Art In Exile

On the wall of the Nukus Museum, a crazed-looking bull with pointed horns stares out at visitors. The picture was painted by a man named Lysenko. Art historians don't know his first name, or much else about him--except that he was forced to enter a Soviet mental institution for his depiction of that bull. After all, it doesn't conform to the Soviet straitjacket style of "socialist realism"; the bull is light blue. Hanging nearby is a masterful, gentle painting by Mikhail Kurzin simply entitled "Dumplings." But that work isn't as innocuous as it first appears, either. When Kurzin painted his mouthwatering rendition of the traditional Russian dish pelmeni, he had just been released from prison and was in exile, suffering from malnutrition. He painted each dumpling with loving care, using hard brushes and low-quality paints, because he was desperate to eat them.

Nearly all the gulag-era works in the museum share a similarly wrenching story. And there are more than 30,000 of them, largely unseen examples of Soviet avant-garde and unofficial art tucked away in a dilapidated two-story building in Nukus, the site of a former chemical-weapons plant, on the edge of the Uzbek desert in Central Asia. The vast majority of the paintings are stacked by the thousands in the museum's basement; the rest are packed tightly on the walls of dim rooms. Museum workers lay trays of tap water on the floors to maintain humidity. "They have nothing resembling what we would call climate control," says Washington-based art historian Ori Soltes. That may soon change: in an effort to give the museum more visibility--and perhaps an infusion of cash--Soltes is arranging for the exhibit's first tour through the major cities of Europe and the United States, sometime in the next 18 months.

There is plenty to show off. The tiny museum boasts the most comprehensive collection of dissident art from the Soviet era. Some of the artists widely represented in Nukus--like Ivan Kudryashov and Lubov Popova--have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York. Paintings by Popova, for example, go for $300,000 in the West. At Nukus, there are seven examples of her work.

Even so, on a typical day, there are no visitors. It's not hard to see why: the museum can barely pay its electricity and telephone bills. Paint is peeling off the walls, and the ceilings are cracked. The bathroom is a wooden outhouse. The workers--mostly a small army of dedicated women who earn $10 per month--take turns arriving at 6 a.m. to open windows and add water to the cafeteria-tray humidifiers. They rely on intermittent international grants, and sales of local Karakalpak carpets, for income.

So why keep the collection in Uzbekistan? For one, that's where many of the artists did their work. Uzbekistan was far away from the prying eyes of the Stalin regime. "Of course we realize that Nukus is very provincial," says museum director Marinika Babanazarova. "Only here would such a museum ever appear." Nukus was also the adopted home of the Soviet-era artist and collector Igor Savitsky, who spent his life gathering thousands of works destined for destruction or obscurity. Many of them had been smuggled out of the gulag, and stored by the artists' families and friends. "Some called Savitsky 'the garbageman' because of his collecting," says Babanazarova. "They laughed at him. They didn't understand what he was doing. Nobody cared about these paintings. He found them in basements, in attics, on trash heaps, under beds or just rolled up in the corner."

Savitsky began gathering the art in the 1930s, when most of it was considered illegal. After Lenin's death in 1924, experimenting with such avant-garde styles as cubism and fauvism became suspect. In 1934 Stalin issued a decree deeming Soviet socialist realism the only acceptable form of expression. "That means that you're supposed to depict happy, young, smiling faces and full bellies," says Soltes. "The mood of the work was always supposed to be celebratory; it didn't matter if you were painting birthday parties or electrical wires." Many artists found it impossible to follow the edict, choosing to explore new styles and techniques even at the risk of deportation, imprisonment or execution.

Some artists escaped the Soviet Union. Others were not so lucky. The artist Vasily Shuchaev was sent to a gulag in Magadan, where his only creative outlet was decorating the camp's political theater. The graphic artist Mikhail Sokolov spent 10 years in the labor camps of the Taiga, where he drew postage-stamp-size pictures of tangled birches and deer because they "were easier to hide," says museum curator Valentina Sichova. Another graphic artist, Nadezhda Borovaya, drew on the thick paper used in the gulags for wrapping food. Her pictures show women chopping wood or lying in barracks, some wearing prison uniform with numbers on their hats. In another, two female prisoners discuss the previous night's dreams of brushing their hair and cleaning their boots--dreams of freedom.

Savitsky was their savior. He first came to the region as an artist and sketcher for an archeological expedition. After partaking in several digs, he came to Karakalpakstan to live. He fell in love with the region and did his best to support local art. Although he would criticize the communist leadership, "the local authorities respected him and left him alone because of what he did for the Karakalpaks," says Babanazarova. "But of course he had problems. There were commissions coming in from time to time to check what was going on, and even sometimes ordered certain exhibitions to be closed down. He would do it. But the next day the paintings would be back up again."

Savitsky first opened the museum in 1966, and from then until 1980 he brought thousands of works to Nukus. In the tiny space there are 90,000 objects of art, 30,000 of which are considered avant-garde or underground. Savitsky would collect not one, but hundreds of pieces by the same artist, arguing that to understand the creative mind you must "show the kitchen of the artist" to see how things really came together. Ruvim Mazel, a Jewish artist who studied alongside Marc Chagall, is represented by 1,400 works.

Art lovers have suggested that the museum be moved to a more accessible location. "That's a sensitive question," says Babanazarova. "Of course more people could appreciate the collection if we moved. On the other hand, this is the place where the collection was saved from neglect and saved from the regime." She says it would feel like a betrayal of Savitsky to move the museum. The museum was his life. "When he died his only property consisted of a few suits and this wooden chair I'm sitting on," says Babanazarova, beneath his portrait in his old office. "Any money he had went either to the museum, or to help an artist get money for the bus or for some vodka."

Babanazarova remembers Savitsky's visiting her father at home in Tashkent when she was a little girl. "His hands were always full of paintings," she says. Savitsky died at the age of 69 in 1984, just before Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the era of glasnost, or "openness." "Unfortunately, he never saw these days. But he used to say to us, 'One day people will be coming from Paris to see this museum'." Taking the museum to Paris isn't quite the same thing. But it's a start.