This is the Tbilisi Podcast, covering life, travel, and more in the country of Georgia. Brought to you by Foodfundtravel.com Expathub.ge. EatThisTours.com this episode we are talking about Niko Pirosmani, a self-taught master, painter. His works are unique, with a primitivist and naive style that captures the essence of Georgian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Tbilisi Podcast, a show about life and travel in Tbilisi and Georgia. I’m your host, Meg. I run a little website called Foodfundtravel.com.
A little website?
There’s quite a few hundred articles on there. It’s not that little, is it?
You’re underselling yourself a little bit here.
Well, I mean, there’s websites that are much bigger than mine.
Sure, that’s true.
Not that little website, but not massive website.
Exactly. Yeah, it’s there. It exists. Come check it out sometime if you want. But that’s what I do in my spare time when I’m not podcasting or mumming or drinking or eating, that sort of stuff.
That’s the word for it?
I do mum stuff as well. Yeah. With a little man and our little man, because you are my husband.
Yeah, you forget? It happens.
It gets confusing. You’re quite tired sometimes as a parent, and sometimes you forget that you’re a parent because you’re too tired to remember you’re a parent.
It’s like you see those videos of people that are, like, rocking the baby in the rocker, but they’re actually holding the baby. They’re like, what are you rocking? They’re so tired. They’re like, rocking nothing because they’re holding the baby. Anyway, we’re parents. Anyway. Yeah. So we run a little show called Tbilisi Podcast. That’s what you’re listening to right now. Thank you for joining us.
Yeah. And Tom here again. I come on this show quite a lot because I’m the co host, so I’m quite often on it. Occasionally I’m the host. I’ve done a few episodes where I’m the host as well, so I’ve been upgraded to slightly better occasionally. And yeah. From expathub.ge and eatthistours.com. Yes, eatthithours.com. Eat it. Eat it or drink it because it’s wine as well. Yeah, you probably know that by now.
Well, we’re not actually doing an episode that has anything to do with food or wine. No, actually, it does have something to do with wine. It always has something to do with wine because it’s Georgia.
Literally every episode has to have something to do with wine. There is no way to come to Georgia and ignore wine completely. I mean, you don’t have to drink it, but you can’t ignore it. It is there even if you don’t drink.
Yeah. So this episode we are talking about, Niko Pirosmani, it is another history episode, talking about important people in Georgian history. And Niko Pirismani is a self-taught master painter, so his works are unique, with a primitivist and naive style that captures the essence of Georgian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This naive style, of course, is a technical term. We’re not just trying to insult one of Georgia’s greatest painters. There’s a specific technical, artistic term.
Well, it’s not technical at all. It is exactly as it is.
It is described. That is the style, it is what it is that he’s doing.
Yes. So, yes, join us as we dive into the world of his incredible art and learn more about his life, art, troubles, all of that. We’re going to jump into that in this episode.
Yeah. It’s a distinctive style, and you’ll see it as you walk around Tbilisi. If you go out to Signagi, which is close to where he grew up, and all over the country, you’re going to see his artworks. He is very popular indeed.
Very much so. So who was Niko Pirosmani? Niko Pirosmani was born. Nikoloz Pirosmanashvili
Of course, there has to be a shvili on the end.
He was born in the late 19th century, and as we mentioned before, he’s known for his primativist and naive style. So for non art people like me, I Googled it.
Yeah. I also not really a massive art person.
Totally Googled it. Primativism is art that involves the appreciation and imitation of cultural products and practices.
So perceived cultural products, such as wine, for example.
Exactly, yeah. Primitive culture that sort of displaying those sorts of things. And naive art is defined as a visual art that is created by a person who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes. So it is exactly as it sounds.
Self trained, as we said.
Yes. So there you go. You’re welcome. Now you know.
Now you know. I mean, that’s what the episode was for, was for us to learn what Pirosmani was doing.
