NIKO PIROSMANI IN VIENNA: A “BRIDGE” TO GEORGIAN CULTURE
One of the world’s most famous art museums, Albertina, located in Vienna, has been displaying 29 works of the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani since October 26. This exhibition, which is running under the title “Niko Pirosmani. A Wanderer between the Worlds” will be held until January 2019. In Vienna, one of the most important cultural capitals of the world, Pirosmani’s art has been making a breakthrough for Georgian artistic scenes as well as for the country as a whole.
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With its life rich in colors, its unique traditions and its picturesque and unhurried mode of life, Georgia has inspired many local and foreign writers, painters and artists. Alexander Dumas, John Steinbeck, Knut Hamsun, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and many others came here to find new exciting ideas for their creative work.
Nowadays, Georgia and its art continue to be a source of inspiration for many artists. For example, for the current exhibition in the Viennese Albertina Museum, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando has created a long table as a response to Pirosmani’s statement: “Do you know what we need, my brothers? Let us build a big house, a place where we all can come together, somewhere in the city center, accessible for all. Let us buy a table and a samovar. We will drink tea and talk about art . . .”
The Japanese artist, a self-taught talent just like Niko Pirosmani, was inspired by the Georgian artist’s dream to create a modern version of a table for artists’ gatherings by using Plexiglas and rows and rows of blue roses.
“Albertina has chosen an ideal concept for this exhibition,” says Eka Kiknadze, Head of the Georgian National Gallery, who was present at the opening ceremony of the Pirosmani exhibition. “This concept includes a dialogue between generations of artists of different cultures and nationalities. We can see Niko Pirosmani as a part of international culture. This exhibition, in one of the leading museums of the world, in a perfect location close to the State Opera in Vienna, is important and promising for the popularity of the great man of our country.”
“The idea of the solo Pirosmani exhibition was born after our last exhibition of the Russian avantgarde ‘From Chagall to Malevich’ in 2016,” says Sara Schmidt, press-officer at the Albertina Museum. “Many Russian artists of that time referred to Pirosmani as their guiding star. Unfortunately, at that time we hardly knew anything about this Georgian artist.” This Pirosmani exhibition in Vienna, with 29 masterpieces of the artist seeks to fill that gap.
The preparation for the Pirosmani exhibition in Vienna started two years ago, and it was brought to life with the help of the Infinart Foundation in Vienna and support from the Georgian National Museum and from the Bank of Georgia.
“It was a long and a difficult process to plan such an important and large-scale comprehensive exhibition of the oeuvre of Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani in the Albertina Museum,” a representative of the Bank of Georgia said. “For the Bank of Georgia, as the leading bank in Georgia, it is very important to re-discover such kinds of artists for the whole world and to share Georgian culture by establishing Niko Pirosmani’s place among world class artists like Monet and Picasso.”
Who was this artist, who came from humble origins and created such a unique artistic style that his work can hardly be compared to anybody else’s?
In Georgia, Niko Pirosmani is one of the most-well known painters, and for Pirosmani’s countrymen he even became a symbol of Georgia. He was born into a peasant family in the eastern region of Kakheti and, despite his lack of education, he managed to achieve recognition first among his contemporary young art colleagues and then, little by little, in the Russian Empire and abroad.
Pirosmani’s art was discovered by Georgian-Polish brothers Kirill and Ilia Zdanevich, both artists themselves who studied in Saint Petersburg. They fell in love with Pirosmani’s style and with his paintings and introduced the artist’s works to the leading Russian artists of that time, who then organized an exhibition for him in Moscow in 1913. This exhibition was a great success. Through these brothers, the fame of Pirosmani reached France. Some art historians even claim that Pirosmani influenced not only the artists of the Russian Avantgarde but also those in the West. Interestingly, Pablo Picasso, who never had seen the artist, pictured Pirosmani in one of his paintings.
Pirosmani’s pictures reveal his lack of any academic education in art. His characters seem to be frozen in the picture; they are often anatomically incorrect, and the objects in his pictures seem to be random. In addition, he often broke the rules of perspective.
He managed to establish his own unique style-a style that remains unique to this day. Even more, Pirosmani brought to life a wider variety of motifs of Georgian life than any other Georgian artist. He painted people of different social groups and professions, historic personalities, animals as well as scenes of daily life with festivities, church holidays, and typical cheerful Georgian razzle-dazzle with lots of food and wine.
“If we tried to find a niche for Pirosmani’s work in the history of the arts, we definitely would fail,” art critic Vato Khoshtaria said.
“However, Pirosmani’s masterpieces have a lot in common with Georgian medieval Orthodox monumental art. Also there, there is a tendency to go from the darkness to the light, which is also typical for Niko Pirosmani. His personages, even if he is painting ordinary people, make an impression of being saints: his janitor, his fisherman, his servants from the taverns and his actresses. The artist makes all of his figures spiritual and somehow elevated, and even his animals look like mystical figures with human eyes and human facial expressions,” he explained.
Khostaria believes that Pirosmani’s strongest gift was his ability to quickly feel his characters and to depict them in only a few easy and succinct smears. This makes it highly difficult to paint a copy of Pirosmani’s works.
However, in some of his pictures, especially in those of still-lifes, Pirosmani is close to surrealism, Khoshtaria noted. Indeed, Pirosmani often portrayed life as a dream or as mirage, and in his pictures he often combined day and night. But generally, we should see him as a naïve visionary.
Pirosmani was a vagabond and a free soul. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a locomotive engineer in order to travel around and to see the world. When that dream did not come true, he chose a life where he was free from anyone else’s rules.
Pirosmani’s lifestyle was hardly understandable to common people, or to his artist friends, Lado Gudiashvili, Iakob Nikoladze, and Dimitri Shevarnadze, who tried to support him. Pirosmani painted his pictures for food and wine not only on canvas, but also on the walls in taverns and inns, on wood and on tin-plates. He drank excessively. And he died of illness, alone and poor, in 1918.
Pirosmani’s art was appreciated and well-known in the Soviet Union and in Soviet-bloc countries, and it was exhibited there regularly. In the West, however, that was not the case. During the Cold War only a few large Pirosmani exhibitions were held outside the Soviet Union: in Paris and Vienna in 1969, in Padua in 1977, in Nice and Marseilles in 1983, and in Tokyo in 1986. A few works of Pirosmani were also exhibited in Denmark, Japan, Sweden, and in some other countries of the Western world.
Unfortunately, out of the approximately 2,000 works that Pirosmani created over his lifetime, only around 200 have survived. But only a few of them are in foreign collections, and his work is not widely known among art lovers in the West. A few of his paintings have been sold at Sotheby’s auction, however.
At the Albertina Museum, Pirosmani’s work has been gaining popularity.
“The appreciation of this exhibition by the audience is incredibly high! Even the opening ceremony alone was a huge success! We could also see a big increase of followers from Georgia on our Instagram and Facebook page.
Additionally, before the exhibition, in our media a lot of stories about Pirosmani’s life had appeared. In the first three weeks after the opening of this exhibition we have seen 50,000 visitors interested in Pirosmani’s art,” noted the Museum’s Sara Schmidt.
At the Albertina Museum, Pirosmani is celebrated “not only as a famous Georgian artist but also as the greatest autodidactic artist of all time,” the Georgian National Gallery’s Eka Kiknadze said.
“Niko Pirosmani is our best ambassador, as in his works all our culture is present in a high concentration-from the archaic art up to the modern art,” she said.
“We see Pirosmani as a bridge from the past into the future. Everyone who is looking at his pictures can easily fall in love. Not only with his art, but also with Georgia as a country.”