An Art Museum at the End of the World

The story of the Savitsky Collection at the Nukus Museum of Art is stranger than fiction: Savitsky, a young painter from an aristocratic Russian family in Kiev, escaped Moscow after the Revolution to the Karakalpak desert (now a semi-autonomous region in western Uzbekistan) as a member of an archeological team.  He stayed there, and started collecting art; first folklore crafts, then forbidden local modern art.

Savitsky must have been quite the charmer, as he managed to convince local Party bosses to finance his collecting activities. With more funds, he widened his search to overlooked modern artists back in Moscow. His collection grew to tens of thousands of pieces. Its Russian avant-garde part is considered second only to the one in St. Petersburg. If you are interested, watch the documentary about his life and collection and the museum’s website.

The Savitsky collection ended up as the Nukus Museum of Art. There is one floor dedicated to local crafts and archeology, and another to fine art, mostly paintings. Upon Savitsky’s death Marinika Babanazarova took over as director of the museum. She is still there, fiercely guarding the collection and promoting it. We were lucky to find her giving a tour in English as we arrived which we were gratiously allowed to join.

Savitsky bought everything he found, because he thought that to understand an artist one needs to see the artist’s “kitchen”, not just a curated selection. He was also trying to help the artists or their families survive hard times under Stalin. As a result, the collection is uneven. It is obvious that several extraordinary painters with highly evolved personal “signatures” tried to please the authorities by painting stock Social Realist scenes. But their masterpieces are there, too.

Many of the artists had traveled to Paris and Berlin before the Revolution and echoed contemporary trends. Everywhere one sees the influence of Impressionism, Cubism, Blaue Reiter, Matisse and George Grosz.

My favorites, other than the prolific Popova: other Constructivist works by I.A. Kudryashov, a collection of miniature Constructivist sketches and watercolors by Sokolov, Sufronova and others, Uzbek painters Ural Tansykbaev and A.M. Volkov, iconic figures by K.N. Redko, and Cubist work by A.A. Rybnikov.

Has anyone heard of these artists? I had not, until this visit. It is unfortunate that the museum’s website shows only one piece per painter, because it is hard to find images of the other paintings online, and the museum’s shop did not offer a comprehensive catalogue.

On a different note: the museum is housed in a lackluster square stone building decorated with “folk motives”, entered off a large, empty paved plaza. This treeless plaza is particularly brutal in Nukus, where the temperature reached 102 F° under a cloudless sky and with a blazing sun on the third week of May. Two additional buildings are under construction next to the museum, forming a three-dot line. What will they be like?

Why replicate a less than memorable building? Why do all three buildings have to be sized and shaped identically? Why was there no attempt to create a more visitor-friendly entry, using, perhaps, a different configuration of the complex to enclose and shade the outdoor space in this desert town? This is a missed opportunity, and too bad.

Nukus, the Aral Sea

Nukus, the Aral Sea

Museum Site

Museum Site


The Museum

The Museum

Middle Bldg. Under Construction

Middle Bldg. Under Construction

Museum Replica

Museum Replica

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