Pirosmani remains king in Georgia’s National Gallery in Tbilisi.

Dennis Sammut was recently at Georgia’s National Gallery in Tbilisi where he found that despite a number of other magnificent masterpieces on display Nikala Pirosmani remains king, and his work provides the centerpiece of the gallery’s exhibits.

It has been a long time since I have been to a Museum or Art Gallery in Georgia. My visits to the country in recent years have been fleeting stopovers of a day or two. On a recent visit however I was obliged to show a colleague who was on his first visit to Tbilisi some of Georgia’s artistic wonders, and I could not think of anywhere better to start than the National Gallery on Rustaveli Avenue, which houses works by many famous Georgian artists. The building is at the centre of a cultural hub where a number of other Georgian Museums and galleries are situated. It has been recently renovated and has a pleasant modern cafeteria overlooking the 9th April Park, (formerly called Alexandrov) where a number of sculptures are also placed.

The guidebook says that the Gallery houses a “temporary exhibition” entitled “The Masterpieces of Georgian Art: first half of the 20th century” and includes paintings and sculptures of prominent Georgian Artists such as David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Gigo Gabashvili, Khetevan Magalashvili, Elene Akhvlediani and more. There is no doubt however that the artist who sets the tone for the Gallery and its exhibits is the famous Georgian artist Nikala Pirosmani. Somebody decided to change the artistic name of the artist in the captions to the paintings to the more Georgian sounding and politically correct Pirosmanishvili, but no name change could possible confuse the artist’s work with that of anybody else.

I have been fascinated by Pirosmani since I first got acquainted with his work, through Soviet Art books, which came my way by accident when I was at school.

Pirosmani was born  to a peasant family, in the Georgian village of Mirzaani in the Kakheti province of Eastern Georgia, at a time when Georgia was part of the Tsarist Empire. His parents, Aslan and Tekle, were farmers, who owned a small vineyard, with a few cows and oxen. He was later orphaned and left in the care of his two elder sisters, Mariam and Pepe. He moved with them to Tbilisi in 1870. In 1872, while living in a little apartment not far from Tbilisi railway station, he worked as a servant to wealthy families and learned to read and write Russian and Georgian.

Pirosmani gradually taught himself to paint. One of his specialties was painting directly on black oilcloth. In 1882, with self-taught George Zaziashvili, he opened a painting workshop, where they made signboards. Throughout his life, Pirosmani was poor,  and he survided by taking on ordinary jobs. He also worked for shopkeepers in Tbilisi, creating signboards, paintings, and portraits, according to their orders. In April 1918, he died of malnutrition and liver failure.

Pirosmani’s paintings were influenced by the social conditions of his time and place. There are many works about merchants, shopkeepers, workmen, and noblemen. He was fond of nature and rural life. He rarely employed city landscapes. He made many animal paintings. He was the only Georgian painting animal figures. Pirosmani was also attracted by historical figures and themes but his best works, or at least the ones I like most, are those that depict ordinary Georgian people and their everyday lives. The larger than life expressions somehow capture the Georgian character in a unique way.

Pirosmani was not at all appreciated during his life. Georgian society often mocked him and he lived in poverty. After his death however his talents became increasingly recognised and his works now cost millions of dollars. People like me have to do with reproductions and I have two: “the women with the beer mug” and “the Fisherman” and I am immensely fond of both.

Pirosmani’s paintings in the National Gallery reflect the evolution of the artist over the years. An odd one is a battle scene depicting the Russo-Japanese War. Pirosmani knew little of war and warfare, and indeed of places outside Tbilisi, so the painting reflects Pirosmani’s imagination as it had been fed, probably from talking to Russian soldiers, more than reality. The scenes in the masterpieces such as “the Feast of St George” and a “Traditional Picnic” are the ones that Pirosmani knew best and this is reflected in the detail and the diversity of imagery in the paintings.

The renovated National Gallery with its eight galleries was designed by the Portugese Architecural Firm Ainda Arqitectura who used the glass roof to allow natural light which helps  create a welcoming space making this one of the leading cultural venues in the Caucasus region. The gallery has recently been named after  Dimitri Shevarnadze, who was instrumental in its’ establishment.

I very strongly recommend a visit to this art gallery to anyone visiting Tbilisi.

Dennis Sammut is a frequent visitor to Georgia