All right, so let’s jump a little bit into his life and upbringing. So, Pirosmani was born in a small Georgian village of Mirazani in 1862. And as Tom mentioned, that’s just sort of out Signagi way. His parents, Aslan and Tekle, were farmers who owned a small vineyard and they had a few cows and oxen and stuff like that, and they had a nice little life until he was left an orphan.
Yikes. And then the vineyard fell into disrepair. It did not go well. So at a relatively young age, his sister Miriam sent for him to come and live with her and her husband in Tbilisi, but she was taken by cholera, apparently, and her grieving husband sent him to work for a middle class family.
19Th century was rubbish, wasn’t it?
It really was.
It wasn’t even that long ago and yet it was still rubbish. So quite crazy. But, I mean, everyone knows this already. I’m not spreading new information here.
Everyone’s aware late 19th early 20th century was a little rubbish.
Yeah. People just drank gin and died. I mean, that was English people but that’s pretty much what was going on. And there you go history. History, folks, history. In a nutshell, people just drank gin and died. That’s English history.
English history in a nutshell
The whole of English history done. Don’t need to learn anything else. Everything else that England did was completely pointless to learn. Don’t even bother reading up about it.
Gin. Death. So, yeah, that was one story that I read. I heard another that his two sisters asked him to come and live with them and then, I don’t know.
And then they got cholera and died.
It wasn’t good.
I mean, anyway, why invite someone round if you’re just going to die during the meeting?
No matter what happened, people died and it didn’t go well for people.
Yeah, okay. Mainly he wasn’t having a great time. That part we could probably assess. About 90% of the population of the entire world were not having a good time in the 19th century.
Yeah. One of the things that for working for the middle class family, he actually learned to speak Russian in that time, and I think he actually learned to read as well, which was actually relatively useful for someone of that period. But from that time onward, he did like a whole bunch of odd jobs. He was an odd jobsman. He worked as a herdsman.
Is that an official word? Odd jobsman?
Is that in the dictionary? Yeah, sure. We’re definitely not going to Google it or check.
Don’t look it up. Definitely there. Absolutely there.
I like it. Odd jobsman.
If it’s not in the dictionary, I am going to write to Oxford myself and tell them that it should be.
Yeah, but because he ended up not being particularly good at anything in particular.
Just like, good at the odd jobs.
What do they say? Jack of all, master of nuts. Yeah, there you go. They say that his life became a precarious dance on the edge of poverty, which is not fun.
And he thought, Hang on, art, that’s the way to make money. Interesting, because historically, that’s always worked so well.
He did like a whole bunch of odd jobs, but then he started doing things like painting houses and doing signs for shopkeepers and all those sorts of things. And from doing signs for shopkeepers, he ended up doing different paintings and he ended up doing portraits according to people’s orders and all of that sort of stuff. Apparently he also even owned a dairy farm for a while. But the dairy farm didn’t last. It didn’t go so well. So through all of this, Niko slowly taught himself to paint. One of the interesting things that he’s known for is his preference to work on black waxed cloth. So you’ll see a lot of his paintings, the background is completely black and that’s why the colours are so vibrant.
the contrast is crazy. It’s very striking artwork.
He also painted on glass, metal, walls and used natural materials, such as berries, leaves, and bark for his pigments. As he had zero classical training, he just used what was around him and created from that, which is what makes him so unique.
That’s pretty amazing in itself to just go, I’m just going to reinvent art. Why bother studying anything? I’ve got my own deal going on.
I can use this.
And it worked. That’s what’s amazing about it, really. It just went like, yeah, I’ll figure it out. Yeah, got it done.
So a lot of his paintings were often of animals, forest scenes, markets, tradesmen he was working alongside. He was also known for his unconventional painting techniques. He would use his fingers instead of brushes as well, so that’s where the primitive and cheaper yeah, totally primitive and naive stuff comes in. So he was continuing to do this, working the odd jobs, but as many people as he were just talking about with the good old British history, Niko took up the drink to wash his troubles away, as many people have done throughout history. So through this painting actually became a form of barter. He was poor, he didn’t have a lot of money. So he would do simple portraits and he would trade them for hot tavern meals. And it’s in these taverns where his works were first discovered. So basically, he would paint on the wall of a tavern. So there are lots and lots of his actual works that have been lost because they were just on taverns and stuff like that.
