The incredible story of Igor Savitsky and the Nukus Museum
Have you ever heard of Igor Savitsky? No? What about Nukus? A city of 250,000 inhabitants –– Nukus –– in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpak, in the northern part of Uzbekistan, it hosts the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art (after the Russian Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) –– in the Nukus Museum. It is also home to one of the largest collections of archaeological objects and folklore, applied and contemporary art originating from Central Asia. Although the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva may be better known, the Nukus Museum is in fact the fourth splendour of Uzbekistan, and the Savitsky Collection has been called “one of the most outstanding museums of the world” by the British newspaper The Guardian.
The collection was made by Igor Savitsky at a time when Stalin was trying his best to eliminate all avant-garde artists and condemn them to the gulags. Savitsky himself and the collection at Nukus survived because of the city’s remoteness.
Thanks to Savitsky, much of contemporary Russian avant-garde art was preserved, and art historians say that art history could be rewritten due to discoveries in this collection. Despite the fact that the museum has only been known to art connoisseurs and curators for the last twenty years –– since the independence of Uzbekistan –– it has still not received the international recognition that it might normally deserve among art lovers around the world. In this fundamentally remote spot sits an enormous collection of art from the Russian avant-garde. The museum is overflowing with works about which Western art lovers are almost completely ignorant.
Igor Savitsky (1915–1984), born to an aristocratic family in Kiev, came to Karakalpakstan to participate as an artist in the Khirezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition in 1950 led by the world-famous scientist, Sergei P. Tolstov. Fascinated by the culture and people of the steppes, he stayed on after the dig and started methodically collecting Karakalpak carpets, costumes, jewellery and other works of art. At the same time, he began collecting the drawings and paintings of artists linked to Central Asia, including those of the Uzbek School and, during the late-1950s/early-1960s, those of the Russian avant-garde which the Soviet authorities were then attempting to banish and destroy.
The art produced in Russia during the first quarter of this century had a profound influence on everything we now know as modern. A brilliant constellation of gifted artists emerged at a time when many Russians believed they were on the brink of a new epoch, one in which the human spirit would be truly liberated for the first time. Seeking to convey their excitement, they produced a body of work whose originality was so extraordinary that the Soviet system proved unable to tolerate it. In one of the great tragedies of art history, the Russian avant-garde was crushed in the early 1930s. Its exponents were silenced, imprisoned, exiled, driven mad or murdered. Today in Nukus, however, they not only survive but triumph.
Building such a collection at a time when the mere possession of these works meant risking imprisonment or worse could only have been a work of madness, and in fact it was the product of one man’s grand obsession. That man was Igor Savitsky. When most of his family moved to the West, as a teen-ager Igor decided to remain behind and study painting at the Moscow Art Institute. When the institute was evacuated to the Uzbek town of Samarkand in 1943, he went with it.
The Central Asian culture fascinated Savitsky in much the same way that Polynesia had fascinated Paul Gauguin. He completed his studies in 1946 and returned to Moscow, but in 1950 he seized an opportunity to travel back to Central Asia with an archaeological expedition. Soon afterward he moved permanently to Nukus.
Savitsky started collecting ancient artefacts, some of them dating back to the third century B.C. Later he broadened his interest to include folk art and ethnography. He travelled from village to village persuading peasant families to sell or give him traditional costumes, jewellery and other artefacts that in the Stalinist era were considered signs of backwardness and a possible source of treason. In 1966 he opened a museum to display his collection. Already, however, he had set his sights on higher ambitions.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Savitsky scoured Moscow, Leningrad and other Soviet cities in search of works by Russian artists who had died unknown, some in labour camps or mental hospitals. Gradually he won the trust of widows and relatives, many of whom were happy to get rid of piles of dust-collecting works. In one case he rescued an oil painting being used to patch a leaky roof.
Savitsky, who died in 1984, had the advantage of working almost without competition. Most Soviet museums were forbidden to display avant-garde art because the government considered it not only hideous but degenerate. The few private collectors of the period bought no more than a handful of works. Only Savitsky, whose base in the Uzbek region of Karakalpakstan was almost unimaginably remote from the centres of Soviet power, was allowed to collect –– and he did so with boundless enthusiasm.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Savitsky’s approach was that he wanted not just the best work –– but everything. Often he came away with several hundred drawings, prints and paintings by a single artist, showing not just the mature work but what he called the artist’s “cuisine” or phases and experiments. As a result, the Nukus Museum demonstrates the development of individual artists as well as of the entire Russian avant-garde –– a perspective perhaps broader than that of any other collection.
Many ruined artists or their survivors gave Savitsky their collections without charge. To pay for others, he sold his possessions. When he could no longer pay, he wrote promissory notes. By the time he died, Savitsky had accumulated more than 80,000 pieces. His collecting absorbed him completely, leaving him often sick and, in the end, without his family.
Today, the Nukus Museum houses a collection totalling about 90,000 items, including graphics, paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of artefacts, textiles and jewellery, ranging from the antiquities of Khorezm’s ancient civilization to the works of contemporary Uzbek and Karakalpak artists. The local authorities are constructing two new buildings, and when these are ready the museum would be able to display some 12% of their total collection, compared to 5% today.