What can be learned about the Georgian cuisine through the paintings of Nikolos Pirosmani?
Since most of the research that has been done regarding Pirosmani and his work has been carried out by Georgians most of the research has also been published in Georgian.
Since I do not have enough knowledge in the Georgian language it means that the language barrier does not make it possible to read the books in Georgian. However there has been some attempt to present Pirosmani and his work in English and some new publications has been published in three languages, namely Georgian, Russian and English. There is also some websites dedicated to Pirosmani in English. I have due to the fact of the language barrier choosed to use three books that deal with Pirosmani in English.
Pirosmanis life, an overview
Among the researchers there are different opinions about Nikoloz Piromanashvili (Pirosmanis) birth and death dates and the place of his birth. Some mean that he was born in 1853 and others mean that he was born sometime during the years 1865-1866. Some researchers say he was born in the village of Mirzaani in the region of Kakheti in eastern Georgia, others mean that he was born in Shulaveri after the father Aslan Pirosmanashvili moved from the village Mirzaani to work in Shulaveri in the 1860`s as a hired hand at Akhverdi Kalantov´s vineyards. Aslan brought his already existing family with him to settle down at the Kalamtov´s, the family consisted of his second wife Tekle Toklikasvili, the elder son Ivane (Giorgi) and two daughter, one of the daughters was born before the move and Nikoloz eldest brother Giorgi passed away at the age of 15 in Shulaveri and the father soon followed. Shortly after the passing of the father Nikoloz mother fell ill and pasted away after a short while.
The researchers also parts what happened to Pirosmani after his father’s passing, some say he left for Tbilisi before his mother’s passing, while others say he left after her passing. Regardless of which Nikoloz and his two sister was left orphaning’s after the passing of both parents. One sister got married and the other sister, named Peputsa returned to Mirzaani. The information about Nikoloz childhood is scares but it is believed that the boy was taken into the Kalantrov`s family and they took him to Tbilisi in the mid 1870´s and the family treated him more like a child of their own then a servant, he even had his own room. He was taught to read, Georgian at first and then Russian and was often taken to the theatre and around this time he started to draw. Nikoloz read newspapers and magazines in the family library and listen to conversations that took part about politics, art and literature when the family had guests.
It seems like Pirosmani made his first steps towards independence at the age of 26 or 27 when he started a workshop and started to paint signboards along with Georgy Zaziashvili, the business ended in bankruptcy. Some researcher means that Pirosmani left his host family after having fallen in love with a young widow of the family and when he told her about his feelings in a letter and that they were not answered by the young woman he decided to leave the household.
After the business had failed Pirosmani accepted a work at the railway as a brakeman. He kept this job for three and a half years and because of his self-neglect and the hard working conditions on the platform of goods wagons ever open to winds, he undermined his health severely, he left the railway at the turn of 1893 or 1894. After the railway Nikoloz started up a new business a market for dairy products, milk, butter and cheese, first from a barrow and then from a small shop of his own. He decorated his shop with his own signboards. As earlier Nikoloz took in a partner into the business and for some time it looked like the business was in bloom and very fruitful, however several years later the both partners where ruined, this time totally. It is not known for sure or not if Nikoloz had a romantic relationship with a French chanteuse by the name of Margarita.
The documentation regarding Nikoloz life and whereabouts are scares after he went into bankruptcy but it is believed that he went to see his sister Peputsa in Mirzaani from time to time and build a new house for her. Nikoloz whereabouts in Tbilisi varied from time to time, it seems like he did not care much where he was living, for some time he stayed with his friend Bego Yaksiyev and other time he stayed at the places where he worked. This places was taverns and restaurants where he worked and painted the walls with different kind of motifs, he also painted a lot of billboards for the restaurant and shopkeepers. At time he rented so called lodgins, as a rule a cellar, a cubicle beneath a flight of stairs or a shed. An upended crate served as a table, and a few brick-propped planks as a bed.
A stump of a candle or a kerosene lamp furnished light. Eyewitnesses to his poor homes states that the walls was hanged with his paintings. Since there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the painter’s life the researchers are not in agreement over if the artist carried out his work at restaurants and taverns for food and drink, especially vodka in the latter case and if he was under constant intoxication of alcohol or not while he was working. Some say that he could not have been, since it would not be possible to paint the way he did under constant influence of alcohol. It seems however that he was a poor man that had found his calling and that he painted from his heart, mind and soul and did not take a lot of money for his work, he mainly asked the owners of the restaurants and taverns to pay what they thought the work was worth, most of the time the payment was low and he gave away a lot of his work for free as well. It seems sure however that he got paid in food and meals, at least for as long it took him to finish his work a part from the cost of the paint and other working material.
