To speak of Tbilisi, Georgia, in the years before the Soviet invasion of 1921 is to describe an exotic tableau of sights, sounds, and smells. Remembering his visit to the Caucasus with the poet Osip Mandelstam, the Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote:
Old Tbilisi seemed to me like a city from the Thousand and One Nights. We wandered through the unending bazaar; there they sold turquoises in resin, hot cakes, English jackets, daggers, hookahs, gramophones, fragrant herbs, rifles, portraits of Queen Tamar, dollars, old manuscripts, and undergarments. . . . Different centuries co-existed in that wonderful town.
Beyond the oriental sights of the old town lay the modern avenue of Golovin Prospect, outfitted by Georgia’s Russian suzerains with houses of government, museums, repertory theaters, and a major opera house, making Tbilisi not only the Russian Empire’s southernmost stronghold but an eastern outpost of cosmopolitan culture as well.
It was through this meeting place of different worlds and centuries that the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmanashvili (1862–1918), better known as Pirosmani, wandered, painting bright colors with forthright brushstrokes atop pitch-black oilcloths in exchange for bread, drink, or a place to sleep. Though his work served to advertise and decorate taverns and shops, Pirosmani had higher artistic ambitions as well, experimenting with color, technique, and material in his charming portraits of domestic and wild animals, carousing townsmen, local characters, historical scenes, and still lifes. His chance discovery in 1912—by a trio of young artists on summer holiday in Tbilisi—sent ripples through the Russian avant-garde and rumors of an eastern Henri Rousseau through the broader European art world as well.
Pirosmani was born to a peasant family in a village in Kakheti province, the beating heart of Georgia’s wine and feasting culture. Orphaned at a young age, he was taken in by a wealthy family in Tbilisi who fostered his interest in drawing and art, arranging for some limited instruction from a local academic landscape painter. Prone to impulsiveness, Pirosmani shuffled between odd jobs: a printer’s devil, a sign and house painter, and a brakeman on the railway, riding back and forth some three hundred miles between Tbilisi and Baku, Azerbaijan. By 1894 he had resigned this position and set up a dairy business with a partner in Tbilisi, from which time we have our first report of a Pirosmani painting: a diptych of a black cow and a white cow flanking the shop doors.
The next few years were the most prosperous of Pirosmani’s life, as he used his income to travel back to his home village and build a new house for his sister’s family. Immersed again in the world of his childhood, he began painting village scenes, which by the next decade grew into gargantuan pieces like the Kakhetian Epic (few of his works carry dates), stretching almost twenty feet wide and depicting a panorama of Georgian country life, from church festivals to feasting tables to the grape harvest.
Every street corner of Tbilisi was Pirosmani’s gallery.
Soon, failed marriage plans and the death of a goddaughter led Pirosmani to drink. By 1904, he had quit the dairy business and begun his life as a vagabond artist in earnest, a time of alternating carousing in the courtyards of Tbilisi and solitude in the dark corners of taverns. In the oilcloth Banquet of the Five Princes (1906) from this period, we meet five stock characters from the Georgian nobility, in black robes and with prodigious mustaches set against a baby-blue background, three seated in the middle, painted head-on, the other two seated at the heads of the table, painted in a frontalistic style reminiscent of medieval art. Pirosmani’s facility with perspective was slight, as we see in the almost entirely flat planes of this image. He does succeed in introducing some depth with a trapezoidal rendering of the table, covered in a crisp, white cloth and adorned with wine bottles, fish, chicken, radishes, bread, and shish-kebab, motifs straight from the sign-painting idiom in which he cut his teeth.
Every street corner of Tbilisi was Pirosmani’s gallery: not only did he hang his paintings on walls, but he also painted tin street signs, glass window panes, and frescoes on stucco. In his early works, Pirosmani experimented with cardboard and canvas before settling emphatically on black oilcloth for his hung artworks. Though it is tempting to think that this was a matter of thrift, the opposite was in fact true: this was expensive cloth imported from Europe for outfitting horse carriages. Its impermeable, waxed surface matched the consistency of the paint applied, preserving these pieces for posterity remarkably well, even as the entirety of his frescoes were whitewashed over and his street signs largely repurposed.
Pirosmani scrimped and saved for his paints, too: he had a taste for fine oils from France and England, which made available to him the latest advances in color technology. He rarely mixed new colors, preferring the effect of pure, radiant hue against bare oilcloth, such as the practically fluorescent cadmium-red dress worn by the subject of Woman with a Mug of Beer, the color applied thickly and flatly against a sea of pitch black. Unlike the smooth and static forms in Rousseau’s canvasses, which seem obsessively worked over, the shapes of Pirosmani’s subjects—here a portly, ample-bosomed blonde shown in profile—are painted with an economy and sprezzatura that imbues them with an odd electricity. Many of Pirosmani’s portraits were painted in half an hour, without time to prime the canvas or apply additional layers—“he’d give us a look, take a drink, dash off a stroke, take another drink, and the picture’d be ready,” an acquaintance later recalled.
