Niko Pirosmani "Glory to this right hand"

Natalya Apchinskaya

Magazine issue: 
#1 2009 (22)

In December 2008 the Proun Gallery, at the Vinzavod Contemporary Art Centre, held a Pirosmani retrospective exhibition, the first show of the artist’s work in Moscow for many years. Impeccably designed and staged, it featured 20 works by Pirosmani, mainly from private collections, along with supporting photographic and other visual materials. It proved a huge success with the public, which was ready to queue for some time to see it. This article is a tribute to the art of the outstanding Primitivist painter.

Niko Pirosmani — a vagrant artist who made pictures and sign-boards for Tiflis (Tbilisi) taverns for trifling remuneration, died forgotten by all in a hospital for the poor in 1918, and was buried in an unknown location; however he has remained in art history as the greatest Georgian artist of the modern age. His biography, pieced together from scarce surviving documentary evidence, today continues to be the focus of academic research.

Nikolai Aslanovich Pirosmanashvili was born to a peasant family probably around 1866 (as Georgian art scholars recently found out) in the village of Shulaveri[1] — not in the neighboring Mirzaani village as was previously assumed. His parents died soon after his birth, and the boy was raised by the Kalantarovs, a wealthy Armenian family in Tiflis. When Niko grew up and left his guardians’ home, he tried to find his bearings in the practical world: together with a partner he set up a workshop making sign-boards. For several years he worked as a railway brake- man; he also kept a small store. But all his attempts to secure a steady income through a practical occupation failed. A loftier fate was in store for him.

In the late 19th century he worked as a painter in taverns and other similar establishments in Tiflis, creating sign-boards, oil paintings, murals and glass paintings, which did not survive. The artist mostly worked in poor Tiflis neighborhoods on the left bank of the Kura River. Very soon he developed an individual style and contrived to use a material unheard-of among painters — high quality black oilcloth produced for industrial needs. Sometimes Pirosmani painted on pieces of cardboard, tin plates and, occasionally, canvas, although most often he used oilcloth, the durability and elasticity of which helped the pictures to survive in a relatively good condition.

Some of the tavern keepers appreciated Pirosmani’s art, commissioning work from him. While closely tied with this milieu, the artist nevertheless seemed to inhabit a different world. People entangled in day-to-day difficulties thought of him as a man “not of this world”. The talent that scorched him inside, his loneliness, existence outside a daily routine, and his drinking habit that grew over the years — all this was sapping the life out of him. His demise was precipitated by social cataclysms. Returning to Tiflis from the provinces in early 1918, a sick Pirosmani found himself without friends and means of subsistence (most taverns were closed because of the turmoil). It is now believed that the artist died in a hospital on the eve of the Easter on May 4; he was buried on May 9 at the Kukiiskoe cemetery for unidentified bodies[2].

At the end of Georgy Shengelaya’s famous film “Pirosmani” the key character, defying worldly logic and in accordance with a more sublime logic of art, does not die; instead, to the accompaniment of the cheerful Easter peal of church bells, he moves, not to a hospital, but into the future...

For Pirosmani that future began in the 1910s, thanks to the enthusiastic support of Mikhail Le Dantyu (who was killed in the first World War), a talented artist and art theoretician close to Mikhail Larionov, and the Zdanevich brothers — Kirill, who studied with Le Dantyu at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, and Ilya, who was then a law student and later became an avant-garde poet living in France and writing under the pen name “Iliazd”. Each of these people contributed to the efforts to preserve Pirosmani’s art for posterity and to secure for him a place in the history of world art[3].

As an artist Pirosmani was uniquely positioned between individualized style and traditional folk forms, between modern and ancient art. Unlike the great masters of past eras, who did not sign their works, he signed his, creating unconventional images inspired by reality, and valuing independence and creative freedom above all. It is known that when a merchant Meskhishvili offered the artist a permanent job, he proudly replied: “I don’t want to get shackled.” But for all his individualism, Pirosmani was deeply rooted in his native soil, which retained in its “cultural layer” a memory of ancient and medieval art.

