Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) was a Georgian self educated primitivist painter. He was born in the Georgian village of Mirzaani (Kakheti province) to a farmer family. Throughout his life, Pirosmani, who was poor, was willing to take ordinary jobs including housepainting and whitewashing buildings. He also worked for shopkeepers in Tbilisi, creating signboards, paintings, and portraits, according to their orders. Although his paintings had some local popularity (about 200 survive) his relationship with professional artists remained uneasy; making a living was always more important to him than aesthetic abstractions.
Usually, Pirosmani painted on oilcloth. Unlike other artists, Niko didn’t aim at a pure imitation of the nature and paid no attention to details. Some of his paintings are monochrome. His paintings demonstrate the author’s sharp compositional consideration. Placements of the figures are frontal, while faces do not demonstrate a specific mood. His paintings were influenced by the social conditions of his time and place.
In the 1910s, he won the enthusiasm of the Russian poet Mikhail Le-Dantyu and the artist Kirill Zdanevich and his brother Ilia Zdanevich. Ilia Zhdanevich wrote a letter about Pirosmani to the newspaper Zakavkazskaia Rech, which it published on February 13, 1913. He undertook to publicise Pirosmani’s painting in Moscow. The Moscow newspaper Moskovskaia Gazeta of 7 January wrote about the exhibition “Mishen” where self-taught painters exhibited, among them four works by Pirosmani: “Portrait of Zhdanevich”, “Still Life”, “Woman with a Beer Mug”, and “The Roe”. Critics writing later in the same newspaper were impressed with his talent. In the same year, an article about Niko Pirosmani and his art was published in Georgian newspaper Temi. The Society of Georgian Painters, founded in 1916 by Dito Shevardnadze, invited Pirosmani to its meetings and began to take him up, but his relations with the society were always uneasy. He presented his painting “Georgian Wedding” to the Society. One of the members published a caricature of him, which greatly offended him. His continuing poverty, compounded by the economic problems caused by the First World War, meant that his life ended with his work little recognised.
Interest in Pirosmani increased in the 1950s. A biographical film and plays were created, and music was composed. His paintings were exhibited in places, including the Soviet Union and Western Europe. A monument was installed in Tbilisi and a museum opened in Mirzaani. Today, the 146 of his works are shown in the Art Museum of Georgia. Sixteen paintings are exhibited in the Historical-Ethnographic Museum of Sighnaghi. He developed an international reputation after the war, when he became admired as a ‘naïve’ painter in Paris and elsewhere. The first book on Pirosmani was published (in Georgian, Russian, and French) in 1926. He inspired a portrait sketch by Pablo Picasso (1972). Exhibitions of his work have been held in Kiev (1931), Warsaw (1968), Paris (The Louvre) (1969), Vienna (1969), Nice and Marseilles (1983), Tokyo (1986), Zurich (1995), Turin (2002), Kiev, Istanbul (2008), Minsk, Vézelay and Vilnius (2008–2009). The paintings have been seen by more than 350,000 viewers.
Pirosmani is known in Russia for the legend of a romantic encounter with a French actress who visited his town; he was deeply in love with her, to demonstrate it he sold his house and bought her enough flowers to fill the square in front of her hotel window (allegedly bankrupting himself). The story became famous when it was recounted in a poem by Andrei Voznesensky, and later into a hit song by Alla Pugacheva, A Million Scarlet Roses. Pirosmani was the subject of a film by Giorgi Shengelaia, made in 1969, that won the Grand Prix at the Chicago Film Festival in 1972. Director Sergei Parajanov shot a short film entitled Arabesques on a Pirosmani Theme.