Pirosmani had a moralizing streak as well. The oilcloth Childless Millionaire and Poor Woman with Her Children appears to show a destitute mother offering up her children for adoption, a rather astounding subject for a tavern wall and one that might have had some autobiographical resonance. Peasant Woman with Children Fetching Water, painted for a wine shop, is a likewise affecting piece, making use of the oilcloth and teal-green highlights to give the effect of a barren landscape and an endless, black night into which the family is wandering.
Pirosmani’s manipulation of the bare oilcloth is his most striking formal experiment. We see this in the excellent Giraffe, in which a silver-skinned beast (he had likely only seen giraffes in black-and-white photographs) stands atop a sparse black badland, the contours of its hills hinted at by subtle brushstrokes in yellow ochre; above it spreads a powder-blue sky. Here is a snapshot into his working process: Pirosmani seems to have brushed the sky around the outline of a giraffe first before filling out the detail of the animal in white, then stippling its spots with black paint. The black oilcloth radiates through the cloudy, dry brushed colors, giving the animal a ghostlike appearance. A single brushstroke in white outlines each of the dark eyes, which the modernist poet Grigol Robakidze said were “filled with another kind of reasoning faculty, fearsome to the point of dread.” Only in Pirosmani’s animal portraits do the eyes come alive as windows into a soul.
Giraffe was hung in a wine shop on the banks of Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River. It was into one such establishment in the summer of 1912 that the Russian painter Mikhail Le Dentu ducked, intrigued by a painted advertisement he had seen outside. Twenty-one years old, Le Dentu belonged to a futurist collective known as the Donkey’s Tail, a group that he had helped found in Moscow a few months before with Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and the brothers Ilia and Kirill Zdanevich. Ilia and Kirill, natives of Tbilisi, had invited Le Dentu to visit the Caucasus with them that summer.
The avant-garde had lately been abuzz with talk of the self-taught painter Henri Rousseau, whom the French modernists had hoisted upon their shoulders as a spiritual mascot, enthused to find a match for the pure creative energy of pagan art in the canvases of an artist living in their own backyard. Looking up at the walls of the wine shop that evening, a stunned Le Dentu figured he had done the French one better. Gazing back at him were the deep blacks and electric colors of a self-taught painter whose naive imagery seemed at once unpretentious and formally daring, otherworldly and yet deeply interwoven with the world around it. Le Dentu and the Zdanevich brothers became Pirosmani’s champions and first collectors.
Though it seemed every shopkeeper in Tbilisi had a story about this colorful local character, it took the Zdanevich brothers half a year to track down the elusive Pirosmani. “He was standing on the pavement with a brush in his hand, busy painting the word ‘Dairy’ on the wall,” Kirill recalled. “He turned to us, gave a dignified bow and continued working, sustaining the conversation we had initiated with infrequent replies. . . . [He carried] himself with an air of calm independence, his responses nonetheless betraying a sense of hidden bitterness.”
In March 1913, the trio convinced Larionov to feature four of Pirosmani’s works, including Woman with a Mug of Beer and the fantastic Roe Deer (1913), in the debut exposition of Donkey’s Tail in Moscow, along with the collective’s experiments in neo-primitivism, Cubism, and rayonism. Fresh off the show’s success, Larionov and Goncharova traveled in early 1914 to collaborate with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, where they shared with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire photographs of their folk-art discoveries, almost certainly including Pirosmani. Impressed, Apollinaire wrote in a July 1914 edition of the Paris-Journal:
The great and legitimate success of Rousseau’s paintings is now prompting scholars everywhere to seek out folk paintings . . . . Picasso has found an anonymous still life that is an outstanding piece. In Russia, we are also starting to collect examples of peasant art, particularly folk paintings from the Caucasus. The painter Larionov already has many of them; Dr. Tzanck, the well-known Parisian amateur and president of the Dental Society of France, is also planning to go there, in order to bring back some.
It is tantalizing to speculate what might have happened if the French avant-garde had gotten their hands on Pirosmani. It seemed, though the painter was hardly aware, that his moment had come. Yet within days of Apollinaire’s column, the first shots of World War I were fired.
Somehow the quality of his vision was undiminished and even intensified by this struggle.
