The early 20th century’s Russian Avant-Garde was one of the most
exceptional moments in Modern art creation, producing such stellar
artists as Chagall, Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Malevich and many more. The
documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art, which opens March 11 at Cinema Village,
seeks to add a forgotten chapter to the overriding narrative in the
art-history books, with an entire trove of banned art that for decades
had remained in obscurity. Unfortunately, filmmakers Amanda Pope and
Tchavdar Georgiev take a fascinating subject and reduce it to a shallow,
uncritical depiction of the unions between art and politics. Their
compulsion toward myth building and to promoting an art propaganda
agenda trumps the prospects for a more nuanced film.
The first half of the film is an attempt to manufacture a context,
with images of Stalin and a bleak Soviet regime. Amid black-and-white
footage of military dominance, we’re introduced to quirky Igor Savitsky,
our hero (and aspiring artist), who will begin by appreciating and
collecting folk crafts of a remote area of the Uzbek region of
Karakalpakstan. The film then goes on to explain how Savitsky went on to
amass over 40,000 pieces of “forbidden” Soviet art that he stowed away
in an impoverished museum in the desert of Central Asia.
The film is chronologically chaotic and rife with warring political and personal agendas. Stephen Kinzer,
former New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, is one of the dominant
Western talking heads—he was essential in starting the ball rolling by
“discovering” the remote museum and publishing pieces in the Times in
the late ’90s. His view dominates, rather than including some outside
sources that could potentially shed more light on the regional history,
politics and artistic veracity of the whole affair.
Although the filmmakers attempt to explain what was at stake for
these lesser-known artists and the social function of these paintings
and drawings, we’re never sure if we can truly trust anyone. In reality,
these well-meaning, yet clumsy, documentarians are in the service of
late capitalism and the global art market, authenticating and supporting
a weighty provenance to heighten interest in this treasure trove of
art. In that way it reminds us of the tale of the Barnes Collection
detailed in the much-better documentary, The Art of the Steal.
Again, we see well-meaning people promoting a “hallowed” collection,
only to have it potentially stolen by the more influential and powerful.
Why certain questions are not posed or answered is mind-boggling. For
example, it would be fascinating to hear how a collective of renegade
artists operating in the hinterlands had access to expensive indigo
paints and other materials. Was there some sort of black market
operating that supplied these artists with support and resources?
Ultimately, it’s undeniable that some stunning paintings (and their
equally jaw-dropping biographies) are uncovered. No doubt this film will
act as a primer for many and, once academics and curators get a chance
to devour the collection, we’ll begin to have a more complete
understanding of what went on. Not that we must rely on Western
“experts” for guidance, but this campaign to rehabilitate an artwork’s
status requires many more perspectives before we can get anywhere near a