Desert of Forbidden Art Film, The: Docu on Blacklisted Soviet Artists

By Jeff Farr

The documentary “The Desert of Forbidden Art,” co-directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, tells a little-known story from the annals of Soviet art in the 20th century.

It centers on the heroic Igor Savitsky, who made it his lifework to collect the paintings of countless artists blacklisted under Stalin, sneaking these treasures back to his desert hideout in Uzbekistan, to his own museum. Savitsky’s story has elements of adventure and suspense; it could made for a compelling movie by itself. Pope and Georgiev also include the stories—most quite tragic–of some of these banned artists.

Important ideas wind up going a little too quickly in “The Desert of Forbidden Art.” We are left wishing for more on Savitsky, who is crowded out by the other parts of the film, and less info on the artists. This is not because the artists are necessarily less interesting but because the film does not give any of them enough time on screen for us to get truly hooked by their biographies.

Pope and Georgiev’s strongest work is the first part of the film, which has the heaviest focus on Savitsky’s extraordinary life. He was raised in a well-to-do family that had to, in Savitsky’s words, “blend in with the proletariat” after the Russian Revolution. He eventually joined the Khorezm Archeological and Ethnographic Expedition in 1950 as his way to serve his country.

Deep in the desert with dreams of becoming a great artist, Savitsky spent all of his free time sketching and painting the quiet landscape. But on a return trip to Moscow, he was crushed by the famous artist Robert Falk’s rough assessment of his paintings.

As a result, Savitsky abruptly gave up on his dream—but not on art. Retreating to the desert, he began his career in collecting, starting with the folk art of Uzbekistan that was around him.

“When the Soviets were in power,” explains one of the film’s talking heads, Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times, “they felt that the ethnic traditions of all these nationalities in what was then the Soviet south should be repressed.” Apparently, no one at first appreciated or even approved of Savitsky’s obsession with protecting Uzbek artifacts.

Kinzer wrote the 1998 article that first drew some Western attention to Savitsky and his museum. In this respect, “The Desert of Forbidden Art” could be considered a film response to Kinzer’s original piece, although the film is far less objective about the value of the collection.

Savitsky next managed to convince local authorities—how exactly is never completely clear from the film—to invest in the museum version of his collection, leading to the opening of his chapel of art in 1966. Neglecting all other aspects of his life, he stubbornly and dangerously continued to build the museum with additional pieces representing artists of the Uzbek school and the Russian avant-garde, most of for whom Stalin had no love whatsoever.

Unfortunately, “Desert of Forbidden Art” is so crammed with information that Pope and Georgiev do not have time to explain the significance of the Uzbek school or the Russian avant-garde or how these movements related to other art movements of the same time elsewhere in the Soviet Union and Europe.

This is a film first and foremost about Savitsky and his collection—so the directors’ failure to more give more definition to the major components of the collection make the final result of the museum in the film ultimately somehow mushy. It’s never clear what holds this museum together from a thematic perspective, other than Savitsky’s formidable force of will.

The film introduces a cavalcade of artists from both movements, but only a couple of their stories make a lasting impression because, again, the filmmakers seem to be in a rush. Alexander Volkov, represented in the docu by two very articulate sons, seems to get the most screen time. But the film never convincingly makes the case for him as the standout figure.

Whenever Pope and Georgiev return to Savitsky’s story, which they do at regular intervals, “Desert of Forbidden Art” snaps into focus and pulls us back in. A sequence on the end of his life, detailing how he basically worked himself to death, is the most moving. We have seen Savitsky go from a girlish baby boy to a frail old man, his lungs burned out by formalin, in just 80 minutes. It is a dramatic trajectory, but we are never sure who he really is, what drives him so hard, because the filmmakers barely get inside.

Overall, this is a sincere, PBS-style documentary with high production values—and the reliable voice talents of Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner helping out.  But it nevertheless feels incomplete in notable ways, from the portrayal of Savitsky to the handling of Soviet art history.

The core strength of “Desert of Forbidden Art” is the great use Pope and Georgiev make of archival film and photographs, giving us a solid visual sense of this whole lost world of Soviet life under Stalin—the good and the bad of it. And then there are the paintings themselves, lots of them. To Pope and Georgiev’s credit, these wondrous, colorful paintings jump off the screen. The directors have expertly captured the life in these works of art. That said, it feels as if the paintings are doing a bit too much of the work to make this film a lively affair.

Credits

LLC. release.

Directed, produced, and written by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev.

Cinematography, Alexander Dolgin and Gennadi Balitski.

Editor, Tchavdar Georgiev.

Score, Miriam Cutler.

Sound design, Joe Dzuban and Raj Patil.

Running time: 80 Minutes.