The Desert of Forbidden Art tells the fascinating true story of a former aristocrat's efforts to save banned Soviet art in a remote desert area during the perilous Stalinist era. Archival footage is used to show the profound changes in Russian history. This impressive documentary on rarely seen art will have strong appeal for art aficionados. Programming with museum and Russian groups will increase exposure for the film.
The works of art are on exhibit in a museum at the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Camels mix with automobiles on the road. Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times Bureau Chief for Central Asia, said his jaw dropped when he saw the quality of work displayed in the distant provincial area, once an exotic center of world trade.
Igor Savitsky collected these works after completing an important archeological dig in Central Asia; it was there he found many pieces of art and a wonderful sense of freedom. He developed an attraction to the colorful folk art patterns and ethnic traditions suppressed by Stalin. Raised with aristocratic privileges, Savitsky learned to conceal his upbringing during the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The comments from people who knew Savitsky effectively keep his memory and spirit alive in the film. Ben Kingsley expressively provides the voice of Savitsky. A humorous anecdote from the early expedition about how he successfully kept plates clean from the desert sand emphasizes the resourcefulness with which Savitsky amassed and protected his art collection.
Desert of Forbidden Art is rich in details on Savitsky and the artists whose work he devoted his life to saving. Directors/screenwriters Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev expertly combine Savitsky's amazing story with historical context about the volatile Stalinist era.
Under Stalin, the Soviet Realist style that emblematically employed images of factory and farm workers to romanticize the Revolution became the only government approved style of art produced anywhere in the region. However, Savitsky found that for a brief period painters in Uzbekistan could paint freely. Far from Kremlin censorship, the Russian avant-garde slowly merged with the culture of Central Asia.
The abstract and non-celebratory art of the avant-garde was considered degenerate and anti-Soviet. The artists faced dangers including interrogations and prison sentences. Relatives give poignant first-hand accounts of the artists' struggles. The painter of "Fascism Is Advancing" was sent to a mental hospital. Ed Asner and Sally Field bring feeling to the words of these artists. Interspersed throughout are extensive views of their vividly colored and unique paintings.
Co-director Georgiev skillfully edits the different story strands, leading to the current conditions of this valuable collection and concerns about its future. The Desert of Forbidden Art is an absorbing document on the endurance and importance of artistic expression.
Directors/ Screenwriters/Producers: Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev
Genre: Documentary; English- and Russian-languages, subtitled
Running Time: 80 min.
Release Date: March 11 NY, March 18 LA