It seems like Pirosmanis first official recognition came in 1913 when some of his paintings was exhibit in Moscow, and in 1916 there was an one day exhibition of his work in Tbilisi, it seems like this two exhibitions was the only ones that was given during the artists lifetime. As well as there is different opinions about the birthdate of Pirosmani the date of his passing is also under debate, some say he passed away on the 14th of March 1919 at Aramiants hospital and was put to rest at the Petre-Pavle´s cemetery while other says the day of his passing was the night before Easter, 4th of May 1918 at the Mikhailov Hospital and was buried on the 9th of May at the Kukia cemetery, in a separate place for unknown diseases. Exhumation works have been undertaken at both the cemeteries twice in order to locate Pirosmanis grave, in 1963 and 1969, both search has been proofed to be unsuccessful. Since Pirosmanis grave seem to be lost he has been given a symbolic grave with a memorial in the Mtatsminda cemetery. What is agreed upon is that Pirosmani died miserably poor. Pirosmani is today considered to be the great national painter of Georgia and has inspired a lot of artist and painters after him such as for example Picasso. After his passing Pirosmanis paintings has been on exhibition 76 times between the years 1919-2008 all around the world.
It is very uncertain how many works Pirosmani produced during his lifetime. According to eyewitnesses that claims to have seen a lot of the works that the painter carried out in Tbilisi he could have produced as much as two thousand pieces, these reports of the eyewitnesses are of course impossible to verify. Most of the work the artist did directly on the walls of the restaurants and taverns are most likely gone forever if there are not found under some whitewash when the restaurants or taverns will be under reconstruction.
For the moment there is no telling in how many frescos that has been lost by the artist hand due to the fact that they were done straightly on the walls of the establishments. Up on till this day a little over 200 paintings has survived and it might be so that more will come to the surface in the future among them paintings that today are considered to be lost. The artist himself seldom dated his own works, there is however an exception in the group of paintings between 1916-1917 that the artist himself dated.
Pirosmani did not have any special schooling and empirically he created and evolved his own style. It seems like that one of the sources that inspired the artist was rustic folk arts and crafts of Georgia that was transformed into the painters colour range, rhythm and spatial concept. It also seems like the artist was in some extent influenced by the Iranian influences that could be found in Tbilisi during his lifetime. It seems like Pirosmani took what inspired him and absorbed it into his own perspective and talent.
The tempo the artist painted in and which is the second factor of Pirosmanis style depended not only on the artist creative requirements and mentality, but on such purely external circumstances as the need to paint as much as possible and consequently to paint quickly. Judging from the few known facts Pirosmani painted with fantastic speed. For the smaller portraits he needed about 30 minutes, for the average size paintings three or four hours and for the bigger works, he needed but a day or two, it did not take him more than five or six days to paint his epics though they were several meters long and were populated with dozens of personages. The speed which Pirosmani painted is considered to be all more amazing in that he never had the time to prepare, to give thought to concept, composition and detail, to do any primary sketches and so on.
Pirosmani used for the bulk of his work Russian or foreign, primarily British factory made oil paints of high quality and standard except during the first world war when he was forced to work with white powder colour which he mixed with frying oil in jars in much the same manner as a house painter. All the artwork is made in oil, except the murals which he made in distemper straight onto the stuccoed and whitewashed wall devoid of any special treatment to ensure permanence.
He also used oils when decorating window panels. It is hard to say if he used wooden panels for support, there is nothing to suggest that he did. Most of the very few paintings done on an ordinary primed canvas were produced at an earlier stage, which shows that thought Pirosmami was familiar with canvas and could obtain it, he rejected it for certain practical reasons, painting mostly on sheet iron, oilcloth and cardboard. All of the painter’s signboards as well as two of his still life were painted on sheet iron. Though able to withstand heavy pressure the thick roofing iron used was powerless against corrosion which gradually eroded the paintings. Due to the erosion of the signboard the shop and restaurant keepers preferred to have new signs painted on an old one that had been scraped clean. During wartimes privation and ruin some of the signboards were torn down to make stovepipes. Pirosmanis own favorite medium was the black oilcloth that was not cheap.
