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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Mar. 18, 2011 | 3:44 PM

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Much like narrative fiction film, any documentary worth its salt starts with a great story.  Even better if the story comes from an unlikely place, increasing the likelihood that it will be new for the audience.  It’s hard to think of a more unlikely place for Western movie audiences than Nukus, Uzbekistan, which is where filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavadar Georgiev take us in their riveting film
The Desert of Forbidden Art.  Telling the incredible tale of Igor Stravitsky, who singlehandedly amassed a huge collection of Russian Avant-Garde art with the unwittinng assistance of the Soviet government, the filmmakers not only succeed in calling attention to the plight of the Nukus Museum, but they do such a masterful job of depicting the paitings in the collection that it tempts the viewer to make the trek to Uzbekistan to experience them in person.

Igor Stravitsky grew up in a comfortable middle class family in pre-Soviet Russia, only to find his world turned upside down like many others by the Communist Revolution of 1917.  Forced to go to work as an electrician for the Party, he dreamt of becoming an artist.  After receiving scathing criticism of his talent from one of his early inspirations, he abandoned painting himself and took another government job working on a major archaeological dig.  Through a series of random incidents, Stravitsky began to discover and collect works of art which had been suppressed by the Soviet government.

The film details the three primary paths which were available to Russian artists during the era of Stalin.  Artists could seek official recognition, by working in the state approved medium of Socialist Realism, which endeavored to romanticize the living conditions of the people under the Soviet Regime.  They could abandon the act of creating and exploit their technical skills by participating in state sanctioned restoration work of approved art.  Finally there were those who chose to paint according to their inspiration, which led many to live in exile, and others to have their careers cut short by censorship or imprisonment. 

Stravitsky travelled extensively throughout the Soviet Union at great personal expense building his collection, but his most remarkable discovery came in Uzbekistan.  In the wake of the 1917 Revolution, Stravitsky discovered a group of emigre artists who settled there and began creating works inspired by the local Islamic culture.  Using vivid colors and confrontational imagery, these artists developed a style all their own, fusing European modernism with ancient cultural traditions.

The filmmakers add a little star power by having Ben Kingsley read some of Stravitsky’s writing,  with Sally Field and Ed Asner contributing the voices of some of the artists.  All do fine work, although the film would work just fine without them.  Stravitsky and avant garde artists like Volkov and Lysenko are brought to further life by interviews with surviving friends and family, and further context is provided by Steven Kinzer, the former Central Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, who got the story of the Nukus Museum on the front page of the Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section.

Aside from the brilliant works of art on display, what’s most compelling in The Desert of Forbidden Art is its examination of how art survives in repressive cultures.  Thousands of works of art were forbidden by the Soviet Government, yet still many of them survive.  Stravitsky’s ability to manipulate government officials to amass his collection also shows that there were people within the system sympathetic to his aims. 

Even though the collapse of the Soviet Union is now decades old,.the Stravitsky Collection’s proximity to Islamic fundamentalist groups in neighboring Afghanistan presents new and present dangers. 
The Desert of Forbidden Art is a potent reminder of how critical it remains to keep watch of cultural treasures.

The Desert of Forbidden Art opens at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Friday, March 18th.  In English and Russian with English subtitles.

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