Between 1918 and 1921, the Caucasian republic of Georgia briefly enjoyed independence from its erstwhile masters, the Russian Empire. This was not to last, of course, because the Communists soon reoccupied the country. But during the short years following the October Revolution, Tbilisi (or Tiflis), the Georgian capital, became a focal point for avant-garde art. The commingling of creativity between the Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and the local avant-gardists became an exciting movement that has been woefully underreported.
To make amends, three years ago in New York an exhibition titled ‘The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde‘ opened at the Casey Kaplan gallery . This was one episode in a long effort by Daniel Baumann and allied Georgian historians to promote and disseminate the works of Georgian Dadaists, modernists, Futurists – set designers, musicians, writers, artists.
Grigol Robakidze described Tbilisi of that time thus:
“Tbilisi is a strange city, but in 1919-1920 it became even more stranger. Russians thrown out or escaped from Russia were sheltering here. From the stage one can hear Kachalov’s voice… Khodotov was in Tbilisi too and his voice sounded from the stage as well. The drunk composer Cherepnin used to seat in café and grieved about Russia. The artist Sergey Sudeikin was painting the restaurant, which by Georgian poets was called “Kimerioni”– Sudeikin really filled up the restaurant with Chimeras. The artist Savelii Sorin was painting the profiles of elegant noble women on the canvases with beautiful, very beautiful lines… Who was not over there in Tbilisi for that time? Futurists stepped toward Dadaism here too. They created organization “41 Degrees”. In Tbilisi was Ilia Zdanevich too, he was great, when was reading his “Smert Garro”… Vasili Kamenski visited Tbilisi as well. There were others there too.” 
(One of the effects of the influx of foreign artists and bohemians into Tbilisi was the encouragement of the so-called primitivist art that was already quite established in the country. The self-taught Niko Pirosmani, for example, was one who was promoted by the influential Zdanevich brothers. We’ll take a look at his work in a later post.)
In 1919, the Society of Georgian Artists, after an exhibition of local works, nominated and sponsored three artists for further advancement to Paris: David Kakabadze, Shalva Kikodze and Lado Gudiashvili.
In the “Self-Portrait” by Kikodze the influence of academic classic painting is still markedly visible; however, indisputable talent and artistic intuition add more internal energy and graphic vividness to the portrait. In his works of that period the interest towards colour characteristic and free painting manner is evident to which adds the skilful broad brushstroke manner of painting and the impulse which would subsequently manifest itself in his works and bring him closer to German expressionism, but in some cases his art works are very close to Symbolism as well. 
Many of Gudiashvili’s works of the 1920s are not devoid of pessimism and melancholy, in part because the artist recognised the doom of the ancient Georgian way of life since his youth. Still, in the (Paris) years of realisation of a new reality and the re-evaluation of essential values, Gudiashvili retained a fidelity towards beauty – his conception of the Eternal Feminine – which directly linked his work with the tradition of Russian and French symbolism. 
It was due to David Kakabadze and some representatives of his generation that the genres of landscape and still life had evolved in Georgia, while “Imereti – My Mother” is an epic picture, in which Kakabadze intermingled these two genres and generalized the idea of Georgia. By their content these symbolic works fully correspond to the beliefs and pursuits of Georgia of those times. From the viewpoint of form all David Kakabadze’s knowledge and experience that he possesed by then, are combined in them. In these pictures the artist presents himself as a truly popular artist, highly professional, a classicist and modernist at one and the same time. All the details in his compositions are thoroughly thought out and balanced with one another. Nothing is erratic. But inner rhythm, pulsation are very strong. In these works the heart is beating of a man, deeply in love with motherland and creation, the heart of a great thinker. 
An epicentre of Georgian cultural life was the artistic cafe. In Tiflis there were three famous ones, one (Fantastic Tavern) giving its name to the exhibition that I mentioned above. The murals on these were some of the earliest examples of the Tbilisi avant-garde. Artists from all over the Russian empire painted them.
Fantastic Tavern was decorated by Lado Gudiashvili, Alexander Petrakovski, Niko Nikoladze, Yuri Degen, Illia Zdanevich, Ser Gey in 1917.) The walls of Argonaut’s Boat were painted by Kiril Zdanevich, Lado Gudiashvili, Bajbeuk-Melikov in 1918 and Qimerioni – by Serge Sudeikin, Lado Gudiashvili, David Kakabadze in 1919. No wall paintings of St. Petersburg, Moscow or Strasbourg exist any more. In this connection it is very important that the wall paintings of two Tbilisi artistic cafes, Argonaut’s Boat and Qimerioni still remain. Qimerioni is remarkable because the wall paintings so much completely preserved here can only be found in Paris La Coupol nowadays. 
One of the most influential movements in Tiflis was the Art Nouveau, which began in Europe at the end of the 19th century and spread widely in the early 20th. In Tiflis, the result was an explosion of cafes and theatres and hospitals and banks and libraries designed in this genre. The Art Nouveau cinema was perhaps the most significant. Sadly few of these are in good shape today – the continuing effort of the Soviet authorities to suppress Georgian culture can be thanked for this. While Georgian avant-garde films were tolerated, the less said about the fate of Georgian art the better. When the Soviets reoccupied Georgia, again the cultured class was scattered or shot, and the cultural life in Tiflis began to mutate under official pressure. Few of the Georgians managed to leave, but for the Russians who had come to the Caucasus to escape the Bolsheviks, it was time to depart too. “For them the period of existing in Tbilisi modernist environment became a certain transitional stage from Russian to international, multi-cultural art; in other words thanks to [their] Tbilisi experience it was easier for them after their emigration to the West [to] integrate into European contemporary culture and co-exist there.” 
- Casey Kaplan Gallery, The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde, Press Release.
- Quote by Grigol Robakidze, from Mzia Chikhradze, “Integration/Expansion, Georgian-Russian Cultural Relationships in 1910-1980s“, Harriman Institute at Columbia University, May 4, 2009.
- Mzia Chikhradze, ‘Tiflis of the 1910s-1920s, Culture and Art‘, Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
- State Tretyakov Art Gallery: Lado Gudiashvili – The Paris Years. Exhibition (18/11/2009 – 10/01/2010) introduction.
- Ketevan Kintsurashvili’s ART LINE: David Kakabadze – A Great Georgian Modernist.
- Tea Tatabadze, “Tbilisi Artistic Cafes (1917-1921). Qimerioni“, Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
- As #3.