Wow. So, I mean, what we’re saying here is that he became significantly more successful because he turned into an alcoholic and just hang around in bars doing paintings on walls.
Well, yeah, that’s where he actually was discovered. So in 1910, Russian painter Mikhail Le Dentu and a Georgian writer, Ilya Zdanevich, they discovered his tavern paintings and brought some of his work back to their friends in Moscow. And he actually achieved quite a bit of success in Russia. There was an exhibit held in Moscow where self taught painters exhibited their works, and among them were Four by Piriosmani. So there was a portrait of Zdanevich as he did portraits, still life, Woman with the Beer Mug, which I’ve seen, definitely seen around in reprints and the row. So critics writing later stated that they were actually really impressed with his talent. And he did really well with a lot of the sort of Russian art scene, but it just didn’t trickle back down to him financially in any way, shape or form. People were like, bravo.
It never does it.
You’re doing an amazing job. Oh, you want me to no money. No money yet. You’re just new. So it didn’t help him at all.
Come here, do some artwork for the exposure. One day. One day you’ll be ready.
Working for exposure.
Yeah. Always works, doesn’t it?
Exactly. He also had a little bit of success here in Georgia as well. In the early days, the Society of Georgian Painters, who were founded in 1916 also took note of his work, and they invited him to their meetings. But he had a bit of a hard time getting along with a lot of the guys. One day, he presented a painting called Georgian Wedding to the Society, and from that one of the other members published a caricature in the local newspaper of him. And he was greatly offended by it. It obviously was not very nice, and it caused him to just disappear again into the world of taverns and drink and stuff like that. So while he was alive, he would kind of make this appearance and he would do quite well, and people would applaud him for the work that he was doing and the beautiful paintings and portraits and everything. But then something would happen. And also, as it is, he needed money more than he needed accolades. So he would take jobs and do other things rather than focus on his art because he needed to survive. He disappeared back down into his own world of booze and taverns and just taking odd jobs and doing all of that sort of stuff. But actually in this time, Pirosmani actually produced an astonishing number of works. The total figure is actually said to be over a thousand different pieces of art, but only a few have survived, which is mainly due to the negligence of owners or the closure of spaces where his paintings were housed. Cellars, tea rooms, taverns, all that sort of stuff. These things get people don’t realize or care that they’re important and they just get painted over or destroyed or any of that sort of stuff.
Others now you can see at the National Museum and a few other museums around the world. So there’s also at the Signagi Museum as well. You can go and see quite a few of his works there as well, which is really cool. I didn’t know it was there. And we walked in the other day and I was like, oh, yeah, pirosmani. And I didn’t think it was real.
I thought it was like, assume it’s copies or something.
Copies. And I stepped over the red line to have a closer look at something, and the alarm went absolutely berserk at me. And I was like the lady came up and I was like, Is this real? And she’s like, yeah. Oh, my goodness. It’s a real Pirosmani. I didn’t realize. My bad.
Fortunately, it turned out that the lady who was in charge of the line crossing happened to be the owner of the guest house. We’d stayed the night before, and she was totally fine with us. She’s just breaking the rules.
Yeah. And then she just occupied Isaac for the next 15 minutes, playing peekaboo with him. It was fantastic
parenting stuff. Parenting and art. Apparently that’s what’s happened in this episode.
There you go. You can go to museums and art galleries with your kids.
Because in Georgia, as long as the person who’s in charge of the art is the guest house owner from the previous night,
people play with them anyway.
Yeah. And so definitely a fun side tangent that the ability of anyone in Georgia to help you out with your kids if you’re a tourist is great. Everyone’s really happy to see kids here. It’s really helpful.
