Only a few days left to see this stunning exhibition (finishes on the 13th of January 2013). Go while you still can! Originally published on Kunstpedia.
Running away to escape his Parisian demons, Paul Gauguin sought refuge in his very own paradise lost in the exotic surroundings of Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Through Gauguin’s voyage to primitive lands and an explosion of colour, modern art finally received the revitalising injection it desperately needed under the stagnant European skies.
Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, the exhibition “Gauguin and the Voyage to the Exotic” follows the artist’s journey to Tahiti, exploring his artistic transition into primitive and authentic worlds where his palette experienced an explosion of colour and expression. However, the carefully curated exhibition by Paloma Alarcó at the Thyssen-Bornemisza goes beyond Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes, but analyses the effect the French artist had on the world of modern art exploring the effect primitivism and colonialism had on movements such as the expressionists, fauvists and on abstract art.
The display at the Thyssen-Bormemisza is split into three themes with eight overall sections. Firstly, Gauguin is studied as a figure in his own right and introduces his seduction by the virginal and unspoiled lands of the tropics. As an artist, Gauguin’s paintings from the South Seas are among some of the most sensual and alluring images that can be found in modern art, not to mention the influence his work exerted on artists like Matisse, Kandinsky and many others. The exhibition also examines Gauguin’s voyage into the exotic as a means to escape civilisation. This is a key turning point, not only in the artistic and personal career of Paul Gauguin, but within the context of avant-garde’s primitivist revival, linking into the final theme: the modern concept and its treatment of the exotic by linking back to ethnography.
The invitation to the exotic didn’t begin with Gauguin, the French artist Eugène Delacroix sought inspiration on the shores of North Africa, where his orientalist depictions of Arab women and scenes from Algerian life were to inspire wanderlust in a young Gauguin. A sensually exotic scene by Delacroix of “Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Femmes d’Alger dans leur intérieur)” painted in 1849 opens the exhibition, with Gauguin’s Tahitian scene “Parau api (What’s New?)”, mirrored besides it. Looking at the paintings side-by-side, we observe the impact Delacroix’s North African paintings had on Gauguin. “Parau api (What’s New?)”, depicts a pair of women reclining on a canary yellow backdrop, whose poses mimic the Algerian women in Delacroix’s scene.
Before Gauguin’s iconic Tahiti, there was Martinique. While Gauguin’s time in the Caribbean was brief, its effect on his artistic development was intense. Martinique was the first time the artist used the tropics as his muse, where the landscape and the local people would forever modify his pictorial language.
In Gauguin’s Martinique paintings, his form is still underdeveloped when compared with his later Tahitian works. The composition of the artist’s paintings from his Caribbean period drew from Cézanne, with their long and oblique brushstrokes, bestowing his paintings not with the clear brilliance of his later works, but with a vibrant, if not rough, texture in his canvases.
His painting, “Coming and Going, Martinique” from 1887 is a good example of this style. We see the effect the exotic had on the artist’s work, yet his palette is dulled and less daring than his later paintings, but it marks the beginning of a new era for Gauguin. When he travelled to Martinique, Gauguin was accompanied by his friend Charles Laval, whose work is displayed side-by-side in the exhibition. We can see in Laval’s Martinique landscapes that he shared Gauguin’s decorative brushstroke application.
Gauguin’s time in Tahiti was the creative peak of the artist’s life. His time on the South Pacific island allowed him to focus on the rich local culture and the brilliant nature that surrounded him, bringing out a synthesist style that was based on large areas of brilliant colour. In Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, colour conveys meaning, as Gauguin begins to treat his palette as form of emotional expression. It’s not only his thoughts and feelings that are communicated on canvas through the bright colours, but they are also rich in symbolic content.
The display showcases some striking examples of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, most notably, “Mata Mua (In Olden Times),” “Two Tahitian Women,” “Matamoe, Death. Landscape with Peacocks.” His paintings are nostalgic, depicting a “Paradise Lost” of an innocent and ancient world dying in the advent of colonialism.
However, it’s not just the outside world that darkened Gauguin’s own tropical paradise. Gauguin was suffering from late stage syphilis, which caused deterioration in both his mental and physical health, transforming his paintings into darker and more sinister compositions – blurring the boundaries between his Tahitian paradise and personal hell.
Up until now, the exhibition mostly focussed on Gauguin’s own travels and creative development. “Beneath the Palm Trees,” commences an examination of the artists who found inspiration in Gauguin’s exotic journeys. The theme of the jungle became a new source for the avant-garde artists to tap into, giving modern art the desperate injection of new ideas it needed after a crisis that wasn’t just aesthetic, but a moral and political one also.
