Georgia – the nation, rather than the US state – is a bridge between Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast with its ancient ports, central Asia, and the Middle East. In its markets you’ll meet traders from Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and deep along the old Silk Road into Asia. Its history stretches back to some of the oldest remains of our ancestors, dating from around 1.7 million years ago. It is the most probable source of domesticated grape plants, and the origin of wine-making, from around 6000 BCE.
The legendary Colchis, Jason’s destination in his quest for the Golden Fleece, was most probably on Georgia’s section of the Black Sea coast, and the Fleece itself may have been rendered golden by its use to sift gold dust from the rivers running down from the mountains. Georgia adopted Christianity as its State religion as early as 337 CE, and has long and strong links with the early Christian church in the Holy Lands.
Oddly, its best-known native is Joseph Stalin, who was born Ioseb Jughashvili in the town of Gori, to the west of the capital Tbilisi. He was a trainee priest at the Spiritual Seminary in Tbilisi, and later a meteorologist there until he was exiled to Siberia in 1903. But if you have heard of any other Georgian, they are most likely to be the country’s most famous artist, Nikoloz Aslanis Dze Pirosmanshvili, known as Niko Pirosmani (ნიკო ფიროსმანი), who was born about 5 May 1862, and died on a day between 7 and 10 (probably 9) April 1918 – a century ago.
Pirosmani is not just remarkable for being one of very few Georgians known outside his home country, but he is one of the best-known ‘primitives’ (a term I dislike because of its connotations), and was not ‘discovered’ until after his death. In this article and the next, I present a short account of his life, and a selection of his paintings, to commemorate the centenary of his death.
Pirosmani was born to a farming family in the village of Mirzaani in the eastern region of Georgia, but they soon moved to the village of Shulaveri, near to Tbilisi. When both his parents died in 1870, he was cared for by his father’s former employer, an Armenian merchant. Living within an extended family with many children, he learned to read and write both Georgian and the Russian language, Georgia then being a part of the Russian Empire.
During his youth, Pirosmani taught himself to paint, and in the 1880s turned professional, when he established a studio in Tbilisi with another self-taught artist, painting signboards. In 1890 he abandoned that, and worked on the railway, until he opened a dairy store in Tbilisi in 1894. This provided him with his most secure income, and allowed him to paint more too.
Pirosmani painted in oils on two different supports: the great majority of his works are on oilcloth, a cotton or linen base which has been coated with boiled linseed oil to make it waterproof. As that oil was boiled, most oilcloth was very dark or black in colour. Being flexible and not stretched on a wooden frame, it is far from ideal, and most of his works on oilcloth have been subsequently mounted on stretched canvas to reduce the mechanical stress on their paint layer.
The other support which he used was cardboard, which has often deteriorated since, and is also likely to have been mounted on a more recent support such as stretched canvas. His painted signs were often made on metal, although I don’t think that he could ever afford the luxury of copper. He did date a few of his works; as most remain undated, I group them by motif rather than in chronological order.
Many of his surviving paintings are of animals, which he appears to have painted entirely from memory, in his own idiosyncratic ways.
Curiously, Pirosmani’s undated White Cow on a Black Background was painted not on the naturally black oilcloth, but cardboard. Note the cast shadows, which are a feature of many of his paintings.
Farmer with a Bull from 1916 shows his characteristic stylisation of very familiar subjects.
White Sow with Piglets is another undated work on cardboard, this time with only vestigial cast shadows.
Pirosmani’s undated Lamb comes with symbolic associations of Easter, both the season for lambing and the Christian festival centred on the symbolism of the lamb. Shown are Easter eggs and a symbol of Easter, together with the meadow flowers of Spring. Around the lamb’s neck is a red and white ribbon, symbolising the death of Jesus Christ.
Some of Pirosmani’s nocturnes are surprisingly sophisticated in their depiction of light. A good example is his undated A Fox in Moonlight, with its backlighting (contrenuit, I suppose!) and careful composition.
His undated painting of a Black Bear most probably shows a Eurasian Brown Bear, which can be quite black in colour. Still quite numerous in Georgia, he had probably seen such bears both in the wild and in captivity.
A Sitting Yellow Lion (c 1900-1918) is an animal – the Asiatic Lion – that Pirosmani is only likely to have seen in captivity. During his lifetime, a few were still alive in the upper reaches of the River Euphrates and the Zagros Mountains, but none in Georgia.
Tatar Camel Driver (c 1900-1918) would still have been quite a common sight in parts of Tbilisi visited by traders from the south, and Pirosmani was clearly very familiar with the animal.
A Deer, from about 1905, shows another species with which Pirosmani would have been very familiar.
Pirosmani’s A Family of Deer from 1917 shows a family group drinking at a pool in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, which mark the northern borders of Georgia.
From 26 October 2018 until 27 January 2019, the Albertina in Vienna, Austria, is showing a “comprehensive” exhibition of Pirosmani’s paintings. Full details are here.