Niko Pirosmani, Bridge with Donkey, date unknown, oil on wax cloth, 36 5⁄8 × 46 1⁄2".

Niko Pirosmani, Bridge with Donkey, date unknown, oil on wax cloth, 36 5⁄8 × 46 1⁄2".

Niko Pirosmani

If the extraordinary paintings of the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) are still too little known, it may be in part because, since his death, Pirosmani’s hard-to-classify art has almost never been for sale. Many of his existing paintings are concentrated in the collection of the Georgian National Museum, far from the art world in America. Sometimes referred to as the “Douanier Rousseau of the East,” Pirosmani, too, was self-taught. But there the similarities end. Pirosmani’s paintings can hardly be characterized as fantastic or dreamlike; if anything, they are transcendental. Partly inspired by local icons and with a good dose of whimsy, his works challenge the viewer to recognize the holy in the ordinary rituals of the hardworking people of Georgia and its capital city, Tiflis (today Tbilisi), where the artist lived. In works such as Bridge with Donkey, date unknown, we recognize not just the sacred quality of those people who shared a glass of wine and a meal with this vagabond, but also the majestic dignity of animals, which despite their captivity remain playful and obedient.

It was thanks to the Georgian artists Ilya and Kirill Zdanevich that Pirosmani’s work began to find broader recognition in the early years of the twentieth century. The two brothers not only commissioned works from the artist but also brought Pirosmani to the attention of the Russian Futurists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who included four of his paintings in their 1913 exhibition “Mishen” (Target) in Moscow. That didn’t change much for Pirosmani, who never had much interest in cultivating the favor of the vanguard-art world. Far from alienated from his sociohistorical context, as many so-called outsider artists were, Pirosmani made work that was populist to its core. One could readily see it in cafés and taverns, and even outside shops in Tiflis. By the time of his death, he had produced some two thousand works, though only around two hundred have survived. In 1927, twenty-three of Pirosmani’s paintings were shown in Moscow at the “Jubilee Exhibition of Arts of Peoples of the USSR.” Of these, sixteen belonged to Kirill Zdanevich. As Stalin’s grip on Russia’s cultural identity tightened, Zdanevich was forced to sell his collection to the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts (now part of the Georgian National Museum). The pieces languished in its cellar for decades before being hung again. Bice Curiger discovered them in 1989 and presented a show at the Kunsthaus Zürich six years later. In her current position as artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, Curiger has partnered with the Georgian National Museum and Vienna’s Albertina Museum to mount another superb exhibition of Pirosmani’s work. Never mind that there are just twenty-nine of Pirosmani’s paintings on view: They are more than enough, because each painted image is incredibly powerful. In Arles, Curiger has gone to great lengths to bring out the amazing capacity of these works to embody the sacred without directly referencing it. Aware that his paintings were never intended for museum walls, she decided to hang them against a painted mesh fabric that creates the illusion of crushed “Apple-converted-space” velvet in an array of worn-looking monochromatic colors. The effect is so becoming to the paintings that it is hard to imagine that they ever could have been hung any other way.

Less successful, perhaps, is the attempt to juxtapose Pirosmani’s art with contemporary works, most of which pale in comparison. Still, there are a few exceptions—an installation by Raphaela Vogel and an extraordinary table by the architect Tadao Ando among them. Also unique to this installation is a separate gallery that features six paintings by Vincent van Gogh from 1884 to 1889. These works complement Pirosmani’s wonderfully. Almost always painted onto black wax cloth, a Pirosmani is infused with the kind of mysterious energy that we find in so many of van Gogh’s best works. But here, too, is an important difference: Those by Pirosmani have a luminous, captivating power reminiscent of early cinematic images. Take, for example, White Sow with Piglets, date unknown. Painted in shades of black, grays, and white, it has all the qualities of a filmic close-up, including a tightly framed composition, larger-than-life imagery, and an otherworldly quality to boot. That tenor, in turn, would inspire Giorgi Shengelaia to make the acclaimed movie Pirosmani (1969), an excerpt of which is screened in Arles. However, Pirosmani’s paintings are so compelling that the chance should not be missed to experience them in person.