When you’re living in a city, you often don’t get what’s so interesting about that city, or what draws you in. I’ve met New Yorkers who have never seen the Statue of Liberty, Wyomingites who have never seen Yellowstone, and a ton of Tbiliselis who haven’t been to a single Tbilisi museum. For good reason, for the recent history after the fall of the Soviet Union, one might have asked, “What museums?” But now, some 30 years later, the cosmopolitan culture of this jewel of the Caucasus is starting to blossom again. Many of the museums are opening back up and showcasing the wonders of Georgia.
One past wonder was a naïve painter known as Nikala Pirosmani. With premiere exhibitions having hit Europe recently, he’s definitely Georgia’s most famous painter. Born as Nikoloz Pirosmanashvili to a family of poor shepherds in Mirzaani, a small village out on the southern slopes of Kakheti, just before the lush wine-lands turn into mud volcanoes and grass steppes. His parents died while he was still a child, and with his two older sisters he moved to Tbilisi, where he would soon take up residence under a staircase as a servant to rich folks. There he learned to read Georgian and Russian, and taught himself how to paint.
His painting was never a success in his life – as per usual. For the most part, he made his money making portraits and signboards (akin to the modern artist who has to make their money from graphic design and web banners) and doing odd jobs like house painting and whitewashing. He also commonly painted murals and other pictures for local bars and restaurants.
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That’s where he was “discovered”. Two well-known painter brothers, Kirill and Illia Zdanevich, came across him while painting in one such restaurant. They thought his bizarre and jovial style was fascinating, and immediately sent a letter off to the Russian newspaper, Zavkazskaia Rech and got some of Pirosmani’s works included in a naïve gallery showing in Moscow.