Niko Pirosmani : A Movable Feast

The paintings by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) throw me off balance. It may be a strange reaction to art, especially to the one depicting animals, people feasting, gathering grapes, or fishing, but Pirosmani is not an ordinary painter. Why are the deer’s eyes so much like human eyes? Why do the revelers raising their horns full of wine look so serious? What are they celebrating? What went through the artist’s mind as he sketched and what did he intend for us to see? What motivated him to paint?

Most likely–and we have so little information about Pirosmani’s life that we can only guess–it was hunger that prompted Pirosmani to take up the brush. Born in 1862, in a village in the Kakheti region of Georgia, he didn’t have any formal education, and his stints as a train conductor and cattle herder ended in failure. He learned painting from itinerant artists and he wanted to open a workshop producing signboards. It almost came to naught. The first order he painted for free, while the second one never came. He remained poor and hungry for the rest of his life, a vagabond and a pariah.

Despite Pirosmani failing to make art pay, he continued teaching himself painting and drawing whenever he could. He painted directly on the oilcloth of beer taverns in exchange for a drink. He painted using whatever materials he had. He painted for his friends. He painted for the people who looked down upon him, the professional artists who talked of aesthetics and form while he wanted a plate of food and a roof over his head.

Perhaps Pirosmani’s hunger is the reason why so many of his paintings feature feasting. Grapes tumble out of the baskets, wine overflows, tables groan under the abundance of food and even a fruit stall looks like an Aladdin’s cave of ruby pomegranates and emerald apples. It’s the feast that never ends. Its echos travel from one painting to another, even when Pirosmani’s subjects don’t have anything to do with a celebration.

The turn of the 20th century in the Russian Empire to which Pirosmani’s Georgia belonged at the time was a period of turmoil. The events leading up to the First World War and then the Bolshevik Revolution changed the politics and the society, and the art that responded to it was about breaking the conventions–the avant-garde movements, such as Futurism and Dada. The new generation artists such as Mikhail Laryonov and Kiril Zdanevich started noticing Pirosmani and promoting his work.

Nevertheless, dynamism, speed and the celebration of machines and urban life that was at the core of Futurism wasn’t of interest to Pirosmani. He painted as he saw his world, the world of tavern drinkers, merchants, market sellers, and fishermen. He preferred a forest to the city and a lamb to a machine. He gave his animals his own eyes. He removed emotions from the faces of those he painted and put it into the colors.

Art never fulfilled Pirosmani’s hunger. He died of starvation in 1918. His works were displayed not in museums, but in taverns and inns, the places where he often painted. We tend to romanticize the suffering of an artist for his art, but there is nothing romantic in Pirosmani’s life and its tragic end. He painted because he knew little else and because while he painted, he felt less of the hunger.

For years, Pirosmani was forgotten. His fame was revived in the 60s when French artists like Picasso became Communists and were eager to discover the land behind the Iron Curtain. Picasso’s praise of artists like Niko Pirosmani and Kateryna Bilokur, another self-taught painter who lived on a collective farm in Ukraine, was genuine, but as the art circles in Western Europe moved away from the Communist creed, their interest in the painters from “the red lands” faded.

The Albertina Museum in Vienna is currently holding a comprehensive exhibition of Pirosmani’s work, which has been long overdue. It will be open until January 27, and if you’re in the city, I can’t urge you enough to visit it and enter the universe of this mysterious artist. Pirosmani’s plight was painful, but his paintings uplift and dazzle. His art is not about suffering but about life with all of its ambivalence and wonder.

The Albertina Museum in Vienna
The exhibition is on view from October 26 2018 until January 27 2019.

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31 Comments

  • Robert: Thank you for writing about this artist. I’ve never heard of him, but just looking at his paintings I want to know more. Where else can we see his works? Are there other museums in Europe that have them? January 14, 2019 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: His work is mostly in Georgia, in Tbilisi, in his native region of Kakheti and also in a town called Sighnaghi. January 17, 2019 at 5:47am Reply

  • Matty: I’ve never heard of him either. I really like the style of his paintings January 14, 2019 at 9:12am Reply

    • Victoria: The way he used colors was spectacular. January 17, 2019 at 5:47am Reply

  • Sandra: Like the others, I have never heard of this artist. Thank you for opening our eyes to this beautiful work.. January 14, 2019 at 9:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Very happy to share! January 17, 2019 at 5:48am Reply

