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Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles brings together thirty paintings by Niko Pirosmani
View of the exhibition Niko Pirosmani - Wanderer between Worlds at Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, 2019. © Hervé Hote.

ARLES.- The exhibition Niko Pirosmani – Wanderer between Worlds brings together almost thirty paintings by the Georgian artist (1862–1918) presenting a real and fantastical panorama, suffused with great calm, of an epoch in the midst of transition. Pirosmani’s imposing figures and motifs, with their powerful graphic quality, are wide-ranging: a train steaming through the countryside at night, a woman with a mug of beer, a monumental boar and, sometimes, animals such as a giraffe or lion from imagined lands. Rarely dated, his paintings on wax cloth are largely composed in black and white, enlivened by the presence of blue or red.

Self-taught, a wanderer, meandering between town and country, Pirosmani embodies the popular modern vision of the clear-sighted artist on the margin of society. Far from the symbolic intermediate spaces of galleries, artists’ groups and museums, Pirosmani forged an œuvre imbued with modesty in the taverns and stables of Tbilisi and its surroundings, painting to order or offering his art in exchange for food. He distanced himself from the image of the naive painter immured in his solitude and – like Van Gogh – built up a body of work that seems to belong to everyone.

Uniting works by these two artists for the first time in the same place, Niko Pirosmani – Wanderer between Worlds is thus no ordinary exhibition. The Georgian painter is namely presented at the Fondation alongside five canvases by Vincent van Gogh, grouped under the title Vincent van Gogh: Speed & Aplomb. Produced between 1884 (the Dutch period) and 1889 (the Provençal period), Van Gogh’s paintings, too, convey a sense of speed and attest to a humble look at the people and the things surrounding the Dutch artist.

Pirosmani’s influence on the art and vision of his contemporaries is clear. His œuvre was caught up in the ferment of emulation propelling the various Russian and Parisian avant-gardes of the era. Alert to artists whose work – seen as “authentic” – signalled a rejection of academic conformism, the Russian avant-garde awarded generous space to Pirosmani at the exhibition The Target held in 1913 in Moscow. Pablo Picasso’s 1972 drypoint etching Portrait of Niko Pirosmani, presented in the Arles exhibition, speaks of the impact of the Georgian’s work on French modernist avant-garde circles.

The legacy that Pirosmani has bequeathed to the art of our own day also deserves a closer look. Among homages by contemporary artists on the second floor, the exhibition at the Fondation also includes a new piece by Tadao Ando: a monumental monolithic table incorporating blue roses – in the words of the Japanese architect, “a metaphorical tomb in memory of this artist”. Pirosmani’s influence continues to make itself felt in new ways through the works of artists such as Raphaela Vogel and Christina Forrer.

Historical events have kept Pirosmani’s work away from France for many decades. It is high time that his paintings are made accessible to the general public.

Curator: Bice Curiger

Born around 1862 in Mirzaani, Niko Pirosmani is a source of national pride in his country, Georgia. Considered in Western Europe as the Douanier Rousseau of the Caucasus, he drew his inspiration from the people around him, from traditions, from daily life in the countryside and on the outskirts of Tbilisi, as well as from animals. Other sources, such as medieval icons, folk art and Russian engravings, likewise infuse his frank and direct paintings. Executed for the most part on black waxed cloth, they were humbly crafted in unconventional locations such as stables, shops and cheap restaurants, and offered in exchange for accommodation or food.

Discovered in 1912 in Tbilisi by Mikhail Le Dentu and the brothers Ilia and Kirill Zdanevich, Niko Pirosmani was caught up in a ferment of emulation that propelled his œuvre to the forefront of the art scene and fostered its positive critical reception, beginning in his own lifetime. In 1913 his work was presented at The Target exhibition organised in Moscow by the Russian avant-garde artists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova.

Described as an artist of national stature from 1916 onwards, Pirosmani by this point had no fixed address. Deeply hurt by a caricature circulated in the press, he disappeared and died alone and penniless in 1918.

Niko Pirosmani – Wanderer between Worlds brings together almost thirty paintings from the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, which today houses the majority of the known works by the artist, the large part of whose production has been destroyed.

Conceived in sections, the exhibition also presents Pirosmani’s paintings in tandem with contemporary artistic production. At the same time, it opens a unique dialogue with the work of Vincent van Gogh and thereby illuminates the parallels and differences between the lives and hearts of two artists wreathed in many mysteries.

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