Monday, April 29, 2013

MAGAZIN: Georgian Art: The West’s Most Eastern Frontier. By Jennifer Walker (

( History’s Crossroads Bring Rich Cultural Heritage to Multi-faceted Land

Posted on 28 March 2013 | By Jennifer Walker
Fresco from Gelati Monastery, Kutaisi, 13th c.
The Former Soviet Republic of Georgia is unique in every aspect – from its varied landscape ranging from the Caucasus Mountains, the coast of the Black Sea and the deserts on the border with Azerbaijan – to its art.

Georgia’s location makes the country a crossroads of cultures, from the Asiatic influence of the Persian and Ottoman Empires, its occupation under the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. While geographers are uncertain whether to categorise Georgia as Europe or Asia, the country’s culture is distinctly European.
Vardzia Frescoes, 12th century
To chronicle Georgian history of art in a way that parallels the West is no easy task, especially since easel painting did not exist in the country till the late 18th century. However, Georgia’s own renaissance in the 11-13th centuries yielded some extraordinary fresco work to rival the churches in Italy to its 20th century avant-gardes who moved in the same circles as Picasso, Braque and Duchamp.

Early Georgian art is best characterised by its murals and sports some of the finest examples of frescoes from its time in Europe. It’s difficult to contextualise Georgian art without looking to the church – since Georgia declared Christianity the state religion in the 330s. The new state religion marked the important beginning into the development of arts and letters in the South Caucasian country. With Christianity spreading throughout the whole of Western Europe too, Georgia’s faith allowed the country to keep its ties with Europe and many educated members were acquainted with Western philosophy and literature.
Medieval Fresco of David IV, Gelati
During the middle ages, centres of culture and enlightenment were founded and some even gained international significance. It was also during this time that mural painting reached its zenith, where national schools with their own unique characters developed throughout Georgia.

While Georgian mural paintings show influences from Byzantine style, during their peak in the 11-13th centuries, Georgian hagiography really began to develop its own unique style that diverged away from the Byzantine forms.

The Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church promoted and sponsored the creation of artistic works of religious devotion, and the best way to get a feel for Georgian art is to travel the churches and monasteries of the country. Mostly, their subject matter includes iconography or hagiographies of Georgian saints, but works of a more secular nature do exist as well.
Interior of the Gelati monastery
The frescoes at Davit Gareji are perhaps some of the most interesting examples of Georgian art. The cave-hewn Davit Gareji monastic complex dates as far back as the 6th century, and grew over the area into a variety of cave monasteries that soon became Georgia’s sacred spiritual and cultural centre. The monastery also housed the once flourishing Davit Gareji fresco school. One of the most noted monasteries in the complex is the monastery of Udabno, whose school began in the 10th century. The earlier frescoes show a limited palette combined with an austere style, but over time the artwork evolved into brilliantly coloured, stylised murals. Nowadays, these frescoes decorate abandoned caves on the ridge side looking out towards the deserts in Azerbaijan. Many of these are in poor condition now, due to the Mongol and Persian invasion and the military practices undertaken in the area by the Soviet Union.

The cave city of Vardzia, a monastic complex towards the Turkish border, houses another excellent set of 12th century art. Instead of focussing on the sandy, desert inspired colours of the Davit Gareji School, its palette consists of deep blues and rich colours. The frescoes at Vardzia were almost lost during the Ottoman takeover of the 16th century, when they set up large wax candles in the church to burn them, however the soot from the candles deposited a layer on the murals preserving them. It was only centuries later when a Greek monk discovered the hidden frescoes behind their carbon protective layer.
Depiction of Hell, Gelati monastery
One thing that differentiates the churches of the Georgian Orthodox from those built in Russia is their stone construction. Where early Russian churches were built with wood, their Georgian equivalent were built in stone – for this reason, there was a development in the painting of wooden panelled icons in Russia, which did not pick up in Georgia.

Western art of the Middle Ages focussed predominantly on wooden panelled altarpieces, most notably in the schools of northern Europe like the Flemish school. While there is a difference in artistic style between the perspectives and palettes used in the Flemish school of art with the iconography from the Russian Orthodox Church, a cultural similarity between the two focuses on portable panels. Georgian churches, on the other hand, didn’t develop this tradition of icons; instead you’ll find frescoes on the walls of important churches and monasteries, like those in Gelati in Kutaisi or in Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta near Tbilisi. In the Russian tradition, the iconostasis, the church alter, consists of tiers of icons swww.artesmagazine.comometimes going up to six rows, whereas in the Georgian church, this partition is only one story in height, where the principal image of the church is seen in the hemispherical half-dome of the church apse.

The expressions and colours of the frescoes are reminiscent of the murals from the early Italian renaissance, such as Fra Angelico. The frescoes of the Gelati monastery do not have the cold, hard lines of Byzantine iconography, yet are filled with expressive faces telling a story. In one chapel, there is a scene on a wooden plate depicting a hell that brings to mind the works of Bosch.
Damiane, The Annunciation, 14th century
While the paintings found in Georgia’s early renaissance, the names of the painters are in general anonymous, however in the 14th century there came a painter whose works hold a special place in the history and development of mural and monument painting in Georgia – Damiane.

