Surrounded by dry and blowing desert, the gateway to the ever-shrinking Aral Sea, the remote Karakalpakstan Republic in northwestern Uzbekistan is home to the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world. Tucked away in the unassuming city of Nukus, Uzbekistan, the region’s capital, the Nukus Museum of Art houses over 90,000 works of art, a variety of artefacts from Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, and a range of folk art, from Khorezem to Karakalpak, all gathered meticulously by the museum’s founder, Igor Vitalevich Stavitsky. The museum was opened by Stavitsky in 1966, and the official name, which acknowledges its patron, is quite a mouthful: “The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, named after I.V. Savitsky.”
Nukus is the sixth-largest city in Uzbekistan, home to a population of about 312,100. It lacks the stunning blue beauty of Samarkand or Bukhara, its ancient Silk Road sisters, and only receives about 5,000-6,000 foreign tourists annually. But the austerity of Nukus makes it a place to get a of the sense of Soviet past. The city was developed in 1932 from Soviet central blueprints, and maintains the characteristic Soviet-era wide, sweeping boulevards and bleak government administrative buildings. The perfect place to store a cache of illicit bourgeois art. The city’s isolation also made it the choice location for the Red Army’s Chemical Research Institution, which helped develop and test the Novichok nerve agent—currently of fame in the Salisbury Skripal poisoning case. The site was disassembled in 2002 by the United States Department of Defense, but one can imagine how the legacy lingers on. The region hosting the art collection, Karakalpakstan, is paradoxically one of the poorest regions in the former Soviet Union and in Uzbekistan. Despite this, the museum has served as a rallying point for local heritage and culture, and has helped to preserve the region’s past. The museum’s isolation serves two purposes. It makes for an attractive trek—a true pilgrimage—for art lovers in the know. It was also instrumental in allowing Savitsky to develop the collection away from prying central planning eyes of Moscow.
Stavitsky was a Russian aristocrat born in Kyiv. He first came to the foreboding Karakalpakstan region in the 1950s as part of his ethnographic fieldwork on the Karakalpak people, and he began noting their native objects of aesthetic value, including clothing, jewelry and art. This expanded into a wider appreciation for art connected to Central Asia. He slowly fell in love with this odd outpost of the Soviet Union, and came to spend over 17 years there collecting, storing, and showing art. His pursuit required dedication—financial resources and the drive to collect and display avant-garde art despite its official condemnation by the Soviet government, pushing the movement into hiding. No museums in the Soviet Union were displaying avant-garde art, but the isolation of Nukus helped Stavitsky to slip under the radar—he could do whatever he wanted and craft the museum completely to his liking. Indeed, Stavitsky cultivated a close relationship with the Karakalpak regional authorities, and was able to garden both their financial support to trace and acquire pieces (the irony of Soviet officials helping to finance avant-garde work!) and to help maintain Nukus’s status as a closed city, which kept the work safe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the museum even temporarily used the building of the former Executive Committee of the City Soviet of People’s Deputies to house art.
Russia’s avant-garde past—and its modern value
The moment of avant-garde art in the Soviet Union was a visceral response to the depiction of happy, stable, peaceful Soviet life portrayed in the state-sponsored socialist realist art. Sometimes frantic and other times deathly calm, Soviet avant-garde art mounted an alternative perspective, a challenge to the frames of Soviet propaganda. The museum points out that it is one of the rare places the Russian avant-garde art can be viewed alongside its rival, Socialist Realism. In the post-revolutionary Soviet era, Socialist Realism was the choice of artistic propaganda for the state, and was esteemed and encouraged, while avant-garde art sought to tear down the principles of perfection, and was vilified and banned by the central Soviet authorities as a result. In Savitsky’s time, avant-garde art was either regarded as dangerous or rubbish. When Stavitsky was acquiring the paintings, he argued that no one knew their value; the local government was willing to indulge him, but only to a certain degree. Now, decades later, the eccentric art collector is vindicated: avant-garde artists and works have nestled their way into the art world, captivating collectors and museums, and fetching thousands to millions on the western auction market. The most well-known work is Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square”—groundbreaking in its portrayal of nothing rather than a scene or object.
In April 2002, the piece was auctioned for around $1 million, financed by Russian oligarch philanthropist Vladimir Potanin, who donated to the Russian Ministry of Culture and to the State Hermitage Museum collection—the largest private contribution to the art museums of the Russian state since the October Revolution. In 2018, another known work of Malevich, his “Suprematist Composition,” was auctioned at Christie’s New York for more than $85 million, making it the highest price ever paid for a piece of Russian art.
The decades-old collection in the humble Nukus housing is impressive. It includes pieces by notable Russian avant-garde artists such as Burlyuk, Sokolov, Falk, Redko, and Osmerkin. It includes works by Lyubov Popova, whose “Still Life with Tray” was sold at Sotheby’s London in 2007 for just over £1.7 million), and Vasilii Shukhaev, whose “Portrait of Alexandre Iacovleff (1887–1938)” sold for £37,500 at Christies in London in 2017.
The Nukus museum has flown under the radar for many years, known only to the avant garde art lovers or those who happen to stumble upon it, say, on an OSCE monitoring mission. But the western world has taken note: Stavitsky’s collection has been graced by visitors such as Al Gore and Jacques Chirac. In 2010, it was the subject of the award-winning American documentary film, “Desert of Forbidden Art.” The Guardian has called it “one of the most outstanding museums in the world,” and the French Télérama has labeled it the “Louvre of the steppes.” Curatorial attention to the museum’s collection has helped foster ties between the former isolated Soviet republic and western countries. A big part of the museum’s task is restoration. In his collection, Stavitsky came across many damaged paintings, often poorly stored, but acquired them anyway. Today, the museum enlists the help of Russian and European arts restoration experts to bring the works back to their original glory. Art institutions and governments from EU countries and the US provide funding and experts to oversee the restoration of this trove of art. As part of a transition away from the political isolation of Karimov and towards the openness of current Uzbek President Mirziyoyev, the country is embarking on a charm offensive and the promotion of Uzbekistan as a place for tourism and culture. Certainly, alongside Tashkent, and the Silk Road cities, Nukus, too, and the avant-garde art work it houses are secrets that are best shared.