Niko Pirosmani - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Niko Pirosmani
Niko Pirosmani was born in the village of Mirzaani in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia in 1862. At the time, Georgia was on a large trade route between East and West: an interesting junction which produced a myriad culture combining elements from Christianity and mainland Europe, as well as the Mediterranean, Byzantium, and the Orient. It was also a place of folkloric tales and deeply engrained traditions and rituals.
Pirosmani's parents, Aslan Pirosmanashvili and Tekle Toklikishvili, were, like the vast majority of rural Georgians, farmers. They owned a small vineyard and farm animals. Pirosmani was orphaned early in life and left under the guardianship of his two elder sisters. In 1870, following their parents' deaths, the siblings moved to Tbilisi in search of work. Pirosmani took up employment as a servant in the house of a wealthy family, before working as a railroad conductor, and later a dairy farmhand in order to make a living and pay for art equipment.
Early Training and Work
While working in Tbilisi, Pirosmani taught himself how to paint and supplemented his income by creating shop signs and paintings in taverns and restaurants. These works referenced the mixed culture of Georgia in subject and technique: the artist incorporated elements of his own rustic heritage and experience, and painted directly onto readily available materials, such as oil cloth. Given the sparsity of materials, Pirosmani learned to paint quickly, which made his style dynamic and organic.
In 1882, the artist opened a painting workshop with his friend and fellow painter George Zaziashvili, where the duo made signboards for local businesses. Their work was influenced by the social conditions they faced, the occupations of their patrons, and everyday scenes in Tbilisi. The signs and paintings featured merchants, scenes of animals and rural life, as well as historical stories and Georgian myths.
It was not until the 1910s that Pirosmani's work reached a wider audience. The Russian poet Mikhail Le Dantu, accompanied by the artist Kiril Zdanevich and his poet brother Ilya, discovered Pirosmani's work in a tavern in Tbilisi. Although the exact date of this encounter is unknown, it is clear that by 1913, poet and avant-garde advocate Ilya Zdanevich was writing about Pirosmani in the newspaper Zakavkazskaia Rech and promoting his art in Moscow. Four of Pirosmani's paintings were presented in an exhibition of self-taught painters in Moscow in January of that year, including Portrait of Ilya Zdanevich, and were positively received by critics. Later that year, an article about the artist was published in the Georgian newspaper Temi.
Through Le Dantu and the Zdanevich brothers, Pirosmani's work became increasingly noticed and caught the eyes and imagination of the up-and-coming Russian avant-garde artist couple Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. The couple looked to naïve and primitive art and the work of folk artists for inspiration. They were so taken with Pirosmani's work that they wanted to include a few pieces in their seminal exhibition Target in Moscow in 1913. Larionov asked Ilya Zdanevich for works by "the charming and remarkable Niko Pirosmani (we've come to love them so much), along with some of his wonderful signs."
By exhibiting in the same circles as Larionov and Goncharova, Pirosmani helped to validate the new wave of Russian artists as separate from the European avant-garde. The inclusion of such an untrained folk artist and homegrown local personality, who was deeply committed to creating art despite no formal training, reinforced the idea that their art could represent both high culture and lowbrow art. His work reflected the unique culture of Georgia and Russia in its marriage of tradition with modernity and its juxtaposition of rural life with the growing cosmopolitan city. In this way, Pirosmani's art began to reach beyond the shopfronts of Tbilisi.
In 1916, Ilya Zdanevich organized a one-man show for Pirosmani in Tbilisi, which opened to good reviews. Following these exhibitions and the increasing interest in his work in Moscow, Pirosmani was approached to join the Society of Georgian Painters in 1916. The Society's founder, Dito Shevardnadze, personally invited Pirosmani to meetings and arranged much-needed funding for the artist. However, this relationship with the Society did not last. After a negative cartoon depicting the artist was published by members of the Society, along with general whisperings about his lack of education and training, he severed all ties.
Throughout this decade of his life, despite some successes, Pirosmani remained in poverty. Usually homeless, he painted mostly in exchange for food and wine, spending what money he made on art supplies. As well as his technique and style, it was this devotion to art that caught the imagination of members of the Russian avant-garde.
Pirosmani did not live to see any success further than his exhibitions of the 1910s. Although his work had started to become known throughout Georgia and Russia, he was not financially well-off. Combined with the economic effects of the outbreak of the First World War, poverty had a dire effect on the artist's health. Pirosmani died from malnutrition and liver failure in the cellar of a tavern in Tbilisi at the age of 55.
The Legacy of Niko Pirosmani
In the immediate aftermath of his death, local artists such as Lado Gudiashvili and David Kakabadze celebrated Pirosmani by creating frescoes in the taverns, cafes, and restaurants of Tbilisi. From 1920 onwards, due to the continued work of the Zdanevich brothers, Pirosmani's work became increasingly more well-known. Articles were published about him in Georgia, Russia, and France. Kiril Zdanevich published the first monograph on the artist in 1926, which was translated into Russian and French, followed by a larger monograph in 1963.
Despite his lack of recognition and financial success during his lifetime, Pirosmani has become viewed as a key figure in the development of the Russian avant-garde, particularly the Neo-Primitivist and Rayonist movements. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the effect his work had on Larionov and Goncharova. These artists looked to the past and peasant life to discover a new way of painting in terms of style and subject. They renewed an interest in the style of shop signs and tavern paintings, and in using the themes seen in everyday life.
Pirosmani's use of traditional rural themes and search for the primitive can also be seen as influencing the work of Kazimir Malevich, David Burliuk, and Marc Chagall. Outside of Russia and Georgia, Ilya Zdanevich spent a large portion of his life in Paris. He took with him catalogues of Pirosmani's work, which he shared with avant-garde artists in France. In particular, Pablo Picasso was intrigued by the work of Pirosmani, appreciating the unique perspective that his rural roots brought to his art. Picasso was so taken with Pirosmani that he sketched a portrait of the artist in 1972. Pirosmani's influence reaches the art world today, finding admirers in such artists as the American-Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov. When featured alongside the work of Pirosmani in the exhibition Signs and Wonders in 1995, Kabakov described his antecedent's work: "It makes perfect sense and it is a complete mystery, a marvellous incomprehensible enigma."
Pirosmani's legacy as a national icon in his home country was confirmed when a monument was erected in the capital city Tbilisi. The Art Museum of Georgia has gradually acquired 146 of his works.
His position as a self-taught artist and a "naïve" painter also positions Pirosmani as one of our earliest Outsider and Primitivist artists.