Tbilisi, Georgia

David Kakabadze, Industry, 1927, india ink and lacquer on   cardboard, 18 7/8 x 15".

David Kakabadze, Industry, 1927, india ink and lacquer on cardboard, 18 7/8 x 15".

David Kakabadze

Georgian National Museum Dimitri Shevardnadze National Gallery

David Kakabadze, Industry, 1927, india ink and lacquer on   cardboard, 18 7/8 x 15".

Following World War I, the Georgian avant-gardist, theoretician, and inventor David Kakabadze (1889–1952) was one of the first among a group of artists to position Georgian art within the global modernist movement. In turn, the modernist language that he brought to the Caucasus—reflecting an admixture of emergent trends, including Futurism, Cubism, and abstraction—provided his newly independent country with a fresh visual vocabulary.

During his studies in Saint Petersburg, Russia, from 1910 to 1915, Kakabadze became interested in the concurrent debates in the arts and sciences—a conversation he would continue to follow even after moving, in 1919, to Paris, where he would remain until 1927, circulating among the European avant-garde. “Every artist should remember that art is a science,” he would often say. This credo would soon become a liability, however, as imbuing art with the possibility of experimentation and empirical truths did not comply with the doctrine of socialist realism, which took all forms of experimentalism in art to be degenerate and pessimistic. Not surprisingly, the Soviet regime suppressed Kakabadze and any memory of his modernist ties.

As the largest exhibition to date of Kakabadze’s work, this retrospective at Tbilisi’s National Gallery aimed to publicly reinstate the artist as a major figure in twentieth-century art. The curatorial team, led by the artist’s granddaughter Maria Kakabadze in collaboration with scientific consultant and art historian Ketevan Kintsurashvili and artist/designer David Janiashvili, brought together more than 120 works from the artist’s family, the museum’s holdings, the Museo Coleção Berardo in Lisbon, and other private collections.

At the start of the show was Kakabadze’s most famous painting, Imereti–My Mother, 1918, which contains all of the expected archetypes of national culture: mother, nature, crafts, and homeland. The colorful terraced slopes of Imereti, in western Georgia, where the artist grew up, appear in this work not unlike Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist renderings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, creating a dramatic, abstract background for the monumental and remarkably realist image of the artist’s mother. In an adjacent gallery, paintings from multiple groups of works that Kakabadze made during and following time spent in Brittany, France, in 1921 demonstrated gradual dissolutions of figure and ground, wherein houses and sailboats give way to abstract biomorphic shapes. The Georgian artist’s training in the natural sciences informed this early predilection for organic forms—ones that, a few years later, Surrealism would largely take on. (In 1926, several of Kakabadze’s works were included in the “International Exhibition of Modern Art Assembled by the Société Anonyme” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.)

The exhibition continued on the ground floor with experiments in film and photography. Inspired by the spirit of the era’s “machinism” (the artist’s term), Kakabadze even invented a patented stereoscopic apparatus. The curators logically displayed these items beside the artist’s Constructivist collages—exquisite compositions incorporating tempera, metal, optical lenses, and, in one piece, even an electric bulb, on flat wood panels. Due to the use of track lighting in this gallery, the works not only cast shadows on the ground but, as the artist intended, extended via their optical components well beyond their material surfaces. One could imagine how radical the interplay of these artworks with the space of the room must have seemed at the time of their first display—and then how great a departure the pro forma requirements of socialist-realist painting must have seemed to Kakabadze upon his return in 1927 to a Soviet-ruled Georgia.

It is interesting to see how the artist ultimately dealt with the restrictions of socialist realism. The last room of the retrospective was dedicated to the works he made in response. As with his early Imereti–My Mother, Kakabadze laid down a patchwork of tones to indicate landscape, but whereas he painted his mother in distinct relief from the ground, the requisite images of workers and portraits of leaders in these later works all but disappear amid carpets of brilliantly painted synthetic countryside. There was a kind of justice in the fact that the curators did nothing to fabricate a Soviet context for these works. Rather, the paintings appeared on white walls to be read alongside the rest of Kakabadze’s oeuvre—the full spectrum of his career at last aired unfiltered.

Lali Pertenava