  • Gentiana Craciun: A far relative of „Le Douanier” – the famous French self-taught painter… January 14, 2019 at 10:03am Reply

  • Anne: Brilliant. Thank you for writing about Pirosmani. Tragic he got neither food nor recognition during his life. January 14, 2019 at 10:47am Reply

    • Victoria: He was noticed, but no, he never received the appreciation he deserved. Admittedly, it was also a very difficult period in the history of Georgia. January 17, 2019 at 5:50am Reply

  • Ann: I was not at all familiar with Pirosmani so thank you for bringing him to my attention. I am especially interested in the second painting you posted, with the piper standing in the water gully or moat, and the moon on the left and the sun on the right. Life bursts out of dark, unlikely places across the painting. Creepy and human, like a Thomas Hardy painting of peasants, if Hardy painted. January 14, 2019 at 12:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s one of my favorites too. I like it for the same reason you’ve pointed out–it’s full of energy. January 17, 2019 at 5:50am Reply

  • Mridula: This was a wonderful read. Thank you. January 14, 2019 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Victoria, thank you for telling us about this artist. A touchingly written story. So sad – to die of starvation in the midst of plenty. Looking at his paintings, knowing this, makes the food in them almost harder to look at. January 14, 2019 at 12:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      The year Pirosmani died was tragic. After the February Revolution of 1917, the tsarist administration in the Caucasus began to collapse and it was an utter chaos. January 17, 2019 at 5:55am Reply

  • jodee: I never knew Picasso was communist, fascinating. I find Pirosmani’s work full of sadness. I am sorry such a talented painter did not find success in his lifetime. January 14, 2019 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, he officially joined the Communist Party in 1941, if I’m not mistaken, and even wrote the pamphlet explaining his motivation. January 17, 2019 at 7:00am Reply

  • Brenda Shipley: Victoria, this is a fascinating article. When I read about an artist such as this, it makes me wonder ~ who is the outstanding talent hiding in plain sight amongst us? Though Pirosmani’s plight was extreme, it seems more than likely many artists toil day after day, perhaps year after year…yearning to be appreciated or at the least understood. It would be nice to think that when one of his paintings was complete he may have, at least, thought to himself ‘Well done!’ I particularly like the short blue bloomers in the last painting. Thanks again… January 14, 2019 at 2:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re right, it does make you wonder what other talents vanished undiscovered. One hopes that true talent will be recognized, but it doesn’t always happen like this. January 17, 2019 at 7:01am Reply

  • Filomena: I never heard of this artist either, it I loved his omgs paintings. January 14, 2019 at 2:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very glad to hear it. January 17, 2019 at 7:02am Reply

  • Filomena: Sorry for the typos but I am at work and typed too quickly. January 14, 2019 at 2:43pm Reply

  • Klaas: It is reminiscent of the work of Henri Rousseau ‘Le Douanier’. Like his, it feels very genuine, personal and true. It has that same child like quality. I especially like the last painting, the simplicity and the striking use of color is very touching. January 14, 2019 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: They lived around the same time, but I doubt they knew each other. January 17, 2019 at 7:02am Reply

  • Marina: Love Pirosmani! His works are so unique. One of the famous songs during the Soviet times performed by Alla Pugacheva called Million Of Red Roses is based on the Pirosmani’s unrequited love and his painting of the woman he loved. It’s interesting how she was depicted – you would expect something romantic, but it would not be Pirosmani January 14, 2019 at 7:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. I’ve heard of that story, but although I tried to find any proof of it, there was no reliable source.
      A Million Of Red Roses is associated with the New Year’s Eve for me, because it was one of my grandfather’s favorite songs, and he played it on his record player. January 17, 2019 at 7:04am Reply

  • Aurora: I didn’t know about this painter, his palette is mostly dark and that makes his use of bright color, here and there, all the more striking. Georgia remains very mysterious to me so thank you for making me less ignorant. January 20, 2019 at 6:37am Reply

    • Victoria: He sometimes painted in black oilcloth directly and left the black parts unpainted, so they stood out even more. January 21, 2019 at 7:30am Reply

  • lamassu: few years ago I had been in Signagi, Georgia, + there in the museum are some of his works exhibited + that was one of the highlights of that visit (together with the reliefs of Ananuri).
    So good to read from Pirosmani here too! February 16, 2019 at 3:43am Reply

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