The Desert of Forbidden Art

The Desert of Forbidden Art

  • BY Tchavdar Georgiev & Amanda Pope | IN Arts & Culture
    Premiered April 5, 2011

About the Film

How did a treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars end up stashed in the far-off desert of Uzbekistan in a communist-funded museum? Thanks to the passion and daring of one man, Igor Savitsky, who loved the work too much to let the repressive Moscow government extinguish it forever.  MORE

In the 1920s, a small group of painters left Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other colder climes traveling 1,700 miles to bring the Bolshevik Revolution to the exotic southern reaches of Soviet Central Asia. But instead they encountered a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin, and developed a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries old Eastern traditions.

In 1932, their scandalously expressionist aesthetic was banned by Stalinists in favor of propaganda paintings in the Socialist Realist style. Many of the artists destroyed their works or stashed them in attics and beneath beds under the threat of torture, imprisonment, and death.

Their plight inspired young Igor Savitsky, a frustrated painter of aristocratic extraction who'd landed in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan's autonomous northwestern republic) on an archaeological dig. He became fascinated by the region's folk art. Decades of Sovietization had devalued such distinctively ethnic artifacts to the point that collecting elaborate handmade garments, jewelry, carpets, and the like initially got Savitsky branded a "rubbish man." Eventually, his location far from Moscow censorship also allowed him to pursue what became his real passion: finding and acquiring modern art so out of sync with official taste that it was virtually condemned.

Pretending to buy state-approved art, Savitsky instead daringly rescued 40,000 forbidden works. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoled the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities that were banning it and amassed the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world.

Today the museum Savitsky spent and risked his life for still holds the works he rescued, but although the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan gained its independence, the collection remains in imminent danger. The climate in the area is spectacularly dry, causing an accelerated disintegration of the canvases. And the regional rise of militant Islam puts Savitsky’s museum directly in the crosshairs of fundamentalists who might find the art as “degenerate” as Stalin did.

Described by The New York Times as "one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art" and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are also a lucrative target for corrupt bureaucrats and Western art profiteers. The endangered collection invites the question — whose responsibility is it to preserve a country’s cultural treasures?

In The Desert of Forbidden Art, Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists.

The Filmmakers

Tchavdar Georgiev was one of the editors on the documentary We Live in Public (Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) and the documentary One Lucky Elephant (best documentary editing award at Woodstock Film Festival). He edited Alien Earths for National Geographic (nominated for an Emmy), the narrative feature Bastards (MTV Russia award for best film). He also produced and directed the feature documentary Kosher Messiah.

Amanda Pope’s film credits include Jackson Pollock Portrait,Stages, Houseman Directs Lear, and Cities for People — all of which have been broadcast nationally on PBS. She directed The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club about a pioneer woman aviator. Amanda is a Professor in production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.


Film Credits

Written, Produced, and Directed by
Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev

Ben Kinglsey
Sally Field
Ed Asner
Igor Paramonov

Tchavdar Georgiev

Score Composed and Produced by
Miriam Cutler

Alexander Dolgin
Gennadi Balitski

Associate Producer and Researcher
Etery Sakontikova

Sound Recordist
Adam King

Sound Design
Joe Dzuban
Raj Patil

Sound Mix
Joe Dzuban

Title and Motion Graphics Design
Inmotion Studios

Stephen Fromkin - Producer

Designers and Animators
Harold De Jesus
Marcel Valcarce

Brian Hutchings

Digital Consultant
Matt Radecki

Story Consultants
Miriam Cutler
Lisa Leeman
Kate Amend
Mark Harris

Independent Film Consultant
Robert Hawk

Additional Cinematography
John Ealer
Chad Wilson
Clay Westervelt
Daniel Pfisterer
Erick Green

Additional Sound
Valery Ermakov
Gentry Smith

Assistant Editors
Andrejs Kovalovs
Yasmin Assemi
Justin Kelley
Matt Rittorno

Additional Graphics
Andrejs Kovalovs

Archival Stills Enhancement
Alexander Dolgin

Legal Services
Innes Smolyansky, Esq.

Paintings, Archival Film, and Photographs

AP Archive
Archive of the Repressed Victims of the former Soviet Union in Uzbekistan
Getty Images
Max Penson Collection, courtesy of Maxime Penson
Mosfilm Cinema Concern
Museum of the People of the East
Russian Archive of Documentary Films & Photographs
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art
Smithsonian Institution
The State Russian Museum
The State Tretyakov Gallery
The Wende Museum
Ural Tansykbaev Memorial Museum
Uzteleradio, Volkov, and Rybnikov families

Paul Gauguin, “In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse”
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser

Paul Gauguin, “Self-Portrait”
Courtesy of Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France
Photo Credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

Paul Gauguin, “Where Do We Come From?
What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Tompkins Collection – Arthur Gordon Thompkins Fund

Vincent van Gogh, “Landscape with Snow”
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Hilde Thannhauser

Mark Y. Kaplan, “V.I. Lenin in 1917”
Courtesy of The Wende Museum, Los Angeles, California

Mikhail A. Kostin, “In the Stalin Factory”
Courtesy, Friend of the Springville Museum of Art, Springville, Utah

Georges Seurat, “The Morning Walk”
Courtesy of The National Gallery
London/Art Resource, New York

Alexander N. Volkov, “Hoeing of the Field,”
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

All artworks not otherwise credited come from
the Savitsky Collection at the Karakalpakstan State Art Museum.

Music Credits

Soky Nomay Bayat/Ufary Bayst and Rohat (Pleasure)
Field recordings by Deben Bhattacharya, taken from the album “The Music of Uzbekistan” EUCD 1805
Courtesy of ARC Music Productions International Ltd.

Non-Profit Partner
International Documentary Association

Major funding for this program was provided by
National Endowment for the Arts
Open Society Institute
Sahan Daywi Foundation
University of Southern California Zumberge Research Grant
Lois M. O’Brien M.D.
Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation
CEC Artslink
Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity
The Cynthia Lasker Foundation

In memoriam of John Rauch, Svetlana Turutina, Militza Zemskaya, and Sarah Carey.

This program was produced by Desert of Forbidden Art LLC
which is solely responsible for its content.

© 2010 Desert Of Forbidden Art LLC. All rights reserved.

Art and artists often suffer under autocratic or extremist systems. Do you think there is ever a valid reason to suppress art (writing, painting, film, digital art) in the interest of national security?


  • 2010 CINE Golden Eagle Award
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Art and artists often suffer under autocratic or extremist systems. Do you think there is ever a valid reason to suppress art (writing, painting, film, digital art) in the interest of national security?