The Avant-Garde in Georgia (1900–1936),
by Nana Kipiani, Irine Jorjadze and Tea Tabatadze.
Published by Hannibal Books to coincide with exhibition on the same subject in the Bozar, Brussels, until January 14, 2024.
Every two years, Belgium and neighbouring countries host Europalia, a four-month international arts festival to celebrate one country’s cultural heritage.
Until early next year, the latest biennale focuses on Georgia, a resonant choice given the conflict nearby instigated by Russia, its former overlord, which has cracked down harshly on anti-war protests by today’s artists.
One of the most independence-minded republics, Georgia declared sovereignty on November 19, 1989, and independence on April 9, 1991, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating.
It had already enjoyed three years of freedom after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1918 and before Soviet rule began in 1921. Around this time, an avant-garde arts scene exploded into life.
For centuries a battleground for empires because of its strategic location near the Silk Road, Georgia had a particular need to assert its identity. At lightning speed, its artists moved away from traditional representation based on folk and religious icons to daring modernism.
Symbolism/Neo-Symbolism, Futurism, Dadaism, the incomprehensible language of Zaum, Expressionism, Cubism and Cubo-Futurism bubbled up in the turbulent melting pot. In theory, almost anything was possible, including depictions of meaninglessness, chaos, equating people with objects and machines, as Soviet censorship lay in wait.
If you can get to Brussels, the Bozar exhibition and related events, including concerts of Georgian polyphony, which is on the UNESCO list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage, promise insights into a little-known culture.
In any case, Hannibal’s accompanying book is the next best thing. An exacting, academic text is brought to life by lavish illustrations of fascinating works. Some amaze us and others confirm whatever preconceptions we might have about Georgia as the world’s oldest wine-producing region.
Naïve artist Niko Pirosmanashvili, also known as Pirosmani, depicts a feast at wine-making time. The abundant grapes are tipped into a vat where a strapping, bearded man stands ready to tread them, while a table groans with food and autumn light dapples the scene.
Works from Gigo Gabashvili take a directly sexual approach to fertility. A tangle of bodies represents “The Worship of Phallus”. He also explores a liberated androgyny through fabulous, winged creatures depicted in watercolour and through staged photographs.
As creative types mingled in Tblisi’s cafes, and brought back ideas from study in European cities, painters, cartoonists, writers and dramatists exchanged ideas to witty, satirical effect.
For Alexander von Salzmann, the relationship between the sexes tends to give disproportionately large women the upper hand. Woman with a Shawl has a miniature cavalier galloping up her exotic shawl towards her disdainful face.
Gradually we move further and further away from the figurative.
Featured works by David Kakabadze range from colourful quilts of fields that recall Cezanne to abstract, futuristic objects.
Lado Gudiashvili belonged to a group called “The Blue Horns” (1914–1918), which attempted to link Georgian expression with French symbolism. In another reference to Georgia’s wine culture, the horns referred to traditional drinking vessels made from animal horns (or rythons). Blue was the colour of poetry and romanticism.
The paintings that resulted, included Gudiashvili’s “Kinto’s Feast with a Woman” and “Fresh Fish”. With sweeping Georgian moustaches, long, pointed footwear and fairytale, blurry backgrounds, he created a heady atmosphere at odds with Communist austerity.
He also worked on theatre sets, and elegant theatre design is prominently featured in this book.
Its cover shows Kirile Zdanevich’s costume “DADA” design for the 1924 play “Maelstrom”.
Other eminent designers for the stage include Elene Akhvlediani and Irakil Gamrekeli whose sets conjure a modernist world of work and machinery that dwarfs the performers.
Petre Otskheli’s 1933 drawings for a magnificent Othello costume radiate masculinity and almost god-like virility.
His set design for “The Good Soldier Svejk” menaces with its multi-coloured drips, giant dial and empty hospital beds. Somewhere in the wings a giant, controlling state looms. Otskheli was among the Georgian artists who fatally offended it and at the age of 30, his imaginative creativity was snuffed out, leaving us longing for more, when he was put to death in Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.