Levan Tsutskiridze’s (1926 - 2021) oeuvre deals principally with literature. However, considering the uninterrupted monumentality of each of his pieces, he should not be labeled as a mere illustrator. Concrete storylines and characters tend to be of a lesser concern in his paintings, which are mostly inspired by the musical rhythm and core stimuli of literary works. Tsutskiridze was born in 1926, and when he was a student, the artist and his friend used to spend hours reading the poems of Vazha-Pshavela. He would then travel to the mountains in order to experience the fundamental forces of nature, and gain an insight into the local customs and relationships. This was his way of attempting to identify the very motifs and rhythm underlying Vazha-Pshavela’s poems and the roots of the latter’s inspiration. Tsutskiridze was concerned with the abstract, elusive aspects of poetry, which are virtually impossible to convey — through words, figures or any other tangible form.
Tiger and Brave Young Man. 1995. According to folk poem. Tempera on canvas, 217 × 157 cm. Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Levan Tsutskiridze’s peculiar bond with literary works ended up shaping his unique creative language. Medieval Georgian murals, which he would frequently attempt to reproduce during his expeditions, were another powerful source of inspiration, and the driving force behind the fine plasticity of lines in each of his pieces. Perhaps this distinct fidelity to mural art led the artist to adopt pastels and tempera as his medium of choice to this day.
Virgin Mary. 1991. Tempera on cardboard, 80 × 50 cm. Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Christ. 1981. Oil pastel on cardboard, 70 × 50 cm. Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
It all began in the late 1950s, at the time of the Khrushchev Thaw and the process of liberalization in the Soviet Union, which naturally led to a creative rebirth. However, given the obvious resistance towards such changes from academic institutions and Levan Tsutskiridze’s commitment to the artistic language of choice, he was forced to fight his way through. His series (1960-66) on The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli was singularly called into question, but later granted the recognition it deserved and credited as one of the most momentous creative works of its time. Today, these illustrations are included in a variety of publications of the poem — both in Georgia and abroad.
Prologue. Illustration for “The Knight in Tiger ’s Skin” by Shota Rustaveli. 1960-1966. Pencil and tempera on paper, 60 × 45 cm. Photo by Mirian Kiladze
“However much I soothed it, the tiger became not calm.” Illustration for “The Knight in Tiger ’s Skin” by Shota Rustaveli. 1960-1966. Pencil on paper, 64 × 48 cm. Photo by Mirian Kiladze
Epilogue. Illustration for “The Knight in Tiger ’s Skin” by Shota Rustaveli. 1960-1966. Pencil and tempera on paper, 60 × 45 cm. Photo by Mirian Kiladze
Later on, Tsutskiridze ended up creating illustrations for a number of literary works, and regardless of the volume of each of these books, his contribution turned out to be nothing but monumental in every respect. Even the tiniest graphic images by the artist are incredibly concise and uninhibited, accomplished through his customary downplay of colors and occasional use of black and white alone. However, this simplicity of sorts is never achieved at the expense of the figures, which albeit abstract and characterized by mere figurative innuendos in terms of attire and appendages, are distinctly melodic regarding movement, body language, facial expression and inner strength.
Shushanik and People. 1981. Oil pastel on paper, 76 × 56 cm. Photo by Mirian Kiladze
Perhaps it was the artist’s uncanny ability to portray the vast spiritual world beyond physical matter that led the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, to commission Levan Tsutskiridze to paint the murals at Sioni Cathedral. Subsequently, the artist ended up revisiting Biblical themes, which he continues to bring to life through his signature language — this time in the form of easel painting. He also authored illustrations of The Four Gospels (published by Arsi) back in 1998.
Nativity. 1996. Oil pastel and Indian ink on paper, 172 × 152 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Levan Tsutskiridze’s portraiture is marked both by an undeniable verisimilitude and his signature style. Regardless of the angle of depiction, each person portrayed — including real people — resembles a figurative character. Together they form a single, common world.
Dali. 1974. Oil pastel on paper, 77 × 44 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
In the words of Goethe, “the style of an author is a faithful copy of his mind.” And in exactly this way, each and every piece by Levan Tsutskiridze naturally derives its energy and plasticity from the artist himself, continuing to exist on a physical plane through his hands. His large-format works, such as the image of Mindia (1972) from Snake Eater by Vazha-Pshavela, are excellent examples: the artist stands out with his uncanny ability to form each composition and dominate the plane in a single maneuver.
Mindia with Flower. According to “Snake Easter” by Vazha-Pshavela. 1972-74. Tempera on canvas, 172 × 150 cm.
This is how Levan Tsutskiridze managed to create a truly unique, modern artistic language, in absolute harmony with time and space. On the other hand, his works also demonstrate the mastery of classical, academic principles of painting at an early age. Precisely these skills, among all the others summed up above, laid the groundwork for Tsutskiridze’s outstanding “art of deformation,” and enabled him to express his vision and discover a unique consonance of his own.
Amazons. 2019. Tempera on canvas, 147x130 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Levan Tsutskiridze’s works bring forth the very spirit that he manages to unravel in Vazha-Pshavela’s narrative poems (Gvelis-Mchameli, Stumar-Maspindzeli, Aluda Qetelauri), The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Rustaveli, the folk ballad Of Man and Tiger, Georgian folk song and dance, the unique expressions of both men and women, as well as the supple movements of creatures.
Amazons. 2019. Tempera on canvas, 147x130 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Tsutskiridze’s illustrations for Goethe’s Faust are on display at the Goethe-Nationalmuseum in Weimar. Each figure portrayed in these pieces rests entirely above the surface, pointing upwards into the infinite space ahead. This inherent monumentality of Levan Tsutskiridze’s works induces their unique symbolic significance of a kind. Georgian sculptor Elguja Amashukeli (1928-2002) used to say that monumentality is a sixth sense. In each of his paintings, Levan Tsutskiridze emerges as a sculptor, characterized through exceptional mastery of the principles of plasticity. And, despite their stillness and outward reticence, each of his figures seems to be moving in space, defying the two-dimensional plane and drifting above and beyond, into the vast infinity of possibilities.
Daybreak. 2000. Oil pastel on paper, 134 × 80 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
Angels. Tempera on Canvas. 1994, 207x110 cm. Photo by Gia Chkhatarashvili
The first exhibition of Levan Tsutskiridze’s works, back in 1959, was organized by a group of architects who held immense respect for the artist and were eager to bring the rising star to light. The artist was 33 at the time. The exhibition was held at the headquarters of the Union of Architects of Georgia. His next solo show was hosted by local authors and poets at the publishing house of Merani in 1973. His work continues to be exhibited to this day — both in Georgia and abroad. Levan Tsutskiridze’s artistic style, even if somewhat altered, lives on a number of walls and in countless hardcopies of books around the world.