A window open to Tiflis of the 1920s. Art curator's guide around Georgian Book Avant-garde exhibition

A window open to Tiflis of the 1920s. Art curator's guide around Georgian Book Avant-garde exhibition
H2SO4. Literary magazine. Tbilisi, 1924. The only issue of the same-name Georgian avant-garde group magazine
An exhibition of Georgian Book Avant-garde of the 1920s-1930s opens in Na Shabolovke Gallery. A book history expert and bookseller Pavel Chepyzhov explains why it is worth viewing.

The 1920s and the first half of the 1930s was the most fruitful time for culture and art development in the USSR. Visit Na Shabolovke Gallery to dive into this underexplored period of Georgian history. The Leftest Leftism. Georgian Book Avant-garde exhibition to run here from 24 April to 30 June will feature more than 100 books and magazines designed by famous Georgian artists covering the period from 1922 to 1937. All editions were discovered by a book history expert and bookseller Pavel Chepyzhov during his trips to Tbilisi.

Read the overview of the exhibition in mos.ru and the Mosgortur Agency’s collaborative article.

V. Daiseli Yesterday and tomorrow: poems. Book four. 1928. Avant-garde cover by Grigol Chikhladze

Why Georgian book avant-garde is so attractive

Tiflis (called Tbilisi in Russian since 1936) had always been a special inspiring city for artists, poets and all art people. The hey-day of their productive creativity was between 1917 and 1922, when Georgia became an independent republic.

There was a Civil War in Russia, and many Russian avant-garde artists left the country, and Georgia was no exception. Tiflis had a great number of literary cafes and creative associations; a large number of experimental books were published in the city; world-famous poets and artists found their inspiration in Georgian capital. That period has been thoroughly researched. It was the time when Alexey Kruchyonykh wrote his most innovative books, and Russian avant-garde theorist, a writer and artist Ilya Zdanevich, famous for his work with Picasso, Miró and Chanel, started his creative activity.

Leftism. Tbilisi, 1927-1928. No. 2. 1928. Cover by Irakli Gamrekeli

In 1922, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was established, and most of the people who had formed the core of free Tiflis Bohemian life left the city. The period of 1920-1930s has not been given sufficient attention, since all researchers focused on the previous timespan.

But there were many noteworthy events in the Georgian progressive art movement after 1922. Avant-garde groups continued to emerge. The Left Front of Arts (LEF) group was regularly visited by Vladimir Mayakovsky. Ilya Zdanevich left for Paris in 1921, but his brother Kirill Zdanevich stayed in Tiflis. In 1913, the Zdanevichs together with an art critic Mikhail Le Dantu discovered an artist Niko Pirosmani. After his brother's departure, Kirill Zdanevich continued to act as a link between young artists and the real world.

G. Tabidze  John Reed: Poem. Tbilisi, 1924. Collaborative work of Galaktion Tabidze (1891-1959) and Irakli Gamrekeli

Life was rather turbulent those days. The 1920s offered time of relative freedom for art people with all progressive art movements being supported by the government. It was a very fertile ground for art development. We want to tell the Moscow audience about beautiful books with stunning illustrations of left-wing Georgian artists, whose design resonates with the book design of the time being still original and unusual.

About the name

The exhibition's name reflects the movement it represents. Our prime interest is in the left front of the arts ― we believe it was the centre of independent artistic activity.

'The Leftest Leftism' is the name of a book exhibited. In Moscow, left-wing art ideas were actually introduced in the 1920s by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexei Gan and Osip Brik. They interpreted it as an art for the masses ― not an exclusive bourgeois art of pre-revolutionary Russia, but one that should influence the life of an ordinary person and make him or her a true citizen of the Soviet state and Soviet republics. This idea had taken root in Georgia. Most of the people we talk about at the exhibition accepted the Bolshevik government. They even competed with each other, who is more left-wing artist and who more passionately adheres to Mayakovsky's behests.

