It is possible to bring together various modes of painting onto one canvas rather than to paint in one definite manner. Each mode attempts to tackle a specific task, but fails to encompass painting in its entirety. By combining modes, an artist liberates art from the power of temporary tasks, and by destroying the arbitrary character of each style grants a work marvelous wholeness … unites all extremities and paralyzes the dark emptiness!
Ilya Zdanevich wrote the above quote in 1917 in a text dedicated to the opening of Kirill Zdanevich’s first exhibition in Tiflis, his hometown. When explaining Kirill Zdanevich’s works, he referred to them as “orchestral” as a metaphor for an integration of different modes of painting. Almost prophetic for 20th century polystylistic art, this description sheds light also upon the specific character of the Georgian/Tiflis avant-garde.
Georgian avant-garde emerged in the early 1910s and lasted until the beginning of the 1930s when Soviet policy declared it as formalism, banning it altogether. Characterized by formal-conceptual radicalism and politically useful in the revolutionary 1920s, it was replaced by “social realism” with the beginning of the Sovier state so-called “normalization” process.
So, the Georgian avant-garde of the 1910-20s was brought to an abrupt end by its isolation and subsequent suppression. That is why it remains largely unknown even in Georgia, as it had become part of the confiscated history and deliberately was removed from memory.
Some artists who braved the risk, survived throughout the difficult years of state terror in early 1930s, but by 1936-1937 the avant-garde had ended, and the lives and works of many artists were lost. This brief period of 1910-1920ss is therefore the freest in 20th century Georgian art and at the same time most tragic, as it shared the political fate of Georgia annexed by bolshevics in 1921. That is why Tiflis avant-garde with its peculiarity is often misrepresented as Russian . Though still in 1919, Yuri Degen the poet, conversely remarked in journal Phoenix, “Caucasus gave to Russian Futurists Vladimir Mayakovski and brothers Ilya and Kirill Zdanevich.”
Georgia of 1910-1920ss managed to become one of the centers of South-Eastern Europe. The Russian futurist poet Kruchenykh called it the third center of culture. It had distinctly multi-national character. Kruchenykh wrote of this diversity and described that not only the representatives of many movements would read their works in “The Fantastic Tavern”, an artistic café of the time, but in different languages too. Beginning from the 1910’s, Tiflis brought together Georgian modernists with Polish, Armenian, German, Jewish, Russian artists and poets. There were neo-symbolists, Acmeists, Futurists, so called proto-Dadaists, Dadaists, Zaumniks and the creators of the concept of “Everything-ness”, expressionists, cubists, cubo-futurists and more. There was no conceptual confrontation between them, which is yet another unique aspect of Georgian avant-garde.
As the Russian poet Terentyev put in his poem It’s Marvelous, “We are united by our hostile love and celebration”. “Hostile love” is a dichotomy that defines the creative and conceptual debate of the time. It must have been the festive character of Tiflis that enabled the unity of confronted sides. This festivity owed itself to the fact that Tbilisi has always been a city of poets. Poeticism of the city implies that it was not just a city where poets lived but that the city itself dwelled poetically. In 1919 Tiflis was declared a city of poets in the café “International”. Moreover, it was claimed that poetry existed only there, “. . . and Tiflis became fantastic” said poet Robakidze. In 1917-1921, in the period of state independence, this small “fantastic” capitol opened its artistic boundaries wider.
Multinationalism/multilingualism is a common feature of 20th century urban culture, but as the Georgian neo-symbolist Robakidze wrote: “Western Europe is dear to us but we cannot cede the East for the West. Better to celebrate their wedding with a Georgian feast.” Though said in a different context, these words respond to the afore-mentioned Ilya Zhdanevich’s declaration from 1913 about the death of Futurism and the emergence of the new idea of “Everything-ness” in its place. His strive towards the East and at the same time the intricate correspondence with futurist Marinetti, inspired him to create a concept of the language of art beyond the space and time. The outcome of the idea of Eastern and Western unity, so important for the Georgian avant-garde, is expressed by Kakabadze in his manifesto “Done Pictures”: “We will not allow the division of the world into two provinces – the east and the west… we are standing in the centre of the life of the art world.”
Following the concepts of “Everything-ness”, “Orchestral painting”, “Done pictures,” the idea of non-linear time, of spatial integration of the past, present, and future, of the East-West, is obvious. As the poet Titian Tabidze said, “Rustaveli (poet of the 12c. – N. K.), and Mallarmé are to meet up in a Georgian artist. I see Rustaveli as the collector of Georgian words while Mallarmé as that of ... Presentism and Futurism.” For Western avant-garde the present is mainly the starting point of the future and the future is the determiner; the primacy of time and duration is evident. The Georgian avant-garde is more oriented on space considering the present as the result of the past, and the beginning of future. Kakabadze remarks, Georgian avant-garde sees a phenomenon not “from one peculiar angle in depth but as the whole essence in the space” some kind of panoramic vision plus perceiving time epically, so in simultaneity of space. That is the Western modernity oriented on time differs from a Georgian as dramatic differs from epic.
