Exploring early 20th century Georgian art at the National Gallery of Georgia...

Exploring early 20th century Georgian art at the National Gallery of Georgia in Tbilisi

The National Gallery of Tbilisi is unconventional, in that it doesn’t have any longstanding permanent collection, but it certainly offers a variety of exciting temporary exhibitions. The long-term display of Georgian art from the early 20th century is located in the main hall on the gallery’s first floor, and serves as an excellent introduction to the fascinating art history of the Former Soviet Republic. The exhibition itself isn’t vast, but it can certainly boast quality over quantity.


Commencing the exhibition we are introduced to Georgia’s most famous painter, Niko Pirosmani, whose primitivist style and childish naivety inspired the master of modern art, Pablo Picasso. Pirosmani, a self-taught artist, drew influences not only from Georgian folk life, but also from the classic frescoes from Georgia’s artistic golden age of the 13th century. As an artist, Pirosmani’s work is difficult to curate since the chronology of his paintings are unknown, but that hasn’t stopped his naïve images of animals and daily village life from becoming iconic throughout Georgia.


The Georgian Dadaist, Ilia Zdanevich, collected Pirosmani’s works, and his paintings were exhibited with the avant-gardes in Moscow. There is nothing conventional about Pirosmani’s work, and without a doubt he is one of the very first Georgian modernists. He crafted his own technique of painting oil on cloth rather than on the traditional canvas. His simple and elegant brushstrokes construct forms that elaborate on themes on Georgian culture, where perhaps his primitivist style inspired the neo-primitivist Russian artists from the era known as the “Great Experiment.”


Nico Pirosmani, Party in a Vine Pergola, 1905
Nico Pirosmani, Party in a Vine Pergola, 1905
Georgian National Museum


The exhibition shows an extensive collection of Pirosmani’s most revered works, from “Party in a Vine Pergola,” depicting a generation of Georgian men drinking together, where the modern versus the traditional is juxtaposed against east versus west in their dress. Two of the men are wearing traditional Georgian costume, while the figure on the right hand side sports distinctly European attire. Yet despite their cultural differences, this painting shows how traditional feasting and toasting can unite all. It symbolises Georgia as a country with great hospitality yet with a variety of identities from its affiliation with Europe to the pride of its local heritage.


Another one of Pirosmani’s paintings that shows the tradition of the “tamada,” the Georgian toasting ritual, can be found in “Family Picnicking in Bego’s Company”.


Nico Pirosmani, Family Picnicking in Bego's Company, undated
Nico Pirosmani, Family Picnicking in Bego’s Company, undated
Georgian National Museum


One theme from Pirosmani that the exhibition draws upon is his love for animals. The topic inspired the artist, who has painted numerous scenes where animals are either the focal point of the painting, or come as part of the bigger picture. The “Lion and the Sun” and “Deer Family at a Stream” are fine examples currently on display at the museum.


Jacob Nikoladze, Salomea, 1905
Jacob Nikoladze, Salomea, 1905
Georgian National Museum 


In the centre of the hallway we are presented with works from the early 20th century Georgian sculptor, Jacob Nikoladze. The first thing that struck me about his sculptures were their resemblance to the style of Rodin. This is no coincidence, since Nikoladze had studied under the French master during his time in Paris. The sculpture of Salome kissing the head of St. John the Baptist is full of the sensuality that we come to associate with Rodin’s sculptures, especially in the way the marble stone gives birth to the forms from the primitive and untouched block with its figures escaping the untouched marble. Other works of Nikoladze such as “The Wind,” capture the feeling of motion often seen in the sculptures of Rodin and his Parisian contemporaries, and the expressive bronze statuette of “The Parisian Woman” is an example of a work that is distinctly Western.