The paintings on oilcloth has survived not only because the paints were of top quality and so swiftly applied without any over painting, but also because the oilcloth´s chemical composition is very similar to that of oils. In many of the artist’s paintings the black of the oilcloth has even been integrated into the picture itself. In such cases, either slightly touched up or not at all, it serves to bring out details that were to have been painted black in the first place. This represents a peculiar manner of what can be termed as topsy-turvy painting, not in dark colour`s on a light background but in light colours on a dark background. The colour frame Pirosmani used might seem to be narrow; sometimes he used five or six colours in a painting, sometimes only three. In general it can be said that Pirosmanis total palette consisted of cobalt blue, ultramarine, zinc or lead white, chromium oxide, pale ochre, cadmium yellow, strontium yellow, cadmium orange, English red, green, umber and black.
It is under discussion how many of Pirosmanis paintings that have survived, but at least 217 have been attributed to the artist, apart from these 217 paintings there are other paintings that are under scrutiny if they are made by Pirosmani or not. In the following I have only used the 217 survival paintings that has been attributed to the artist and not the once that are still under scrutiny. A part from the remaining 217 paintings there is also an existing inventory of paintings believed to be lost today, their number is 57.
Graph 1. The number of representation of foodstuff and categories in the 217 official Pirosmani paintings that are remaining today.
Graph 1 show the number of representations of foodstuff and the categories in the 217 official Pirosmani paintings that are remaining today, out of the 217 paintings 71 of them have depictions of foodstuffs in them.
The foodstuffs have been divided into the following categories; milk, chicken/birds, meat/animals, wine, grapes, sugar, tea, fish, drinking, dining, fruits, eggs, cakes, waterbarels, cook, mtsvadi, bread, pumpkin, nuts and vegetables. The depictions of wine and wine drinking are most frequently represented in the paintings with a little more than 30 times, depictions of drinking and dining follows closely after wine. Chicken/birds and bread are also in the top of depicted foodstuff by Pirosmani. Followed by foodstuff such as grapes, fish, vegetables, fruit, cakes, meat/animals, egg, pumpkin, milk, waterbarells, mtsvadi, nuts, beer, sugar and tea.
Graph 2. The number of representation of foodstuff and categories in the 57 paintings of Pirosmani that is believed to be lost today.
Graph 2 show the numbers of presentation of foodstuff and categories in the 57 paintings of Pirosmani that is believed to be lost today. The categories of foodstuff is as follows: Shaslyks (Shaslyks is the same dish as Mtsvadi in Georgian), chicken, snacks, fruit, wine, sugar, tea, fish grapes, drinking, dining and beer. Out of the 57 paintings that are believed to be lost today, out of the 57 paintings 14 have depictions of foodstuff according to the existing descriptions of the paintings.
If one compare Graph 1 and 2 it is a different between the different food categories, in the missing paintings fruit and dining is in the lead, followed by wine, drinking, shaslyks, chicken, fish, snacks, sugar, tea and beer. As well as for graph 1 and 2 the same painting can have several components of different group of foodstuffs in them so each category has been counted separately. There is a difference between the categories of
foodstuff in the remaining paintings and the missing ones, there is 21 categories in the remaining paintings and 12 categories in the missing paintings. All of the categories in the missing paintings are also represented in the remaining paintings except the category snacks. It is not possible from the existing inventory of the lost paintings to try to find out what the snacks category existed of. Interesting to see in the two graphs is that sugar, tea and beer are amongst the categories that are the least depicted just once or twice.
When one is discussion the categories of egg and cakes, they appears in the same kind of motivs in Pirosmanis works and the overall theme is Easter. The most common combination is red eggs, easter cake, a table and the easter lamb. One of the remaining paintings with eggs and cakes that differs from the others is Pirosmanis version of Christs ascending to Heaven, in the foreground the eggs and cake is in focus.
To the left one of Pirosmanis version of Easter with the lamb, cake, eggs and table and to the right the
artist version of Christ’s ascending to heaven with the cake and eggs in the foreground.
A difference between the paintings is that on the one to the left there is no wine as it is on the one to the right.
The Easter lamb painting is done with oil on oilcloth and Christ’s ascending is oil on tin (after Kobakhidze, without year:102, 110).
Two paintings that in this article have been chosen to illustrate Pirosmanis way of depicting feasts, both paintings are oil on oilcloths (after Kobakhidze, without year:169, 186).
What is interesting in the context of feasting is how Pirosmani choose to lay out the different foodstuffs on the table or the tablecloth.
If one study the compositions of the foodstuff and dishes in the remaining paintings Pirosmanis compositions are very similar to each other in this
category of paintings. Around the laid out tablecloth on the ground or on the table a group of guests or family members are gathered for a feat.
