The Golden Age of Georgian Avant-Garde

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Tiflis, now Georgia’s capitol, Tbilisi (c. 1891-1916)

Paris might have been the artistic hub of European cultural life and modern ideas at the beginning of the 20th century, but the majority of its great thinkers and artists came from abroad, such as Spain, the U.S. and even Russia. There is one group of artists and avant-gardes who contributed, not only to the bohemian artistic underworld of Paris at that time, but ignited their art back at home in their capital of Tiflis, Republic of Georgia.

The Former Soviet Republic of Georgia is frequently left out of the art history discussions when the topic of Western art comes up, perhaps this is due to the unconventional evolution of art within the South Caucasian country, where easel painting didn’t exist until the 18th century. However, the art scene in Tiflis, modern-day Tbilisi, in the 1910s was perhaps one of the most exciting in Europe outside of Paris and Moscow. artes fine arts magazine

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Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Tiflis indeed earned its name as the “third city of culture” by the Russian futurist poet Kruchenykh, sporting various artistic cafés and unique multicultural and multilingual movements. From the period of the 1910s up until the 1920s, the city of Tiflis brought together home grown Georgian artists, poets, writers and thinkers together with Russian, Armenian, Polish, German and Jewish artists. The city exploded with Futurists, Dadaists and Proto-Dadaists, neo-symbolists and those who subscribed to the concept of “Everything-ness,” as well as more commonly known European avant-garde movements such as cubism and expressionism.

The names of David Kakabadze and Ilia Zdanevich remain obscure, and are eclipsed by their contemporaries, such as Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, but many Georgian artists moved in the same circles as the legends of modern art.

It would be a crime to talk of the Georgian avant-garde movement without mentioning Niko Pirosmani. He may have pre-dated Georgian modernism that characterised Tiflis in the early decades of the 20th century, but Pirosmani without a doubt was the very first Georgian avant-garde. He became Georgia’s most famous and iconic artist, and his works of naïve primitivism influence many of the artists who came after him, even inspiring the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who searched for an artist that captured true childish and naïve expression.

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Nico Pirosmani, Family Picnicking in Bego’s Company (undated)

The self-taught artist from Kutaisi found inspiration in Georgian folk-culture, but married them to bright colours and roughly sketched lines. Pirosmani’s work echoed those of the expressionists or even the fauvists with bold colour and childish simplicity. His paintings were featured in the very first exhibition on Georgian painters in 1918, the same year Pirosmani died.

Ilia and Kirill Zdanevich are the most important players in the fabric of the Georgian avant-garde movement. The two brothers hail from Georgian and Polish descent, and made their own individual mark on Georgia’s modernist scene.

The larger than life proto-Dadaist Ilia Zdanevich was considered to be extreme by his Dada contemporaries in Paris. Before he moved to the French capital in the 1920s, he founded the Tiflis-based futurist group 41º in collaboration with the Russian futurist poet Kruchenykh and others from the movement, and also set up the futuro-Dadaist group H2SO4. But Tiflis wasn’t enough for a larger-than-life character like Ilia Zdanevich and soon the artist felt pulled towards the West and relocated to Paris.

In the Parisian backstreets, he became active in the local scene, where in 1921 he founded the group “Chérez” whicwww.artesmagazine.comh united Russian speaking emigrés and representatives from French culture together in one space. Ilia Zdanevich’s time in Paris was prolific. He worked alongside Coco Chanel and went on to publish and artists’ books with Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Joan Miró. During this time, Ilia Zdanevich befriended Picasso and they frequently published together. The artists work crossed the Atlantic to exhibitions in MOMA, the New York Public Library and many other venues.

Right: Ilia Zdanevich in Cubist Costume for Dada Ball (1923-1924), Paris

While he is officially considered proto-Dada, Zdanevich became active in the Paris Dada scene. His poster for the event he organised in conjunction with Dada poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara, “Soirée du Coeur a barbe,” is an excellent example of avant-garde typography and graphic design. Ilia Zdanevich also organised a few of the famous Dada balls, causing a stir with his “cubist” costume. Unlike his Georgian contemporaries, Ilia Zdanevich remained in Paris until his death.

