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 Niko Pirosmani  (1862 - 1918)

About: Niko Pirosmani
 

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Lived/Active: Georgia      Known for: landscape, portrait, animal and rural life painting

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BIOGRAPHY for Niko Pirosmani
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Birth
1862 (Kakheti, Georgia)
 
Death
1918 (Tbilisi, Georgia)

Lived/Active
Georgia

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landscape, portrait, animal and rural life painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

From Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, Niko Pirosmani became a self-taught, 'primitive' painter of portraits, landscapes, animals and rural scenes, many of them reflecting his childhood background of growing up in the late 19th century.  His  method, totally unique to him, was painting on black oilcloth.  He was raised near the village of Kakheti on a small farm that also had a vineyard but spent most of his life in the large city of Tiflis, now called Tbilisi, where he arrived as an orphan youth. 

In that town, he became very well known and locally appreciated.  It is written that "He was much sought after, his signs were a feature of the streets in the railway district of Tiflis, and his paintings adorned the interiors of countless establishments on the streets.  He even had his patrons and followers who collected and cherished his works (some collectors had several dozen of Pirosmani's pieces). T his is hardly surprising since although his vast talent and matching insight placed him high above his rather common, uncultivated milieu, he was flesh and blood of this milieu, and he shared the tastes, aspirations, likes and illusions of these people - in short, their general outlook." (sangha.net)

The family was comfortable, neither rich nor poor.  However, in 1870, when Niko was eight years old, his father died, which drastically changed the family circumstance, and resulted in Niko living with relatives and then family friends.  In general, he was well treated, but his paintings of his childhood also reflect sadness.

A love affair with a young widow caused him to be ostracized, and spurned by his proposal of marriage to her, he left and from that time was 'on his own'.  He then became enamored with a French cafe dancer, Margarita, of whom he did many paintings, but she too rejected his ongoing attention because of her disappointment that he was not rich and distinguished.  It is said that from that time, he was disillusioned and lost his bearings, spending much time just wandering around and hanging out at old restaurants in the town of Tbilisi. 

However, the people with whom he associated gave him much subject matter for paintings, and he, living in an apartment by the nearby train station, hung his artworks on the walls of the 'dukhans' or wine taverns where he hung out, and, reflecting the hardships of life at that time, they stirred much public response.  Also, dukhan proprietors gave him food in exchange for the 'picture show.' It was written that "All little enterprises in this neighborhood is filled with his paintings.  They pictured Georgia, its beautiful land and sky, Georgian people, their everyday life. . . He pictures kings and peasants, town and country, parties and prayers, dancers and singers, people and animals." (steele.com)

During this period, he tried to earn money, taking jobs as a shop-sign and painter, whitewasher of walls, renovating house facades, and a railway guide, but abandoned those pursuits to devote himself to his creative painting.  Within a few years, he had a fairly large local clientele, who bought large paintings and murals, and commissioned him to do windowpanes for their businesses.

In February 1913, he had a breakthrough relative to receiving attention beyond his own town.  A local man, Ilia Zhhdanevich, wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper, Zakavkazskaia Rech, praising Pirosmani's artwork that had been entered in an exhibition of self-taught painters, mostly work by children.  A Moscow newspaper picked up this copy, which stirred interest and brought positive attention from critics including comparisons to Henri Rousseau, the internationally known primitive artist.  "This comparison persisted for a long time and subsequently achieved the status of an equation (Rousseau the great French artist and Pirosmani the great Georgian). Finally, at the Moscow - Paris Exhibition (1981) the dividing eline between the two artists came into sharp focus, leaving Rousseau rooted in the nineteenth century and fully belonging to it, and Pirosmani, only eighteen years his junior, firmly perceived as a twentieth century master." (sangha.net)

Subsequently a man named Dito Shevardnadze arrived in Georgia in 1916, and took immediate interest in the dukhan artwork he saw in Tbilisi.  He determined to form a society to connect all Georgian artists and not knowing the whereabouts of Niko Pirosmani, invited him through a newspaper letter to contact him and join the organization.  The two men met on May 24, 1916, and Niko received ten rubles to create a painting, which resulted in Utsindeli Sakartvelos Kortsili, or Wedding in George of the Past Times.  However, his presentation to the Society only resulted in him being told he had future and promise and that "after some 10-20 years you will grow to be a good painter. . . And then we will send you on young artists exhibition..." (steele.com)

Totally disheartened, Niko Pirosmani disassociated himself with other Georgian artists.  However, three young men familiar with his work continued to collect and promote it, and his posthumous success is credited to them---artists Kirill Zdanevich, Mikhail Le Dentue and the poet Ilya Zdanevich, Kirill's brother. 

Niko especially suffered poverty, homelessness and ill health during World War I, sneaking into a basement of an empty house to sleep.  He died in April 1918, the night before Easter, having been found in the cold cellar of the house where he had lain ill and alone for three days. His gravesite is unknown.

However bizarre and extraordinary the life of Niko Pirosmani, his posthumous destiny, or rather that of his paintings, lives on.

"His works are deposited in major art galleries and reproduced in glossy art books and catalogues.  Exhibitions of his works make triumphant tours of European capitals.  He is compared in earnest with famous masters of different nations and periods.  Poems, short stories, novelettes and essays are devoted to him, as well as plays and films.  His image appears in countless paintings, drawings and engravings.  Shortly before his death the great Picasso drew Pirosmani's portrait; and enterprising metal chasers oblige wills a mass of his likenesses in copper and brass.  Eager journalists interview the old men of Tbilisi, dig into archives, pore over old periodicals in the hope (often successful) of finding some minute details that have escaped the attention of biographers.  Naturally enough, this popularity is strongly tinged with curiosity and sympathy nurtured by the somewhat poeticized image of a solitary homeless painter.  (sangha.net)

Sources:
http://www.steele.com/pirosmani/ (Steele Communications)
http://sangha.net/countries/Georgia/CULTURE/PIROS/PIROS.HTM

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