Unlike his contemporaries, professional painters who received an academic training, Pirosmani, in the formulation used in Shengelaya’s film, “did not know how to paint properly”. His art was generally intuitive, and it was due to this singular intuition that he could penetrate the existential depths impenetrable for artists who had a more rational mindset and were less gifted.

Deeply religious, Pirosmani used to say about himself: “I was not an icon painter, I painted St. George only once.” Pirosmani believed that this saint, from whose name the country’s name, Georgia, was derived, was his personal patron, and depicted St. George, with an unmatched craftsmanship, in one of his oilcloth pictures. There is also another pronouncement that has survived: “I believe in my St. George. When I go to bed, he materializes with a whip in his hand by my bedstead and says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ And in the morning my brush paints by itself.”

But Pirosmani did not paint saints or religious subjects — he focused on his contemporaries, residents of Tiflis and the villages of Kakheti. Painted with wide, liberal strokes, the figures shine against a black background and, in spite of the down-to-earth nature of the scenes represented in the pictures, embodied both real and surreal elements; the entire tenor of the imagery evoked Georgian medieval frescos and icons.

Although Pirosmani spent almost all of his life in Tiflis, he did not become a poet of city life like France’s Henri Rousseau. His art is mostly focused on people and nature, as well as peasants’ life in the country. Most of Pirosmani’s surviving works are images of people and animals.

Pictures of animals are an impressive part of the Georgian artist’s legacy, a special genre which is not so much “animalist” as “animist” (from “anima” — “soul”, not from “animal”). The images do not simply reproduce the exterior and manners of an animal; representing the animating element of nature rather than faithfully reproducing its physical appearance, they seem to live a life of their own.

Pirosmani called animals “friends of my heart” and often pictured them in more elaborate psychological detail than people, conveying through their images compassion, tenderness, admiration, fear, and sometimes a deep drama. Such are his “little Easter lambs” — the symbols of Christ’s sacrifice, often stunning in their humanity and tragic overtones. The lions, bright in the full sense of the word, are astonishing. The “yellow” lion, with amber-like eyes, “burning bright”, as the English poet William Blake put it, is shown against a blue-black background with green-yellow foliage; he is intense but looks like a toy and seems harmless. The “Iranian” lion looks exactly like his counterpart on Iran’s national emblem. The “black” lion is the most august and intense. All three images, as in Blake’s poem (dedicated, though, to the tiger, and not to the lion), are a hymn to the Creator whose mighty hand made both the lamb and the king of beasts who looks like a live flame. Equally remarkable are the long-wool she-goats who look like tenderness itself, the noble deer, the meek fallow deer, the cows and the hares, the high-minded camel who, towering over the driver, seems to claim the position that is rightfully his, and the demonical eagle clawing a hare. Unforgettable are the images of the bear stealing along a tree on a moonlit night and the unearthly giraffe whose image has evoked, in the minds of those who wrote about Pirosmani, the horse on a tapestry that seemed to come alive in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Metzengerstein”. Most of Pirosmani’s pictures feature birds: sinister and mysterious black birds, and white birds as emblems of joy.

The natural settings in which Pirosmani’s animals live are rarely specific; most often, this is a general vision of nature, a universe sparsely depicted — a strip of land, a high skyline, tree trunks or tree stumps that do not block the view of the sky, the water jets and grass stalks. Everything seems monumentally steady, and everything is suffused with dynamic rhythms. The mighty tree trunks seem to be streaming up from the soil; the grass wavers; the folds of the hills undulate in curves; the water stream runs forth. When one thinks about the creator of these images, this verse of Pirosmani’s favorite poet Vazha Pshavela comes to mind:

“New wisdom pierced his wond’ring brain;
He saw the world with different eyes,
He saw it smile, he heard it speak,
He knew the meaning of its sighs.
All things that breathed or lived had tongue,
Held converse soft in language strange.”[4]