The beverage on this occasions is always wine, depicted either in big kvevris or in carafe, animal skins filled up with wine or/and from drinking
horns. There is always bread on the tablecloth and then the different dishes can vary from each other in the paintings in numbers but there is always roasted bird (most likely chicken), some form of vegetables (in most cases radishes and pumpkins, sometimes cucumbers and spring onions), some kind of fish, mtsvadi (barbeque) and sometimes some other meat dish. The selection of dishes and foodstuff by Pirosmani is small and narrow in these paintings.
There is not that many still lifes by the artists hand that has survived that are categorized as still life, the number of them are only five. They are made with either oil on oilcloth or oil on tin and they differ from each other in size and contents. The still life in illustration 6 shows a lot of foodstuffs, mostly not processed, such a suckling pigs, birds, different kind of fishes, bodies of smaller animals such as lamb, mtsvadi, fresh grapes, pears, radishes but one also finds processed food such as sausage’s and wine in bottles. There is one still life that differs from the others since the depiction on that still life clearly is connected to Easter with the red eggs, Easter cake, fishes and wine.The major part of the paintings with grapes is from grape harvest and pressing the grapes directly after the harvest.
This paper has been about how Georgia’s national painter Nikoloz Pirosmani depicted the nation’s food and beverage in his art and the paintings has been studied solely from a food and beverage perspective and not from an art critic’s point of view. Regardless of his own poverty Pirosmani did by no means use cheap paint or art material for his work. It seems like his employers paid for the material that was expensive foreign oil colours and the black oilcloth that he preferred to paint on if he was not painting straightly on the walls of the taverns or restaurants or if the employers wanted some other material for their signboards, such as tin.
As have been mentioned earlier in the text, it is an ongoing debate on how many of Pirosmanis paintings that has survived, but it seems that 217 of them have been acknowledge to his hand and at least 57 have gone missing that there is an inventory of.
Graph 3. The different kind of food categories in percentage in the remaining paintings by the hands of Pirosmani.
Graph 4. The different kind of food categories in percentage in the paintings believed to be lost according to inventory by the hands of Pirosmani.
Graphs 3 and 4 show the different kind of food categories in percentage in both the remaining paintings and the ones that are believed to be lost. The categories are made by me, maybe someone else would have made another kind of categorization for the paintings. Since Pirosmanis paintings are very rich in details most of the paintings contains more than one category of foodstuff, like the paintings of feast or/and dining and drinking or grape harvesting. Among the remaining paintings wine is peaking over the other categories while the peak in the lost paintings belongs equally to fruits and dining.
Grapes comes in a number six among the paintings that still remains among us today. I would have thought that grapes would have had a higher place since grapes are so vital to the Georgian nation as a whole, especially in the wine producing areas of the country. Still today the young members of the families take great pride and joy in participating in the grape harvest and the following event of pressing the grapes barefooted, I can imagine that it was the same or maybe even more so during Pirosmanis time period. The country itself has a very long history of winemaking, the oldest evidence of cultivated grapes dates to the sixth – fourth millienium B.C. (Shulaveri-Shomu Tepe chalcolithic culture).
Bread comes in as the third category in the remaining paintings and is totally absence in the missing ones. Bread is very common in Pirosmanis paintings, especially in the ones that are depicting feasts or dining and drinking. The most common bread that is depicted is what is called tone bread. Even today among the Georgians a meal is not considered to be complete if there is no bread on the table, regardless of the number of dishes that are placed on the table. The only times when bread is not served is when one eats Khachapuri, Khinkali or Rhomi.
The tone bread is baked in a special oven called ‘tone’ . This kind of oven is designed to provide very high, dry heat. Fuel for the fire is provided by charcoal which lines the bottom of the structure. In order to produce temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius), bakers maintain a long vigil to keep the oven’s coals continually burning. At such high temperatures, the bread made in a Tone oven develops a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing moistness on the inside, the tone bread is mainly made when the customer’s order it. As well as winemaking have a very long history in Georgia, so does bread, wheat has been found at the same sites as the mentioned cultivated grape pips above.
The categories of eggs and cakes are missing in the paintings believed to be lost even if they can be found among the remaining ones. What are meant here is the red Easter eggs and Easter cakes that accompany each other in the paintings together with the Easter lamb in all the paintings accept Pirosmanis version of Christ ascending to Heaven, where there is no lamb, but wine, eggs and cakes. The paintings with the Easter lamb have been a subject for the researchers to comment on. Georgia was one of the world’s first Christian countries, and dates such as 337 A.D. and 319 A.D. have been put forward for the country’s adoption of Christianity, only Armenia was Christianized before Georgia. Even with the early baptism of the nation some say that the Georgian kept the pre-Easter custom of bringing home a lamb which they would adore with gaily coloured ribbons and feed on fresh, green grass; only for later to slaughter the animal for the Easter table. This custom which can be traced back to the pre-Christian era was integrated into Eastern Christianity´s rituals.