Gauguin played a crucial role in the transformation of modern art. If we examine Gauguin’s own interpretation of symbolism, whose analogy married art to the dream world, Gauguin manages to transport that into a self-contained fantasy. By combining the primitive and savage worlds of the South Pacific with his own symbolist ideals, Gauguin grew creatively as an artist through his relationship with untamed nature, and whether their inspirations were real or imaginary, many artists followed suit.
The wild and the savage offered a path to innocence that appealed to the artists of the early 20th century, where childish regression became mirrored in contemporary art. Gauguin’s exotic resonated to an obvious extent with artists like Rousseau and Matisse, among others, but Picasso found artistic companionship with the exotic and childish primitivism. Picasso might have found inspiration through African art or the primitivist paintings of the Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani, but he still searched for this child like innocence from outside of his own cultural sphere in the same manner as Gauguin.
Artists whose work clearly show direct influence from Gauguin are seen in the exhibition, Henri Rousseau’s “Tropical Landscape: An American Indian struggling with a gorilla,” echoes the symbolist landscapes from Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes, Emil Nolde’s palette is a tribute to the bold colours of the French emigré artist, and Ernest Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Müller’s nudes evoke the exotic sensuality of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.
Ethnography became a popularised trend in the early 20th century, as more artists discovered a new way of viewing the world thanks to Gauguin’s contribution to modern art. The French fauves and the German expressionists grew from Gauguin’s artistic gaze to seek out the different and the “Other.”
To fauvism, expressionism and Russian primitivism, Gauguin will remain the artist who set out into the wild in search of a new vision, who became a canon to a whole new generation of artists, whether they took to the exotic in ethnographic museums or went on their own voyages. We can see his influence in displayed works by Mikhail Larionov’s “Blue Nude,” Henri Manguin’s “The Prints” or Kirchner’s nudes.
Many avant-gardes explored countries closer to home, such as North Africa, in search of a new pictorial language of light and colour. Kandinsky’s oil paintings are early works that are uncharacteristic of the abstract artist, but show a growing interest in space, colour and form inspired by Tunisian scenes, although we begin to see the brilliant use abstract forms combined with colour that take shape in his later works. The same is seen in the paintings by Paul Klee and August Macke, whose abstract forms a far from Gauguin’s symbolist paintings, but attribute their palette and exotic themes to the artist.
The exhibition concludes with Matisse and F.W. Murnau’s journey to Tahiti. Matisse’s bright, brilliant colours and primitive lines stem from Gauguin’s influence, but in 1930, Matisse also sought inspiration in Polynesia, coinciding with the production of the film by the German expressionist director F.W. Murnau, “Taboo: A story of the South Seas.” Matisse’s journey to Tahiti was for pleasure, and while he painted and drew landscapes and portraits of the actors from Murnau’s film, Tahiti moved his work into an alternative view of the island. Matisse’s perspective is different, and his Tahitian paintings lack that same raw creativity Gauguin found in his lost piece of paradise.
Gauguin escaped civilisation, throwing himself into the Tahitian world that impacted art in a way that was no longer sophisticated or decadent. It consumed him, inside and out, and left a huge mark on the art that secured his succession and artistic legacy.
Innovation, Contradiction and Modernity - Encountering the 30s with the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid
This article was previously published on Kunstpedia. The exhibition is running until the 7th of January 2013, so you have a few days to still catch it.
The volatile decade of the 1930s saw the rise of totalitarian regimes and the advent of the Great Depression, while advances in film and photography offered artists the opportunity to explore new art forms and medias of communications. It’s impossible generalise the 1930s, since as an era it’s represented by eclecticism and contradiction, where art became a complex debate between totalitarianism and individualism; realism versus abstraction; and where nationalism took on international collaboration.
The 1930s inherited the artistic fever for experimentation from the previous decades of the 1910s and 20s, however the 30s can be viewed as a time when avant-garde and modernity went their own separate ways under the imposed political and economic climate.
The Modern was perceived as individualistic and went against the collective identity imposed by the dictatorships in Europe. Yet, the rise of new advances in photography, publishing and poster art gave artists the chance to break away from the status quo, inspiring innovation and continued experimentation in the world of art. Debates rose up on abstraction and realism, while surrealism expanded on an international basis. The “isms” blended together in an international melting pot where artists like Pablo Picasso took a playful approach to combining styles.
