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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Phirosmani Through the Eyes of Picasso

Niko Pirosmani (Phirosmani, Pirosmanashvili)
May 5, 1862–1918 Georgian primitivist painter.

Thanks to Pablo Picasso the world has discovered Anri Russo as one of the outstanding primitive painters. The next marvelous discovery for the Europeans was the works of Niko Phirosmani that were exhibited in the Louvre in Paris in 1969. Right from the start they have won the recognition of experts. The connoisseurs compared his paintings to the great canvases of Jotto.

Three years after the exhibition, the poet Ilia Zdanevich published an album “Phirosmanishvili” in Paris. It consisted of a single compositional engraving of Phirosmani by Picasso. The portrait was accompanied with Zdanevich’s article, which had been published earlier in 1914, in a Tiflis Newspaper “Vostok”.

The creation of this portrait had its history. It was made at Zdanevich’s request, who was a close friend of Picasso. Zdanevich had worked with Picasso on matters concerning the publication of rare engravings. Being fascinated by Phirosmani’s work, Zdanevich asked Picasso to paint his portrait.

The book, printed on Japanese paper, was published in a very small edition and has ended up in the collection of amateurs. The portrait of Phirosmani, 15.8 x 9.8 sm. by size was etched out on a copper plate with the “dry needle” technique. All of the seventy-eight copies were signed by Picasso, so each of the paintings could be rightfully considered an original. The unusually large format of the etching, yet small edition of the book can be explained by the fact that it contained only a page and a half of printed text and only one painting with two clean sheets in-between them. Accordingly, the price was very high.

We are familiar with the motif “a painter and his model” in Picasso ‘s graphic portraits, such as “Woman and Rembrandt with the Palette” and “Rembrandt and a Young Woman". Some of the techniques used by Picasso in these paintings were utilized in his work “Phirosmani”. Having constantly worked on the theme “a painter and his model” Picasso created a series of graphic paintings, in which he conveyed his attitude towards the works of different painters. It is obvious that in Phirosmani he felt a new original artistic thinking, which was reflected in the unusual compositional form of the painting.

The portrait of Phirosmani drastically differs from any other graphic work by Picasso, where he tried to be comprehensible to all. In his graphics the painter mainly used the contour line, outlining the objects. However, in this case the contour line of the figure crosses the surrounding objects. This trick disrupts the perception of their unity.

The figure of Phirosmani standing with a brush is a “geometrical” one; it is outlined with a large amount of dots, beams and straight lines of different lengths. The painter is standing before an easel with a clean canvas on a stretcher in front of him. On the left, near his head, a second clean canvas is hanging on the wall. The image of Phirosmani is not that easily discernible at first glance. Alter looking at the portrait for a while, we can see a figure in a national Georgian costume with a wide-brimmed hat on, in a felt cloak, and shod in “kalamani” (peasants’ shoes). The features are easily recognizable, we can clearly see Phirosmani with a moustache, a beard, and deep-set eyes. In one hand he is holding a brush, in the other he has a palette with different color paints. The artist is at work. On a palette he has three blots of color; red, yellow and blue. These are the very combination of colors that Phirosmani frequently used so masterfully.

The portrait can be perceived in two perspectives - half face and full face, depending on the angle one is looking at it. Thus, the picture conveys an illusion of a dynamical movement as if the figure is in constant motion. It perhaps symbolizes the painter being constantly in thoughts, without which there would be no art.
Picasso ’s artistic achievement in this work is remarkable. The 90 year-old painter was told about Phirosmani’s works, but only later did he have a chance to have a look at his paintings at an exhibition in Paris. Not by accident did Picasso choose a specific technique for this portrait. He thought that the traditional method of engraving should be enhanced with color and lineal composition so that internal rhythms of the silhouettes and their beauty would have strong emotional impact on the viewer. Picasso created a very complex and at the same time very recognizable image of the original, that of his fellow-painter. Probably for many viewers this work may seem difficult to understand partly due to the technique, namely, acupuncture that the painter used to create it.

Picasso showed Phirosmani during his creative work. The lines which make up the portrait usually cross each other in the area of the head and the breast; in other words in foci of thoughts and feelings. And the dots on the portrait are associated with the biologically active points of the body, which is well known from the folk medicine of ancient East. These spots were identified by man during two thousand years of practice. The vital significance of these biologically active spots of the organism have been acknowledged in Europe starting from the beginning of the 20th century, as practice of acupuncture treatment became common in the West. These biologically active points, also called “vital” and “Chinese”, are connected with nervous system and internal organs.

Physicians of the East while studying the function of the organism have discovered specific connection between various organs, in accordance with it they created a system of lines, called channels or meridians. The concept “meridian” is defined as a functional path connecting certain points in human body. They are distributed along twelve basic meridians. There are also two groups: a distal and a proximal ones. The distal group contains the dots located below the elbow and knee joints, the proximal one include the spots on the remaining meridians. Altogether 309 points are marked out.

The study about meridians is the main part of acupuncture, even though they do not precisely correspond to nervous and vascular systems. It was accepted by many Soviet and foreign specialists. Modern researchers have found a bio-energetic potential in these biologically active points as well as in the difference between their potentials. It was determined, that these spots affected changes in human organism from functional state of the nervous system (sleep, wake) as well as dining the emotional stress.

With the combination of lines and points Picasso reveals the process of apprehension of reality (with the eyes), its comprehension (by the brains), the emotional experience and explosive action of ideas (in brains and heart), through nervous impulses, prompting active creativity So, the signal is received, the idea is formed, the decision is made, a sure hand is ready to make the first stroke...

Alexandre Chkheidze.
Published: Amirani XXII, 2010 pp.272-275