Yeah. Poor old Pirosmani actually died in 1918. So a few different things saying about his death. One article says on March 30, 1918, the night before Easter Sunday, he was discovered unconscious in the basement of an abandoned house. I think the abandoned house is actually where the Niko Pirosmani Museum is. There’s a tiny little place.
This is the one that is near Signagi, but not in Signagi.
No, this is the one that’s by Station Square. He died in Tbilisi.
There is an additional yeah, there’s a.
Small I went to go there the other day, but it was a public holiday and they were closed. So I took a picture of the door so I can share that on social media.
Was it painted with pirosmani art?
But when you went inside, you could see pictures of pictures. They had taken pictures of his.
It’s a bit of a mess of museum.
I don’t think there’s actually any Pirosmani work there. I think it’s more of a monument. Yeah. This is where he lived. This is like the sort of what his room was like. It basically was he Harry Potter’d it and lived under the stairs pretty much. But yeah. One source said that he was discovered unconscious in the basement and he was taken to a hospital, but died soon after of malnutrition and liver failure from his years of drink. Others just state that no one actually knows when he died, just that it was 1918 or why he died. Some people say it was liver failure. Some people say it was the 1918 flu pandemic.
Yeah. Spanish flu.
Yeah, Spanish flu at that time.
What is going on with history right now? So we’re literally repeating 100 years on, we had a massive pandemic and a stupid war in 1918 ish just in a different order war than pandemic. And now we just had a massive pandemic and a stupid war.
We thought that we’d all moved on and we’re just doing the same thing.
We’re doing a slightly better job of it this time around. Hopefully we can have a more successful outcome with the whole war situation.
So Pirosmani is actually in an unmarked grave. Nobody actually knows where he is to this day. There was a guy who thought he knew where it was. I think it was like back in the 60s or something, and he was digging up a whole bunch of areas to try and find they thought they’d found his grave, but it turned out that it was the grave of a woman, so it wasn’t him. So people actually don’t know where he’s buried. It’s not marked. During pandemics, they just get rid of the bodies.
Back in those days, yes.
So it wasn’t until after his death that Pirosmani’s work gained widespread attention and fame. In the 1960s, his paintings were rediscovered by Georgian art historians and began to be exhibited internationally. And to this day, his work can be found in museums and galleries all over the world. So the question is, why is his art so important? Some people can just say that he was just some drunk guy, that some naive primitive yeah. Did some paintings, like, why is he so important to it?
I mean, they’re amazing. I love the work.
I think the vibrant colors and everything is so unique, and so it doesn’t.
Look like anyone else’s.
It’s very his.
It’s very, very unique. But also, there are other reasons why his art is so important to the Georgian people. So, during Pirosmani’s lifetime, Georgia was under the rule of the Russian Empire, which is the early 20th century. It was also a great time of social and political upheaval in Georgia, also in Russia as well, with the rise of the nationalist movements and the eventual establishment of the Georgian Democratic Republic, which came about around about the time of his death in 1918. So Pirosmani’s art played an important role in this context, as it helped to define a sense of national identity and pride. His paintings just depicted everyday life of Georgians. It was their traditional costumes, their traditional customs, their struggles, like animals in the field. It was that he basically just painted what he knew, which was that naive, primitive painting exactly as it is. He painted what he saw, and that was Georgian culture. So this helped to create a really powerful sense of community within the Georgian people. So despite living over a century ago, Pirosmani’s art still really resonates with audiences today. His unique style, his subject matter, it just continues to inspire contemporary artists. And his paintings remain a really important part of Georgia’s cultural heritage, as I mentioned. Yeah. He’s able to capture the essence of Georgian life in his traditions, in his art. It just makes him a really beloved figure in Georgian culture, and I don’t think that will ever die. Like, I think his work will continue to go on, to be like he’ll be one of the leading painters of Georgian art.
He’s sealed a place in history, for sure.