The lamb was viewed as the redemptive sacrifice. Today Easter is considered to be one of the most, if not the most important feast or holiday in the Orthodox Church and the main religion in Georgia and more than 65 % of Georgia´s inhabitants confess themselves to the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch is held in very high regard.
How religious Pirosmani was himself is hard to say since there is no records that tells about it and why he painted Easter in several paintings is hard to say, either he received an order to do so or he did it only for himself and by his own mind, regardless of the reasons it is difficult to assume that he was not a believer in the Christian faith. The tenderness that can be seen in the Easter paintings can be a clue or an indicator of Pirosmanis own personal believes. From the food perspective I find it very interesting that the artist painted the religious holiday of Easter but not for example Christmas.
Something that is striking in both graphs nr 3 and 4 is how few times Pirosmani depicted categories such as sugar, tea and beer, one can wonder why that is? Either he did not like this foodstuffs or he did not get any more orders to paint them, just one or two in each category exists today and specially tea is interesting since Georgia has been nation with a lot of tea farmers, especially during the Soviet era and has exported large quantities of tea. Georgians in general still drinks a lot of different kinds of teas.
Another thing that is striking when one study Pirosmanis painting from a food perspective, specially the paintings of the feasts or dining and drinking is that in those paintings no one drinks beer, only wine and that the composition of the meal in itself is more or less the same with bread, wine, some kind of vegetables, meat dish, birds. The selection of dishes in the meal of feast is very limited and that is surprising considering how a Georgian table is laid out today and it seems like the very large and big feast called “Supra” has a very long history in Georgia. What was the reason for Pirosmanis limited selection of dishes in this kind of paintings?
Not an easy question to answer at all, it might be so that the ones who ordered the paintings settled with this limited selection and considered the dishes to be genuine Georgians or the artist himself had no wish to depict a larger selection of dishes even if he could. But if this selection was considered to be representative for the genuine dishes of the country why are the national dishes such as Khachapuri or Khinkali and the sauce Tkhemali missing? That is a question that still remains to be answered. Today when one walks the streets of for example Tbilisi replicas of Pirosmanis paintings hangs at the door of Khinkali restaurants and also inside the establishments. Of course economy and money can be one valid reason for the limited selections of the dishes, simply that there was not enough money to pay for more paint to fill out the feast with. However I do not really believe in that since a lot of the feast paintings are large in size and have required a lot of paint and cloth.
Since some of the paintings that have survived are so called still life it is beyond any doubt that the artist was able to depict other foodstuff then the ones on the feast paintings, the still life´s differs somewhat from the feast paintings in that the food stuff on them mostly are raw and not processed in any way. One finds, raw fish, bodies of smaller animals such as lamb, fresh vegetables, nuts, pumpkin and fruits but also wine but no beer on them. The still life´s are stunning in its simplicity since the black oilcloth is what gives the foodstuff it´s glow, they foodstuff really stands out from the paintings due to the artists technique of using the black oilcloth, the contrast from the black background and the colour´s are really eye catching and that is most likely the idea in order to lure customers into the shops, restaurants and taverns.
Another thing that is striking in the remaining paintings is that there is no restaurant or tavern environments depicted even if Pirosmani spent as it seems most of his time in this kind of establishments. To conclude one can say that by studying Pirosmanis remaining paintings from a food perspective one get a small glimpse of Georgia´s vivid food and drinking culture, the glimpse that either the painter himself or his employees or both choose to show for their own reasons and there is no traces of the restaurant or/and tavern environments. To study Pirosmanis paintings from the above mentioned perspective gives an introduction to the foodway’s of Georgia and if one want´s to learn more about it one should continue towards other sources or go and pay a visit to the country.
My analyze and discussion of Pirosmanis work from a food perspective shall not be seen as a definitive results and I do not claim it to be since there is always an opportunity that more paintings will rise to the surface and can be acknowledge as work by Pirosmanis hand.
Written by Ulrica Söderlind
Chorgolashvili, Mamia, Pirosmani-so life begins with death, Tbilisi, 2011.
Kobakhidze, Nino (ed), Pirosmani, Tbilisi, without year.
Kuznetsov, Earst (ed),Niko, Pirosmani, Leningrad, 1983.