At the start of his life as a collector, Savitsky’s interests were directed towards the creative works of artists who lived in or were connected to Central Asia (such as Isupov, Kramarenko, Ulyanov, Falk, Voloshin and others). Some of these artists stood at the very source of the Central Asian art schools (Mazel in Turkmenia and Volkov, Kurzin, Karakhan, Tansyikbayev and Ufimtsev in Uzbekistan). In discussing the Central Asian avant-garde as exhibited in the Nukus museum, it must be pointed out that while painters working in Moscow and St Petersburg at that time are generally well-known to art scholars, this is far from the case where the masters who worked on the eastern edges of the Russian and Soviet empires are concerned, despite the fact that they, too, are an integral part of Russian avant-garde. (I use the term ‘avant-garde’, which is widely used to describe the Savitsky collection, although it is not completely correct: in the collection are the ‘orthodoxies’ of the avant-garde and post-avant-garde as well as diametrically opposed streams, including Social Realism.)
During the early twentieth century, in the first decade after the Revolution in particular, Central Asia became a gravitational point for artists. Its ‘artistic colonisation’ was significantly ahead of scholarly study of the region’s history and culture. The tendency towards Orientalism was expressed differently by each artist; for some it was an exotic interlude (Razumovskaya and Isupov); for others, the East played a significant role in the formation of their style and artistic vocabulary (Volkov, Kurzin, Ufimtsev, Kashina and Korovai); and for still others it proved a creative stage (Gaidukevich, Mazel, Falk and Ulyanov).
Volkov, considered the father of the Uzbek School, saw (as did many of his colleagues) the visual art of Central Asia as built on a foundation of decorative design and ‘primitivism’ – by which he meant decorative applied arts, with their specific quality of depicting the world by simplifying and geometrically stylising real forms. Volkov created his own canon of imagery. Having generalised and polished ethnic types, postures, gestures, angular movements and national characteristics, he arrived at an element of the grotesque based on a kind of geometric expressionism.
Despite their different styles, the artists who came to Uzbekistan were all highly cultured and trained in painting, and artistically experienced. They brought with them the spirit and traditions of Russian and European culture, which were transformed and enlivened by the cultures and philosophies of the East. This influence gave birth to an original school of art, which drew great interest and earned the praise of critics and specialists at the beginning of the 1930s. These artists were followers of the Russian avant-garde stars, ‘overthrowers of the foundations’ of academic painting. Before coming to Uzbekistan, they had passed through the gamut of experiments and fads and were strongly influenced by Malevich, Kandinsky, Burliuk, Filonov, Chagall, Larionov, Goncharova, Konchalovsky and others. These painters essentially laid the foundation for the Uzbek School, which had, until then, no tradition of easel painting. They chose a plastic language that would be understood by the inhabitants of the Muslim world (as noted above with reference to Volkov). Thus they did not take the abstract from their own ‘baggage’, but used the visible means of a ‘deformed but nevertheless recognisable world’.
Unique customs preserving a centuries-old way of life; matchless natural scenery; characters evoking Biblical prophets; folk art, with its many layers of meaning and symbolism: these became the source of a new artistic vocabulary. The classical heritage of the West, the traditions of Russian iconography and the experiments of the Russian avant-garde were unified with the decorative ornamentalism of Central Asian art, and together gave rise to a unique artistic worldview.
Many of the artists (such as Volkov and Ufimtsev) chose primitivism as the most adequate stylistic means for expressing Oriental impressions. Others chose Impressionism (Benkov and Kovalevskaya); Cubo-Futurism (also Volkov and Ufimtsev); Fauvism (Korovai); Expressionism in combination with a Cézanne influence and Fauvism (Kurzin, Falk and others); Symbolism (Usto-Mumin); and Neoclassicism with Romanticism (Markova).
However, the Stalinist regime cut off the flight of these talented masters and flung them into obscurity: Volkov was accused of formalism; Kurzin, Usto-Mumin and Gaidukevich were subject to repression; and Ufimtsev and Tansyikbaev chose to follow the path dictated by the times.
One of the numerous paradoxes of the Savitsky collection is that it represents the only complete and the most objective collection of works by the founders of the Uzbek School. What Savitsky collected in Nukus is unequalled by any museum in Uzbekistan’s capital or private collection.
This article appeared as part of a thirty-page feature on the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, including reproductions of paintings, and articles on the museum, its founder Igor Savitsky, and the art restoration taking place at the museum – all available when you buy Steppe 3.