Yeah. And also just in a world that often values conformity and traditional training, especially even in those days. He might not have been taken as seriously by his peers because he didn’t have that traditional training. But I think Pirosmani’s story is just a reminder that artistic talent can come from anywhere. And that creativity, it really just knows no bounds. As we said, he painted with his fingers, he used berries and stuff as pigments. He painted on walls. Like, creativity can come from anywhere, and you don’t have to be trained or taught in order to do it well. So, yeah, basically, he just is an enduring reminder of the cultural heritage and transformative power of art in Georgia. If you’re looking for some of his most popular paintings, like, if you want to look them up and have a look online, one of my particular favourites is the fisherman in a red shirt. You’ll see a lot of reproductions of this all over Tbilisi and Georgia of people reproducing this particular painting, holding a fish.
Holding a fish. Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a cool painting.
Yeah, it is a fisherman in a red shirt. Typical young man of the day standing in a river. He’s holding a fish in one hand and a bucket in the other, and he’s just wearing really simple clothes and a hat. One of my favorite pieces of street art, actually, it’s over in Marjinishvili. There is a reproduction of this. It’s on a wall, and it’s done as a Simpsons character. And he’s holding the three eyed fish from the Simpsons.
It’s a good twist.
I absolutely love that piece. So, yeah, that’s a really popular one. And you’ll see so many reproductions of that. Another really famous one of his is the feast of five princes. And you’ll see this in a lot of restaurants, like, reproductions of this. So it depicts a scene of a georgian folktale. The painting shows five princes sitting at a table enjoying a feast with a variety of dishes and drinks. The painting is full of bright colors and intricate details and is considered to be one of Pirosmani’s most complex works. So, yeah, if you see something of, like, a whole bunch of guys sitting around a table, sort of, I guess, last meal style, they’re all sitting on that one side of the table. Last supper style.
Last supper? Yeah, last meal. Different group guys.
I don’t do art. I enjoy art
or religion or history, any of these things.
Yeah, you will see this in, like, restaurants and stuff, reproductions of this, and it’s pretty cool, as I mentioned before, where to go see Niko Pirosmani’s paintings, you can go to the museum, the national art museum, and go see it there. I think it’s closed at the moment. This is march 2023. We’re recording this. There was a little bit of an art kerfuffle that happened the other week where an artist tore his painting off the wall and spray painted in its place. I can’t remember what he wrote, but he was not too happy with his art was being taken care of or something like that.
Yeah, there was a whole kerfuffle. So I think it’s closed at the moment, but when you’re listening to this, it could totally be reopened again. You can go to the Signagi Museum and go see his works there. I think that is a permanent fixture that you can go and see his work.
that appears to be a permanent exhibit now because he was from the region.
And if you’re wanting to head out to Station Square and see his last little home place, the museum I didn’t get into because it was closed, the Pirosmani Museum, it’s only, like, currently five gel to get in there, so it’s pretty cheap. But I think also it’s just, like, one or two rooms that has, like, a chair and a desk. It’s one of those sorts of museums. None of his actual paintings. But hey, if you’re looking for something to do out at Station Square other than just, like, check out the there’s lots of things to do out there. So if you’re looking for an additional thing to do out there, check out the museum.
The main thing to do at Station Square for those who’ve not been to Tbilisi is basically go to the big bazaar and do shopping. Best prices in Tbilisi on fresh produce.
Lots of things.
Yeah. And yeah, not just fresh produce as well, but any type of market style shopping as opposed to modern, convenient department store shopping. If you want to go do old school market shopping, then that’s the place to go, for sure.
A few interesting facts to wrap up this episode. In 1969, a film about him was made titled Pirosmani. I’m sure it’s in Georgian. Haven’t watched it. Should probably watch it.
Yeah. There’s actually a big list of movies I need to watch, and I just haven’t got around to it because I don’t watch movies anymore. I just binge watch TV shows.
Yeah. That’s the way the world’s gone.
It is. He also inspired a portrait sketch by Pablo Picasso in 1972
that is in the Signagi Museum.
