Davit Kakabadze (1889-1952) - a Georgian painter, graphic artist and scenic designer, also an art scholar and innovator, was born in 1889, in a poor peasant family in the village of Kukhi, Imereti.
His paintings appeared in the Georgian media as early as in his school years. He studied natural sciences at the physico-mathematical faculty of St. Petersburg University, from which he graduated in 1916.
Simultaneously, he attended painting classes at the studio of Dmitroyev-Kavkazsky until 1915. He had an intimate knowledge of the emerging movements of Russian and West European art. As a student, he did research on old Georgian arts. Davit Kakabadze remained in St. Petersburg until 1918. From 1918-19 he lived in Georgia. .
During the period from 1919 to 1927 Davit Kakabadze lived in Paris partaking in the annual exhibitions of the Societe des Artistes Independants. He was actively engaged in mounting exhibitions jointly with other Georgian artists (his personal exhibition was held in the United States): he lectured on various aspects of art; developed his interest in stereoscopic cinema and was granted many European patents for his inventions; published theoretical works in the Georgian and French languages. Davit Kakabadze is one of the outstanding figures of Georgian art. He was the first to introduce monumental decorative landscapes and is considered one of the leading pioneers of Georgian stage design. He died in Tbilisi, in 1952.
The letter is addressed to the artist's elder brother - Professor Sargis Kakabadze - an historian and philologist by profession. He was born in 1866. Initially he studied at Vienna University and later graduated in oriental studies from St Petersburg University. In 1911-19 he delivered lectures at Tbilisi's high school for women. His career experience includes years as a researcher at the Caucasus Institute of History and Archaeology under the USSR Academy of Sciences; head of the antiquities protection department; chief of the historical archive of Georgia; chief of the ancient documents division of the same archive. His main fields of research were the socio-economic and political history of Georgia, philology and textology.
A LETTER TO BROTHER
My dear brother Sergo, I'm now in Pshavi feeling pretty good, writing this letter from Magaroskari, a small poverty-stricken village with a thoroughly miserable store and a post office. I came here from Pirikita Khevsureti where I spent my time most profitably, doing a long series of sketches and drawings.
You may be wondering what on earth I'm doing in this out-of-the-way wretched place. I'll try to make myself clear: as you know my exhibition held in May in Tbilisi's Orient Hotel left the city buzzing with rumours, which is only natural for a small city like Tbilisi wallowing in hearsay and gossip. I must admit a large part of society did not or maybe could not puzzle out the meaning I had packed into my paintings. Nor could the official press capture the essence of what my paintings are all about. A May 9 issue of the Communist Newspaper reads; "The exhibited paintings throw us info a state of deep confusion, understandably though, since it is the first-ever European-style exhibition in Georgia. There is hardly any painting conveying a sense of relaxation, consolation or moral relief. It is regrettable that the exhibition failed to earn Davit Kakabadze the title of "artist of impeccable taste". My works were labeled as "devoid of meaning"; critics censured me for being a "formalist".
Such evaluations, apart from being insulting, are meant to contain some elements of threat. I don't think the Bolshevik Government is very appreciative of my behavior in Paris. The thing is that, while in Paris, I was summoned to appear at the People's Commissariat for Education of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. They even remitted £50 to cover my travel expenses. The man who handed over the money to me in late December of 1922 was Jakeli, a representative of the Chiatura black-stone enterprise "Chemo". But I quickly spent the money (£50 is not a sum that can stay long in your pocket in Paris) and could not return to Georgia.
You know that the reason I went to Paris was to master my painting skills. I pursued my studies with great diligence as long as I was paid a stipend by the former government of Georgia. However, when contributions towards the costs of my studies ceased to flow to Paris in March 1921, I had to give up training and find a job to support myself. In the end, I failed to catch up on what I had already missed and remained uninitiated in several important fields. Thus, at the halfway point in my studies, I could ill afford to return to Georgia.
I think it was a good enough reason to incur the wrath of the Soviet authorities. So I packed my bags, slung my case over my shoulder and came here.
Following Nicholas Marr's advice, I once visited Breton, a town by La Manche in the northwest of France. It is an extremely scenic part of France but it can't even come remotely close to Pshavi and Khevsureti, in particular.
Words fail to convey the outstanding natural beauty of this area. To appreciate it fully you need to ascend the Datvis Jvari Pass and survey Pirikita Khevsureti from there.
It is an austere and awe-inspiring beauty totally different from the warmly elegant and graceful features of Imeretian landscapes. Frankly, what I experienced in this thoroughly primeval nature far exceeded all expectations.
I walked over 100 versts (distance old measurement - editor) from Magaroskari to Shatili and back, plunging many times into the fast-flowing and ice-cold current of the river. I sometimes went hungry, freezing cold in the baking hot summer, especially at night. It was an awesome experience to visit the Anatori vaults and the Shatili Fortress, which, I presume, derives its name from the French word Chateau (fortress). An ancient sabre I came across in Shatili provides further evidence to support this point: erroneously regarded as Georgian "Davitferuli" by its owner, the sabre in fact turned out to originate from Medieval Marseilles engraved with an inscription: "David Ferari".
But it is just nothing compared to what happened to me afterwards. With no tent to shelter in I had to stay in a village. Night was closing in. I saw a man mowing a field and asked him to let me stay overnight with him. He agreed with great pleasure.
Khirchla Chincharauli was the name of the man who took me in. He was about 40 years old.
My host stopped mowing and led the way. We climbed up a slope, ascended some featureless mount and came up to a huge heap of dung, behind which I saw a shabby hut of mud and five or six children playing in the virtually treeless yard. Seeing me they immediately scattered. We walked into the hut and were met by the host's wife looking too old for her age, yet retaining some vestige of beauty. She put us on a couch in front of a low table and took to getting supper ready for us.
