History of the museum
The Karakalpak State Museum of Art named after I.V. Savitskiy is acknowledged by experts to contain one of the top art collections in Asia and is the second biggest and most significant collection of Russian Avant-Garde in the world. The English newspaper “The Guardian” called the museum “one of the most outstanding museums of the world”; (Amelia Gentleman, “Saviysky’s” secret Hoard .”The Guardian”; January 1, 2001). Other comments on the museum in Nukus state that “hellip”;. It sheds light upon the history of Russian art and gives a genuine picture of artistic life of 1920-1930-s (Prof. Hansen-Leve, J-C. Marcade).
Leading art critics of the West such as C. Douglas, J. Bowlt, A. Flaker etc. have stated that it should form the basis on which any revision of Russian and Soviet art history should be made. The story of how the museum was established and developed is as unique as the collection. The museum is a treasury that illustrates cultural periods from the third century BC to the present day. There are items of the material and artistic culture of Ancient Khorezm, including the Folk and Applied Art of the Karakalpaks, a small, formerly semi-nomadic ethnic group living in north-west Uzbekistan with a primordial history and original culture. The Fine Arts section of the museum is the largest display of artwork. It not only houses the national art school of Karakalpakstan but also works by the founders of the pictorial culture of Uzbekistan, a multi-national group of artists working in Central Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. So, the significance and scale of the Nukus museum’s collection of Russian Avant-Garde makes it, according to the experts, the second museum in the world after the world-wide known Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
In a remarkably short period of time, unprecedented in the history of museum collecting, the Nukus museum grew into a rich collection of approximately 90 thousand articles. This phenomenon was made possible by the genius of one man: Igor Vitalievich Savitskiy, founder of the Nukus museum.
Igor Savitskiy was born on August 4, 1915, in Kiev into a lawyer’s family. His grandfather, Timofey Dmitrievich Florinskiy, was a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and professor at Kiev University, a famous Slavicist and the author of numerous research articles who established his own scientific school. In childhood, Igor received a very good education; his family had a governess from France. There were many antiques in the family home and the children developed an understanding of art. The parents travelled to Europe and shared the latest news about cultural life in France, Austria, and Germany. The October Revolution and subsequent period when the move to destroy Russian culture ruined homes, and also personal tragedies linked to his family, left a painful impression on Savitsky. Later, he could not remain indifferent to the loss of national cultural treasures, and was destined to become the saviour first of Karakalpak treasures, then of the Uzbek, Russian and Soviet culture of the early 20th century.
At the start of the 1920th, the Savitskiys moved to Moscow. Here young Igor developed an interest in drawing. In accordance with the times, he combined his private art classes under artists R.Mazel and E.Sakhnovskaya with his studies at the “Sickle and Hammer” factory school, graduating with a degree in electrical fitting. From 1934, Savitskiy continued his studies first in the Graphic Department of the Institute of Polygraphy, then in the “Year 1905”. Art school. In 1938-1941, he was a student of the Artists Advanced Training Institute in the studio of Lev Kramarenko, with whom he travelled to the Crimea and Caucasus to practice sketching. Savitskiy and the Kramarenkos found they shared similar interests and views and became good friends. Subsequently Kramarenko’s wife Irina Zhdanko contributed a great deal to the Nukus collection: not only did she recommend artists but also introduced Savitskiy to many owners of art works as he visited their homes to add to his collection.Zhdanko donated a number of highly valuable exhibits to the museum, one of which is a series of compositions by Liubov Popova.
In 1941-1946, Savitskiy was a student at the Surikov Institute. Miraculously he was able to escape the war because of his ill health. In 1942, together with the Institute he was evacuated to Samarkand. Despite the starvation, disease and hardship brought on by the war, this was the period that determined the young Savitskiy’s future. In Samarkand, Savitskiy made friends with the famous R.Falk and took classes from N.Ulyanov. The discovery of Central Asia helped him greatly in his search to understand the objectives of art. In 1950, Savitskiy gladly accepted the offer of a famous ethnographer, Tatyana Zhdanko (Irina Zhdanko’s sister), to accompany an archaological and ethnographic expedition to Karakapakstan. In 1950-1957, he was the artist in the expedition led by the world famous scholar Professor Sergey Pavlovich Tolstov. The Khorezm expedition made one of the most significant discoveries of the century, uncovering an ancient civilization, on a par with the achievements of Tolstov’s predecessors that had restored the civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Babylon and Mexico. In addition to his job duties, Savitskiy explored the larger area of Karakalpakstan, the many aul settlements, where he came across articles of Folk and Applied Arts, the collection of which he took great pleasure in. His findings were also sent to museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Savitskiy became fascinated with the history of an unknown art of the small population living amidst the deserts, in the lower course of the Amu-Darya River and he decided to take up residence in Nukus , giving up his apartment in central Moscow, on Arbat.