That is. I saw that. So that’s pretty cool. So he even inspired Pablo Picasso. That’s really cool. Good job, Pirosmani Not that he knew it, but he would have been over 100 when that was done. Pierce money is also depicted on a Georgian Lari bill. The one Lari bill. But this is very rarely seen.
Who has this? I don’t think I’ve ever had a one Lari bill since I’ve been here. I don’t remember in 2016, if we had them. Maybe we did.
I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re still in circulation. I don’t know if anyone has them tucked away somewhere, or you can go see one, maybe at the National Museum. You can go see it. But he was on the one Lari bill. But now we all use one Larri coins. So you really don’t see the bill around much anymore. But if you spot it, grab it.
Don’T give it to anyone. Keep it.
Yeah. So that’s it.
It’s not quite it. I have another fun fact.
Why? What fun fact do you have?
Wine. It’s Pirosmani wine. Oh, it’s I mean, it’s inspired by him. He didn’t invent this wine, but there is a semi dry to semisweet red wine from Kakheti, because he is from Kakheti, made from saparavi grapes. That is dubbed Pirosmani. That is his wine. It’s a fruit forward, sort of fresh and exciting if you’re into semisweet type wines, which a lot of people in this region are.
So it’s a particular style of wine ?
Way of making saparavi. I mean, once you listen to any of our wine episodes, you’ll know that saparavi is used to make so many different types of wine. This exact type of style is a fruity, semisweet, semi dry wine with his name on the label. So if you’re walking around and you see a wine called Pirosmani, it is named after him.
There you go. So, yeah, just as you’re walking around Tbilisi or Kakheti or even he was really, really important here in Tbilisi and Kakheti region, but you might find his works in other areas, but you’ll find lots and lots of reproductions of people taking his work and putting it into their own work. You will spot Pirosmani everywhere. Like, I went to visit the doctor the other day and I saw these different artworks that all had Pirosmani images in them, but it was like scrap booking style, but in a really cool art way. You’ll just see his influence absolutely everywhere and it’s really cool. As Tom and I have both mentioned, his art is very vibrant and just unique and really stands out. So keep an eye out for it. If you are getting around Tbilisi, you will spot Pirosmani’s, influence all over the place.
Yeah, literally all over the place. I don’t think you may not know it when you come here, but once you do know what it is, you see it everywhere.
So while he did lead a very tragic life, as did many of the artists of that time, as do many artists of any time, they usually have a tragic story. But he has had a profound influence on Georgia, the nationalism of Georgia and also the art of Georgia going forward. He’s pretty important guy.
Yes. All right, so I guess that’s the end.
That is that is all for our Pirosmani episode.
So, Pirosmani wine, let’s just leave on that note. Try some red wine when you come.
Enjoy the art. And just remember, even if you are not a trained artist, give it a go, give it a bash. Because you never know, you might end up creating something profound that people love for generations. So just give it a go.
All right, we will see you on another episode of the Tbilisi podcast. Yep.
Follow us on all the Socials, which are Tbilisi podcast on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. So not all the socials. Just those socials.
Just those ones. We don’t want to do all of them. Who’s got the time for all of them?
Who’s doing that?
But please do come and follow us and just. Check out what we’re doing there. We’re going to try and just get a little bit more active in those areas. Try. I say it, I say it.
Yeah. And then you get woken up at four in the morning and go, nah, no, not today. I’m not doing anything today.
Yeah, so anyway, but come and check out what we’re doing. And I also just share random things of my day of like me getting on a train or oh, it’s spring, look at the flowers. Or oh, my God, it’s snowing again. What? I thought it was spring. So that’s what you get from me.
All right, cheers, everyone. See ya. Well, we won’t see you next time. Hear you. Hear us. Listen to us.
Thank you for listening.
Listen to us again next time. That one.
Thanks for listening to the Tbilisi podcast. Connect with us at tbilisipodcast.com. Where you can find all relevant social media links, join our email newsletter and discover more about travel tours and expat services in Georgia. This show was brought to you by foodfuntravel.com expathub.GE and eatthistours.com.