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.