Hidden Treasures: Savitsky Museum of “Forbidden Art”

Hidden Treasures: Savitsky Museum of “Forbidden Art”

There is a place far, far away, tucked into a Central Asian desert – no, hidden in plain sight in a Central Asian desert – where paintings of a time gone by are treasured and preserved, as they are in so many art museums.

But this is no ordinary museum.

Early art collections at the Savitsky Museum range from schools of realism to <i>avant-garde</i> <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Early art collections at the Savitsky Museum range from schools of realism to avant-garde
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Just one of the tens of thousands of paintings at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Just one of the tens of thousands of paintings at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

 The Savitsky Museum shelters the world’s second-largest collection of banned Soviet-era avant-garde art, located in a hard-to-find desert town – remote Nukus, capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, a former Central Asian republic of the former Soviet Union.


Forbidden Art, in Desert Bloom  But how did a museum bloom in such a desolate place, an area slowly contaminated with Soviet biochemical testing, its Aral Sea waters diverted for Soviet cotton crop production, its capital city “closed” to most people for so many years?

Igor Savitsky was a 35-year-old Moscow artist in 1950 when he joined an archaeological dig in remote Karakalpakstan, in Uzbekistan.  When it ended, Savitsky stayed. The young artist was captivated by the culture, carpets and art collections, as well as the camaraderie of Russian artists who had fled from KGB censorship in the 1920s.

An art expert offers a history lesson on this Soviet cubist painting at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

An art expert offers a history lesson on this Soviet cubist painting at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus
Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

Subversive Art In his desert oasis, Savitsky started hearing stories that imaginative – even shocking – works of Russian avante-garde art in Moscow and other Soviet cities were being banned or destroyed. The KGB was throwing their artistic creators into mental hospitals or sentencing them to gulags for not painting in a Soviet-approved style, the drab Social Realist style.

 Obsessed with saving this art from destruction, Savitsky slowly and slyly spirited away 11,000 pieces of “forbidden art” to his Central Asian backwater desert town, convincing Soviet officials he was buying state-approved art for his newly-created museum in Nukus. Who would ever think to look here – in plain sight – for such Soviet-condemned art? It was a safe haven in the desert.  A starving artist himself, Savitsky convinced government officials to use public funds to pay for these paintings!

Walls of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan, are filled with once-banned Soviet art <br>Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

Walls of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan, are filled with once-banned Soviet art
Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

 Legendary Legacy  Today the Savitsky Museum houses more than 90,000 items, from Central Asian art and artifacts to jewelry and gems. In another ironic twist, museum visitors can view Soviet Social Realist art along with Savitsky’s once-banned Soviet avante-garde paintings.

Visitors carefully browse through reams of canvas paintings stored in the Savitsky Museum's back room <br>Photo credit Marina Arkhipova

Visitors carefully browse through reams of canvas paintings stored in the Savitsky Museum’s back room
Photo credit Marina Arkhipova

Special tours of the museum’s storage room reveal thousands upon thousands of precious paintings stacked up, spread out, and even propped up on the floor. More funding is needed to properly preserve and protect these once-banned paintings from destruction.

Funds are tight for proper storage of vintage Soviet artwork <br>Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

Funds are tight for proper storage of vintage Soviet artwork
Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

Igor Savitsky died at age 69 and is buried in Nukus. Until the very end of his life, Savitsky was helping Central Asian artists nurture their own creative style and appreciating their own valuable works, even in a region considered one of the poorest in the former Soviet Union.

An award-winning and visually stunning documentary,   recently brought world attention to Nukus, the museum, and Savitsky’s heroic and secret efforts to save a generation of this “forbidden art.” It’s the stuff of Silk Road legends.

Formally known as the Nukus Museum of Art, this Savitsky Museum building opened in 2003 <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Formally known as the Nukus Museum of Art, this Savitsky Museum building opened in 2003
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

While Uzbekistan is known for its gorgeous Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, Nukus is fast becoming popular as a must-see stop to visit the Savitsky Museum (MIR travels there) and to honor the one who brought it all to life, hidden in plain sight in a desert far, far away.


Travel To Uzbekistan with MIR
Learn more about MIR tours that travel to Central Asia and to Uzbekistan, where some tours visit the Savitsky Museum in Nukus.  You can also book a custom private journey to Nukus and the museum.

(Top photo credit: Lindsay Fincher – Paintings on display at the Savitsky Museum, with many more stored in its back rooms)

PUBLISHED: September 4, 2014

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