Modernist Artist Cafés in Tbilisi

Text by Tea Tabatadze

Modernist cabarets, clubs, and cafés were a widespread and integral part of European modernity. As gathering places for artists, writers, and thinkers, they were environments where ideas about Modernism were discussed and established. This particular way of life is commonly referred to as «café culture.»

The origion of this phenomenon can be pinpointed to 1881 when Rodolphe Salis founded the first cabaret, «Le Chat Noir» in Montmartre, Paris. By the 1920s, the so-called cabaret epidemic had spread to almost every major cultural center in Europe. Well-established Cabarets included «Elf Scharfrichter», «Simplicissimus», and «Schall und Rauch» in Munich and Berlin; the Dadaist «Cabaret Voltaire» in Zurich, and cafes in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Strasbourg. The cabaret epidemic reached Tbilisi in 1917 and lasted for four to five years until the occupation of Georgia by Bolshevik Russia. During this time, modernists of various nationalities created an artistic phenomenon known as the Tbilisi avant-garde.

It became a tradition for well-known modernist artists to decorate the interiors of the cabarets and artist cafés. In 1910, Vladimir Tatlin and Georgy Yakulov painted the «Pittoresk» in Moscow, and Sergei Sudeikin and Nikolai Kulbin painted «A Stray Dog» in St. Petersburg in 1912. The last de Stijl project in Strasbourg, «Café de L’Aubette», was painted by Theo van Doesburg, Sophie Taeuber, and Hans Arp.

In Tbilisi, the walls of three café-clubs were decorated by artists of different nationalities: Lado Gudiashvili, Ilia Zdanevich, Sergei Sudeikin, Alexander Petrakovsky, Iakob Nikoladze, and Yuri Degen painted «The Fantastic Tavern» in 1917. Kiril Zdanevich, Lado Gudiashvili, and Alexander Bazhbeuk-Melikhov decorated «The Argonauts’ Boat» in 1918, and Sergei Sudeikini, Lado Gudiashvili, and David Kakabadze painted «Qimerioni» in 1919. Very few murals dating from this time have survived. Only one, La Couple (1928), a mural in Montparnasse, Paris, and two in Tbilisi have been preserved today: «The Argonauts’ Boat» by Zdanevich exists in partial form, while the murals of «Qimerioni» have been preserved almost completely without change or loss. It is remarkable that two of the Tbilisi artist café murals have survived, given the fact that only one other throughout Europe and Russia has been preserved.

Preserved wall painting by Kiril Zdanevich at the artist café «The Argonauts’ Boat».

Detail, wall painting by Kiril Zdanevich at the artist café «The Argonauts’ Boat».

«The Argonauts’ Boat» in Tbilisi.

Wall painting at «Kimeroni», Tbilisi.

Wall painting at «Kimeroni», Tbilisi.

«Kimeroni», Tbilisi.

«Tbilisi has become fantastic. A fantastic city needs a fantastic corner», the Georgian modernist writer and theorist Grigol Robakidze proclaimed in the early twentieth century. The «fantastic corners» that he referred to were the Tbilisi artist cafés: places that unified the creative energies of the period. There, the artworks were not limited to paintings and drawings; there were also poetry readings, musical performances, theater productions, and lively discussions surrounding art theory and politics. Georgian symbolists hosted poetry nights, Ilia Zdanevich demonstrated his first Dadaist experiments, and Nikolai Evreinov premiered his most famous play The Chief Thing (1921). It was here that research of the transnational language «Zaum» and its dislocations, «Zdvigi,» were completed.

While traditionally communities within the avant-garde expressed their will to remain separate from the various cultural groups that surrounded them, the artist cafes of Tbilisi created communities that interacted with each other. Symbolists and Futurists sat around the same tables, attended the same gatherings, created journals and books together, and participated in many of the same avant-garde activities and demonstrations. Such remarkable unity was unusual to the avant-garde, and it serves to demonstrate the tolerance that existed in the everyday life and culture of Tbilisi.