The Avant-garde in Georgia (1900-1936)

Niko Pirosmanashvili (Pirosmani), The Feast of the Four Citizens © Sh. Amiranashvili State Museum of Fine Arts / Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi

The exhibition ‘The Avant-garde in Georgia (1900-1936)’ opens as part of the Europalia Georgia festival with a presentation of a largely forgotten chapter in the history of European avant-garde art. 

For the first time in Europe, the Georgian avant-garde is presented and contextualized through more than 150 works, including drawings, paintings, photographs, artists’ publications, theatre and cinema décors, coming mainly from the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Palace of Georgia, the David Kakabadze Foundation and private collections. The curators of the exhibition are Nana Kipiani, Irine Jorjadze and Tea Tabatadze.

In the global turbulence that followed the fall of the Russian Empire and the October Revolution, Georgia declared independence in 1918. This enchanted interlude lasted only a short time before the Soviet invasion of 1921. Nevertheless, it allowed an abundance of inspiring avant-garde creations to unfold. It was notably among the many taverns and cafés in Kutaïssi and in the capital, Tbilisi, that artists met, gathered and organized multidisciplinary events that gave shape to new artistic practices that redefined the general viewpoint on life. This can still be seen on the walls of cafes to this day.

The numerous collaborations took many forms and mixed Georgian traditions with Western and Eastern influences. They interacted in paintings, drawings, writing, films, photographs, performances, typographical experimentations, publishing books and theatre pieces. Movements as diverse as (Neo-)Symbolism, Futurism, Dadaism, Zaum, Everythingism, Expressionism, Cubo-Futurism all coexisted in an unprecedented creative effervescence.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the circulation of people and ideas intensified with an increasingly cosmopolitan Georgian society.Symbolism found literary expression in Grigol Robakidze’s works and in the Blue Horns group. Works by painters Gigo Gabashvili and Alexander von Salzmannfed show the influence of exchanges with other international centres of creativity ,particularly with St. Petersburg, Paris and Munich.

This was the case for Shalva Kikodze and brothers Kirile and Ilia Zdanevich, the latter of whom disseminated Futurist theories that led to the formation of the 41° group. As the artistic laboratory of the Caucasus, Tbilisi was also a place of refuge for Russian artists fleeing the civil war such as Sergey Sudeikin, Igor Terentiev and Aleksei Kruchenykh. Influenced byMikhail Le Dantu, the Zdanevich brothers discovered and promoted the work of the self-taught painter Niko Pirosmani, who was soon to become an example for many avant-gardeartists.

In1921, the enchanted interlude ended in Georgia with the Soviet invasion followed by annexation to the USSR in 1922. The Soviet authorities put pressure on artists and imposed the aesthetic principles of socialist realism. To circumvent these injunctions, avant-garde artists such as Irakli Gamrekeli, Petre Otskheli, Elene Akhvlediani, Kirile Zdanevich andDavid Kakabadze continued their practice by creating scenographies, costumes and décors for theatre and cinema, areas in which avant-garde ideas could still develop for a while. 

Under Stalin and the Soviet regime any artists were deported and executed while others emigrated, committed suicide, or adapted their work under political pressure. Artist Ilia Zdanevich(also known asIliazd) did not return to Georgia and continued his activities in Paris, collaborating with Sonia Delaunay. Through his publishing house,41°, he also produced some of the most beautiful artists’ books of the twentieth century, for which he collaborated among others with Picasso, and Max Ernst.

Bozar to 14 January

Kirille Zdanevich, Sketch for the play Maelstrom, 1924 © Art Palace of Georgia – Museum of Cultural History, Tbilisi

Petre Otskheli, Costume design for Anatoly Lunarcharsky’s play The Fire Starters © Art Palace of Georgia – Museum of Cultural History, Tbilisi