The Outsider and His Art

The image of the starving artist, living in poverty and misunderstood by everyone during his own lifetime, is an age-old cliché but is often based on true accounts. One of the more famous examples is Niko Pirosmanashvili, a self-taught artist from Mirzaani, Georgia, who was not motivated by money or fame but often used his paintings as barter for bed and board. He was born in 1862 and died in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1918 of alcoholism and starvation but his work is now considered part of the Russian avant-garde movement which flourished between 1890 and 1930. Pirosmani, the 1969 film biography by Russian director Giorgi Shengelaia, is an attempt to capture the spirit of the artist’s work without resorting to the usual biopic structure of dramatizing key events or providing any psychological insight into the subject. Instead, Shengelaia presents Pirosmani’s life as a string of episodes that are closer in style to an ethnographic documentary while duplicating some of the artist’s most famous paintings as part of the narrative landscape.

Avtandil Varazi in his only film role plays the famous folk artist from Georgia in the 1969 Russian biopic PIROSMANI.

The effect is a visually stunning experience that feels as if you entered a time portal and were plunked down in rural Georgia in the late 1800s. Pirosmani’s world – the rural villages, farm animals, religious ceremonies and weddings, and local people are often posed or presented as if they are being painted. Granted, the film is sketchy on biographical details and the chronology is never clearly marked (the slow graying of Pirosmani’s hair over the course of the film is one of the few ways to determine that time is passing). But what Shengelaia achieves with his episodic, tableaux-like portrait is a total immersion in the artist’s style. The rigidly posed but simplistic portraits have an almost primitive power that is deeply affecting and place him in the ranks of other influential outsider artists like Adolf Wolfli, Thornton Dial and Mary T. Smith.

Two painters/art collectors view one of Niko Pirosmanishvili’s most famous paintings in the 1969 Russian biopic PIROSMANI.

Not much is known about Pirosmani’s early life but here are some basic facts to know before you watch Shengelaia’s biographical drama. The artist lost his farmer parents when young and was raised by his two older sisters. He supported himself with odd jobs and began to paint signboards for businesses, which eventually led to commissioned portraits. He later worked as a railroad conductor but grew tired of the endless travel and decided to open a store that sold dairy products like cheese, butter and milk. This business venture was doomed for failure because he had no aptitude for making money, nor did he really care about it. Pirosmani was also wary of people and often unable to connect with them, making him something of an eccentric outsider in his own community. Despite occasional periods of self-confidence, he spent the final years of his life as a wandering alcoholic, often trading a painting for a place to sleep in some dank tavern cellar.

Niko Pirosmanishvili, the famous outsider artist from Georgia (Avtandil Varazi, far left), studies the landscape of a town that will later become the subject of a painting in PIROSMANI (1969).

Shengelaia’s Pirosmani recreates some of these biographical tidbits but also includes incidents that demonstrate how the artist’s pride and insistence on independence made him a difficult proposition for potential art dealers or collectors. “I don’t like shackles,” Pirosmani proclaims at one point, and we see him eating alone in a café, despite invitations to join another table of men. “What worm is eating your heart?” one friendly diner asks him. “Share it with us. We’re human too…it’s hard to go through life alone.” In response, Pirosmani toasts the men, stating “To your wonderful company!” Then he abruptly flees the café, stubbornly refusing the company of these sympathetic strangers. This strange pattern of self-imposed alienation repeats itself again and again, even with family members, and you have to wonder if part of his problem was mental illness.

Niko Pirosmanishvili (Avtandil Varazi, right) sets up a dairy shop in rural Georgia, a business that is doomed to failure as depicted in the 1969 Russian biopic, PIROSMANI (1969).

One of the most perceptive critics of the film is Carmen Gray, writing for The Calvert Journal: “Shengelaia presents Pirosmani as the quintessential tortured artist of yore, with a monk-like calling to create; a misfit doomed to suffer at the hands of a banal and pragmatic society that cannot understand him. Pirosmani’s painting Giraffe (1905) is seen hanging on the wall of a restaurant throughout the film. An otherworldly creature out of synch with Tbilisi’s climate, its parallel with the outsider artist is clear…”

A wedding ceremony ends with the groom Niko Pirosmanishivili (Avtandil Varazi, second from right) fleeing the event in anger in PIROSMANI (1969).

As you can surmise, there are no great romances or love affairs fabricated for Pirosmani in this film though his infatuation with the French actress Margarita de Sevres is depicted in a highly stylized cabaret scene in which he gazes on the performer from afar and later captures on canvas. In real life, he allegedly sold all of his possessions and bought all of the flowers in town to bestow on this vision of loveliness which she accepted. But there was no romance and she returned to France with a rich benefactor. Pirosmani’s portrait of “Actress Margarita”, however, is one of his most famous works and Shengelaia excels in visualizing iconic moments in the artist’s like this without dialogue.

A typical scene from the Russian biopic PIROSMANI (1969) captures the tableau-like style of the folk artist’s work.

Director Giorgi Shengelaia, who was born in Moscow, went on to make eleven feature films including the award-winning Voyage of the Young Composer (1985) about a folk song collector. He also made two documentaries about Pirosmani, one in 1961 and one in 1990 but the 1969 biopic is probably his most famous work. It is also interesting to note that actor Avtandil Varazi (in the title role) also served as the movie’s art director. It would be the only film Varazi made and he would die of alcoholism at the young age of 50 (Pirosmani was 55 when he died during the 1918 flu pandemic).

Avtandil Varazi in his only film role as the outsider artist from Georgia, PIROSMANI (1969).

Pirosmani did not receive its U.S. premiere until 1974 when it turned up at the Chicago International Film Festival (It won the Golden Hugo for Best Director and Best Feature). The film was eventually distributed in America by Audio Brandon and later by Kino Lorber. It also enjoyed a retrospective screening at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008 but it has yet to turn up on Blu-ray (It seems an ideal pick-up for The Criterion Collection).

The painter Niko Pirosmanishvili (Avtandil Varazi on ground) is discovered sleeping on the hard earth outside his failed business in the 1969 Russian biopic PIROSMANI.

When Pirosmani officially opened in NYC in 1975, Vincent Canby gave the film an enthusiastic review, which accurately captured its unique appeal: “One is often conscious of fore‐shortened, perspectives and of the texture of things that someone untutored might find difficult or boring to paint—large expanses of wooden floors, of earth of no especially marked color. Pirosmanashvili, like other primitives, delighted more in small details fastidiously reproduced, which is something the film does in the photography and in the narrative structure. Georgy Shengelaya, the 38‐year‐old Georgian director whose second feature this is, makes no attempt to analyze or explain the artist in conventional ways. Instead the film seems to glide across the artist’s life seeing odd though not‐so‐random details, some more psychologically important than others. It has the manner of the artist whose attention at his own wedding was sidetracked by the look of his wife’s hands, the shape of the fingers outlined against the cloth of her dress. He sees some things with rare clarity, and reacts to them, while other matters, including his poverty and alcoholism, are ignored as if invisible….one of the few films I’ve ever seen that respects the mystery of the creative process and sidesteps melodrama. The manner of the film is detached, almost shy, like the artist himself as played by Avtandil Varazi.”

Avtandil Varazi plays the title role in the 1969 Russian biopic of a famous naive artist from Georgia in PIROSMANI.

For anyone interested, you can currently stream a very nice print of Pirosmani on Youtube.

Pirosmani’s famous painting of a grape harvest feast

Other links of interest:


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