PRINT April 2013

Irena Popiashvili

Niko Pirosmani, Sona Playing a Concertina, 1913, oil on cardboard, 39 1/8 x 27 1/8".


OUR UNDERSTANDING of twentieth-century Georgian art is still dominated by one artist: Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918), a self-taught painter who was discovered in the early 1900s and whose reputation was revived and cemented by the Soviets in the ’60s. They cast him as a heroic plebeian artist who died poor and was ignored by the public, and this myth has not been revised since. More than one hundred of his paintings were recently displayed at the National Gallery in Tbilisi in an exhibition on the occasion of the artist’s 150th birthday. The show was advertised with posters of his most clichéd images, those emphasizing folksy familiarity, for example Portrait of the Actress Margarita, and Girl with a Balloon. This is the official version of Pirosmani constructed for the general public.

But another side of the artist is on view in eastern Georgia. In the Kakheti region, there is a Pirosmani museum located in Mirzaani, the village where he was born and spent his childhood. The museum displays fourteen paintings, among them a little-known work that is the museum’s hidden treasure: a portrait of Sona, a local girl whom Pirosmani’s sister wanted him to marry. The deeply personal subject matter on view here allows visitors to see past the hackneyed tableaux that have come to define the artist and his work.

If going beyond the National Gallery offers an expanded view of Georgia’s artistic genealogies, it also reveals emerging possibilities for contemporary culture. The Center of Contemporary Art—Tbilisi, established in 2010, organizes exhibitions and runs its own experimental art school, while artists’ residencies such as Arteli Racha and Art Villa Garikula host artists and organize exhibitions. The latter runs the yearly Festinova Garikula arts festival as well. Innovative venues such as these—with their increasing number of international visitors—reveal a particular kind of cosmopolitanism, one that both echoes and overturns the turbulent mixture of socialist realism, commodified mythology, and artistic idiosyncrasy that colors Georgia’s history.

Irena Popiashvili, an owner of Newman Popiashvili Gallery in New York, was a director of the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts until November 2012. She is based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and New York.