Georgian/Tiflis avant-garde is the polyphonic merge of Georgian modernism with its aristocratic conservatism, its artistry, with the extreme épater of multi-national and multi-lingual Tiflis avant-garde. Its nature was much determined by the city with its traditional aristocratic representation and at the same time with the extremely performative nature of the merchants and craftsmen, mostly of Asian origin, who were an enchanting influence for artistic Bohemians. Besides, the avant-garde character of the intellectual and artistic life of Tiflis oriented on innovations, amalgamated with deep roots of traditional Eastern Christian culture. This multi-layering of the innovative with the traditional, the overlaying of the local with Eastern and Western unity, determined the “fantastic” nature of Tiflis avant-garde.
The Group 410 wrote in their newspaper also titled, 410: “The Company 410 unites leftist futurists and establishes Zaum (the linguistic experiments in sound and language – N.K.). Its goal is to apply all great discoveries and place the world on a new axis ... We are rolling up the sleeves.”
Tiflis became the city of avant-garde artist books, art magazines, manifestos, artistic tavern exhibitions and lectures. The famous artistic taverns were: “Fantastic Tavern”, “Kimerioni”, “Argonauts’ Boat”, “Peacock’s Tail”, canteen “Hope”, “International” etc. “Fantastic Tavern” was created in 1918 where the “Futurist Syndicate”, later the Company “410” and Futurvseuchbishche” were founded. All in all about 200 lectures were delivered there from 1917 to 1920 on avant-garde, on Georgian history of art ... It was here that the first modernist pantomime and drama performances were played out.
In 1910’s were founded: the Georgian Artists Society, the 13 Georgian poets’ “Blue Horns”, the “Armor”, “Guild of Poets”, the group “Alpha-Lyra”, “The Union of Tiflis Poets”, the “Futurist Syndicate”, soon after transformed into the “Company 410”.
In 1915-1930 about 30 modernist and avant-garde art and literary journals were issued on the initiative of the poet-symbolists, Dadaists. The Futurist and Dadaist group “H2SO4” issued the famous almanac ‘H2SO4’...
In 1919 the avant-garde poets and artists jointly published the book “Dedicated to Melnikova,” an actress, reader of the “Zaum” poetry in Tiflis. It is a symbol of the Tiflis avant-garde: the multi-lingual book unites Georgian, Russian, Latin and Armenian texts. And importantly, it is a polystylistic book uniting different movements and different approaches - Symbolist and Acmeist poetry, Zaum; Cubo-Futuristic, symbolist and neo-symbolist graphics co-exist side by side. Characterized by poly-style, it also harmoniously combined two book models - an avant-garde artist book and standard, traditional one. The co-existence of these two opposing principles (those of a traditional - image on one side and text on the other and those of the avant-garde) enables a contrasting combination. The modernist narrative, composed of verbal-and-image metonymic sequences, exists side by side with avant-garde almost non-referential poetic texts and signs, typographic experiments, letters of different sizes, shapes, and thickness, sometimes shown upside down. This requires from the reader the permanent interpretation, the development of own method of reading and perception thus becoming the co-author rather than a passive reader.
Another feature of the book is an article about palimpsest-type manuscript of the 17th century titled “N 1283” written by the scholar Gordeev with one image of its miniature. Such unexpected insertion of old art in the avant-garde book is conceptually well-thought out and turns it into a book-palimpsest on the Georgian/Tiflis palimpsest avant-garde as Tiflis of that time was itself a city-palimpsest.
And our Tbilisi little by little is going down / but the earthquake is still coming late -
Titian Tabidze, To Melita – Dadaistic madrigal, 1923
A strong “earthquake” that started in the 1930’s brought the destruction of avant-garde by the Soviet government. Many artists were arrested, while others were shot to death or had to emigrate. As early as 1923, Acmeist poet Degen was shot in Baku. In 1922, Zdanevich immigrated to Paris. Robakidze stayed in Germany, Later the writer Javakhishvili, the poets Mitsishvili and Tabidze were shot. The artists Shevardnadze, Petre Otskheli, the stage director Akhmeteli and the conductor Mikeladze were also shot. Kiril Zdanevich was exiled for 10 years, poets Iashvili and Galaktion were forced to commit suicide. Those who survived kept silence.