PRINT April 2013

Nana Kipiani

Irakli Gamrekeli, set design for Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers), 1933, pencil and watercolor on paper, 13 3/4 x 17 1/2".

Secluded behind their inaccessible languages, the small European nations (their life, their history, their culture) are very ill known; people think, naturally enough, that this is the principal handicap to international recognition of their art. But it is the reverse: what handicaps their art is that everything and everyone (critics, historians, compatriots as well as foreigners) hooks the art onto the great national family portrait photo and will not let it get away.

—Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed

“FUTURISM IS DEAD!” With these words, declaimed a hundred years ago by Ilia Zdanevich in a lecture in Moscow, the Georgian avant-garde came into its own. Zdanevich, who was one of the most radical poets and artists of the time, had been among the first to spread the ideas of Futurism in Russia, and declaring the movement’s demise was an effective means of introducing the rival concept of “everythingism,” which he had developed along with the artist Mikhail Le-Dantu. As the French art historian Régis Gayraud wrote in 2008, the basis of everythingism was “a denial of time, a declaration that all forms of all time are modern . . . and that there is a criterion of everythingness that we can establish by which we can create true works of art.”

A similarly totalizing mode of thinking appears in an essay Zdanevich wrote—with Aleksei Kruchenykh, one of the famed creators of transrational zaum poetry—for a 1917 exhibition in Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, featuring the work of his brother Kirill Zdanevich, who had fought in World War I and had just been demobilized.

It is possible to bring together various modes of painting onto one canvas rather than to paint in one definite manner. Each mode attempts to tackle a specific task, but fails to encompass painting in its entirety. By combining modes, an artist liberates art from the power of temporary tasks, and by destroying the arbitrary character of each style grants a work marvelous wholeness[,] unites all extremities and paralyzes the dark emptiness!

A word used in the essay to describe Kirill Zdanevich’s painting, orchestral, might be taken to characterize the plurality and heterogeneity of the Tbilisi avant-garde—not only artistically but also in its attitude to life. The whole city, if not all of Georgia, was soon to resound with activities that challenged bourgeois rationality and conventional genre.

When Tbilisi (also known as Tiflis) became the capital of independent Georgia in 1918, at the end of World War I and in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution, it transformed into a city filled with modernist utopianism and a spirit of experimentation. The art scene fully reflected both the dramatic nature of this turbulent era and its particular attitude of childlike joy toward everyday life. As the Symbolist writer Grigol Robakidze put it, “Tbilisi has always been a strange city, but in 1919–1920 it became even more strange. . . . [It] has budded into the city of poets.”

Over the next four or five years, Tbilisi became the center of the avant-garde for the Caucasus, Russia, and southeastern Europe. This flowering would be cut short, as its dissolution, gradual at first, would begin soon after Georgia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921. Still, it is remarkable that an international cultural movement took place in this small country, which historically had to defend its statehood, in the South Caucasus. In one of his poems about Tbilisi, the Russian poet Igor Terentyev wrote: “It’s magnificent. . . . We are united by our hostile love and celebration,” a statement that conveys the adversarial and jubilant atmosphere at this time.

Georgian artists who had previously gone to Europe or Russia were now returning to Tbilisi, and they joined artists and poets of Polish, German, Armenian, and French origin, as well as Russians who had fled to Georgia to escape World War I and revolution at home. During these few years, everyone congregated there—Symbolists, Acmeists, Expressionists, Dadaists, zaum poets, Futurists, Cubists, Cubo-Futurists.

A boisterous period of fantastical declarations and manifestos had begun. Between 1917 and 1920, some two hundred lectures were given in Tbilisi by Ilia Zdanevich, Kruchenykh, Igor Terentyev, David Kakabadze, and other local artists. One event was titled “Mayakovsky’s Love Adventures”; another was billed as “A Night of Intuitive and Crazy Poetry.” A group of thirteen Georgian poets known as the Blue Horns held their first performance at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire, appearing onstage wearing theatrical masks with grimaces and performing movements based on the idea of plastic dynamism, borrowed from the Italian Futurists.

Artists’ cafés arose in tandem with these extraordinary events. Among the better-known establishments were Kimerioni, the Boat of the Argonauts, the Peacock’s Tail, and the restaurant Imedi. The most active scene was at the Fantastic Tavern, however, which was owned by Acmeist poet Yuri Degen and composer Sandro Korona. Kruchenykh wrote that it was here that adherents of various movements read their works, in myriad languages; several organizations were also founded there, including Futurvseuchbishche (Future University), which was devoted to educational and artistic productions, and the group 41º. In a newspaper also titled 41º, Ilia Zdanevich described its purpose: “The mission of 41º is to make use of the major discoveries of our collaborators and to place the world on a new axis. . . . The newspaper will be the source of constant unrest. We are rolling up our sleeves.” The group ran one of Tbilisi’s many avant-garde publishing houses, which issued Kruchenykh’s poetry in collections with titles such as The Fattening of Roses (ca. 1918) and Patent Leather Tights (1919), as well as volumes of Ilia Zdanevich’s own zaum writing such as Ianko King of Albania (1919), Easter Eyeland (1919), and the untranslatable ZgA JAkaby (1920).

Grigol Robakidze, Lamara, 1928. Performance view, Rustaveli National Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia, 1930. Set design by Irakli Gamrekeli.