The exhibition on display at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid takes us on a journey back to the 1930s. Like its era, the exhibition is eclectic and extreme, revisiting this fascinating time through the innovation and creativity that gave birth to abstraction, surrealism and new forms of expression through photography and film, while acknowledging the influence the era’s politics. Artists of the 1930s showed the world they had the ability to challenge, aggravate and provoke the conventional order.
We’re introduced to the artistic scope of the 1930s through the channel of realism, a broad artistic movement that encapsulated the “New Vision” through to the rise of social realism.
Realism became an artistic device used to communicate en masse with the public. It expressed a desire to reach out to broad audiences, resulting in increased eclectic depictions of the style from the photographic impressions like Josep de Togores’s “Group around the Guitar. L’Ametlla de Vallés,” to those with a more experimental edge like Antonio Berni’s “New Chicago Athletic Club” or Philip Guston’s “Mother and Child”.
Realism sought to bring art into a public sphere, and despite its name, it refers to an orientation in art rather than an aesthetic connection to reality. Naturalism, a style used to convey “realistic” forms in art as seen in the 19th century, is not a branch of realism. Whether seen in the canvases of the exhibition or in photographs of realist murals from Mexico or the Soviet Union, we see that realism isn’t an aesthetic concept, but rather an ideological one that expresses “true values” such as a social preoccupation with daily life in the interwar-war period.
Pursuing the experimental spirit of modernity of the prior decades, the perseverance of abstraction in the 1930s as a form of creative research and expression transformed this innovative art form into a conversation on utopian reflection, form and even politics. Abstraction not only challenged perspectives on the use of form and colour in art, but also considered dimensional space by playing with textures and solid objects imposed on canvas.
Laszló Moholy-Nagy’s “AL6 Construction” is a three dimensional composition of oil on aluminium. The forms in Moholy-Nagy’s abstract construction demonstrate interplay of texture and depth; circles of oil paints are contrasted against circular holes, whose depth is emphasised by the aluminium sheet that’s offset from the background.
Abstraction in the 30s also became a play of form and colour, sometimes with a regression to childlike naivety as seen in the canvases of Joan Miró to the carefully crafted compositions of Wassily Kandinsky.
“Succession” by Kandinsky, demonstrates the artist’s fascination with geometry and colour, where his forms display a mathematical progression of pictorial music as the notes explode into colour on the canvas. Paul Klee’s “Halme (Straw)” also imitates a musical language through paint in his own position on abstraction.
While Europe saw the imposition of realism by authoritarian regimes, that considered abstraction as “bourgeois” and “individualistic,” a transatlantic dialogue between European abstract artists, such as Moholy-Nagy and Kandinsky, and artists in the United States was taking place. Across the Atlantic, abstraction was embraced as a visual language not only for private experimentation, but also for public commission, and even though many critics and members of the public favoured realism abstraction grew in popularity, flavouring modern art for decades to come.
While surrealism met with significant criticism and even disdain from art critics such as Clement Greenberg in the US, the movement exploded at an international level in the 1930s. While it began as an underground movement with left wing politics, thanks to Salvador Dalí surrealism was ushered into the mainstream and would leave a lasting impact on modern art and popular culture.
Through an expanding print and media culture, surrealism embraced modern technology with an ever-growing medium of surrealist photography with artists such as Man Ray. Surrealism was also fused to other movements such as abstraction or even realism, as seen in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Picasso’s “Le Sauvetage,” whose unique perception propelled the artist beyond the cubist styles of his earlier career into his own individual brand of surrealism, whereas Miró’s “Deux Baigneuses [Two Bathers]” is a marriage between surrealist composition and abstract style.
On display, you’ll find “pure” surrealist works, such as Salvador Dalí’s “Sketch for the work ‘The Invisible Man’,” and “Surrealist Composition, Fraud in the Garden,” by Yves Tanguy, whose distorted forms and elongated shadows on a deserted plane expresses the classical aesthetics of surrealist painting.
While print photography and film reeled in the world of the avant-garde in the 1920s, in the 1930s this new and exciting medium became the gateway to the masses for many artists. While the 1930s saw works of experimental photography rise up in the art world, especially in surrealist circles, many photographers such as Man Ray entered the mainstream by working with fashion magazines like Vogue.
Photography served not only as an artistic medium for design and propaganda, but captured the spirit of the decade through themes of applied psychology and the search for non-traditional forms. Many artists turned to the art of the photomontage and photocollage as an alternative form of expression to connect with the public.
