Born to an impoverished peasant family in rural Georgia, a country nestled in between Russia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, Niko Pirosmani made art out of necessity, as a means of putting food on the table of his family. Unknown during his life, a posthumous spike of interest inexplicably occurred making him a national hero and subject of a Pablo Picasso portrait.
Eventually succumbing to malnutrition, Pirosmani was buried in an unknown location, all but forgotten about beyond the paintings of his that survived. These paintings were less about artistic, nor aesthetic merit - something we'd rarely consider now beyond ironic 'anti-art' or as a symbol of capitalism's effects on artistic expression. In a matter of life and death though, painting was just another job he could do.
Historical records show that he'd have done anything he could to get by, painting walls and houses, and even as a farmer on his family's land. It was an early spark of youthful exuberance that first highlighted his artistic predisposition, founding a painting workshop in his early 20s, likely as a means of diversifying his painting portfolio which had thus far simply been closer to decorating.
This led to the young Georgian working with local shops around the capital Tbilisi to create custom artwork and signs. This was art with a function, art for the sake of serving a purpose - similar to advertising and sign-writing now. His relationship with real artists was uneasy. The divide between creating out of passion (and having the economic freedom to do so) and creating as a means of survival was always apparent in his life.
Being self-taught, Pirosmani's unease at his place in the art world could stem from not being one of 'them', lacking any formal education that could give him a certificate, yet viewing the world with one far more valuable. An acute observer of life, somewhat always on the outside, his works were honest - a trait hard to maintain with money being the admitted primary motivator.
Embraced mildly by The Society of Georgian Painters, a caricature lampooning him by a member pushed Perosmani further away from a social strata he already had a troubled relationship with and it seems that these instances all contributed to the way he saw himself as an artist and the way he understood his place amongst them.
Misunderstood as the creator of an artistic style that had a limited appeal during his life, it was a style that shot in popularity in Paris in the 1920s, the then artistic capital of the world. It was only a year or two after his life ended that the 'naive' movement, of which he inadvertently belonged to, was the top of the artistic pops. Had he managed to break free from his life of poverty, he could have been one of the biggest artists in the world.
Despite this unfortunate revolving door, Pirosmani gained further acclaim in the 1950s and onwards. Beyond Georgia, the artist became a curiosity in 1969 when an eponymous film was released, winning awards in the process and catapulting his name far beyond his national borders. When the world started showing signs of oncoming technological advancements, his primitivist art was a perfect salve.
Then came Picasso. The world's most famous artist famously sketched a portrait of Pirosmani in a jagged abstract manner, taken as he was from a catalogue of his work brought over by a friend. The passion and disregard for traditional artistic values intrigued the Spaniard and the resulting portrait remains one of his most distinctive works. To compound his reputation, his face now adorns Georgian lari bills.
One of the country's most revered artists, his stock is set to rise again as international interest in Georgia, particularly through the rise of tourism in Tbilisi, has been growing rapidly over the last half-decade. It's a bittersweet tale - an artist who missed his own success. Many do though, that's the sad reality of people who create work that isn't in the prominent style of the times. Pioneers and mavericks are rarely understood in their time and Pirosmani is an archetypal version of those characters. He wasn't an artist for the love of art, but an artist because his life depended on it.
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