SAVITSKY: AN IMPROBABLE MUSEUM

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One of the world’s greatest collections of Russian avant-garde art is housed in an unlikely place: the remote city of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan – a depressed and desolate area, including the now dried-up Aral sea, that is in the westernmost part of
Uzbekistan.

The Savitsky Karakalpakstan art museum holds about 90,000 artworks, paintings from the 1920s and 1930s along with archaeological finds and examples of Karakalpak folk art. Since the death of its founder Igor Savitsky in 1984, its director has been Marinika Babanazarova, a woman of extraordinary dedication.

Babanazarova has recently been fired from the museum and accused of stealing its treasures; there is no doubt that these charges are false. There are probably several different reasons why vested interests might wish to remove Babanazarova. She has, no doubt, created enemies by her persistent refusal of the many offers, from businessmen and art collectors, from all over the world, to buy individual items. And her success in promoting the Savitsky Museum has evoked jealousy; it is likely that many important people would like to
see all or part of the Savitsky collection relocated to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

More generally, the Karakalpaks are a minority within Uzbekistan. The Uzbek authorities, paranoid about the possibility of unrest, tend to resist any initiative that focusses attention on the region. Sue Richardson, co-author, with her husband David, of a recent book
about the region, writes, “The Uzbek authorities do not like to see attention focussed on the Karakalpaks, as we know to our cost – we were not granted a visa
to return once they knew we were writing a book celebrating Karakalpak art and culture.”

The history of the Savitsky museum is itself the stuff of legend. After visiting the region in the 1950s, as an artist accompanying an archaeological expedition, Igor Savitsky left his flat in a fashionable district of Moscow and settled in Nukus. There he obtained permission to set up a museum of Karakalpak popular art: jewellery, carpets, musical instruments, yurt
furnishings and camel trappings. Sometimes he found bits of precious carpet being used to block sluices in irrigation canals.

Later he began to collect the work of 20th century Uzbek artists and of Russian artists who had settled in Central Asia and in 1966 he established a Fine Arts Museum. Most remarkably of all, he went regularly to Moscow and Leningrad, visiting the heirs of avantgarde
artists from the 1920s and 30s and acquiring a huge collection of still-banned work. He would travel back to Nukus – a three day train journey – with enough paintings to fill two or three compartments.

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Only because Nukus was so far from the centres of power was he able to do this. Many works were donated to the museum, but his purchases were funded by the Karakalpak and Uzbek governments, which had little understanding of what he was doing with their money. Savitsky was, evidently, endowed with unusual powers of persuasion.

When I visited Nukus in 2004, the energy and intelligence of the staff was almost as striking as the collection itself. Aigul, who showed me the Karakalpak folk art, had first worked there as a cleaner. While doing her work, she would listen to Savitsky speaking to visitors about the paintings. Inspired by this, she went on to study, with his encouragement, for three degrees. It is no surprise to me that the museum’s staff, at considerable risk to themselves, have signed a collective letter in support of Babanazarova.

Without a director of Babanazarova’s integrity and dedication, the Savitsky Museum is certain, one way or another, to be downgraded. This would be tragic – for the culture and economy of Karapalkakstan and for lovers of art worldwide. Babanazarova has been dismissed at an important time. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Museum’s foundation in 1966. More immediately, August 4 was the centenary of Igor Savitsky’s birth. The official celebration of this anniversary took place in Nukus on September 4, in the absence of Babanazorova. Babanazarova was, of course, more conspicuous by her absence than she would have been through her presence. Not once in
the course of ceremonies lasting several hours was her name even mentioned. The US and French both boycotted the celebrations and posted statements of support for Babanazarova on their websites.

It can only be hoped that Bahodir Ahmedov, the Uzbek Minister of Culture and Sports, will realise that the high international reputation of the Savitsky Museum brings credit not only to Babanazarova and her staff but also to the Uzbek government, which, despite the country’s economic difficulties, has continued to fund the museum, enabling them both to increase their exhibition space and to carry out crucial re-search and restoration work. By attracting tourists to Karakalpakstan, the museum also helps to ensure the
region’s peace and prosperity.

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“Homage to Savitsky: Collecting 20th-Century Russian and Uzbek Art”, was published earlier this year by Arnoldsche Art Publishers, with the help of The Friends of the Nukus Museum. The original Russian version was published in 2011 by the Galeyev Gallery. Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Hamid Ismailov’s novel The Railway, set in Central Asia. He has compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, most recently, (with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski), The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. He published a longer article about this wonderful museum in the Times Literary Supplement on 26 Nov 2004. A shorter article by him about the current controversy can be found on the
Guardian website: http://tinyurl.com/pncnb7c

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Unnoticed by the international art world until recently, the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art – located in Nukus, Uzbekistan – houses the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). This extraordinary museum is the life’s work of Igor Vitalievich Savitsky, a Russian painter born in Kiev who first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950 as a member of the famous Khorezm Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition led by Sergei Tolstov. Subsequently, having moved from Moscow to Nukus, Savitsky began collecting the works of the Russian avant-garde – including of such well-known names as Falk, Mukhina, Koudriachov, Popova, and Redko – whose paintings were banned during Stalin’s rule and through the 1960s because they did not conform to the officially prescribed Soviet ‘socialist realism’ school of art. The current English language publication, already issued in Russian in 2011, helps make the Savitsky Collection accessible to a broad international audience for the first time.

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