As an artist whose way of thinking was in many respects archaic, Pirosmani did not create pure landscapes or separate the natural environment from humans or animals. His peasants and townspeople stand on the earth in the shade of the sky. Some of the figures are images of real people, such as Ilya Zdanevich, the tavern owner Alexander Garanov, the actress Margarita, who, according to a romantic legend, was responsible for Pirosmani’s bankruptcy (which happened to him when he kept a store), and legendary figures of Georgian history Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamara. But most often Pirosmani would picture nameless people — a fisherman, street cleaner, organ-grinder, or porter, a Georgian woman with a tambourine, a lady with an umbrella, a peasant woman with children, or an “Ortachala beauty” (woman of pleasure from a suburban neighborhood called Ortachala).

Both the portrait-like pictures and the nameless images are very realistic and individualized, but at the same time they are more or less universalized and condensed into typical images. The figures seem to stand still as if before a photo camera of the kind that began to be used in Georgia at that time. In fact the figures are located outside any specific time frame; their vis-a-vis is not a chance viewer, as is the case with iconic images, but Eternity itself.

“When I paint the fallen Ortachala beauties,” explained Pirosmani, “I place them against the background of black life; but they have a love for life — it is the flowers around their bodies and the little bird at the shoulder. I picture them lying on white sheets, I pity them, and with the white colour I forgive them for their sin.” The entire image, its details and especially colour were loaded with symbolical and ethical weight in Pirosmani’s pictures. In many works, his heroes symbolize the demotic ideal of beauty, but often they are not so much aestheticized as elevated and, in line with Christian ideals, symbolize enlightened spirituality and humble standing before the face of God. Some scholars have noticed that the faces in Pirosmani’s pictures resemble the visages in ancient frescos, and the hats sometimes evoke the haloes of saints. There are images with certain pagan overtones: for instance, the “Street Cleaner” evokes the fantastic image of Ochokochi, a spirit inhabiting the Caucasian forests, and “Woman with a Mug” with her intense gaze evokes “the mistress of animals” of Dali.

The multi-figure compositions, such as one of Pirosmani’s masterpieces “Childless Millionaire and Poor Woman with Children”, convey the idea of human unity. Fate puts a rich but childless couple on an equal footing with a poor peasant woman surrounded with children. The link between the people is conveyed through the imagery, composition, rhythm, and the gesture — the millionaire’s wife extends her hand to the poor woman.

The idea of the brotherhood of humankind and the partaking of the bounties of nature is most persuasively conveyed in the feast-themed pictures, which corresponded most closely with Pirosmani’s task — decorating taverns. Like all of the artist’s works, the feast pieces, cheerful in tone, in fact celebrated life. It was no accident that probably the best among the poems dedicated to Pirosmani, the one written by Titsian Tabidze, was called “Salutation [to Pirosmani]”:

Recalling the artist’s attendance at traditional Georgian feasts, and his depiction of them on canvas, its final two stanzas speak lyrically about the artist’s heritage.

“A couple of candles on a candlestick will weep,
A little table will be laid for a dinner in a tavern,
He walked through flames when he was alive,
And others will drag along at his heels.

A craftsman lived in Georgia.
He never got to be happy!
Such was his destiny.
Come on, brothers,

let’s raise our cups to his health —
Glory to this right hand.”[5]

Invited to a meeting of the Georgian Artists’ Society, Pirosmani said a phrase that could serve as an epigraph to any writing about such feasts: “Here is what we need, brothers. In the centre of the city, within walking distance from anyone’s residence, we should build a wooden house where we could get together. We’ll buy a big table and big samovar, we’ll drink tea, we’ll drink a lot [of alcohol] and talk about art.” The subject of “feasting artists” was never worked into a picture, but Pirosmani’s dream about the brotherhood of men was translated into the paintings featuring feasts where people from nearly all groups of society, including Russian Molokans (one of the Christian sects), participated.