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Ilia Zdanevich, Pablo Picasso, Paris (c. 1921)

His older brother Kirill Zdanevich tells a different story. One of the great Georgian avant-garde artists in his own right, Kirill Zdanevich was one of the primary founders of the Georgian and Russian cubo-futurism movement, but unlike his brother Ilia, Kirill was trapped in Soviet Georgia where Social Realism was the imposed art form. Kirill had studied art in the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and moved in the circles of the Russian avant-gardes who are associated with the era of the “Great Experiment,” a collective term for the Russian avant-gardes whose movements ranged from neo-primitivism to constructivism. He joined the Russian artists’ group, “Donkey’s Tail” and exhibited his work alongside Marc Chagall, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova.

On Kirill Zdanevich’s return to Tiflis, he became one of the leaders of leftist futurigeorgian avant-gardesm. He joined his brother in founding the Futurist Syndicate, and then later on, the famous 41º group making the brothers incredibly active in the local arts scene. Unlike his younger brother, Kirill Zdanevich lost his artistic freedom with the rise in the Soviet Union. His visa application to join Ilia in Paris was not approved until the 1960s, leaving Kirill Zdanevich isolated from the artistic freedom of the West. The only area left open to the cubo-futurist that didn’t imprison him in Social Realism was the area of stage and costume design.

Right: Kirill Zdanevich, Futurists we are…collage for the poster, Tiflis (1918), S. Alania collection

Many Georgian avant-garde artists turned to the refuge of the theatre, where they still had the liberty to create works outside of the scope of Social Realism. Kirill Zdanevich worked as a theatre and costume designer in both Moscow and Tiflis, but in the late 1940s was arrested and sent to the gulag in Mordovia for 10 years. He only met his brother again in the mid-1960s, when his visa was finally approved after 30 years of separation.

David Kakabadze was one of Georgia’s greatest modernists. His work was held in esteem during his stay in Paris during the 1920s, but his name faded into oblivion in by the mid-1930s upon returning to the Soviet Union. Kakabadze did not start out as an artist, but studied the Natural Sciences in St. Petersburg. Eventually, he followed his calling toward art but also worked as a film director, a stage designer as well as becoming a respected inventor and art theorist.

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David Kakabadze, Imereti
My Mother (1918) oil on canvas, 137×153,
Georgian National Museum

When Kakabadze returned to Tbilisi in 1916 after his studies in Russia, he worked as a mathematics and physics teacher, however, shortly afterwards he caught the art bug and started to paint his famous “Imeretian Landscapes” in 1917. This wasn’t Kakabadze’s debut into the visual arts, since he developed an amateur but passionate interest in photography during his student years.

Kakabadze’s “Imeretian Landscapes” were a curious marriage of proto-cubist proportions with elements of realism. Multicolour boxes are cast in the background as fields in varying shades of colours from pastel to bold; in the foreground, realistic figures and details act as a contrast. His most famous landscape, “Imereti – My Mother,” which the artist completed in 1918, is one of Kakabadze’s most famous paintings, however, any consideration of Kakabadze’s brilliance should not be limited to these landscapes. His era in Paris during the 20s was perhaps the most exciting and prolific for the Georgian artist.

When in Paris, Kakabadze began to experiment and diversify as an artist, producing works from cubism to abstraction. His love for mathematics and the sciences transmitted through his art, and like Kandinsky, he became a respected art theorist. He published numerous texts on space and perception in the context of Eastern and Western art, as well as a number of essays on art theory in both Georgian and in French. Kakabadze also collaborated with Leon Rosenberg in his bulletin, “L’Effort Modern” where he printed letters on modern art.

During his time in Paris, Kakabadze showcased his work in the annual exhibition of the “Salon des Independents.” Kakabadze was soon noticed, especially after his work caught the attention of Catherine Drier and her lover Marcel Duchamp, and the Georgian modernist soon struck up a friendship with the pair. In 1926, the Société Anonyme, run by Duchamp, Drier and Man Ray, in collaboration with Wassily Kandinsky, organised a large international exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum where Kakabadze’s work, alongside pieces from Piet Modrian and Joan Miró, all made their US debut. While 1926 and 27 was the year when the latter artists received recognition in the US, for Kakabadze this was a fatal time, since for unknown reasons the artist returned to Soviet Georgia and lost all contact with the Western artistic world. The exhibition in Brooklyn was the artist’s last international exhibition.

