Canvas in the desert

Sandra Hall discovers a trove of art rescued from the Soviet regime and housed in an unusual outpost.

Marinika Babanazarova has a soft voice and a gentle manner. Neither give any clue to the strength of purpose and diplomatic guile she needs as custodian of the largest collection of Russian modernist art outside St Petersburg.

We're in an unlikely setting - the desert city of Nukus in the republic of Karakalpakstan, which is tucked away in the north-west corner of Uzbekistan.

Our journey from the ancient walled city of Khiva has been broken up by an overnight stay in a yurt, one of the portable igloo-shaped shelters that people on the more remote stretches of the Silk Road still call home. Our yurt camp is just for tourists but the experience is authentic enough. We sleep on mattresses arranged, dormitory-style, on the floor and we go barefoot to dinner so as not to tread sand into the woollen Uzbek carpets. The food is served on low tables and we sit on cushions.

Decorated with embroidered hangings, the yurt is made from sheets of canvas and felt draped and tied over timber lattice frames. The effect is cosy and the whole thing seems anything but makeshift, even though yurts were originally designed to be dismantled, packed away and transported from place to place by horse and cart.

Nukus is less romantic. The Soviets developed it in the 1950s and its broad avenues and grandiose public buildings give it the air of a city that has somehow mislaid its future.

The Soviet legacy has a more sinister aspect, as well. Because of the city's remoteness, the Red Army based its chemical research institute here, using the surrounding desert as a testing centre for chemical weapons.

The resulting environmental effects have only compounded damage already done. The shrunken lakes we can see from the hills above the yurt camp are ringed with salt as a result of decades of growing cotton - another Soviet initiative. To irrigate the crop, the Soviets drained the Aral Sea, raising the salinity levels in the region's rivers, lakes and dams. Fish cannot live in what little water is left and nothing can grow here.

Nukus's museum, however, is still a magnet for anyone interested in the history of modern art. It holds about 40,000 paintings and drawings by artists whose work was condemned by Stalin's regime as anti-Soviet. It's a huge collection and a testament to the obsessiveness of one man - Igor Savitsky, the phenomenally energetic Russian intellectual responsible for starting it all.

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Savitsky was a young art student when he made his first trip to central Asia. World War II was raging and the Russian art institute where he was studying removed itself to the Uzbek city of Samarkand. For Savitsky, it was the start of a lifelong love affair. He seized the chance to return the country in 1950 as the artist attached to a Soviet archaeological and ethnographic expedition and he started collecting paintings and drawings done by local artists and the Russians who had come to central Asia in the 1920s.

Like Matisse, who had taken inspiration from a stay in Morocco a decade earlier, and Gauguin, who had gone to the south Pacific, they were entranced by the exotic. Here, in central Asia, they eagerly began exploring the attractions of orientalism, filling their canvases with colour and light while the local artists they met performed their own experiments with modernism.

Some went off to study in Russian art schools while some of the Russians settled in the region but none were immune to the restrictions that came into force when Stalin set out to crush all forms of art except the hearty brand of social realism that could be harnessed as propaganda.

Some of the modernists gave up painting altogether, or they switched to social realism to survive. Others were not so lucky, enduring persecution and years of imprisonment.

Canvases hidden in attics and basements were left to rot and Russian modernism, it seemed, was doomed.

Then Savitsky came along. By the mid-1950s, he had given up life in Moscow for Nukus and, after a lot of lobbying, he convinced the Karakalpak authorities that the state needed an art museum. His work in acquiring and being a curator of Uzbek folk art had won him their trust and, in 1966, he was appointed director. Straight away he went shopping.

Babanazarova's tone grows a little rueful at this point in her account. "Any grain of talent was appreciated by Savitsky," she says. She isn't kidding. Whether good, bad or indifferent, any painting or drawing was snapped up if it could be used to demonstrate the course of an artist's development. And when the public funding ran out, he began scattering IOUs in his wake. After his death, Marinika says, it took the museum eight years to pay off his debts.

She has had a lot of success in drumming up support in the US and in Europe. An American documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art, has been shown at film festivals and on American television and tomorrow it will be aired on ABC TV. Nonetheless, keeping the collection together isn't easy. There are plenty of dealers and collectors in Russia and in the West who would rejoice at the opportunity to swoop on the paintings and there are plenty of politicians who would be equally happy to see proceeds from the sales.

But so far, Babanazarova, who spent four years as a member of the Karakalpak parliament, has been able to hold out.

We take a day to tour the museum with her, beginning at the beginning, because the galleries also house thousands of pieces of pottery, jewellery, furniture and textiles, some of them dating back 3000 years. Yet inevitably, it's the paintings and drawings that keep bringing you back. There's such a sad sense of incompleteness to so many of the stories about those who made them. One of the most celebrated works is a stylised study of a bucking bull. An orange sun shines down on the animal, which stares straight at the viewer, its eyes rendered as black circles. The effect is both poignant and disturbing and the painter, Vladimir Lysenko, paid dearly for it.

A Russian who settled in Tashkent in the late 1920s, he was arrested after taking part in a big exhibition of Uzbek art in 1935 and his art was condemned as anti-Soviet.

When he was released in the 1940s, his paintings were shown again but by the time Savitsky met him, he was partly paralysed by illness, much of his work had been lost and the rest was in poor condition. The date and place of his death are still unknown to the museum. But the gimlet-eyed bull preserves his memory. To Savitsky, the picture stood for the march of fascism. To the authorities, who ordered him to take it down from the museum's walls, the bull's eyes were two gun barrels aimed squarely at the Soviet state. But it wasn't hidden for long and today it takes pride of place in the museum's catalogue and on its website.

At the end of the day, Babanazarova tells us more about herself. She was a professor of English literature at Nukus University before Savitsky, a family friend, persuaded her to take over the museum in 1983. He'd originally wanted her younger sister, an ethnographer, to fill the post but she went to live in Tashkent with her husband. As to Marinika's eventual successor, he or she is yet to be found. She gives another rueful smile: "We need a tiger here."

Travel and accommodation within Uzbekistan was arranged by Sydney agency Uzbek Journeys, specialising in arts and crafts tours of the country. Our tour, which took in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, the desert yurt camp at Ayaz Kala and Nukus, cost between $1300 and $1500. Hotels are simple but comfortable. Most are family-run and the one in Bukhara is beautiful, having been converted from a merchant's house in the city's Jewish quarter. See uzbekjourneys.com.

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