Paint Or Die

by Christopher Urban, May 24, 2011

The title may sound like an after-midnight softcore porn on Cinemax, but The Desert of Forbidden Art (directors Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope) is a magnificent documentary that tells the story of one man’s relentless search to track down lost Soviet-era avant-garde paintings from artists whose lives and employment were in constant peril under Stalin’s regime. Resembling the French Expressionist with their brilliant use of color and emotional intensity, the artwork finds an unlikely home in the western corner of Uzbekistan, in a museum which now includes a staggering 40,000 paintings from that period—none of which would have passed the party’s inspections for socialist realism—an art that had, as we know, little to do with the reality it proclaimed to portray.

At the center of the film is Igor Savitsky, the sole founder and curator of the Nukus Musuem. Savistksy was himself an artist, albeit a failed one. Unable to seek the approval of his mentor, Savitsky gave up his painterly aspirations and moved to the desert in nearby Uzbekistan, where he found work as an electrician to help disguise his bourgeois roots. It was during this time in the desert that a passion for collecting discarded art objects revealed itself to Savitsky, who would walk the streets and marketplaces in the hopes of discovering jewelry, robes, coins and other artifacts belonging to local Karakalpakas, the Turkish-speaking people of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan.

The Karakalpakas cultural traditions were severely altered by the arrival of the Soviets. Most notably, the destruction of the Aral Sea, once one of the largest lakes in the world, and which has long since dried out because of massively mismanaged irrigation projects from Soviet’s cotton “White Gold” industry. It’s a disaster the Karakalpakas fishermen never recovered from, we learn from the film, and one whose effects are still seriously felt today by the locals, through diseases and other public health problems.

The beginning of the film reminds viewers not only how remote and awkward a location this is for an art museum—a mostly avant-garde one, no less—but also just how promising and rich a premise the material is for a documentary film, a genre that is itself a kind of museum of moving images, to borrow the Astoria, Queens theater’s name. A playful shot of a goat’s face, sand, clay hunts, a lone man walking along a seemingly endless road, more sand—we see it all through the camera’s perspective of a moving vehicle.

A working artist under Stalin’s dictatorship who did not abide by party rules faced harsh, and even fatal, consequences. Censorship, loss of reputation or rejection, seem minor only compared to the more serious ramifications of a life spent in the Gulags or execution. Everyone knows this, but just in case the packed, yet tiny audience at Cinema Village had forgotten it, the footage of an execution, shown near the beginning of the film, served as a powerful, if jarring reminder. What’s so important about the inclusion of this footage of an execution—which occurs without sound and which manages to be neither exploitive or distasteful—is that first, it forces us to look squarely at the misery these artist faced, and secondly, oddly enough, by seeing this worst-case-scenario so blatantly, our attention’s drawn once again to the artwork itself, since the film is, after all, about art. Presenting the artwork based on its own merits must have been somewhat problematic for the directors, if only because it seems a nearly impossible task to separate the art from the artist’s lives, therefore justifying the execution footage as necessary, if still disturbing.

In telling the tale of Savitsky—who, with Ahab-like monomania, rescued painting after painting from oblivion, literally picking them out of old attics and trash cans, and even lying to a government official about a particular painting’s origins, saying that it was a depiction of a Nazi concentration camp and not the Gulags (thus allowing it to pass through inspection)—Georgiev and Pope go on their own remarkable pursuit of putting back together the details of not just Savitsky life, but the artist’s whose work he had became so obsessed with. The talking heads who speak of their father’s or mother’s artwork do so at times with great enthusiasm, even joy, and other times with tears streaming down their faces.

Sitting in what looks to be inexpensively decorated homes, one can’t help but wonder why these families, providing oral histories and snapshots of the artists’ lives, never received some portion of the millions the paintings are now said to be worth. The answer, we later learn, is that it is essentially impossible to sell the artwork, even the thousands the museum has kept in storage. Marinika Babanazarova, who succeeded Savitsky as the museum’s curator, knows all too well the priced paid for assembling the collection, and she guards the paintings like that of a mother and her pups. How could she part with even one?, she asks of us, and we don’t know what to tell her. Selling just one painting for a million dollars would make a big difference in the museum’s operations, considering how pans of water are placed on the floor to maintain room temperature and not those fancy-looking devices found at other modern art museums. But in a poor region like Karakalpakstan, selling a few paintings would doubtless open the floodgates to sell all of them, and pretty soon, everybody wants a new tractor.

Perhaps the most moving scenes in the film belongs to the old woman with a gray pony tail who shows us the exquisite children’s masks her mother used to make when the woman was just a little girl. Unlike the other interviewees, who are always sitting down, we first see this woman barely able to walk up the long, decrepit looking staircase that leads into her apartment. With each painful step she takes, we become a little less concerned with our own aching legs, smashed up as they are against the seat in front of us. Despite the masks’ wonderfully intricate details, her mother never sold a single one, the woman tells us. She then proceeds to put on the masks, one-by-one, without any flamboyance, her own face remains expressionless, as if she didn’t really want to be doing this. A wolf’s face, a princess’s, an old man with a beard; the only thing remaining of the woman’s original features are her mouth and eyes. It’s silly and highly comical, but also gut wrenching, to see this poor old woman in pain be suddenly transformed into a lively, happy person she has perhaps not been since days long gone by, so capable are these masks’ powers at displaying artificiality. It is a microcosm of the kind of metaphorical masks the artist were forced to wear under Stalin’s dictatorship (or anyone living under similarly oppressed conditions, for that matter) and also a lovely instance or reminder that the eyes are indeed ageless, the only part of the body never to change.

The museum’s collection, we learn near the end of the film, has once again come under censorship threats. This time, from the Uzbek government, as well as from the surrounding area’s growing religious extremists movement. Last year, the government demanded the museum be evacuated and shut down under the pretense of remodeling. The building has since stood empty, the paintings stacked along the floors in storage, its fate unknown, according to a recent New York Times article. The first time the New York Times ran an article on the Nukus Museum, back in 1998, explaining the challenges it faced financially and otherwise, art lovers of the western world flocked to the museum in droves. Let us hope some of the Sunday Arts Section readers’ pockets are still deep enough to come to the rescue once again, while the rest of us save for digital subscriptions, so we can read about it.

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