The display at the Reina Sofia also discusses the use of public space and exhibitions in the 30s. The dictatorships of the totalitarian regimes that dominated European politics acknowledged the importance of art and culture. The theatrical and monumental dominated the European landscape where buildings and public spaces took on a new symbolic meaning; they became an opportunity to inspire ceremony and nationalism among the people.
The rise of new technologies also changed the way space was used, with the rise of the science and art of projecting light onto a building to creative light shows. But it was not only illumination that gave exhibitions multimedia feel, sound and film also became an important part of the display.
The exhibition spaces of the 1930s saw the rise of world fairs and large-scale exhibition halls, where the exhibitions played to local political and economic climates.
Exhibitions became a marriage between fiction and fantasy, and like the spirit of the 1930s were full of contradictions and extremes. Themes of hand made versus the machine; miniature versus the monumental; industrial versus the primitive; individual versus the collective and democratic versus totalitarianism. Through paintings, murals, tapestries, posters and postcards, we can see through the Reina Sofia “Encounters with the 1930s” how the exhibitions of the decade merged the larger than life with the everyday world.
One factor crucial in a conversation on the 1930s, especially in Spain, is the effect of the Civil War. The exhibition is structured round Picasso’s iconic “Guernica” painting, which celebrates its 75th anniversary. Spanish artists were active participants in the creative world of the 1930s, and with the rise of the Civil War many artists were exiled either by choice or by force.
The Civil War’s influence on art manifested in different ways. Many artists used realism an idiom to document the events and horrors of the war, through realism many artists could include an emotional dimension into their paintings that photography could not, turning these works into historical archives.
Although, the use of art to record horrific acts of war wasn’t limited to realism. Picasso’s “Guernica” conveyed the atrocities of war through stylised form, yet the symbolic and emotional effect the painting has immortalised the tragedy and the horror that took place in the small Basque village of Guernica.
The Civil War turned many artists towards the concept of violence as a narrative, some drew stimulus from the conflict, while others joined ranks to do something about the war, inspiring a huge cultural and creative production in Europe and America, both by Spanish exiles and their supporters.
To summarise the impact the 1930s had on art is futile, it’s a complex decade that spawned some of the most innovative works of the 20th century. Fully understanding art of the 1930s is one that will require a lifetime of study, but the exhibition leaves you with an impression, a feel for a time when the world was on the edge between war, economic depression, new technology and globalisation.
I would like to offer a very special thank you to Milena Ruiz and the staff at the Reina Sofia Museum for their help in preparing this article.
References: Exhibition Catalogue: Encounter with the 30s, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and La Fabrica (2012)
This article was originally published in December 2012 (a year ago to the day, actually) on Kunstpedia.
Madrid’s status as one of the great art capitals of Europe’s stems from the big three – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. While these museums are undoubtedly spectacular and have rightly earned their status as some of the world’s best, no art lover should bypass the smaller and lesser-known galleries Madrid has on offer.
The Museo Lázaro Galdiano is one of the most underrated art museums in the Spanish capital. Located in the beautiful neo-renaissance palace on Serrano Street, it houses the former private collection that had once belonged to José Lázaro Galdiano, a well-known collector and respected bibliophile.
Lázaro earned his title as “one of the greatest patrons of culture in 19th century Spain,” and by the end of his life, he not only owned one of the most prestigious art collections in Spain, but had also founded the magazine “La España Moderna” and established a publishing company under the same name. His reputation as a bibliophile developed from his other collecting passion of rare and beautiful antique books.
Lázaro’s legacy includes an astounding library filled with works by Goya, masterpieces like the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” by Francesco Colonna, “The Polyglot Bible” by Cisneros and some extraordinary examples of Medieval Codices.
While access to the library is limited, the Lázaro's renowned art collection is on public display at his former home on Calle Serrano. This palatial residence catches your eye from across the street, and calls you into its garden: Parque Florido, which was named after Lázaro’s Argentinean wife, Paula Florido.
The art collection itself is divided amongst the numerous rooms and floors of the palace. The ground floor offers an eclectic mix, covering art from a wide range of eras and countries, and is a preliminary taster for the Lázaro collection. Paintings are hung alongside rare artifacts, like the “Julius Caesar Tazza” dating from the latter half of the 16th century, which had belonged to Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini. This dish, adorned with the standing figure of the Roman Caesar, was once part of a series, where each Tazza represented the 12 Caesars from Suetonius.
