Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pope/Giorgiev's DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART tells tale of Russia's dissident artists

Over the years word has leaked, much of it thanks to the reportage of  Stephen Kinzer for The New York Times, about the amazing Karakalpak Museum (also known as the Nukus museum) in Uzbekistan, which, outside of the Russian Museum in St. Peterburg, houses the world's largest collection of Russian avant garde art. And if using the terms avant garde and Russian art in the same breath seem out of place, that's OK. Those of us who know a little history will be aware that famed art critic/dictator/genocidal maniac Joe Stalin was not a fan of the avant garde and saw to it that many of its Russian practitioners ended up dead or housed in gulags and mental institutions. So where, how and because of whom did this long-buried cache of wonderful art appear?

These are the questions that the new documentary THE DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART answers so interestingly and so well, as filmmakers Amanda Pope (above, right) and Tchavdar Giorgiev (above, left) tell us the story of a young man -- himself an artist and art lover named Igor Savitsky (shown below) -- who discovered and then pretty much single-handedly rescued from oblivion a horde of amazing art (a few pieces of which are shown further below) that, were it not for the struggles of this obsessed fellow, would probably never have been seen again.

How Savitksy managed all this (while procuring the money to do it from the very bureaucrats who were supposedly fulfilling Communist dogma), along with the stories of some of the artists in his "package," the museum that he began and to which he donated the art -- all of this is woven into the filmmaker's neatly sprawling and beautifully photo-graphed film, from which we come away with renewed respect for the Russian avant garde, and especially for Savitsky (who died in 1984) and the woman he placed in charge of his museum,  Marinika M. Babanazarova (grand-daughter of her country's former premier), who continues to run the museum today.

Unearthing and saving the art was Savitsky' goal, just as unearthing interesting facts and history is that of the filmmakers, and Pope and Giorgiev have done a good job of it. As their story unfolds, we meet descendants of the artists who fill us in on how their parents managed to survive the repression. (My favorite is the woman who turned to making paper masks for her living.  These are wonderful --some of the most creative masks I've seen.)

Savitsky found these works -- from artists who had stayed true to their vision at a terrible cost -- in dark corners of their old studios, buried in the family's trash, rolled up under beds and in one case patching a hole in the roof (well, canvas is waterproof, right?).  How he cajoled and deceived the powers-that-were into bankrolling his preoccupation makes for a fascinating tale, as does that of his his more than 20 trips back and forth across the desert between Nukus and Moscow, bringing the art slowly to fill his new museum.  The icing on the cake, of course, is the art itself, which we see a good deal of in the course of the movie.

The Desert of Forbidden Art opens this Friday, March 11, in New York City at the Cinema Village, and next week, March 18, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall. I can't imagine lovers of modern art not flocking to the doc, which I hope will make its eventual way to DVD. For those desiring an update regarding the precarious situation at the museum, click here for an article in the arts section by Ellen Barry in this past Tuesday, March 8, edition of The New York Times.

The art in the three photos just above include (immediately above) "Head" by Lyubov Popova, courtesy of Savitsky Collection; (middle) artist Ural Tansykbaev and an example of his work, taken by an unknown photographer; (at top of the final three photos) "Crimson Autumn" by Ural Tansykbaev, courtesy of Savitsky Collection.

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