitsky. A genius who saved beauty for grateful posterity.”
Savitsky arrived in the region in 1950 on an archaeological expedition, but his love for his new home compelled him to remain.
“I experienced a deep sense of freedom. I traveled all over Uzbekistan looking for masterpieces that modern history had doomed to obscurity,” Savitsky wrote in his memoirs.
In the 1920s, a stream of now-celebrated artists sought a relative haven in Uzbekistan, far from the attentions of the Kremlin and its insistence on enforcing the artistically sterile aesthetic of Socialist Realism. This community was then bolstered by promising local artists, among whom the best known is probably Ural Tansykbaev.
“This was the art of a lost generation, which nobody really remembered and which lay forgotten until it was rediscovered by Savitsky. Only out here, in the sands, could you open a museum out of everybody’s reach,” Fahriddinova said.
In Karakalpakstan, the depressed semi-autonomous region that is home to the museum, Savitsky is viewed with affectionate devotion. His efforts put Karakalpakstan on the map, but in his lifetime, the archeologist and part-time painter was considered something of an inveterate hoarder, scooping up any old native clothing, ornaments, carpets and household utensils he could lay his hands on. That collection now constitutes another valuable part of the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art — a unique showcase of the region’s folk and applied art.
Fahriddinova believes that Savitsky’s less praised, but no less important, achievement was to almost single-handedly rescue Karakalpak crafts from oblivion.
Karakalpak artist Bazarbai Serekeyev considers himself one of a lucky select few to have worked alongside Savitsky. While he has been showered in all manner of official titles in his 50-year career, Serekeyev told EurasiaNet.org that there was no greater honor than having dozens of his paintings hanging in the museum created by his mentor.
Of the 50,000 or so paintings in the Savitsky Museum collection, only a tiny fraction is ever on display. Even the museum’s own employees have little inkling of how many of the works are in need of restoration.
Restorers concede that the priority is to focus on those paintings that can still be saved, and that some works will likely be lost forever.
Gulayim Kabulbekova, one of three restorers at the museum, is currently working on a painting called “Kattakurgan Reservoir,” created by Oganes Tatevosyan in the early 1940s.
“When we take each picture, we think about how not to spoil the work and rather, how to restore it to life, and return it to the condition intended by the artist. For example, the work of Karakalpak artist Amangeldy Utegenov, “Native Village,” was thought to be beyond restoration. But we worked on it for five years and we restored it,” Kabulbekova told EurasiaNet.org.
But preservation and restoration is expensive business, and money is one thing the Savitsky Museum does not have in abundance. Lending out the collection would be one obvious way to raise funds, and would fulfill Savitsky’s ambitions of having as many people as possible view the masterpieces.
“I gathered a collection that the Soviet Union would never have dared to put on show. A time will come when our museum will be visited by people from all over the world,” he wrote in his memoirs.
Of the more than 100,000 visitors to the museum in 2016, around half were foreigners.
“Our museum is a wellspring for scientific and research work on the avant-garde. All our work lies ahead of us. Maybe the exhibition in Moscow will help us get some sense of what future we have,” Fahriddinova said.
“Treasures of Nukus” runs up until 10 May, although the Pushkin Museum has pleaded for more time, so that many more people can enjoy the works. Uzbekistan’s Culture Ministry has yet to respond to the request.
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