Jacob Nikoladze, Parisian Woman, 1905
Jacob Nikoladze, Parisian Woman, 1905
Georgian National Museum


The exhibition demonstrates an interesting progression of works from the avant-garde artist David Kakabadze, whose works stood alongside the other great artists from the early 20th century. Kakabadze moved to Paris in the 1920s and published alongside artists like Picasso, Jacques Braque, Miró and their contemporaries. He struck up a friendship with Marcel Duchamp and his lover Catherine Drier. David Kakabadze wasn’t only considered an excellent progressive artist within the borders of his own country, but made waves in Paris until his return to Georgia in the late 20s, where thanks to the Soviet Union he lost all contact with the West. The tragedy of Kakabadze’s work was that he left Western Europe the year his paintings were displayed in the International Exhibition in Brooklyn by Duchamp and Drier’s “Le Société Anonyme,” where Piet Mondrian and Miró made their US debut. In the 1930s his name fell silent on the lips of his Parisian contemporaries and the question remains – did modernism lose something by forgetting his name?


David Kakabadze, Imereti – My Mother, oil on canvas, 1918
137×153, Georgian National Museum


Kakabadze hailed from a background in mathematics and physics, so his work has an almost geometrical feel to it. Before moving to Paris, he focussed on his iconic “Imeretian Landscapes,” where multicolour and almost cubist fields dot a rural landscape with realist forms constructed in the foreground. The most famous image from this series is “Imereti – My Mother” whose figure can be found on the Georgian bank note and is featured at the exhibition. However, while famed for his landscapes, they are not representative of Kakabadze as an artist. His most exciting work happened in Paris when he experimented with abstraction and cubism, but after his return to Georgia, because the Soviet Union imposed Social Realism, Kakabadze returned to his Imeretian Landscapes, which were still controversial due to the inequality of their colours.


David Kakabadze, Organic Abstraction, 1927
oil on cardboard, 57×67, Georgian National Museum


The exhibition however demonstrates a few examples of his abstract works, which bring to mind the paintings from Kandinsky. There is an indirect link between the two artists, since they both shared a passion for art theory – David Kakabadze published numerous texts on the spatial relation in art. His “Organic Abstractions” are more representative of the artist’s talent for the avant-garde than the famous Imeretian Landscapes.


David Kakabadze, Organic Abstraction, 1927
oil on cardboard, 45×60, Georgian National Museum


The work of Lado Gudiashvili conclude the exhibition, with his paintings that follow a style that crosses between expressionism and symbolism, whose elongated figures and a palette of greens and blues characterise his paintings. The colours and proportions depict an alternative reality. His most interesting works can be found here at the display, from “Fish ‘Tsotskhali’” from 1920 to “Idyll” whose composition and tones are reminiscent of symbolist works. “Kristine” works to provoke, depicting an emaciated woman, probably a prostitute, who is casually showing her breasts in a village scene. Gudiashvili also showed experimentation with cubism, such as his “Self-portrait” from 1919 which on the surface is cubist, but whose lines follow a curved trajectory rather than the classic style.


Lado Gudiashvili, Self Portrait, 1919
87X70, oil on canvas, Georgian National Museum


Georgian art from the early 20th century is an area that hasn’t received much academic attention outside of the Former Soviet Republic of Georgia, but is one that has a richness and complexity of art and artists to rival other European countries. The exhibition may be small, but it certainly served as an excellent introduction to the innovation and creativity that existed in the South Caucasian country at the turn of the 20th century.


Lado Gudiashvili, Christine, 1919
oil on canvas, 87X70, Georgian National Museum


I would like to offer a very special thank you to the National Gallery and National Museum, most notably to Nino Gedevanishvili and Mariam Dvali for their help with this article, and not to mention all the valuable knowledge on Georgian Modernism I’ve learned from the expertise of Nana Kipiani.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian writer living in Budapest, Hungary. After a sordid past involving a PhD in Nuclear Physics, she decided to throw caution to the winds and live the cliché of being an expat writer. Her writing credentials involve travel pieces focussing on the Caucasus and Hungary. She has written for CNN Travel, Huffington Post, GOOD Magazine, The Matador Network, Gadling, and more. At the moment, she is the cultural correspondent at the Budapest Times. She identifies as a global gypsy, having lived in the UK, Germany, Spain, Georgia and Hungary. One of her big interests is of course, art – predominantly art from the early 20th century especially the Surrealist, Dadaist and Cubist movements.


  1. Thank you for this post. I visited the National Museum in October and wish I had read this before my trip! David Kakabadze’s work was indeed wonderful. What a shame he is so little known outside of Georgia.

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