As a collector of anti-Soviet paintings for most of his life, Igor Savitsky developed an art of his own, tricking the Stalinist regime into funding the acquisition of the very artworks it vouched to annihilate. The documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art recounts the unlikely tale of this heroic cultural resuscitator as he sneakily tries to build a safe haven for non-propaganda art in a remote region of Kazakhstan throughout much of the 20th century.
A much-needed lesson on the Sovietization of Central Asia into a cotton-producing land marred by environmental catastrophe, cultural oppression, and artistic erasure, the doc features compelling archival footage of Soviet concentration camps and excerpts of propaganda films about “the good life” in the gulags, where women clearly got to shovel snow and chop down trees with a big smile on their faces.
Besides its attempt to personify the characters of its photographs through a first-person narration by white folks like Sir Ben Kingsley, The Desert of Forbidden Art follows a pretty conventional documentary style, including the figure of the obnoxiously-giddy-New-York-Times-expert-with-Orientalist-tendencies, here in the shape of Stephen Kinzer, for whom notions of historical linearity and national “backwardness” are unquestionable givens. Another undisputable fact the film suggests is the unveiling of women’s faces, brought about the Kazakh region with Soviet rule, as a necessary shortcut to “the liberation of women.”
It is the film’s more descriptive and contemplative moments that allow for its tale of quiet existential rescue and symbolic intervention to fascinate. Savitsky’s extreme dedication in saving the avant-garde works and establishing a museum in the middle of nowhere, away from the policing Soviet eye, is as much a story of cultural survival and personal sublimation run amok, as he put his diligence before anything else including the maintenance of his own body. What does the collector’s collecting aim to substitute? What does the collection attempt to replace in the collector? Here it seems like the answer would be his very self.
The Desert of Forbidden Art also gives us a cast of talking heads refreshingly non-Western, non-made-up for the camera, and non-affected. We are treated to the, by now, unfamiliar human face in all of its unrestored bareness. The kind of deep etches of an aging face, the texture of gray hair, and the shade of yellow teeth that have become uncommon sight this side of the Atlantic. The organic decay of the filmed faces create a subtle parallel with the rotting art that, were it not for Savitsky, would have never been seen, let alone auctioned off to anonymous millionaire collectors, and become this inassimilable sign of mortality in an age so invested in losing nothing.