I spent the weekend transported to a desert city in distant Uzbekistan, looking at avant-garde paintings in a strange museum created by an impoverished fanatic and protected by a mild-mannered, elegant woman who could probably stare down a few tanks and a cadre of functionaries. (And some day may have to.)
She is Marinika Babanazarova, the director of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, and one of the remarkable personalities in “Desert of Forbidden Art,” a magical film made by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope.
This story of how 40,000 banned artworks were saved from the KGB and its art critics unfolds tonight on PBS, part of the Independent Lens series. It’s one of the best films on art I’ve ever seen, from the camera work to the editing to the simply wonderful music by Miriam Cutler.
Radiant paintings meld with archival films, photographs and contemporary scenes of camels stalking grandly through the scrub desert separating Uzbekistan from the even more remote autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in the far west.
And that brings us to mysterious Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s main city, a dusty provincial place with a strange history of its own.
In Soviet times, Nukus was a closed city ordered up by insane bureaucrats in faraway Moscow to service a biochemical-warfare laboratory erected on an island in the Aral Sea. Then most of the Aral Sea dried up thanks to another highly unfortunate decision to turn the desert into a cotton bowl.
One doesn’t expect much from Nukus.
“It didn’t take me more than a few minutes of walking around this museum for my jaw to drop,” remembers Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, whose commentary provides historical context to the documentary. He stumbled into town in the mid-1990s as the bureau chief of Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some of these pictures evoke the best of Gauguin, Kandinsky, Chagall, Grosz and Goncharova, while reflecting the sun-scorched landscape of an exotic culture.
“How did this happen?” Kinzer asked himself, a question the film answers with the help of Stalin and the descendants of artists who followed their vision with often tragic consequences.
Igor Savitsky, the man who saved the pictures, was born into a life of privilege that disappeared along with his French governess in 1917.
The saga of Savitsky -- nicely voiced by Ben Kingsley -- begins when an imperious painter made fun of his pictures. Young Igor fled Moscow for Uzbekistan where he had worked on an archaeological dig.
Obsessive devotion to the art of others followed.
At first, Savitsky collected folk art: textiles, rugs, jewelry, and ethnic costumes despised as retrograde by the Soviets and often tossed or hidden. Locals called him the “rubbish man.”
Then he discovered a forgotten group of artists who had moved to Uzbekistan in the 1920s to escape KGB censors. Their art didn’t conform to the Kremlin’s insatiable demand for happy workers in wholesome factories.
Interviews with their descendants personalize the saga. As they remember their fathers, mothers, colleagues and friends, most reveal a fine sense of history, humor and also bad dentistry.
A widow affectionately described him as having the eyes of a hooligan. He would find forgotten treasures under beds and pay with small sums and vouchers. He even cajoled money out of a young Soviet party boss who helped him open the Nukus Museum in 1966. Facing the camera, the man remembers getting the subsidy by threatening to decapitate the minister of finance.
There’s a funny scene of Savitsky leaving Moscow with enough suitcases to fill a compartment, chugging off to Uzbekistan and then sitting on the road surrounded with his loot calmly waiting for a truck to take him through the desert and on to the Nukus Museum.
How he pulled this off is still something of a mystery. But he had charm, connections and gumption. Eager to exhibit Nadezhda Borovaya’s pictures of life in a Soviet gulag, he told the ministry of culture they depicted a Nazi concentration camp. He got the show.
So often the lives are as interesting as the work: Ural Tansykbaev became an accommodating painter of the Soviet state, only to die of a heart attack in his limousine as he hurried south to visit his youthful works in Nukus.
The boldly colorful Alexander Volkov betrayed a colleague to survive. A recent auction clip shows an early painting fetching close to $500,000. His sons credit Savitsky for saving his pictures (and also creating a market for them).
Perhaps the most memorable painting is a nightmarish beast with eyes like bullet holes by the artist Lysenko, who finished his life in a mental hospital.
“I like to think of my museum as a keeper of the artists’ souls,” said Savitsky before he died in Moscow in 1984.
By the film’s end, Babanazarova is alone -- her husband has died, her daughter has decamped -- as she reflects in perfect English on 25 years of devotion to Savitsky’s museum and looks somewhat fearfully into the future.
Given Nukus’s shortage of attractions, you would think international tourists would be a welcome addition to the indigenous donkeys and goats.
Mysteriously, that is not so. Local authorities seem conflicted. In an area rife with Islamic fanatics and nationalists, a woman running a museum filled with avant-garde Western art is a woman with a problem.
Savitsky’s museum is being torn down in a bizarre celebration of Uzbekistan’s independence. Its content will be stuffed into a newer museum built for the collection a few years ago. Babanazarova’s travel is periodically restricted.
It’s almost as if, in an ironical turn of events, the cruelly whimsical nature of Soviet cultural policy is being revived by Uzbek bureaucrats 1,700 miles from Moscow -- where today a treasure trove probably worth millions of dollars would find a happy home.
For more on “Desert of Forbidden Art” and Nukus, go to http://www.pbs.org/desert-of-forbidden-art
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s leisure and arts section. Any opinions are her own.)