Issue 3 2016. June-July



An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art honored Merab Abramishvili, one of Georgia's most unique and influential painters, whose artwork features in collections around the world.

Abramishvili loved untamed beasts - in his mind, panthers, leopards, and tigers were mystical creatures of unparalleled elegance.

Monica Ellena

Merab Abramishvili

A slender, majestic tiger is set against a lush, exotic garden with elaborate lace-like foliage - its gaze wandering into the distance, its mauled victim lying at its feet, lifeless. The Maneater of Kumanon is one of Merab Abramishvili's most magnificent works, one of many in which the late Georgian artist painted, expressing his wonder with wild animals.

Abramishvili loved untamed beasts - in his mind, panthers, leopards, and tigers were mystical creatures of unparalleled elegance, in his canvas their savage strength would fuse with divine beauty. The Georgian painter read early on the "Maneaters of Kumanon," a book in which hunter-naturalist Jim Corbett details his life in the Kumanon region of India from the 1900s to 1930 while hunting man-eating tigers and leopards. And Abramishvili was deeply impressed by the book. "Merab loved that book and all his life dreamed to travel to India," recollects Baia Tsikoridze, an art historian, gallerist, and the artist's long-time friend. "He used to go to the Tbilisi zoo and stare at the tiger for hours, lost in its wild beauty. Once he tried to embrace it and his sweater ended up in shredded," smiles Tsikoridze, whose portrait Abramishvili painted in the early 1990s.

Georgian Frescoes' Magic

Born in 1957 in Tbilisi, Abramishvili was well-versed and steeped in Oriental mysticism, paganism, and medieval Christianity, and created a vast range of work seeking to synthesize these varied spiritual experiences. He explored them all over again, producing various renderings of the Paradise, the Garden of Getsemani, the Arcangel Gabriel, as well as various scenes of Christ's life and his beloved beasts.

His father, Guram Abramishvili, was an expert in Georgian medieval art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi and exposed Merab to Georgian frescoes, Oriental antiquities, and Persian miniatures from an early age. He studied the frescoes of the 7th century Ateni Sioni Church near Gori, and was deeply fascinated by them. As he started his formal education in the early 1970s, Alexander Bandzeladze, one of the Soviet Union's leading artists, encouraged the young Merab to develop his own style. He certainly did - Merab went on to create a unique visual language and transported to canvas and plywood the gesso technique from the frescoes he loved. He would hand prepare the plastered grounds and paint it with tempera, washing it off and repainting the surface several times - the translucent color palette and the resulting dream-like became his trademark.

"He was a perfectionist; he would totally lose himself in his art while caught in his creative impetus. He was also a sensitive soul who struggled with life's challenges, and sought refuge in the mystical imaginary," explains Tsikoridze.

At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union started descending toward its meltdown - political, social, and economic instability surfaced and became paramount in the 1990s in newly independent Georgia. Art critic Nino Shervashidze wrote that "the generation of the artists from the 1980s juxtaposed their own constructed worlds against aggression, political instability, and socio-economic uncertainty. Perhaps as a result of such escapism, painting in Georgia experienced a revival not seen since the 1960s. Abramishvili's practice can therefore also be read as a type of resistance of hopefully striving for a better future."

Renewed Success

In the rough-and-tumble decade of the 1990s, selling works of art was not enough to earn a high income, and Abramishvili paintings would sell for less than $1,000. Those times are gone. In 2013, the auction house Sotheby's organized "At the Crossroads," its first exhibition focusing on the post-Soviet orbit's art: Abramishvili's Maneater of Kumanon was sold at a stellar GBP 35,000 (USD 50,272). The following year, the auction house placed Abramishvili's Piano at GBP 25,000.

"Prices depend greatly on the painting's size and the period, but they can essentially vary between $6,000 and $30,000," explains Tsikoridze, who, along with the artist's family, organized the most comprehensive exhibit of Abramishvili's work. The exhibition helped track down unknown work - about 40 percent of the paintings included in the catalogue were a surprise for the curator, since they came from private collections.

"My family owns many paintings and we receive requests from collectors very often, but we don't sell them," Levan Abramishvili, the artist's son, explained to Levan is a painter himself, as is his sister Ketevan.

"We sell them only through auctions, as they help to strengthen his name and popularity."