Wartime was the final, darkest chapter of Pirosmani’s life. Soon, much of Tbilisi’s male population had marched off to the Eastern Front. Shortages and famine abounded, and prohibition was imposed, shuttering the taverns on which Pirosmani depended for his daily bread. No longer able to buy European oilcloth and paint, he reverted to cardboard, which he sometimes primed with black paint to mimic his old medium, and mixed his own paint in jars with colored powder and linseed oil. Pirosmani’s late works on cardboard, many of them muted agrarian scenes such as Woman Milking Cow (1916) and Threshing Floor at Dusk, are the product of his frustrated wrangling with an inferior, absorbent medium that matted his colors and imbued everything with an uncharacteristically warm brown tone. Yet somehow the quality of his vision was undiminished and even intensified by this struggle. One poignant composition he explored in at least four variations was Rooster and Brooder with Chicks, showing the titular, harmonious animal family in the foreground. In the distance stands a boy with his back turned to the viewer, ready to exit a gate; a mother waves farewell from the front porch of a farmhouse. Deep feelings are at play here.
Sadly, Pirosmani’s mental and physical health were in a downward spiral. In March of 1916, a note from the inaugural meeting of the modernist-friendly Society of Georgian Artists spoke to these dire straits: “The society should find out where Niko Pirosmani is, whether he is alive, or in need of help.” Kirill Zdanevich did his part by holding Pirosmani’s first solo show in Tbilisi that summer. In May 1916, Pirosmani was found and brought to a meeting of the Society, during which he was interviewed, given a commission, sketched by several of the members, and sat for one of his only photographs, sporting a walrus mustache and a humble jacket. At some point Pirosmani grew frustrated at the proceedings—perhaps at the high-minded debating of isms to which the modernist set was prone—and spoke up with a remarkable testimony:
What we need, brothers, is this. Right in the middle of the city, so that it be near to everyone, we ought to build a big wooden house where we would gather. We ought to buy a big table and a big samovar and drink a lot of tea, and talk about painting and art. But you don’t want this. You speak of other things.
A few weeks after the meeting, Pirosmani was stung by an anonymous cartoon in a Tbilisi newspaper, showing the grizzled artist dashing off his Giraffe while a haughty modernist critiqued him over his shoulder. Pirosmani retreated deeper into drink and solitude and now felt a stranger both to the quotidian milieu that had birthed him and the avant-garde that sought to sponsor him. A photograph of the funeral of a friend’s child in late 1916 likely shows Pirosmani crouched in the corner, his bearded, harrowed visage a marked change from just a few months before.
By early 1918, Georgia had seceded from Russia and Tbilisi was packed with refugees fleeing the bloodshed of the civil war. On the night before Easter Sunday 1918, a neighbor found Pirosmani unresponsive in the damp cellar where he had been sleeping. An entry in a local hospital for a patient “X,” listing a host of chronic maladies, is likely the only record of Pirosmani’s death, and his grave is unknown.
The departure of Pirosmani, wrote the Soviet critic Erast Kuznetsov, “coincided with the demise of the old world of which he was part and parcel, whose agony he sensed and with which he was so tragically and inextricably bound.” Likewise, the fates of Pirosmani’s supporters read as a history of the upheavals of the twentieth century in miniature.
Le Dentu died on the Eastern Front in 1917. After the fall of an independent, democratic Georgia, Ilia Zdanevich immigrated to Paris in 1925, where he became known for his experiments with typography and lengthy collaboration with Coco Chanel. Tragically, the expected exit visa never came for Kirill. His collection of Pirosmanis was forcibly nationalized, and in 1949 he was sentenced to fifteen years in the Gulag. Though their futurist movement was extinguished, both brothers endured long enough to reunite in Paris in the 1960s, publish monographs on Pirosmani (Picasso, intrigued by the Pirosmani legend, drew his portrait for Ilia’s), and witness the success of Pirosmani’s one-man show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, in May 1969. Kirill died just four months later, Ilia in 1975.
Traveling to Georgia and looking at Pirosmani’s paintings today, we can still feel some of the wonder of these three men as we rediscover an artist largely unknown in the West. The National Gallery on Golovin Prospect (today’s Rustaveli Avenue) is their legacy, a neoclassical exhibition hall built by the tsarists that is now in large part a shrine to Georgia’s most beloved national artist, far removed from his musty taverns of old. There the majority of Pirosmani’s two hundred or so surviving works are held, in addition to at the city museum of Sighnaghi and a museum dedicated to Pirosmani in his home village—where, in fact, the curators have built the wooden table with samovar atop that Pirosmani dreamed of. Walking through these halls, one might overhear a teacher tell a group of schoolchildren the words of Grigol Robakidze: “To see Pirosmani is to believe in Georgia.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 41
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com