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INDEPENDENT LENS: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

Airs Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Promotional still of Igor Savitsky from "Independent Lens: The Desert Of Forbidden Art"

"The Desert of Forbidden Art" is the incredible true story of how one man, Igor Savitsky, saved a treasure trove of art worth millions of dollars by "hiding" it in a museum in the desert in Uzbekistan.

Photo of the painting titled "Crimson Autumn," by Ural Tansykbaev from "Desert Of Forbidden Art."
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Above: Photo of the painting titled "Crimson Autumn," by Ural Tansykbaev from "Desert Of Forbidden Art."

The Savitsky Collection

Explore a gallery of art works by such masters of the underground Russian avant-garde as Yevgeny Lyssenko, Max Penson, Lyubov Popov, Elena Korovay, Alexander Volkov, Alexey Rybnikov and Ural Tansykbaev.

A tireless collector of paintings that the Soviet government wanted destroyed, Savitsky traveled thousands of miles scheming, plotting, pleading, doing whatever it took to get his hands on the art he so passionately wanted to preserve.

This film was written, produced and directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev. Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists.

Today the museum Savitsky spent and risked his life for still holds the works he rescued, but although the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan gained its independence, the collection remains in imminent danger. The climate in the area is spectacularly dry, causing an accelerated disintegration of the canvases. And the regional rise of militant Islam puts Savitsky’s museum directly in the crosshairs of fundamentalists who might find the art as “degenerate” as Stalin did.

Described by The New York Times as "one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art" and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are also a lucrative target for corrupt bureaucrats and Western art profiteers. The endangered collection invites the question — whose responsibility is it to preserve a country’s cultural treasures?

"The Desert Of Forbidden Art" is on Facebook.

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Video Extra: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

Above: Nukus Museum director Marinika Babanazarova describes how the future of Savitsky's legacy seems grim as its aging, low-paid staff are poised to retire and government support is in steep decline. Recently, the Uzbek government suddenly designated one of the two museum buildings for demolition, leaving only 48 hours for staff to relocate the works of art on display there. Find out more about "The Desert of Forbidden Art."

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Video Excerpt: The Desert Of Forbidden Artb

Above: "The Desert of Forbidden Art" tells the incredible story of how one man -- Igor Savitsky -- stashed a treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars in a far-off desert of Uzbekistan. Hear how Savitsky made over 20 trips to Uzbekistan to smuggle art treasures out of Moscow.

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Video Excerpt: Independent Lens: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

Above: "The Desert of Forbidden Art" tells the incredible story of how one man -- Igor Savitsky -- stashed a treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars in a far-off desert of Uzbekistan. One painter represented in the collection -- Mikhail Kurzin -- tried to follow the Soviet style, but he couldn't stand it.