K. Lordkipanidze After the first poem. 1927. Photo collage dust jacket created by R. Loris-Melikov featuring a photo of Konstantin Lordkipanidze

In 1931-1932, it was book art associations to experience the dictate of what later was to become  the official Georgian literature and art. Many of the left art supporters found themselves absorbed in the theatre, a Georgian  avant-garde stronghold until the mid-1930s. But the year of 1937 closed that chapter, when Sandro Akhmeteli, director of the Georgian Shota Rustaveli Theatre, was executed. Besides, book edition design had become quite standard by then.

What is unique about the exhibition

It is unique for both Georgia and foreign countries. No one has ever researched this phenomenon in its entirety, it was known only due to some publications of that time. The most famous chief exhibit is the H2SOmagazine (Sulfuric Acid), printed in 1924, with its every page and two-page spreads representing works of art due to experiments with the typesetting and font overlaying reproductions of Georgian cubists and modernist paintings complemented with a second to none and impudent poetry, with some of its translations displayed at the exhibition.

H2SO4. Literary magazine. Tbilisi, 1924

We were lucky to find a scattered copy of the magazine. Its two-spread pages have been hung around. Every page of this magazine is unique. We've never done anything like this before. The researchers did not know how to classify this magazine ― as Russian avant-garde or the Eastern European one. But in fact, it only demonstrates all those processes taking place in Georgia of that time.

The phenomenon of the Georgian book avant-garde has been thoroughly researched and described, and the audience will view what it all looked like to get inspired by the things Georgian designers in the 1920s were inspired by ― that is the greatest value of this exhibition. Nobody has ever used those concepts.

We represent a broad picture, we tell about that period, showing some outstanding graphic works from private collections to highlight the transition from the so-called Russian avant-garde in Tiflis to the Georgian constructivism of the 1920s.

Literature and everything. No. 1 and only. Tbilisi, 1924-1925. Another magazine created by the H2SO4 group, also published as a single issue

It is like a window open to the Georgian world of the early 1920s, a rare opportunity to take a look at it through a book. At the exhibition, you dive into the atmosphere of Tbilisi, a true book-loving city with all its parapets still flooded with Soviet publications, with personal libraries in every self-respecting intelligent family. A book is a very important part of Georgian identity, and it is not surprising that such important avant-garde experiments took place in book design and book publications.

Exhibits to view

We offer our visitors to view works of graphic artists, original publications, unique for Russia, posters and page spreads having artistic value. We have also prepared an avant-garde map of Tiflis ― you may take it with you when visiting Tbilisi. The map highlights major printing houses, theatres, people who lived nearby. Tbilisi has not changed much since then. It was rebuilt, but the overall structure of the city has not changed.

Banner. Two-month literary magazine (illustrated). Tbilisi, 1923-1926; 1929-1935. Major Georgian literary and artistic magazine, published in 1923-1935

We will introduce the audience to the theoretical part of the issue as well, since the exhibition features a lot of texts explaining what happened in that period. Apart from exhibits, there will be lectures on Georgia and Mayakovsky, Avant-garde Theatre in Tbilisi of the 1920s, Constructivist Books in the USSR in the 1920s. In the last weekends of April, May and June, you may participate in three art curator-guided tours.

G. Robakidze Londa. Whirlpool. Lamara: Dramas. Tbilisi, 1926. According to the National Library of Georgia, the publication was banned

But the most essential point of the exhibition is its ideas. Graphic and design concepts of Georgia of that time are absolutely unique and incomparable. This uniqueness is due to high smoothness of the Georgian alphabet. Its letters can be inscribed into completely different shapes ― more angular or more rounded, any of them. They can be diverse. Georgian alphabet in comparison with Cyrillic one is more amenable to experiments, it can be of interest to people appreciating visual component and design.

Collection history

All its books were collected in Tbilisi with some of them found in Moscow, France and the US. I mean 110-115 exhibits I have been collecting for five years. When I started my trips to Tbilisi, I had been already quite integrated into the local market. I came across publications with no information about, designed by rather well-known Georgian artists.

A promotional flyer created by K. Bor-Ramensky

I started to pick them up one by one, and as the collection was growing, I realised that I had found out an outstanding phenomenon. It resulted in a catalogue comprising all the books I had found. It represents both a study of those days Georgian history, and a bibliographic catalogue. The entire collection is in Moscow now to hold its first large-scale exhibition supplemented by graphic works from Pyotr Navashin's private collection.