Wild beasts and peasant life at the Albertina: Niko Pirosmani

Just before leaving for a two week trip I managed to finally go see the exhibition of paintings by the Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani at the Albertina Museum.  There is just one more day to see this exhibition of naive depictions of animals, farmlife, and battle scenes.

Painting to make a living

Pirosmani was born into a poor farming family in Eastern Georgia in the Caucasus region.  He moved to Tbilisi with his sisters when their parents died, and there worked as a servant in wealthy households.  So it is somewhat surprising that he learned to read and write Russian and Georgian, and later, after a brief stint as herdsman in his home village, decided to teach himself to paint.


Pirosmani was a man of many trades, working at one time as a train conductor, co-founding and leaving a dairy farm, painting houses, and making signs, paintings and portraits for shopkeepers in Tbilisi.

During his lifetime, he gained a local reputation, but could not find the support he sought in the Society of Georgian Painters, who did not appreciate this auto-didact artist´s style.  Sadly, he passed away in April 1918, completely destitute,  of malnutrition and liver failure, having remained poor all his life.

A wealthy childless couple receiving a child from a poor woman

Pirosmani painted what he knew.  In his works you find scenes inspired by a love of animals and nature – though many animals seem like creatures of his imagination rather than faithful depictions of their species, and paintings showing  merchants, shopkeepers, railroad employees, tavern guests, and aristocrats.  He also painted battle scenes, especially referring to the Russian-Japanese war over influence in Manchuria and Korea in 1904, which the Russian Empire lost in battle in 1905 and which was much in the news. He had no experience of war, nor has he seen photos, so what he depicted was purely imaginative.

A forerunner of Russian neo-primitivists

Pirosmani painted on oil cloth, cardboard, and sheet metal, in a naive style, which he learned from examples from medieval and folk art.  Having never studied painting formally, he neither employed perspective nor three-dimensionality.  The colors are sometimes monochromatic, and at other times quite vibrant.  The expressions on people´s faces are neutral or smiling, even if the scenes that are depicted in the images would call for more emotion – such as the one above where a poor farmer woman is handing over her small baby to a wealthy childless couple.   There is a child-like quality to these paintings, at least they remind me of children´s book illustrations.

Fox, oil on cardboard

As so often happens, Pirosmani only gained international reputation as a ‘naïve’ painter in Paris and elsewhere after his death. His paintings were shown at the first big exhibition of Georgian painters in 1918.  Later, this primitive style would become all the rage with the Russian Neo-Primitivists.  This group of artists, which count among them such famous names as Chagall, Malevich, or Goncharova, to name but a few, fused aspects of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs.

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So, if you are looking to warm up tomorrow, why not check out the last day of this exhibition at the Albertina.  And while you´re at it, don´t miss the outstanding work of street photographer Helen Levitt – that exhibition also ends tomorrow!


Sources: Albertina Museum website, exhibition descriptions, Wikipedia


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