Numerous, quality works of iconographical and symbolic content are found in Lázaro’s collection of Spanish painting, and it is here on the ground floor that we see his love for portraiture emerge. Portraits of Lope de Vega and Góngora adorn the walls, located only a few metres away from Renaissance panels and archaeological artifacts, such as the bronze ewer dating back to the 6th century BC from the ancient port city of Tartassos, now located in Andalucía.
The “Treasure Chamber” is a stunning display of precious gold and jewelled items that are housed in the collection, where the Ceremonial Sword, presented to the second Count of Tendilla by the Pope Innocent VIII in the 15th century, is the highlight. These treasures are displayed chronologically: from the gold of the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, through to Visigoth and Byzantine, and concludes with the jewels of Paula Florido, Lázaro’s wife.
The ground floor offers a glimpse into the collection of European art brought to Spain by Lázaro, showcasing extraordinary and rare pieces that are seldom seen in private Spanish collections.
Turning a corner, the 15th century stained glass window depicting St. Michael Weighing Souls, by Antonio da Pandino, grabs your attention. Hung besides it, you can find interesting works sampled from Lázaro’s collection of English paintings, a school rarely found in Spain, such as “The Portrait of Lady Sondes” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
One of the highlights, at least for me, is the moving marble statue of “Christ at the Column” by the Neapolitan sculptor, Michelangelo Naccerino. This life-sized baroque sculpture carved out of white marble contours the delicate details of Christ’s body and draws your eye to his emotive expression.
After an introduction to the museum and the collection, the tour continues upstairs. Here the collection is no longer displayed in chronological order, but is instead categorised into schools. The first floor focusses on Spanish art.
Chronicling this history of Spanish art was one of Lázaro’s passions. He wanted to preserve a collection which could be used as a reference for the study of Spanish art history.
The first floor of the museum is located in the former ceremonial rooms of Lázaro’s family. Here guests would be greeted, and would have even dined and danced. These rooms retain their former splendour, decorated with frescoed ceilings, marbled panels and gold leaf details on the borders.
One of Lázaro’s great artistic loves was 15th and 16th century panel painting. From the excellent Gothic and early Renaissance examples on display, it’s easy to see why. The paintings from the traditional Aragonese School follow the traditional Gothic style: where figures are hierarchically positioned and the faces of the saints are idealised. Perspective, as seen from the Renaissance onwards, is missing in these early paintings; instead plain, golden backgrounds dominate, centralising the figures in the painting. The 15th century panel painting by Blasco de Grañen, “Virgin of Mosén Esperandeu de Santa Fe” is an excellent example.
The Golden Age of Spanish art, from the 16th and 17th centuries, is well represented— here we see some impressive canvasses by Ribera, El Greco and even early Velázquez.
“Saint Francis of Assisi” by Domenicos Theotocopulos, more commonly known as El Greco, is an intimate depiction of the saint. The perfection of his face, hands and skull are painted in his trademark proto-expressionist style combined with loose brush strokes, but it’s the emotional overpowering of the saint's expressive eyes that hook us into this painting.
The undisputed stars of Lázaro's Spanish collection are the paintings and cartoons by Francisco de Goya. There are six small canvases, universally acclaimed by critics, but in addition to these, two paintings which have been recently re-attributed to the painter.
The most notable Goyas from the collection are “The Witches” and the “Witches Sabbath,” while these canvases are small in size; they capture the sinister atmosphere of their subject matter with the artist’s dark palette and attention to gritty detail. On first glance, the loose brush strokes lull us into a false sense of security before we see in line of baby corpses haunting the background or the emaciated children offered as sacrifice. In their masterful and extravagant execution, these paintings capture conflicting elements of both fear and irony, whose quality put them on par with the Goyas displayed in the Prado.
The second floor catalogues the European schools found in the collection. It spans over five centuries and covers not only painting, but also sculpture and the decorative arts. Lázaro’s inclusion of the Flemish and Italian schools complement the collection, as their influence can be directly attributed in the history of Spanish art.
One of the most notable pieces is a small portrait, dating back to the late 15th century of “The Young Christ.” Once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by Spanish critics; art experts eventually concluded that the painting originated from the Lombard School, whose authorship is now attributed to one of da Vinci’s best students, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. This panel is believed to be based on one of da Vinci’s designs, and was held in great esteem evidenced by the gilding on the reverse side of the panel.
