Name: Savitsky Museum
Location: Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan (also known as the gateway to the fast-disappearing Aral Sea)
What is it exactly? An extraordinary collection of avant-garde art, archaeological findings and Central Asian modern art housed in a remote city in north-western Uzbekistan. A large proportion of the paintings were brought to Nukus by Igor Savitsky who managed to save them from the clutches of Soviet regime when other avant-garde works were destroyed for not conforming to the socialist realism prescribed by the government.
Tell me more: An unprepossessing edifice resembling an over-sized Tetris block houses a beautiful semi-secret; it is home to the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art (around 15,000 paintings) as well as one of the largest collections of archaeological objects and contemporary art originating from Central Asia (around 75,000 artifacts). The vast numbers involved mean that only a small proportion of objects are on display at any given time but they are frequently rotated and you can also visit the museum’s warehouse of stored works if you’re thirsting for more.
As you would expect, the museum’s story is a fascinating tale.
The artist Igor Savitsky was intrigued by the remote Karakalpakstan region and – because he realised this isolated backwater was the perfect place to avoid the prying eyes of the government – began to store his growing collection of avant-garde artworks, contemporary paintings by Central Asian artists and regional artifacts in the closed city of Nukus (i.e. one where official authorisation is required to visit or stay). The city’s locked down status provided a degree of protection for the artworks which would have otherwise been destroyed by the Soviet regime for not conforming to their socialist ideas. Furthermore, Savitsky’s excellent relations with influential members of local government and the Karakalpakstan community afforded further security and contributed to the magnificent collection on view today.
That said, the status of the artifacts is still precarious. The New York Times reported in 2011 that the museum was subject to an “official crackdown” which saw museum staff having to store hundreds of fragile canvases on the floor of the one exhibition building allowed to remain open whilst the other building was, and remains, closed.
In short, visit while you can and gawp at the astonishingly bold, inspiring and thought-provoking artworks nestled in this sand-blasted and empty quarter of ever-surprising Uzbekistan.
Ok, you’ve got my attention. How can I visit this museum? Uzbekistan Airlines fly between Nukus and Tashkent and Nukus and Moscow. If you’d rather go by road then shared taxis depart from Tashkent and take 14 hours, eight hours from Samarkand or five hours from Bukhara or two hours from Khiva. There’s also a train station at Nukus with Tashkent 22 hours away by carriage.