Initially he worked at the Karakalpak branch of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, headed by the young local scientist Marat Nurmukhamedov. Savitskiy considered him his friend and support in all his initiatives which allowed him ultimately to implement his many ideas. Savitskiy and his assistants travelled, often by foot, across the whole northern part of Karakalpakstan and built up a collection, which represents a sort of gene pool of Karakalpak culture. At that time very few understood the value of those findings. Jewellery, carpets, marvellous embroidered costumes, decorations for yurts and horse harnesses were no longer used because of political reasons and the dawning of a civilization that brought machine-made products, artificial dyes, European clothing style and other “blessings”. The younger generation, whose culture was dying out, could not understand why an old man with shining eyes wanted their “rags”. He was even called a junkman. He extracted things from cattle-pens or from aryk irrigation ditches, as old carpets were often used to block sluices. All his finds were carefully restored, displayed or archived.
Up to this point, Savitskiy continued painting and he produced amazing landscapes of the region that was to him what Polynesia was to Gaugin. He trained the first Karakalpak artists. He persuaded the authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and in 1966 he was appointed director of the Nukus Museum of Arts established under his initiative. During those years Savitskiy participated in, then independently led archaeological excavations on the historical cites of Ancient Khorezm. The findings and the material donated by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR form the most interesting collection of the museum. Unfortunately, upon becoming director, Savitskiy gave up painting, claiming that on should not combine the two. Through his understanding of unusual art and his perfect taste, Savitskiy was able to make his dream of a unique and unusual museum and not just a copy of the Tretyakov come true. He also wanted to show young Karakalpak artists in what direction painters in Moscow and Tashkent were heading in 1920-1930. From collecting works of artists linked to Central Asia (A.Isupov, L.Kramarenko, N.Ulyanov, R.Voloshin) and founders of the Central Asian Art School (R.Mazel), specifically, the Uzbek school (A.Volkov, M.Kurzin, Falk. R, N.Karakhan, U.Tansykbaev, V.Ufimtsev, etc) Savitskiy expanded the range of artists. Witnessing the changes occurring in cultural policy under Stalin, he could not stand by and watch the entire section of Russian culture perish, as almost no one in the USSR wanted anything to do with it at that time (1960s). Igor Savitskiy took from Moscow and other cities of the USSR hundreds, thousands even tens thousands of works by forgotten or forbidden artists branded as formalists to the safe haven of remote Nukus. Thanks to the trust of local authorities, Savitskiy was able to form a collection for the museum over a period of ten to fifteen years. He used state funds, spread over many years but funding to acquire paintings and drawings was a constant source of worry.
The Nukus collection grew in popularity, though it never received any official recognition. Then in 1968-1969, the collection was exhibited in Moscow, at the Museum of the Orient, followed by the showcase travel exhibition across the cities of the USSR: Tallinn, Lvov, Leningrad, Alma-Ata, Ufa, Kazan, Tashkent. Savitskiy came to be well regarded in Moscow. The Ministry of Culture of the USSR provided him with support, paying for his acquisitions. He gained access to the archives of art treasures. In 1975, Savitskiy was offered the chance to add part of the collection donated to the USSR Ministry of Culture by Fernand Leger’s widow Nadia, to his museum. In 1981, the art critics of the Moscow Association of Artists organized a soiree honouring the Nukus museum in the hall on the Kuznetskiy Bridge. However Savitskiy’s adult life had been branded by hardship and deprivation which had taken their toll. Savitskiy suffered a human baseness, especially of those who had been obliged to him. He worked hard without any holidays and absolutely neglected his health. He was in ill health and diagnosed with rare illnesses, what kept him alive were his remarkable willpower and the single minded devotion to the museum, his creation, not to mention the patience of his doctors who knew just how important their patient was. During his last years, Savitskiy was treated by Sergey Naumovich Efuni, at the Center of Hyperbaric Oxygenation, where in a study-like ward he continued his scientific research, article writing and administrative work. He received owners of artworks to discuss new acquisitions.
On 27 July 1984, Savitskiy died at a hospital in Moscow. His Moscow friends, artists and art critics bade him farewell in the State Museum of Art of the Peoples of the Orient; heartfelt words were spoken. His body was buried in the Nukus Russian cemetery.
Real official recognition of Savitskiy’s activity and his collection came with the changes in the country. The museum began to gain in popularity from 1991 when Nukus became freely accessible to journalists and experts, foreign embassies and international organizations. Correspondents from leading broadcasting corporations, newspapers and magazines began to publicize the paradoxical facts of the museum. The name of the museum entered numerous prestigious reference books of the world.