My eyes kept wandering around the room: a small blackened fireplace, a soot-stained phanduri (Georgian musical instrument -editor), a few jugs of water and wooden casks for cheese and butter. But, suddenly, all these things started fading away under the impact of some picturesque felt rug hanging on the opposite wall of the room.
The artistic merit of each painting or ornament, whether abstract or realistic, and of everything depicted on a flat surface, can be judged by its ability to convey a sense of space. A sense of space is art's chief gauge. A painting that does not aim to capture space has nothing in common with art. The geometric linear perspective invented by the Renaissance emerged as a tool for European artists to project the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. However, when I saw the felt rug in the Khevsurian hut, 1 was convinced that the world around us can be captured, rather than through linear perspective, by some subtle choice of colours.
It was a fantastic discovery! For a minute I lost myself in an overwhelming rush of emotions. When I came to my senses, I was already fingering the felt rug under the curious gaze of my hosts.
It was unlike any abstract painting I had seen before - whether in terms of colour, composition or theme. I felt an intense flavour of Georgian soil, water and air radiating from it. Traditional forms of art remain unexplored in Georgia. There is hardly any authoritative study of their aesthetic value. Everything that is old is put into one and the same prism. Age seems to be the greatest merit of all movements of art.
The rug was also old, yet the newest of all the things I had seen in Paris. It was gradually dawning on me that this unforgettably unique piece did not belong here; it would rather grace the wall of the Louvre Museum and become a constant source of delight for millions of people.
My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by my host inviting me to the table. Khirchla passed to me a small horn filled with Zhipitauri (home-distilled vodka - editor). As it was customary, I toasted his family and cattle. When we were already deep in conversation I dropped a hint that I was very impressed by his felt rug and would pay any amount of money for it. But he shook his head and asked me not to raise the issue again.
We drank a few more horns and the dusk began to slip into night. I don't know what was to blame, vodka or a wick-lamp flickering dully from the wall, but the felt rug seemed now even more mysterious, creating a new blaze of colours.
The woman put the children to bed. We also wrapped up in blankets but I did not get a wink of sleep that night. I was utterly infatuated with the felt piece and could ill afford to part with it. Determined to go the extra mile to make the masterwork my own I devised a cunning plan.
We woke at dawn. The hostess set the table for us and we started to get that nasty Zhipitauri down. We drank three horns each and I again engaged him in conversation on the felt rug. He mentioned that it was the handicraft of his great grandma, Gulkan Arabuli.
I told him my own story - that I was an artist and had been studying art for nine years in France. I knew I was speaking about something that was alien to him: the current state of art in Paris, two main movements of which one is committed towards deepening Cubism tendencies, its organization, synthesis, discovery of new opportunities (from Picasso to Andre Lhote) and the other, which either makes use of already existing formulae (Andre Derain, Risling Favori, Suzanne Valadon, Marie Laurencin, Frie, Waroquier) or is focused on the sensual depiction of landscapes (Dunoyer de Segonzac, Gromaire, Van Dongen, Vlamich, Grosz). Then I told him that his felt rug offered a complete contrast to the concept of art developed by both the groups and represented an absolutely new and hitherto uncharted movement capable of making an enormous breakthrough in contemporary European art. On closing, I asserted that it was our duty to bring this artwork to the attention of European artists. The effect, I added, would be mutually beneficial in the sense that European artists could see through a different prism both their own paintings and new art tendencies, whereas Georgia could pride itself on being able to give rise, of course thanks to my host's grandma, to these new tendencies in art.
My poor host listened keenly to me but he could hardly grasp the meaning of my long-winded monologue. I therefore went squarely to the point and insisted on buying the piece.
No - he said flatly - I told you yesterday I'm not going to sell it...
Then give it to me as a gift -I blurted out.
It was meant to be the culmination of my well-thought-out plan because I knew perfectly well that no mountain-dweller can agree to disgrace himself by refusing a plea from a guest. My words did indeed hit the mark. He buried his face in his hands and sat motionless for a long time. I was becoming conscious of an inner struggle raging inside him: he oscillated between his desperate desire to retain the rug and his extreme unwillingness to hurt me. I already felt a pang of guilt but my desire for rug was overpowering.
At last he raised his head and looked at me, eyes brimming with tears. I was shocked. Then he poured himself vodka, drank it at a gulp and started: "I was orphaned early. Mother died when I was six, father - two years later. I lived at my grandma's but she too died as I turned twelve. I remained all alone. I had to raise cattle, cut and bale hay, chop down trees and drag firewood - winter is usually harsh here with a heavy snowfall, keen frost and devastating avalanches. As I advanced in years I married a young orphan woman as penniless as me. She bore me six children - one after the other. Every day, I get up with the lark and toil long hours in sweat and blood to support my family, but anyway we are raggedly-dressed and half-starved. I sometimes plumb the depths of despair and collapse on this couch thinking of either shooting or stabbing myself to death... but then I look at this rug and feel a serene calm filling my heart. I forget about everything and feel myself becoming a man again" - he paused for a while, then poured himself more vodka and said: "It's up to you now... if you are really so madly keen on the rug, then get it off its hook and take it away".
I fell silent. Then I rose, threw my arms around him, kissed him on both shoulders, said goodbye and took my leave.
I'm writing this letter from the post office in Magaroskari. I don't at all regret leaving the rug in the hut. Perhaps, it still graces the same soot-coloured wall giving the simple Khevsurian man a blessed relief from the sheer futility of life. And it is exactly what art is all about.
4 August 1928