Full of angles, curves and playful poems, a New York City exhibit of Georgian Modernism from 1918-1921 succeeds in reclaiming a vibrant aesthetic heritage that had long been hidden by the monochrome backdrop of the Soviet past.
"The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde," at Chelsea's Casey Kaplan Gallery, is the first public display of this little-known genre in the United States. Its silent films, sound poetry, stage design, experimental music, photography, paintings and Futurist books reflect a critical period in Georgian history -- a period when Georgia was an independent state and enjoyed three years of creative freedom and cultural interaction with Europe. This epoch came to an end upon the Red Army's 1921 invasion.
Like Paris in its golden age, Tbilisi in the late 1910s and early 1920s was a bohemian city of artistic gatherings and literary societies, with a receptive public. Theaters were filled with innovative Futurist sets. Poets like Titsian Tabidze and his followers would strut up Rustaveli Avenue and on occasion climb the sycamore trees reciting new verses.
The movers and shakers of this avant-garde period were deeply committed cosmopolitans. Many had studied in Paris and St. Petersburg, in Berlin and Moscow. They brought back texts by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Dada manifestos, Surrealism, Constructivism, notions of Futurism, and then proceeded to remake these in a Georgian idiom and style.
The result was Georgian Modernism, a genre that flourished until "the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s when Soviet cultural policy officially declared it as formalism and a part of bourgeois culture, eventually banning it altogether," wrote Georgian art historian Nana Kipiani in an introduction to the exhibit.
Among the most striking works on display is a tall, photographic study of a stage design by Irakli Gamrekeli: an innovative, angular work of arches and hollows that is like a Futurist painting come to life, with actors bustling about inside.
Four black-and-white early silent films are projected along the gallery walls in a continuous loop, including Mikheil Kalatozishvili's legendary "Salt from Svanetia" and the long-suppressed "Nail in the Boot," and Konstantine Mikaberidze's eccentric gem, "My Grandmother" ("Chemi Bebia").
The walls are also filled with pages of Futurist books -- collaborative ventures between artists and poets -- made into photographic banners of a sort, and unfurled along the walls in long strips.
"The sophistication of design is evident," commented Co-Director Loring Randolph of the Casey Kaplan Gallery, pointing to the Futurist book manuscript reproductions.
The Futurist books were part of a series of experimental publications, including literary magazines such as Phoenix (1919) and H2S04 (1924) that characterized the Modernist movement. Linguistic freedom of association and light-hearted, atmospheric references to Paris and Tbilisi mark the Dada poems by Tabidze and his friends on display.
Though the works in the show are blithe, a sense of what will come by the late 1930s hangs over the exhibition.
In 1926, the first group of Georgian Bolshevik leaders -- people who had a soft spot for bohemians and artists -- was forced out of office. They were replaced by far less sympathetic functionaries, a generation that answered directly to Lavrenti Beria, then head of the Georgian secret police.
The modernists suffered during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Designer Petre Otskheli, director Sandro Akhmeteli, artist Dimitri Shevardnadze, and poet Tabidze, founder of the Blue Horn group of poets, were all shot to death. Those who were lucky to escape death spent time in internal exile. The suppression of a generation of innovators destroyed the links with the past -- even for today's Georgian artists. It was an experience akin to "the loss of memory," says art historian Kipiani, one of the exhibit's four Georgian curators.
In the past, all pre-eminent Georgian Modernist works that gained international recognition were claimed as part of the Russian tradition. The same misperception affected the reputations of individual Georgian Modernists, such as painter David Kakabadze and poet Ilya Zdanevich, according to Kipiani.
"Seventy years of Soviet culture had its results -- the connection toward our own culture was broken. It was banned," she wrote in an email interview. "There is not a big awareness of Georgian modernism and the avant-garde of [the] 1910-1920s, and how it functioned."
The theme of broken links with the past is reflected in the exhibit. The works shown are mostly reproductions. The opposition demonstrations in Tbilisi that began in early April made some delays inevitable in completing the cumbersome paperwork, necessary on both the American and Georgian institutional sides. "Waiting for the normalization of the situation in the country," commented curator Kipiani, meant that no time was left "to prepare the documentation and bring the works from Tbilisi museums."
With hard work, perseverance, and support from the Ministry of Culture, the show was salvaged. "We couldn't get many original works out of the country because the government is concerned with things being seized and lost," said Gallery Co-Director Randolph.
Nonetheless, what is shown draws back the curtain on a time when artistry grew easily and densely in Tbilisi, "the Paris of the East." Whether or not current Georgian artists can continue that tradition of innovation remains the exhibit's unanswered question. Only time will tell.
Pamela Renner is a cultural journalist who was a 2007-2008 Fulbright Scholar in arts reporting in Tbilisi.