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