History of the Museum
The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art named after I.V. Savitsky, featuring, inter alia, the second largest and most significant collection of Russian avant-garde in the world, is increasingly being recognized as one of the première art institutions in Asia. Leading Western art critics such as C. Douglas, J. Bowlt, and A. Flaker have stated that it should form the basis on which any reconsideration of Russian and Soviet art history is made. In a remarkably short period, unprecedented in the history of art collecting, the Museum acquired a rich assortment of approximately 90,000 items - an extraordinary achievement made possible by the genius of one man: Igor Vitalievich Savitsky, its founder.
Savitsky (1915-84), a Russian born in Kiev into a lawyer’s family and educated in Moscow, first went to Karakalpakstan in 1950 as the artist in the Khorezm Archeological and Ethnographic Expedition led by the world famous scientist Sergei P. Tolstov. Fascinated by the culture and people of the steppe, he stayed on after the dig (1950-57), methodically collecting Karakalpak carpets, costumes, jewelry, and other works of art. At the same time, he began collecting the drawings and paintings of artists linked to Central Asia, including those of the Uzbek school, and, during the late-1950s/early-1960s, those of the Russian avant garde which the Soviet authorities were then banishing and destroying. Today, the Museum houses a collection totaling about 90,000 items, including graphics, paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of artifacts, textiles and jewelry, ranging from the antiquities of Khorezm’s ancient civilization to the works of contemporary Uzbek and Karakalpak artists.
Igor Savitsky and Central Asia
Savitsky first experienced Central Asia during World War II, when, in 1942, while a student at Moscow’s Surikov Institute, he and the Institute were evacuated to Samarkand. Despite widespread disease, hardship and starvation during the war, he was enthralled by the region and befriended famous artists such as Robert Falk. In 1950, Savitsky enthusiastically accepted an offer to participate in the Khorezm Archeological and Ethnographic Expedition; and, from 1950-1957, he was the expedition’s artist. In addition to his artistic duties, Savitsky also explored the larger area of Karakalpakstan, including many aul (village) settlements where he came across articles of folk and applied arts. He soon began collecting these articles and sent them to museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was at this time that he gave up his flat in Moscow’s fashionable Arbat Street for the simpler life of Nukus. Initially, he worked at the Karakalpak branch of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. He also continued painting, producing beautiful landscapes of the region that was to him what Polynesia was to Gaugin, and, at the same time, trained the first Karakalpak artists.
Meanwhile, Savitsky was able to persuade the local authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and, in 1966, he was appointed founding director of the Nukus Museum of Arts. Unfortunately, upon becoming director, Savitsky gave up painting, claiming that one should not combine the two. During these years, Savitsky participated in, and then independently led archaeological excavations in the cities of ancient Khorezm. He was able to make his dream of a unique and unusual museum - not just a copy of the Tretyakov in Moscow - come true. He also wanted to show young Karakalpak artists in what direction painters in Moscow and Tashkent were headed during 1920-1930. By collecting the works of artists linked to Central Asia - such as Isupov, Kramarenko, Ulyanov, and Voloshin - and of founders of the Central Asian art school (e.g. R.Mazel) including the Uzbek school (Volkov, Kurzin, Falk, Karakhan, Tansykbaev and Ufimtsev) - Savitsky vastly expanded the range of artists represented in his collection.
At the same time, Savitsky became increasingly concerned by the negative impact of Soviet cultural policies introduced under Stalin and continued by his successors through the mid-1960s. Having decided he could not simply stand by and watch an entire generation of Russian culture disappear, he began collecting from Moscow and other cities of the USSR hundreds, even thousands of paintings and other works by forgotten or forbidden artists branded as formalists and took them to the relatively safe haven of remote Nukus. Thanks to the confidence he inspired among a few key local officials, Savitsky was able to assemble a large collection of Russian avant garde over a 10-15 year period. Ironically, considering that most of this collection was officially banned, Savitsky used public funds to finance his acquisitions, although funding was a constant source of worry.
Over time, the reputation of Savitsky’s collection grew, although it never received any official recognition. In 1968-69, an exhibition was held at the Museum of the Orient in Moscow, followed by a traveling exhibition across the Soviet Union. In fact, Savitsky came to be well regarded in Moscow: the Soviet Ministry of Culture provided him with financial support as well as access to collectors’ archives, including part of Fernand Leger’s bequest in 1975. In 1981, the Moscow Association of Artists organized a soirée honoring the Nukus Museum.
However, the hardship and deprivation that characterized Savitsky's adult life had taken their toll. He worked endlessly, often neglecting his health. During his last years, he was treated at a prestigious Moscow clinic, where in a study-like ward he continued his scientific research, writing, and adding to the Museum’s collection.
On 27 July 1984, Savitsky died at a hospital in Moscow. His Moscow friends, artists and art critics bade him farewell at a funeral ceremony in the State Museum of Art of the Peoples of the Orient, where his achievements were publicly acknowledged. At his request, Savitsky was buried in Nukus, at the Russian cemetery.
The Museum Today
Real official recognition of Savitsky's activity and collection came in 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Nukus became accessible to foreign art experts, journalists, diplomats and businessmen based in Tashkent, capital of newly independent Uzbekistan. Correspondents from international broadcasting corporations, newspapers and magazines began to recount the amazing story of Savitsky and the paradoxical facts of his Museum’s history. The Savitsky Collection continues to build on this international recognition as one of the most spectacular museums today.