Another gem found in Lázaro’s collection is displayed among the early Flemish panels. “Saint John the Baptist in the Desert,” by Hieronymus Bosch is the highlight of the museum. Here we see St. John reclining in a surreal landscape, where trees are set far into the distance. In the foreground, the saint points to a lamb, which symbolises the road to salvation. What is interesting about this painting is the strange plant set beside St. John. It resembles a deformed pomegranate, interpreted as a symbol for earthly pleasures, but upon closer inspection the pomegranate hides a face. Originally, the patron of the painting was to appear here, however after a dispute with Bosch the artist painted him out and distorted him into a strange looking shrubbery.
The collection continues on the third floor; where we can explore the armoury, antique bronzes and stonework, and most notably, Lázaro’s exquisite collection of textiles.
In conclusion, while this small-scale museum dwarfs in quantity when compared to Madrid’s big three, it definitely has the right to stand by them in quality, since it houses pieces that are not only of great aesthetic value, but are significant both for history and art history. If you love art then I can highly recommend a visit to this museum.
I would like to give special thanks to Carlos Saguar Quer, for giving me a personal tour round the museum and for teaching me not only about the collection, but also about José Lázaro Galdiano as well, and for all his help and cooperation with this article.
This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
The curving lines of wrought iron and delicate motifs of Tbilisi’s art nouveau have been forgotten. The “Great Art Nouveau Cities of Europe” conjure up images of Paris, Barcelona, Nancy, Riga and Budapest, with iconic impressions left by Gaudi’s curves or even Paris’s Metropolitan entrances. Tbilisi on the other hand deserves its name on that list, and while the obscure South Caucasian capital is slowly gaining recognition for its Stil Modern architecture – it may be too late to save it.
Georgia has always been a country of crossroads. Its location and history has turned it into a melting point of unique art and architecture that still burns bright today. However, as a former southern colony of the Russian Empire, Tbilisi is a city as European as Paris or Budapest, and in turn, has an architectural history that runs in parallel to the cities of Continental Europe.
The decorative motifs of European art nouveau penetrated Russia and made its way down through the Caucasus into Tbilisi. The integration of modernist architectural design was simply a natural part of the city’s evolution, entering Georgia not only from the north, but also via the Black Sea.
Art nouveau in Georgia flourished, and not only due to Tbilisi’s status as the cultural, political and administrative centre of Transcaucasia, but also from a general interest and disposition towards the style from local professionals and craftsmen. This resulted in numerous buildings springing up around the city that display rare and complex examples of the style. Georgian Stil Modern is eclectic, and perhaps even chaotic in parts. In the Georgian style, standard forms and repeated samples are rejected in favour of creative improvisation.
While the movement’s innovation gave birth to Georgia’s modern architecture, it has become considered an “unimportant” part of the country’s art and architectural history. We have the imposed values of the Soviet Union to thank for that.
This “bourgeois” art form was considered a “crime of ornamentation” and until the end of the Soviet Union these beautiful buildings were left to fall into disrepair and decay.
After the modernist renaissance in Georgia, it wasn’t only the new houses that sprung up around the city that carried the aesthetic, but also cinemas, theatres, shops and even factories integrated the style. Renovations round Tbilisi opted to incorporate these flowing curves into their designs, and the various doors, staircases, balconies and façades with art nouveau details are a testament to its popularity.
Tbilisi’s tragedy lies in the lack of protection and conservation of these monuments, many of which were damaged due to neglect, air and water pollution, and not to mention inadequate maintenance.
A part of this conservation issue is both political and economical. Private houses predating the Bolshevik revolution became state-owned under the Soviet Union. The change of their function as private offices affected the buildings’ looks. Yet even with privatisation of these properties, many owners cannot afford the maintenance and rehabilitation of these buildings.
Some of Tbilisi’s finest examples of art nouveau can still be seen if you take a walk round either the Mtatsminda neighbourhood or the streets surrounding Aghmashenebeli Avenue. This way, you’ll stumble upon beautiful, but overlooked examples.
Their beauty still gazes out through flaking façades, but you have to stop to really look at them. Some of the buildings still retain their original interiors, sporting frescoes, gilded ironwork and small art nouveau details. Many of these buildings are hidden in Tbilisi’s back streets and to see some of the interiors may require some breaking and entering.