Right: Cover Issue #1 of Kakabadze bulletin, ‘L’Effort Modern’; far right: David Kakabadze,Paris (1920), charcoal and pencil on paper 23 x 18.5, Georgian National Museum

After his return to Georgia, Kakabadze entered his “silent period” and he didn’t commence painting again until 1933. He worked at the Tbilisi Art Academy and like many of his artistic contemporaries, he found artistic freedom in the Kote Marjanishvili theatre where he became an art director. The avant-garde styles that made Kakabadze stand out from the rest of the crowd were forbidden during the Soviet Union, when Social Realism was imposed. Instead, Kakabadze returned to his Imeretian landscapes, even though these were still on the controversial side – politically these paintings encourage bourgeois principles, due to the non-uniformity of the field colours. But for Kakabadze, these paintings were the only form of artistic expression permitted to him. Many associate these landscapes with Kakabadze as an artist, but it is misguided to identify him solely with these landscapes, since they became a by-product of the Soviet Union and not truly representative.

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David Kakabadze, Organic Abstraction (1927),
oil on cardboard, 45×60, Georgian National Museum

David Kakabadze had written and published with Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, yet by the mid-1930s his name was lost. By forgetting his name, did modernism lose something? Georgian art historians know about the work he conducted under the Soviet Union, but his period from Paris is un-researched, obscure and undoubtedly his most interesting period.

One last mystery Kakabadze left behind is his signature on the Manifesto of Dimensionism. The manifesto was published in 1936, during the time of Kakabadze’s blackout while in Soviet Georgia. He had no contact with the West, so how his signature appeared on this document is a mystery still to this day. His work appeared in one final exhibition in Paris after his return to Georgia, another mystery that is un-researched and unknown.

His friends Catherine Drier discussed him posthumously in 1950, even though Kakabadze died in May 1952.

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Lado Gudiashvili, Self Portrait (1919) oil on canvas,
87X70, Georgian National Museum

Lado Gudiashvili’s work carries a different flavour from the work of the Zdanevich brothers and David Kakabadze. His paintings marry organic Georgian national flavour with influences from French symbolism. His main inspiration came from the works of Niko Pirosmani who drew based his work on everyday Georgian life. Gudiashvili might have his artistic differences to his fellow Georgian avant-garde artists, but his story merits telling.

The locally born artist studied art at the Tiflis School of Sculpture and Fine Art. His symbolist influences came from the group of Georgian poets known as “The Blue Horns,” in which Gudiashvili was an active member before he moved to Paris.

In 1919, the artist went to study in Ronson’s private academy where he began to move in circles with the artists from the “La Ruche” artist’s colony. He met painters such as the Russian avant-gardes like Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, and the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. Like Kakabadze, Gudiashvili also returned to Georgia in the late 1920s and worked in theatre design back in Tiflis as well as finding work as a monumentalist.

Gudiashvili’s work is characterised, mostly in his early pieces, by the grotesque. There is a sense of Caucasian tradition in his work, which we can attribute from his influences by Pirosmani, and gained a theatrical take on them over the years he worked in set and costume design.

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Petre Otskheli, Othello (1933),
Paper, Pencil, Watercolor, 54×69
(K. Marjanishvili State Theatre

Another artist who name should be mentioned, who possesses his own unique style is Petre Otskheli. Unlike his contemporaries, the modernist artist rarely painted on canvas, but rather turned his artistic talent to set and costume design. He had a creative relationship with the theatre visionary Kote Marjanishvili, and together they left a mark on Georgia’s theatrical history. Otskheli’s style is closest to art deco, with some of his costume designs bearing a striking resemblance to the work of Lempicka, but his work also included elements of the Soviet imposed Soviet Realism, as well as scenographic constructivist sets. Otskheli’s life was cut short when he turned 30, as he was killed in the Stalinist Purges on charges of treason.

The Georgian artists from the early 20th century each merit their own legacy, many of whom either died, were sent to the gulag or turned to Social Realism to survive. These artists moved in the circles with Picasso, Duchamp and Modigliani, yet their names are no longer remembered. Perhaps one day, art historians will sit up and pay attention to these innovative artists and the world will know more about the Georgian avant-garde artists from the former Soviet country.

By Jennifer Walker Contributing Writer

I would like to offer a very special thank you to Kipiani for sharing her valuable knowledge and expertise on Georgian Modernism. I would also like to say a huge thanks to the National Gallery and National Museum, most notably to Nino Gedevanishvili and Mariam Dvali for all their help.

To learn more about the National Museum, go to www.georgianmuseum.ge

Originally published on ARTES Magazine.

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