Desert of Forbidden Art tells story of unique artistic haven
Published: Wednesday April 06, 2011
Yerevan - Although The Desert of Forbidden Art by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev did not win any award in Thessaloniki Film Festival held March 11-20, it was undoubtedly one of the most vivid documentaries presented. (The documentary also premiered on America's Public Broadcasting Service on April 4. - Ed.)
Vivid not only in terms of depicted environment and characters, cinematographically perfect shots and editing, but also in the way of presentation of a unique cultural and political phenomenon in broader historical context.
The film reveals several Soviet realities that remain mostly unknown to the Western world, such as the co-existence of official and so-called decadent art of Soviet Union and co-relation between totalitarian regime and arts in general.
Former Soviet republic Uzbekistan, more specifically its autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan with its deserts and scanty life is the milieu, yet Soviet artists, their heirs and specialists of Soviet art are the "protagonists" of the film.
In the tiny, sandy town of Nukus there is a fantastic museum of Russian and Soviet non-official, avant-garde art, founded by artist Igor Savitsky (1915-1984) and presently directed by Ms. Marinika Babanazarova who has devoted all her life to the gallery. The film discloses the brave and charming phenomenon of Savitsky, who escaped from Moscow to a distant corner in Karakalpakstan as part of an archeological expedition.
The Central Asia became the same source of fascination for him like Polynesia for Gauguin or Hawaii for Armenian-American artist Arman Manoukian. There Savitsky started to collect ancient artifacts and folk art of the region along with thousands of works of Russian contemporary art (often smuggled out of Moscow), whose creators either were arrested, murdered or officially banned by Stalinist government. Later, in 1966 Savitsky managed to convince the local officials to fund the establishment of a museum with all his collections.
The visual elements of the documentary are thoroughly selected and composed by directors; the narration is as interesting and entertaining as possible. Although mainly using the highly common in documentary film the esthetics of archival footage for the historical past and "talking heads" for modern times, the directors successfully manage to avoid the TV format by means of active usage of colorful images of landscapes and paintings, virtuously juxtaposing archival footage with those of socialistic realism paintings and examples of Soviet non-official fine art.
The usage in the documentary a scene from a fiction film (highly popular Soviet tale The White Sun of the Desert by Vladimir Motyl on establishment of Soviet rule in Central Asia) is quite justified. The contiguity of fine arts and politics results in a fine documentary.
There is a quotation from Igor Savitsky in the film: "The art surrounds us like air." While watching this picturesque, expressive documentary, the art starts to surround the audience, raising its awareness on various aspects of art world and Soviet history in the 20th century. Voices of eminent American actors like Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner give additional charm to this documentary.
A logical question arises after watching the film: what will be the destiny of this outstanding collection after retirement of such enthusiastic protector as Ms. Babanazarova is?
There is a hint on the treatment from the side of Islamic extremists in the film, for whom such collection in desert might cost nothing. Although the museum survived in Soviet times, cherishing some 40,000 paintings of forbidden art far from the vigilant eyes of KGB, it is not difficult to observe the new challenges that this gallery will face in the near future.
In new post-Soviet conditions of the total collapse and changes of the system of values the unique collection in remote town might be perceived as nothing more but a source of profit.
The director of the art gallery in Nukus says that Karakalpakstan is a poor country and its only treasure is this collection. Paintings by Savitsky are already being sold in auctions for quarter million dollars, and unknown gallery in Nukus begun to enchant art collectors far and wide.
Will this documentary help to maintain this beautiful oasis of fine art in dusty desert as a national treasure or will it also gradually disseminate round the word?