The earliest examples of art nouveau in Tbilisi can be found just around Aghmashenebeli Avenue, such as number 4 Vartsikhe Street (renamed Rome street), which was built by architect Simon Kldiashvili. Since academic recognition of the art form arrived late in Georgia, the studies around art nouveau in the city’s architectural history are superficial. It is possible that there may be earlier examples of the style, but this residential house in Vartsikhe Street is perhaps the oldest existing example in the Stil Modern in Tbilisi – dating back to 1902. Its façade is decorated with omega shaped iron-wrought balconies and elaborated with detailed plasterwork. It serves as a unique example and impression of Georgian art nouveau.
Close by on 36 Aghmashenebeli Avenue is a building dating back to 1903. It has original features on both its interior and exterior. I slipped through the back door of a second hand clothes store that offered forbidden entry into the hallway. Here you can see frescoes with scenes from Shota Rustaveli’s “Knight in Panther Skin” – a medieval Georgian poem that is a key to decoding Georgian culture.
The old house on 3a Ia Karagereli Street dates back to 1903, and is an apartment by an unknown architect. It’s a beautiful example lined with coloured tiles and elegant motifs. The brickwork shows through the flaked exterior and this house is a certified example as to why the city needs to restore these buildings.
Up in Mtatsminda, you can find other examples of fading grandeur. Number 12 Daniel Chonkadze Street, designed by architect M. Ohajanov, is a good example. The interior shows some beautiful, fragmented stained glass work that looks down onto an abandoned staircase.
While the issue of the restoration of these buildings has been raised, this brings us to another problem – inappropriate construction and reshaping.
Another concern, which is just as tragic as the disappearance of Tbilisi’s art nouveau monuments, are the examples of their poor renovation. In these cases original features and elements have disappeared under a layer of plaster and paint. Interiors are forgotten and modern inauthentic materials are used in the buildings’ reconstruction.
The Apollo on Aghmashenebeli Avenue is an example of poor restoration. For years this endangered building was a knockdown waiting to happen, but even so, its recent restoration is not the saviour it should have been. Many of its original details and features have been erased rendering the Apollo almost unrecognisable, and easy to just bypass it without knowing it was once something special.
Other such restorations include the TBC Bank on Marjanishvili Street and the National Bank on 3 Giorgi Leonidze Street.
The fight to preserve Tbilisi’s art nouveau heritage continues, in 1997 the “Art Nouveau Preservation Group” and “The Open Society – Georgia” foundations were established, only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their aim is to raise awareness of the importance of these buildings as well as their protection.
For the moment, damaged buildings that are in critical condition from this era are being destroyed in favour of replacing them with modern structures. Other buildings of the same time period are being subjected to careless and destructive restoration. These monuments are in desperate need of specialists who’ll care for the details and the décor with the respect they deserve.
The art nouveau of Tbilisi is part of our global and cultural heritage. Even the World Monuments Fund has listed Georgia’s modernist buildings as some of the most important and endangered monuments in the world.
One of Europe’s great art nouveau cities is on the brink of extinction, and the tragedy is no one knows it exists.
I would like to give special thanks to Maia Mania for her knowledge and help in my research on Georgian art nouveau.
1. Nestan Tatarashvili, Art Nouveau in Tbilisi: Guidebook, map and routes (2008)
This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
Situated up on a mountainous ridge overlooking the desert plains of Azerbaijan are a group of abandoned caves that shelter one of Georgia’s best art treasures – the frescos of the Davit Gareji school.
Georgia may be considered a part of Europe, albeit one of its most eastern frontiers, but its art history differs significantly from its Western European counterparts like Italy or the Netherlands. Up until the 18th century, easel painting didn’t really exist in Georgia; instead Georgian art mostly took on the form of murals and frescoes that dot the country’s various monasteries and churches.
The artistic renaissance came to Georgia much earlier than in Western Europe, when the great heights of mural painting experienced their golden age between the 11th-13th centuries. Frescos often were inspired by religious themes, but not limited to them since murals of a more secular nature also exist.
In style, the colouring and the iconography of Georgian frescoes display an influence from the Byzantine style, yet they encompass their own individual reimaging of motifs and stylisation distinguishing Georgian art of the middle ages from its Byzantine counterpart.
Various national schools with their own unique styles sprung up around the South Caucasian country, which not only celebrated Georgian hagiography, but also drew influences from the cultural contacts they had with their neighbouring countries.
One of the most important fresco schools of Georgia’s golden age was at the rock-hewn Davit Gareji monastic complex located in the south of the country on today’s border with Azerbaijan.