The artist whose works were at their most important during the first half of the 14th century combined traditional Georgian artistic traditions with the more advanced artistic trends from Palaeologue Byzantium, Russia and the Slavic countries of the Balkans.

Damiane’s new style was characterised by a keen interest in space and perspective, with a moderation of religious asceticism and contains a greater deal of freedom in the composition of his paintings.

The style adopted by Europe marked the beginning of a new artistic aesthetic that opposed the current medieval outlook. In Italy we saw the beginning of the Renaissance, and even in the Balkans, Russia and in Georgia realism started to seep into the art and began to develop more humanistic traits.

www.artesmagazine.comIn the work of Damiane, this vivid form of expression can be seen in his monumental painting, where the usual themes traditional themes in Georgian churches were expanded, bringing the life of local saints into church art. Instead of the canonical iconography seen before, these were being replaced with lifelike and expressive faces with natural proportions and deeper perspective. Classic renaissance art may not have made an obvious impression on Georgian art, but there are some hints to its influence.

Georgian artistic style diverted from European progression in the later centuries, most notably in the 17th and 18th centuries, due to the impact of neighbouring Persian influences. In the art of manuscripts and local architecture, Georgian art underwent a strong, orientalist makeover, until the influences of the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, just before the country was annexed in 1801.

www.artesmagazine.comThe most important point in late Georgian art history came in the mid to late 18th century – the arrival of easel painting. Until then, traditional easel painting didn’t exist in Georgia, and while the rest of Europe experienced an evolution of easel painted works, whose style and artistic trends had centuries to develop, Georgia witnessed an acceleration and uneven development in the art form. This was due to political, economic and social factors that make Georgia different from any other European country. Because of the late arrival of easel painting into Georgian art history; its easel paintings show no clearly defined stylistic development or regularities.

The formation and development of Georgian easel painting came from Western European art, either from direct contact or via the Russian schools. Initially easel painting took on the form of portraits of kings and noblemen. These paintings were unsigned and were formal in their composition.

Two important influences on Georgian art in this era firstly came from the Roman Catholic missionaries from Italy during the 17th-18th centuries in Georgia – who came to the aid of their Christian brethren in a time when they were surrounded by Muslim countries. During this time, the very first Georgian-Italian dictionary and Georgian grammar were printed in Rome, not to mention that while many of the Italian missionaries were also skillful painters. There was a huge cultural exchange between the two countries, and many Georgians travelled to Italy during that time.

Of course the other influence is without a doubt, Russia. During the period of the Russian Empire, many Georgians emigrated to Moscow, where they formed their own colony and many artistic and scientific contacts were established between Georgia and Europe. In Russia, Georgian painters began to work with artists of different nationalities and had the opportunity to master the “European manner” of painting.
David Kakabadze, Imeretia (1917)
In the 19th century, the Tiflis Portrait School took shape, and Georgian art developed its own style, where the European techniques give way to influences from Georgian medieval painting. In the second half of the 19th century, Georgian artists begin to work professionally.

The most exciting part of Georgian art came much later, in the beginning of the 20th century when Georgian artists began studying in Paris.

Sculptor Iacob Nikoladze went to study with Rodin, and his works show a direct influence from the French master. Other homegrown artists at the time were making their name in Paris and in the European avant-garde circles; Pirosmani for example is perhaps the most famous Georgian artist.

Niko Pirosmani was a self-taught painter famed for his primitivist style. His paintings are bright with childish lines conveying themes rooted in Georgian folk culture. His work touched Spanish artist Pablo Picasso with his childish, naïve style and even influenced his work.

www.artesmagazine.comTiflis born, Georgian-Polish Ilia Zdanevich became associated with the Dada movement in Paris. Zdanevich is classified father as pre-Dada, whose ideas were considered extreme by the Dadaists themselves. He collaborated in a variety of artist’s books along with Picasso, Max Ernst, Miró and other artists at the time, as well as having his works exhibited all around from MOMA to Tbilisi, along with his brother Kiril Zdanevich who was a cubo-futurist.

One of Georgia’s most respected artists from the 20th century, David Kakabadze, was not only a force to be reckoned with in his home country, but made waves in Paris too. He experimented in a range of styles from cubism to early forms of abstraction, and he published and displayed his works alongside Braque, Gris and Picasso – yet his name has been erased from the pages of Western art history. Kakabadze was a close friend of Duchamp and together they participated in a variety of projects. Alas, after Kakabadze’s return to Soviet Georgia his name disappeared from the Western art scene, and he was trapped into making his now famous “Imeretian landscapes” in an artistic environment where only Social Realism was allowed.
Throughout the era of the Soviet Union, there were always artists who tried to rebel against the constraints of Social Realism, yet many avant-garde Georgian artists died in the Stalinist purges or took to Social Realism as a way to survive. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen, Georgia’s artistic life is thriving again, with many young and exciting artists coming out of the woodwork unafraid of experimentation. It’s a part of the world that is heaving with raw passion, whose unique and ancient history is bound to put Georgia on the map in art history.

By Jennifer Walker, Contributing Writer

Author’s Note: I would like to offer a very special thank you to the National Gallery and National Museum, most notably to Nino Gedevanishvili and Mariam Dvali for their help with this article, and not to mention all the valuable knowledge on Georgian Modernism I’ve learned from the expertise of Nana Kipiani, and to Irena Popiashvili at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts.

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