The Savitsky Museum (www.savitskycollection.org; working hours 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm Sat & Sun) houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union.
The museum owns some 90,000 artefacts and pieces of art – including more than 15,000 paintings – only a fraction of which are actually on display. About half of the paintings were brought here in Soviet times by renegade artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky. Many of the early-20th-century Russian paintings did not conform to Soviet Realism, but found protection in these isolated backwaters.
The museum has impressive archaeological and folk art collections to match its collection of paintings. The huge collection is rotated every few months, so you could visit many times and continue to see new works.
If you crave more, the Savitsky Museum has an extension (working hours 9am-5pm Mon-Sat) on the 2nd floor of the Regional Studies Museum. It actually has more paintings on display than the main museum.
The Savitsky Museum’s warehouse of stored works, many in the process of restoration, is also open for viewing.
Who was Igor Savitsky? - Savitsky was an artist from Moscow who first came to Karakalpakstan in 1950 with an archaeological expedition. He became fascinated with the local culture, nature and history, fell in love with the land, and in 1957 moved to Nukus. He believed that the Russian Avant Garde artists of the early 20th century were very special. And he started to collect this art, which was not recognised by the Soviet regime, first from cities of Uzbekistan, then from Moscow, St.Petersburg and other Russian cities. No one cared about most of these painters because they were either forbidden – many of the artists were repressed – or just forgotten.
How did the Soviet regime view him? - He started in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when the regime was not as tough as in Stalin’s time. It was already Brezhnev’s time, the so-called period of stagnation. Some people knew, some people didn’t care; they were letting him do this because it was so far from anything… A special network of people in Moscow were helping Savitsky because he was the only director of an official museum who was openly buying art not recognised by the regime. Only Savitsky was brave enough to do this. … And he bought thousands of items. He was a saviour for the arts because otherwise those paintings would have just disappeared.
How did he obtain so many paintings? - Many paintings were lying in attics or basements in the houses of poor widows [of artists]. Savitsky recognised the artistic value of this art and collected it for the Nukus museum. Sometimes he paid some money, but usually he took the paintings with IOU letters, promising to pay out within 10 or 15 years. He was hunting for money all his life and museum was paying off his debts for eight years after he died.
What kind of person was Savitsky? - Of course he was very special, very extraordinary in all senses. He was obsessed with art. He didn’t think about anything else. No personal life, only the museum and everything for the sake of the museum. And he was persuasive. He could persuade some people who were owners of some objects that were very special, like [Lyubov] Popova and some other great names. They would give what they had in their house sometimes even without any money.
Was the museum well known in Soviet times? - What we called the intelligentsia knew about this museum, and the museum had a kind of unofficial fame. But official recognition came much later, after Savitsky died. He didn’t live up to that time but he believed – I always cite this phrase that he used to say – ‘one day people from Paris will be coming to Nukus to see our museum’. We were very sceptical about his words, of course, but he was right.
Born in Kiev in 1915, Savitsky was an ethnic Russian from Kiev. He was a painter, archaeologist and, most of all, a collector of art and artefacts. He initially trained as an electrician, but in 1950 he joined the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition with the renowned Russian archaeologist Sergei Tolstov. Savitsky joined up as the expedition's artist, and the trip was to begin a lifelong love affair with Karakalpakstan.
When the dig was complete, Savitsky stayed on in Nukus and began to collect items of anthropological and archaeological interest. He also started buying paintings by Uzbek artists and also a few by Russian artists from the avant-garde school, many of whom had been denounced by the Soviet leadership and were politically and commercially unpopular at home. Savitsky amassed such a large collection that he convinced the authorities of the need for a museum in which to house it all, and the Savitsky Museum was duly opened in 1966 with Savitsky himself as its first curator.
With exhibition space available, and the tacit acceptance of the authorities, Savitsky's acquisitive side was given free rein.Through a network of art dealers, friends and casual acquaintances he bought (or took with the promise of later payment) further works by Russian avant-garde artists including Kliment Redko, Lyubov Popova, Mukhina, Ivan Koudriachov and Robert Falk. These artists were already well-established names but their work was not widely accepted in Russia. It was therefore a buyer's market, and Savitsky seized the opportunity with both hands, albeit at great personal and professional risk. His purchases made during the late 1960s and 1970s form the core of the museum's 90,000 item collection today.
The story of Savitsky, the museum and some of the artists whose work it displays is told in the excellent 2010 film Desert of Forbidden Art.