The main monastery of the Davit Gareji, known as Lavra, originates from the 6th century. This was founded by St. David Garejeli, one of the 13 ascetic Syrian fathers who returned to Georgia from the Middle East to spread the word of Christianity. Over time, the complex grew over the area where separate cave monasteries sprung up in the nearby mountains, including Udabno and its famous frescos.
The Davit Gareji monastery complex soon became Georgia’s sacred spiritual and cultural centre where the translation of manuscripts took place and birthed the once flourishing Davit Gareji fresco school.
The private art school of fresco painting of Udabno became one of the most significant events in the cultural life of Georgia’s middle ages. Where the colourful murals of Udabno chronicle the development of the life within the monasteries. When Davit Gareji reached its zenith in the 11th-13th centuries, the artistic school evolved from its austere style with the limited palette of its 10th century frescoes into the lush, brilliantly coloured and highly stylized murals of its golden age – reflecting the prosperity not only of the monastery, but also of the Kingdom of Georgia itself.
The cave complex of Udabno on the ridge above the original Lavra monastery was founded between the 8th-10th centuries. It spans more than 500m across the mountainside. Carved into the rock face, the now abandoned Udabno monastery consists of over 50 overgrown caves that once housed cells, chapels, churches and even a refectory.
The frescos of Udabno serve as a living chronicle to the progression of Georgian medieval art. Some of the older frescos date back as far as the 9th-10th centuries to the revered 13th century murals.
In some places in the Udabno complex, you can see where the old frescos were over-painted in the 13th century. The school at Davit Gareji did not use the Byzantine technique of applying a plaster basecoat before repainting, but only administered a thin layer of white paint before the new fresco was applied. Nowadays, this allows art historians to investigate the older painting underneath the newer layer, since the flaking of the topcoat causes the fragments from the older murals to show through.
The life of St. David Garejeli is chronicled in an older fresco in one of the chapels at Udabno, underneath the life of St. Nino, a 4th century Georgian female evangelist, that was painted in the 13th century on top of the original. Both frescos are rare, since it is unusual in Byzantine and Eastern Christian art to chronicle the lives of local and national saints.
Visiting the frescos of the Davit Gareji School is more complex than taking a trip to the National Gallery or driving to a monastery or church in a town. The Davit Gareji complex is situated in the middle of nowhere between the southern Georgian steppes and the Azeri desert, with nothing but a bad road and a soviet era taxi to get you there.
Even after a bumpy ride through what is a stunning landscape that feels more like Central Asia than Eastern Europe, the journey hasn’t finished yet. The Lavra monastery is located right next to the car park, but it’s a place of holy residence and not a tourist centre. Visitors are allowed into the courtyard to enjoy the view of the sandstone caves, but no further – since there is still a colony of monks residing on the premises who value a life of tranquillity and peace.
Udabno is accessible from Lavra, but involves an hour-long hike up the mountainside to reach the ridge where the abandoned caves are located. Even at 11am the temperature reached over 35°C, going up by five degrees when you cross into Azerbaijan, and you have to pay attention to the dirt path leading upwards in case you come across the occasional poisonous viper or two.
Natural health hazards aside, the site has been a subject for political debate for some time since it falls right on the Georgian-Azeri border. Back in May this year, the site was closed off to the public by Azerbaijan over territorial disputes with Georgia. Fortunately, after discussions between Baku and Tbilisi, the Davit Gareji monastery was reopened to allow visitors and pilgrims back in. Although getting to the caves of Udabno means you’ll unintentionally cross into Azeri territory, it’s unlikely you’ll come across any border guards until you reach the top of the ridge, and Kalashnikovs aside, they’re very friendly and helpful guys.
Experiencing the frescos of Udabno is unlike any art pilgrimage I’ve had before – this was the Indiana Jones experience of the art world. We were totally alone up on the ridge, with no other tourists in sight walking an uneven dust track that lay between the caves and a steep drop into Azerbaijan. There are no labels telling you who painted the fresco and what it depicts. Neither are there any cordoned off paintings nor gallery security guards to keep you from getting up close and personal with the murals.
Most of the frescoes are in poor condition, since the Soviet army had used the caves around Davit Gareji for artillery practice due to the region’s resemblance to Afghanistan, not to mention the damage caused by the 17th century Persian invaders who defaced some of the paintings. There is also no climate control up here to preserve the frescoes and since the caves are exposed to the elements, only time will tell how long these gems of Georgian art will survive. You may have to brave the desert, the mountain, the Azeri border guards and poisonous snakes to visit them, but the beauty of the Davit Gareji frescoes makes the journey worth it.
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.