[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki (1976), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is one of the most prominent painters of Georgia, former state of USSR. This survey of Iankoshvili’s painting is published by Hirmer and Galerie Kornfeld, the Berlin gallery representing her estate. This book is a good guide to the life and work of this celebrated Georgian artist. Essays outline the artist’s biography and career, her work as an illustrator, the important support her marriage provided, her achievements in a Georgian context and contemporary reactions to her art. The publication includes a chronology and a bibliography. The selection of illustrated paintings covers broadly 1960 to her last years. (The only weakness of the catalogue is that a few of the illustrations are not crisp enough.)
Iankoshvili was born on 30 August 1918. In 1937 she entered the Academy of Art, Tiblisi and graduated in 1943, in the midst of World War II. She destroyed the art of her student and early years, which was Socialist Realist in character, later stating that it seemed artificial and insincere to her. One of the few paintings to escape the flames was the 1951 realist portrait of her husband Lado Avaliani (1913-1998), a noted author and biographer.
By 1960, when her solo exhibition (of 250 paintings) at the Georgian State Gallery of Painting (National Gallery) took place, her mature personal style was established, in which she painted over 2,000 pictures. The exhibition of 250 paintings was a breakthrough for her and a significant distinction for any Georgian artist, let alone a female painter. Iankoshvili’s mature painting is characterised by vigorous application of paint, heavy impasto, use of broad brushes and palette knives, strong local colour, an Expressionist palette and lack of academic finish. She frequently used square-format canvases. The paintings appear to be painted in a direct manner in few sessions, maybe only one. The artist commonly painted and drew over black or dark green backgrounds. (An example of a drawing employing this technique is a portrait – real or imagined – of a black Cuban.) The landscapes were principally black with motifs depicted in pungent colour. Her landscapes are remembered, invented and reconfigured. A particularly effective one is Landscape of Shatili from Above (1985), which the artist in green over black – almost without another hue, a few touches of yellow blended in the green.
[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Shales Forest in Kakheti (1987), oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm | 43 1/3 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Her subjects were not typical genres of official Soviet painters: local landscapes, wildlife, portraits of exotic figures rather than workers or party officials. She did also paint portraits of authors she admired, including Ana Kalandadze and Boris Pasternak. Depicting glamorous women in bourgeois costumes was a clear rejection of the official aesthetic and a way of connecting to Western European painting and art of the pre-Modern era and thus an act of defiance – albeit not a dangerous one by the 1960s. Her attachment to the religious and vernacular architecture and traditions of Georgia also distanced her from Socialist Realism. The cerebral light-filled optimism of an everlasting present of official Soviet art is supplanted in Iankoshvili’s art by a darkly luminescent night, redolent of intrigue, romance and history.
Authors note that Iankoshvili took inspiration for her work on black grounds from Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), a famed Georgian painter. Pirosmani’s painting is not dissimilar to that of Douanier Rousseau’s primitivist painting. He used black sail canvas because he could not afford proper artist’s materials. In allying her practice to Pirosmani’s, Iankoshvili can be seen as drawing upon her Georgian heritage and seeking to take vitality from folk art, uncontaminated by the political correctness of her time. Another guiding light was the art of El Greco. His colours, sense of movement and spatial ambiguity seem points of attraction for the Georgian. Her 1965-6 illustrations to the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were done on black paper.
The year after her landmark 1960 exhibition, Iankoshvili was one of the artists who travelled to Cuba and Mexico in 1961 on a state-sponsored mission for the collaboration between the nations’ artists. She was attracted by the racial variety of the people and the lush vegetation and fauna of the island.
Iankoshvili had numerous exhibitions in exhibitions within the USSR and, from 1976 onwards, exhibited internationally. In 1977 she was awarded a gold medal for a portrait by her exhibited in Paris. In 1995 she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize and the following year she was awarded the Medal of Honour of the State of Georgia. In 2000 a museum dedicated to her art opened in Tiblisi. Contemporaries commented that the painter’s attitude towards commerce seemed to be a blend idealism, cussedness and naivety: she gave away pictures rather than selling them, limiting the exposure her art would have generated through commercial dissemination, especially after the demise of the USSR in 1991. In recent years, her art has been shown worldwide, championed by Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin.
Iankoshvili’s individualism (which expressed itself in her decision to forego the official style and thereby limiting her opportunities for official commissions) is as important as her art. Although she benefited eventually from taking such a brave decision in the long run, her initial choice seems to have been based on a question of conscience. In the West today, we are too cynical. Our default response to acts of conscience and risk-taking in the face of consensus are to diminish them as careerism or motivated by materialism or ulterior motives. We should be more responsive and respectful of acts of honest conscience.
[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Enigma (1983), oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm | 49 1/4 x 61 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Her art (developed independently) parallels the 1970s and 1980s school of German, Italian and American Neo-Expressionism. The directness, vigour, romanticism and glamour of her art shrugs off the caginess of art based on systems, unashamedly embracing the subjects of the past without apology and self-consciousness. For artists seeking an antidote to the irony and insincerity of Post-Modernism, art such as Iankoshvili’s is a route to an alternative future. Regardless of what one thinks of her art, Iankoshvili’s heroic individualism and love of art was in direct opposition to the anonymity and utilitarianism of Socialist Realism of the 1940s, yet it also (inadvertently) opposes the caution of Conceptualism, the irony of Post-Modernism and the utilitarianism of artivism of today.
The vitality, humanity and complete commitment to the principle of art-for-art’s-sake are what can make Natela Iankoshvili an inspiration for future artists who wish to reject the sterile cynicism of today’s art movements.
Mamuka Bliadze, Natela Iankoshvili: An Artist’s Life between Coercion and Freedom, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2020, hardback, 160pp, 66 col. illus., £32, ISBN 978 3 7774 3513 8
© 2020 Alexander Adams
To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art