In 1919, 41º published To Sofia Georgievna Melnikova (The Fantastic Tavern), which is emblematic of the organization’s ideas as well as its rootedness in specific sites and personas: The poems and artworks collected in this volume were commissioned by Ilia Zdanevich, and it was dedicated to an actress who was a regular at his favorite café. The anthology is a remarkable example of linguistic internationalism and stylistic heterogeneity. All the camps of the avant-garde are brought together in polyglot texts and diverse images, ranging from zaum poetry to Cubo-Futurist drawings; the book, one could say, epitomizes the startling multiplicity and cosmopolitanism of the Tbilisi avant-garde and its leveling of word, image, sound, and dialect into equivalent and malleable materials.

Soon, however, the seventy-year Soviet period would begin. At first, life went on much as before: In 1922, the group H₂SO₄ was founded, and two years later it published one of the most singular books of the time, with the same title—the formula for sulfuric acid, as if they might burn away and destroy traditional art. The Georgian Academy of Arts (later renamed the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts) was also founded in 1922, and it became a hotbed of innovative teaching strategies, inspired by Giorgi Chubinashvili, a thirty-year-old professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. He was closely connected to Tbilisi’s avant-garde circles, and from this international group of artists, he invited several to be professors.

But the consequences of Soviet cultural policy quickly began to make themselves felt. Initially, they primarily affected writing and the visual arts. As a result, cinema and theater in particular became a kind of shelter for avant-garde artists and directors. In 1927, Kakabadze and painter Elene Akhvlediani returned from Paris and began to work as set designers, endeavoring to integrate theater and film by using photographic techniques and projecting films onto the stage. Kirill Zdanevich, Irakli Gamrekeli, and Petre Otskheli also fused an otherworldly mode of Constructivism with set design. The plays put on in this period are like a series of tests in media translation: Cubism, Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism, and other pictorial and literary movements were all transposed to the stage to be experienced theatrically.

The modernist poet Galaktion Tabidze had said as early as the 1920s that Georgia was a country of dreams and sorrow. As the ’30s went on, however, state repression became much more severe. It dramatically affected the art academy, where several of the professors were sentenced to death as dissidents. The modernist painter Jakob Gabashvili was expelled from the academy. The Soviet authorities fired the young lecturer Valentin Sherpilov, as well as many others, for propagandizing “incorrect ideas” among students. In the late ’30s, “bourgeois modernism” and “avant-garde formalism” were banned with the introduction of socialist realism, and many painters, theater directors, writers, and actors were sent into exile or otherwise ended their activities. What’s more, the avant-garde concepts of the 1910s and ’20s were entirely excised from the memory of following generations: Four to five decades of censorship erased the traces of this thriving period of Georgian culture, and life continued as if that era had never taken place.

Georgian unofficial art began to materialize in the 1960s and even more significantly in the first quarter of the ’70s, but it was rarely spoken about. The emergence coincides, of course, with Russian and specifically Muscovite nonconformist art. Unlike Georgians, however, Muscovites had no history of annexation from which they might one day be released, and they did not share the desire to retain an older, more European culture. So while Russian nonconformist art had begun to play a prominent role in the cultural life of the Soviet Union, Georgian unofficial art was severely repressed, seen as a vehicle for dangerous ideologies.

Although one group of Georgian unofficial artists (among them Gia Edzgveradze and Ilia Zautashvili) espoused anarchist ideas, the politics associated with such art were not particularly rigid, but neither were these politics conducive to unofficial art’s expansion, since, if not strict, they were nevertheless specific to Georgia and did not resonate beyond geographic boundaries. Thus the powerful intellectual charge of Georgian unofficial art remained in the shadow of Soviet nonconformist art. The displacement of the Georgian avant-garde of 1910s and ’20s into the broader field of Russian art also made it difficult for later Georgian artists to reveal a regional, national identity or carve out their own cultural positions in the European context. Nevertheless—in spite of Russification and the accompanying process of so-called acculturation—Georgian unofficial art became the de facto successor to the original Tbilisi avant-garde and eventually gave shape to what has today become Georgian contemporary art.

Cover of Literature and Other no. 1 (1924–25).

Much Georgian unofficial art responded to its isolated position by focusing on the categories of time and space. In the art of Levan Chogoshvili and Irakli Parjiani, history itself was considered a set of cultural-political values, a path by which to seek identity. Hence the importance of photography in Chogoshvili’s work—in which a photograph is a document of the past, a metaphor of history. The problem of identity, which loomed large in Georgian modernism in the 1910s and ’20s, here again played an important role—as it would for the group that called itself the 10th Floor Artists, which became known for both paintings and Happenings in the 1980s.

The fate of Georgian art, to return to the epigraph from Kundera with which I began, is to be perpetually both out of time and out of place. The rediscovery of the Tbilisi avant-garde has only begun many decades after its suppression, and so its polemics, its novelty, and its historical specificity have been long obscured. Yet if the history of Georgian art is still too often either unknown or discovered too late, such insularity and isolation has also allowed for a telescoping, an intensification, of its possibilities. We should not mourn that art’s loss but seek new ways of elucidating its importance and its potency.

Nana Kipiani teaches art history at Ilia State University and is the senior researcher at the G. Chubinashvili National Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Translated from Georgian by Nino Shengelaia.