The directors of The Desert of Forbidden Art, Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, state that they are drawn to “stories about stubborn, unsung people with vision who challenge the boundaries of their times.” That description seems tailor made for Igor Savitsky.
Savitsky wanted to be a painter as a youth, but after receiving some bracing criticism he turned to collecting. The personal story of how he helped amass a 40,000 piece museum collection would be interesting in itself. That part of the story is reminiscent of Herb and Dorothy in the way it underscores how genuine passion for the art creates the best foundation for critical collecting.
In addition to telling Savitsky’s story, The Desert of Forbidden Art also provides an interesting and informative cross-section of cold war history. How did such a large collection of Russian Avant-Garde art end up in what is today a desert of Uzbekistan? Savitsky states:
I traveled all over Uzbekistan search for masterpieces that the history of our times had condemned to obscurity. I found a whole multinational collective of artists. Some were Uzbeks, others came from distant parts of our Soviet Union. They came here after the Revolution. For a brief period of time in the 20s and 30s, they painted freely, far away from the Kremlin’s censorship.
One of the many ironies, handled very gently in the film, is that the collection that survived far from the watchful eyes of the totalitarian state is now vulnerable from different historical forces in the wake of the break up of the Soviet Union. Because Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, former New York Times Bureau Chief Stephen Kinzer opines that a collection of abstract, modernist art could be a lightning rod for regional, fundamentalist forces. Can a collection of art worth millions of dollars on the black market be protected and preserved by a staff with an average wage of $25 a month?