The banquets, a typical feature of Georgian life then, normally proceeded according to a certain ritual, the toasts were ornate and had ethical overtones — often the toasts were made to the health of the poor, the suffering, and people in need of protection. All this was reflected in the images created by the artist. The structure of his compositions is usually repetitive and close to that found in the medieval Georgian frescos: the feast-makers are seated around a table covered with a cloth; the toast-maker usually stands; on the table, pictured, for descriptive reasons, with elements of reversible perspective, the vertical lines of bottles of wine and the upward facing arcs of “shoti” (Georgian bread) alternate with the horizontally placed plates with chicken meat, fish or vegetables; a wineskin usually lies by the table. Varying the personages and the number of feast-makers, adding the figures of musicians and waiters, featuring different settings and times of the day, and using different picture formats and sizes, Pirosmani created a diverse assortment of images, ranging from the static and monumentally universalized images (such as the picture “Feast” from the Museum of Eastern Art in Moscow) to more dynamic and lively works, some of which may be even called genre pieces. In the famous painting “Donkey Bridge” Pirosmani accommodated four groups of feast-makers at once in the romantic nocturnal landscape in the moonshine and thus expanded the imagery beyond the limits of a festive table.

Other of Pirosmani’s pieces feature that which precedes the feast — peasants’ labour. Characteristically, nearly all of the peasant pieces feature wheat threshing or wine-making, probably because bread and wine were not only Kakheti’s main products but also represented Christian symbols. Pirosmani also pictured other key elements of folk life: religious festivities, prayer services, weddings, rides on two-wheel carts, brigands’ attacks, and historical events. Taken together, all this looks like a continuous saga about Georgia. After having been applied in smaller pieces, the images were then brought together in big panoramic paintings on wall panels, such as, for instance, “Kakhetian Epic”, where good and evil are depicted with a truly epic objectivity.

On the other extreme of Pirosmani’s art are his still-lifes, where the representation of the fruits of the peasants’ and tavern-keepers’ labour make for a veritable hymn to Georgian hospitality. One of the most famous still-lifes is called “Hail to the Hospitable Man!” However, this genre reached its high point in a big still-life, where in an abstract black space, “against the background of eternity”, are laid out nearly all the sorts of food that Georgian taverns had to offer.

Just as Pirosmani’s images formed an organic whole immune to the influence of the times, his artistic principles practically did not change over the course of his life either. Although his imagery was inspired by reality, however, in accordance with the demotic tradition (and the newest European art) the artist did not imitate nature but conveyed through pictorial images his ideas about it, blending the naive straightforwardness inherent in a reflection of reality and generalization characteristic of myth and poetry. The images not only showed something, but also had a story to tell, connecting space and time. Every object, while meaningful in and of itself, became a symbol in the pictorial “text”, and the figurative language was remarkably intense and intuitively structured. The “symbolism” defined the unmatched ease and boldness of generalization, the sparseness of Pirosmani’s style, the repetitiveness of visual techniques, the creation of figurative formulas of sorts for every element of the nature. Thus, a hat on a lady with an umbrella is tokened by an elegantly curved rim with several colourful spots signifying flowers; a plate on a table is imaged by a hatch or a ring; several brushstrokes produce a fish, eggplants, or a radish... A long streak of paint stands for a water jet, a row of colour patches signify a meat on a skewer, a golden circlet is a grape berry. Overall, all this evokes the paintings of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Form seems spontaneous and full of life; in fact, the form and the life filling the form are inseparable. The same can be said about the contourless molding of the figures and colour, for colour is precisely what makes the molding.

Although Pirosmani’s colour range included a relatively small number of hues, his vision of the world was based on colour alone, and the prominence of black (a feature that almost no other artist in the world is known to have used) did not run counter to this vision but rather bolstered it. The idea to use oilcloth of a deep black tone was a truly outstanding one. Because of the illusion of the black surface being densely “painted over”, Pirosmani, applying only one layer of paint, achieved unity of image and background. So, because black showed through the lightly applied paint, the colour scheme looked solid. Yfellow received shades of green, green became muted, and variations of dark-cherry, ruby-red and blue were brought into play. White paints were used to create a colour scale of light tones — grey, ochre, lavender, pale blue, rosy. And paints applied more thickly became especially vibrant and luminous in contrast with black.

