Nukus. Capital of the Semi-Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan i.e. the land of the black-hatted people i.e. the Middle of Absolute Nowhere. And they don’t even wear black hats. Not exactly the first place you’d expect to find a world-class art museum. But there it is.
In 1950 a painter named Igor Savitsky accompanied a soviet archeological expedition to Karakalpakstan and found himself falling in love with the region, it’s people and culture. He decided, to the consternation of his Muscovite wife, to move there, spending considerable time collecting local handicrafts and jewelry for the Nukus museum. Eventually he was named curator of the museum and embarked on the quest that would make the Nukus museum the wonder it is.
During the 60s Savitsky traveled the USSR looking for pieces of art that had been banned during Stalin’s most intense times of censorship. Despite the danger involved with assembling this collection, he persisted, even wrangling money for the museum from the local Karakalpak Soviet authorities.
Savitsky managed to assemble 40,000 pieces of artwork which did not conform to the Socialist Realism restrictions. The collection includes pieces inspired by the Surrealist and Primitivist movements. Some of the paintings are absolutely remarkable. I’ve probably never been so impressed. V. Lisenko’s painting The Bull was one of the most striking. It bears down on the viewer, eyes like gunbarrels. Lisenko’s other paintings were equally memorable. If it hadn’t been for Soviet censorship, he would have been world famous, the sort of artist to shake up conventions in the Armory Show in New York. But instead, his paintings went to Nukus, the only place in the Soviet Union that dared to show them.
Wonders lie in unexpected places.
By the way, a documentary was filmed recently in Nukus called the Desert of Forbidden Art. I’d like to see it.