Before I officially start this review, I'm just going to throw something out there: I am a Russophile. Thusly, I am going to find anything having to do with Russian history captivating.
On that note, The Desert of Forbidden Art, which the Greater Park Circle Film Society will screen on Saturday, is a fascinating film, unique in its use of art history to show life in the Soviet Union. It's an angle of this time period that many may be unfamiliar with, expanding on the damaging effects of Soviet authoritarianism.
In the parched landscape of Uzbekistan sits a museum with the second largest collection of Russian avant garde artwork in the world. The Nukus Museum of Art (located in Nukus, the capital city of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic) was established by Igor Savitsky in the 1960s. A failed artist himself, Savitsky emigrated to Nukus and began collecting indigenous Uzbek artifacts as the Soviets were implementing a system of cultural ambiguity.
He eventually started to acquire paintings and other works from artists suppressed under the regime. At the time, the Kremlin had a policy of "Soviet realism" in art; you were supposed to show happy comrades, working for the benefit of the proletariat. Not doing so could land you in a labor camp. Savitsky would eventually travel 1,700 miles from Moscow to Nukus 20 times to salvage whatever he could find, promising future financial compensation. He rescued self portraits, satires, and views of Soviet life that didn't follow the government standard.
The Desert of Forbidden Art uses a few unnecessary documentary gimmicks, like melodramatic celebrity voice-overs (including Ben Kingsley and Sally Field) and dispensable recreations. But the material speaks for itself. Filled with interviews with children of the artists (as well as with the museum's director, co-workers of Savitsky, and former Soviet bureaucrats), this film is not just about Savitsky or his museum. It's about the artists themselves and how the Soviet Union worked to destroy them. It is hard to understand how difficult it must be for a person to deny their own talent for fear of prison or death. To survive, they turned on their peers, pointing fingers behind each others' backs for the KGB. And they also betrayed themselves, sometimes finding a successful career painting the propaganda the government wanted, but keeping their true passions hidden away. Savitsky is used as an underlying focus to unite the individuals involved in a broader phenomenon as he brings their work together for his museum.
Savitsky collected art even while on his death bed, managing to save almost 45,000 works. He took pieces from poor families with hidden collections, some who had desperately used the frames as firewood.
Ironically, today, this art is worth millions.
The Desert of Forbidden Art will screen at the Olde North Charleston Picture House (4820 Jenkins Ave.) on Sat. Aug. 7 at 7 p.m. It costs $2 for Greater Park Circle Film Society members and $5 for non-members.