Such contrasts of colours and contrasts of light and dark were pivotal for Pirosmani’s art. Like flashes of lightning, patches of light and contours drawn with light contrasts play up figures and objects in Pirosmani’s pictures. With light, the fabric of objects takes on a spiritual quality without losing any of its solidity. And this connects the art of the 20th-century artist to the medieval frescos with its determined progress from a dark, sometimes black base to lighter tones and, finally, to white spots symbolizing the Divine energy.

Pirosmani “pardoned” sins with white. But white (a symbol of good) and light (a symbol of the spirit) existed in his art only in contrast to black, which did not always denote evil: the oily-black tones of the oilcloths contained the mysteries of the universe, reminding about death and the abyss where all things living depart and whence, according to the myths, re-emerge into the world. Ethnographers say that black, a prominent colour in Georgians’ everyday life and folklore, was a symbol of the underworld and the space around the universe. Besides, the divine elements in the mythical or epical heroes revealed themselves in the light emanating from black.[6]

Black, whose symbolism was so powerfully conveyed by Pirosmani, was also very important for many 20th-century artists and poets who drew on the archaic elements of art. The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca talked emphatically about dark colour in his crucial essay “Theory and play of the duende”: “These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.”[7] Lorca interpreted “black” liberally, applying this epithet to any true art which penetrates the mysteries of life and has spontaneous vitality, such as Francisco Goya’s last paintings, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music or the performance of an Andalusian folk singer. Pirosmani’s art is all of a piece with such works.


  1. Khomeriki, M. New archival materials about Pirosmani and his family / Georgian University. No. 5(49). November, 2003. (In Georgian.)
  2. Op.cit.
  3. Strigalev, Anatoly. How Pirosmani's art was discovered / Pirosmani, Niko. Family feast: exhibition catalogue. Moscow, 2008. Pp.17-41.
  4. Vazha Pshavela's poem “The Snake Eater” was translated by Venera Urushadze and M. Kveselava and was published in Anthology of Georgian Poetry (Tbilisi, 1948).
  5. Translated by Maria Solovieva.
  6. Georgian folk stories and legends / Foreword and annotations by E. Virsaladze. Moscow, 1973. P. 35.
  7. Federico Garcia Lorca about art. Moscow, 1971. P. 77.
Fisherman among Cliffs. 1906
Fisherman among Cliffs. 1906
Oil, oilcloth on canvas. 114.6 × 93.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Woman with a Mug of Beer
Woman with a Mug of Beer
Oil on oilcloth. 114 × 90 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi
A Family Get-together. 1909
A Family Get-together. 1909
Oil, black oilcloth on canvas. 116 × 170 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
White Cow Against Black Background
White Cow Against Black Background
Oil on cardboard. 80 × 100 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Oil on oilcloth. 102 × 135 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi
Sister of Charity
Sister of Charity
Oil on cardboard. 80 × 51 cm. Private collection, Tbilisi
Wounded Soldier. 1910
Wounded Soldier. 1910
Oil on oilcloth. 80 × 52 cm. Moscow Museum of Modern Art
Black Lion
Black Lion
Oil on oilcloth. 110 × 139 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Banquet with an Organ-grinder Datiko Zemel. 1906
Banquet with an Organ-grinder Datiko Zemel. 1906
Oil on oilcloth. 106 × 198 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi
Childless Millionaire and Poor Woman with Children
Childless Millionaire and Poor Woman with Children
Oil on oilcloth. 114 × 156 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Tbilisi
Girl and Goose with Goslings
Girl and Goose with Goslings
Oil on cardboard. 80 × 100 cm. Private collection, Moscow
Barn-yard in a Georgian Village. 1910–1912
Barn-yard in a Georgian Village. 1910–1912
Oil, cardboard on canvas. 80.4 × 101.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery





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