In the streets of Nukus the wind kicks up and the air is thick with a retreating dust storm. I was tired after the whole day of bus travel it took to get to Nukus from the Uzbekistan city of Khiva.
A few fat drops of rain splattered the ground as I ran for the shelter of the imposing Savitsky Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. It is the only nice-looking building in this godforsaken town.
Here in the remotest part of Uzbekistan, seemingly at the ends of the earth, a man named Igor Savitsky kept safe and secret a forbidden treasure trove of Russian art from the 1920s and 1930s.
To some it is known as the Nukus Museum and it holds the second largest collection of Russian avant garde art in the world (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg).
It is also home to one of the largest collections of archaeological objects and folk, applied and contemporary art originating from Central Asia and in particular the Karakalpak region.
Truly off-the-beaten-path travel
Nukus is the back-end of the back-end of beyond. It has the worst hotel in the world and I could only find one public eating place (the one mentioned in the guidebook had closed down). The residents of this inhospitable western corner of Uzbekistan struggle with chronic unemployment and ill-health. It rarely features on an Uzbekistan tourism itinerary.
They and the land have been poisoned by the nearby soviet chemical weapons research centre. Once the fertile shores of the Aral Sea were only a few hours away. Now it takes days travelling across the desert by 4WD vehicle to reach the water.
Soviet revolutionary art
In 1932, after the post-revolutionary flowering of Soviet art, the new official direction in the USSR was “Socialist Realism”. This became the only acceptable form of art. Some artists stopped painting altogether. Some hid their old work and conformed, losing their artistic way in the process. Some were accused of “formalism”, some confined in mental institutions or sent to the gulag.
Igor Savitsky was a well-off Moscow based artist evacuated to Samarkand in the Second World War along with other writers and artists from the Moscow Art Institute. From this temporary transplantation began a fascination with Central Asia that would ultimately lead to the establishment of this museum in 1966 and an art school in Nukus. After the war he returned again and again to the region, eventually settling here.
From this base Savitsky began travelling around Russia, collecting the work of forgotten or forbidden artists of the 1920s and 1930s, which had been hidden in attics and basements by artists and their terrified families. Where would the Soviets hunt for rebellious art work and artists? Certainly not in Nukus. And so this became one of the world’s greatest forbidden collections of art.
There are reputed to be over 90,000 items in the museum’s collection of paintings and ethnographical material. The vast majority of this is not able to be displayed, even in the fine new building funded by the Uzbek government, which opened in 2003.
The fine art collection features work by Soviet artists who lived in obscurity and poverty during the Stalinist era. Here are the paintings of men and women who may have been the equivalent of Chagall, Kandinsky, or Picasso in the West, had their paintings not sunk into obscurity under Stalin’s repression.
By the time I had got half way through the first gallery I had forgotten the bleak landscape outside the museum. I was enraptured by the art.
Highlights of the Savitsky Museum
The collection places an emphasis on artists who had a connection with Central Asia. Orientalism was fashionable and many artists came to Tashkent and Samarkand in search of inspiration.
In Ilya Mazel’s Desert Travellers (1930s), camels walk across the wall, bent kneed. Men wearing turbans and huge sheepskin hats lead them. A woman clutches her baby like the family of Jesus fleeing to Egypt across the desert, through a sandstorm.
From Road of Life (1924) by Alexander Nikolayev, the huge eyes of a white-capped boy with cherry lips stare out of the canvas at me. Above his left ear is a rose. He is surrounded by an ordered Islamic garden. Tiny figures to his right are a man and woman sitting cross-legged, having a picnic on the river bank. Above his right ear, a mausoleum is his future.
An undoubted star of the show is Vladimir Lysenko’s The Bull (1920s). The eponymous creature leaps from this large canvas, snorting and waving an electrified tail.
Alexander Volkov is one of Russia’s most famous artists and his Caravan (1920s) is a fascinating example of cubo-futurism, combining the cubist geometric shapes with the futurist emphasis on motion. It is a riot of activity as men and women load up the camels.
From those unfortunates who spent years languishing in the gulag, there is a touching collection of miniature but exquisite landscapes, drawn on matchboxes with charcoal and pencil.
Ural Tansykbayev is another of these famous Russian painters who was a master of colour. He particularly loved red and his painting Crimson Autumn (1931) is a riot of red leaves, a lush garden in the desert. The museum has quite a collection of his works and in 1974 he travelled to Nukus to meet Savitsky and see the paintings he had thought lost.
He couldn’t find Savitsky or his collection so he returned to his hotel room. He died of a heart attack that night. I was hoping he didn’t die in my room. It certainly hasn’t been redecorated in the last 30 years. Perhaps his heart attack was brought on by the rude service, the nasty bathroom or the exorbitant price?
The culture of Karakalpak
As well as all these amazing Soviet paintings, yet another highlight of the museum is the collection of applied art from the surrounding region of Karakalpak. This includes womens’ wedding and other ceremonial costumes, yurt tent bands, rugs, storage bags and other yurt decorations. There is a bridal headdress shaped like a helmet from what was once a matriarchal society. The people were Zoroastrian and there is a collection of ossuaries in the shape of camels, doves, houses and yurts.
The staff of this museum of Russian art (and so much more) are dedicated, enthusiastic and professional. A young Karakalpak woman gave us an excellent tour in English and the staff waited three quarters of an hour after closing time to let us finish looking around. This museum may not be one of the world’s most famous art museums but it is justifiably described as the best museum in Asia. The location of this desert museum in Nukus is both a blessing and a curse.
Sitting in the airport waiting to leave Nukus, the tarmac was empty apart from one small 50-year-old Antonov plane destined for Tashkent. Beyond the airport the land stretches out flat and empty with a huge sky above.
As we climbed aboard I noticed the Antonov had a seriously bald tyre. We were told to carry our rucksacks onto the plane because there are no baggage lockers, only open baggage racks above our seats.
Once airborne, I could feel the whole plane moving as people walked up and down the aisle. My travel companion made the comforting comment that “if anything goes wrong on these old planes, at least the pilot can climb out on the wing and fix it, Indian Jones style”. I think even Mr Jones would be nonplussed by Nukus but I would return to see that art at the drop of a hat.
By Natasha von Geldern
Are you a fan of Russian revolutionary avant garde art? Have you every heard of Nukus or the Savitsky Museum?