A. V. ISUPOV (1889-1957) Oriental Café. 1st half of the twentieth century Plywood, tempera, gilding

“Why does the exhibition last so little? ” — I asked the curator of the exhibition Anna Chudetskaya when attending to the preview of the “Treasures of Nukus” at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow. “No, you have to look at the situation exactly the other way round” — retorted Chudetskaya. — “It was not easy to make this happen and bring the rare unseen works of art from Nukus to Moscow for over a month. This was a real coup for us!”.

It is only nine days left before the closure of an unprecedented exhibition, which has already become one of the highlights of 2017, and has definitely acquired the status of a landmark. The opening of the exhibition was attended by the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirzieev accompanied by the present and former dirctors of the Pushkin Museum Marina Loshak and Irina Antonova. The foreword in the exhibition catalogue was written by the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. The new director of the Nukus museum was also there to at the inauguration of the exhibition.  For the

A. N. VOLKOV (1886-1957) The Output of the Team in the fFeld. 1932-1934, oil on canvas

first time in their history the works from the unique collection of the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Arts named after I. V. Savitsky (and also known as the Nukus Museum), travelled outside their permanent home to be exhibited between 7th April and 10th May. The Nukus Museum houses hitherto unknown art treasures and is known to contain one of the world’s largest collections of Russian and much lesser known Uzbek avant-garde art  containing the elements of Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism and Constructivism. The current show in Moscow is made of two sections: the first one, with most works that became synonymous with Nukus, is situated in the main building at 12, Volkhonka St, and the second — at 10, Volkhonka St, at Department of the Private Collections. If the first section dazzles one with colour and vibrancy, the second one helps to understand the development of the Russian avant-garde art outside Moscow, St Petersburg and other major cultural centres. It also lays major emphasis on the works of A. Volkov and his followers.

A. F. PODKOVYROV (1899-1957) Blue night in the mountains. A self-portrait. 1935

Igor Savitsky (1915-84), the museum’s founder, was also an artist, collector of paintings, graphics and applied arts. He first went to Karakalpakstan in 1950 as the artist in the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition and then set for himself a goal to trace the origins of the easel painting in Uzbekistan. “We were practically walking on ancient artefacts”, — commented Savitsky on his expedition at Khoresm. With great enthusiasm he first started collecting Karakalpak art which he liked to compare to the works of Henri Matisse, Mikhail Vrubel and oter painters (actually , the museum in Nukus opened with the exhibition of works by Vrubel).

Gradually, Savitsky was also discovering the works by the Russian and Uzbek avant-garde artists, who were neglected and forgotten in 1970s, for the state officials did not encourage interest to this kind of art.  Risking his career and even life (he could have been denounced as an ‘enemy of the people,’)  he rescued over 40,000 works by forbidden fellow artists and created a semi-state/ semi-private museum in a far desert of the Soviet Uzbekistan. Having rescued many of this works sentenced to oblivion and annihilation, he became known as “Shindler of the Soviet art” Eventually, he ended up documenting what is known among the scholars as the “Turkestan avant-garde”. This is how the scholars refer to works by  A. Volkov, U. Tansykbaev, N. Karakhan, A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin), V. Ufimtsev, who sought to develop their own plastic language in the attempt to convey through art the effects of positive social and economic changes in Central Asia. Savitsky became later attracted to post avant-garde genres, including the works by Moscow artists who had chosen to remain and develop outside the official confines of the socialist realism. Theuniqueness of the “Turkestan avant-garde school” xonsists in the fact that it considered and appropriated the achievements of the Russian avant-garde and then fused it with the traditions of the Middle Eastern culture in Uzbekistan.  In 1920s-30s the artists were intensively absorbing the aesthetic principles of traditional Uzbek art and then interpreted them in their own manner. These artists were mainly the gifted representatives from the so-called Vkhutemas lost generation.The current exhibition at the Pushkin Museum features over 250 works from the Nukus collection (it contains over 100, 000 units of fine and applied art) including the unknown masterpieces by the members of the artistic group “The Jack of Diamonds”  R. Falk, V. Rozhdestvensky, A. Kuprin.  The exhibition also features rare works by the “amazon” of the Russian avant-garde L. Popova and some landscapes and still lifes by Mikhail Sokolov along with the

V. LYSENKO Bull. 1st half of the twentieth century, oil on canvas, courtesy of the State Oushkin Museum of Fine Art

paintings by  Alexander Osmerkin. It is also remarkable that the painting which came to be perceived as symbol of the Nukus collection —  the painting “The Bull”  by Vladimir Lysenko (also sometimes called Vasily or Evgeny)–  is being exhibited in Moscow for the first time. There is a legend about this painting that once during the official inspection, the Soviet officials deemed the work to be anti-Soviet in its overall impact and style of the presentation,  and ordered it be taken down. Savitsky seemingly obeyed by removing it from the walls in their presence only to put it back in its place as soon as the offficials were gone.

What is also remarkable about this exhibition is that the paintings can be enjoyed along with 24 decorative and applied art objects and archaeological artefacts very rarely loaned by the museum.  The exposition recreates the environment originally intended by Savitsky:  the dialogue between the paintings and ancient artefacts,  archaeological objects and  items of decorative and applied art. It features rare ritual and everyday objects related to the burial ceremony of the  Zoroastrians, rare alabaster ossuary of the 7th-8th centuries from the Tok- Kala and a ceramic flask (Mustahara) of the II-III centuries, found in the Ellikkalinsky district of Uzbekistan, as well as pottery and miniature vessels, polychrome ceramics of the 13th-14th centuries, and lots of ethnic art, including  ethnic women’s costumes and  elements of the yurt’s decoration.

A. A. RYBNIKOV (1887-1949) Apocalypse. 1918, oil on canvas, courtesy State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art

“What we see is only  a fraction of the museum’s original collection. However, these are well-known iconic pieces which had never stayed elsewhere except for Nukus”, — concluded Chudetskaya. However, even this fraction is capable of making us aware of how little is known about the history of the Russian avant-garde and how much more should be studied and re-assessed in order to fill the gaps of our knowledge of the subject.

A possibility of the exhibition touring the world is currently being discussed, nevertheless,  if you happen to be in Moscow before 10th May, this is the exhibition which should be you first priority.


V. I. UFIMTSEV (1899-1964), to the train. 1927, oil on canvas, courtesy of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

W. T. TANSYKBAEV (1904-1974) Road. 1936, oil on canvas, courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art



  • Moscow, State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art 12, Volkhonka St., Moscow