The Desert of Forbidden Art

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Arts Documentary hosted by America Ferrera, published by PBS broadcasted as part of PBS Independent Lens series in 2011 - English narration

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How did a treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars end up stashed in the far-off desert of Uzbekistan in a communist-funded museum? Thanks to the passion and daring of one man, Igor Savitsky, who loved the work too much to let the repressive Moscow government extinguish it forever.

In the 1920s, a small group of painters left Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other colder climes traveling 1,700 miles to bring the Bolshevik Revolution to the exotic southern reaches of Soviet Central Asia. But instead they encountered a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin, and developed a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries old Eastern traditions.

In 1932, their scandalously expressionist aesthetic was banned by Stalinists in favor of propaganda paintings in the Socialist Realist style. Many of the artists destroyed their works or stashed them in attics and beneath beds under the threat of torture, imprisonment, and death.

Their plight inspired young Igor Savitsky, a frustrated painter of aristocratic extraction who'd landed in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan's autonomous northwestern republic) on an archaeological dig. He became fascinated by the region's folk art. Decades of Sovietization had devalued such distinctively ethnic artifacts to the point that collecting elaborate handmade garments, jewelry, carpets, and the like initially got Savitsky branded a "rubbish man." Eventually, his location far from Moscow censorship also allowed him to pursue what became his real passion: finding and acquiring modern art so out of sync with official taste that it was virtually condemned.

Pretending to buy state-approved art, Savitsky instead daringly rescued 40,000 forbidden works. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoled the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities that were banning it and amassed the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world.

Today the museum Savitsky spent and risked his life for still holds the works he rescued, but although the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan gained its independence, the collection remains in imminent danger. The climate in the area is spectacularly dry, causing an accelerated disintegration of the canvases. And the regional rise of militant Islam puts Savitsky’s museum directly in the crosshairs of fundamentalists who might find the art as “degenerate” as Stalin did.

Described by The New York Times as "one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art" and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are also a lucrative target for corrupt bureaucrats and Western art profiteers. The endangered collection invites the question — whose responsibility is it to preserve a country’s cultural treasures?

Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists.

Originally broadcast on April 5, 2011

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  • Video Codec: x264
  • Video Bitrate: 3714 kbps
  • Video Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1 (16:9)
  • Video Resolution: 1280x720
  • Framerate: 29.97 fps
  • Audio Codec: AAC
  • Audio Bitrate: 135 kbps 48/24 KHz
  • Audio Channels: 2
  • Audio Language: English
  • Run-Time: 00:56:25
  • Size: 1.54 GB
  • Source: 1080i OTA ATSC
  • Encoded by: joeyjoejoe

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