Shopping for clients in Istanbul for carpets or textiles has meant that over the years many wonderful pieces from Central Asia have passed through my hands. I have a personal attraction to this art. The colours, designs and magnificent workmanship enthrall me and the more I see of this group of carpets and textiles the deeper my appreciation becomes. In our home some of my favorite rugs and textiles trace their roots back to Central Asia.
This month I saw a documentary that furthered my understanding of Central Asia. The Desert of Forbidden Art by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope is the story of Igor Savitsky, a man of passion and focus who during and after the Russian Revolution amassed a clandestine collection of over 40,000 pieces of avant garde Russian art.
These works represent a group of Russian artists working in a style that was a fusion of European modernism overlaid with the influence of images of Central Asia. Some art historians have compared this fusion to the art of Gauguin as he worked in Tahiti where all that was exotic in the Tahitian culture influenced the genius of his canvases. Many of the paintings in the Savitsky collection have this same feeling of a European sensibility and an immersion into the exotic; the oriental.
The extraordinary art of the Savitsky collection was a statement of artistic freedom and commitment to the heart of expression despite political repression. The art of the collection existed in stark opposition to the state sanctioned Socialist Realism school of art which depicted the healthy, happy peasant or factory worker toiling in apparent bliss. The art collected by Savitsky was a strong statement against the brutal hand of Stalin. Many of those artists paid with their lives in the gulags for their commitment to their art in this time of cultural oppression.
The collection is housed in The Karakalpak Museum of Art in the city of Nukus, in the province of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. The museum was located in the desert, far, far from any central authority and as a result Savitsky was able to build and display his collection out of sight of the authorities who would have censored and destroyed this powerful group of paintings.
The film documentary includes historical footage serving as a chilling reminder of the brutality of the times and the deprivation the people endured. There is footage of women in the street heaping their paranja (traditional clothing) into flaming piles as a symbol of their solidarity with the state. I had read of this practice but to see the documented film clips made it all the more real. I think of the paranja which I have handled and the amazing ikat and Russian chintz linings on these garments and realize how fortunate we are to still have some examples of these in museums and private collections.
I have it on my ‘bucket list’ to get to Nukus and view in person the collection. As I watched the images of the art flash by in the film I kept wanting to hit a ‘pause button’ so I could spend time looking at the art. I was watching the film at the University with a group of people and I did not have the ability to look more carefully but I certainly wanted to. A friend has offered an introduction to the woman who is the museum director at the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art so I will bide my time and keep you posted when the door opens and I am able to schedule a trip to Nukus.
Who would have guessed that carpets, textiles and Istanbul would lead to a museum and collection in a desert corner of the world? I anticipate the museum in Nukus holds a richness that is well worth the travel.