Shakespeare in Georgian Fine Arts

DOI:  10.55804/jtsu-1987-8583-15-2

Shakespeare's works have attracted the attention of artists for a long period. The interest of Georgian artists in Shakespeare’s works can be divided into several periods: the first - the early period, or formation stage covers the second half of the XIX century and the early 20s of the XX century, the second period includes the 30s-60s of the XX century. In this period, or at the defining stage for Georgian “Shakespeareana’’, the main focus was on theatrical painting and the creation of the first illustrated works. This period, when the demands of socialist realism and the significant changes took place in Georgian painting in the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s was also taken into consideration. The third, a particularly active period, began in the 1970s and continues to this day. Within all three stages, there are periods characterized by qualitative changes, preparing the ground for a new visual interpretation.

One of the earliest forms of elaboration of Shakespearean themes by artists was the creation of Shakespeare’s portrait, the first example of which is the work of the Polish artist, Sigmund Waliszewski, who lived in Georgia in the 1920s. At the very first stage, the foundation was laid for Shakespeare's performances in the Georgian theatre, and over time, a solid tradition was created in the works of Georgian directors. The staging of Shakespeare's plays was closely connected with significant stages of Georgian theatrical painting. The diversity of the visions of the directors working on Shakespeare's dramaturgy contributed to the diversity of the artists' works. In particular, the scenery for the play “Othello”, directed by Akaki Paghava on the Georgian drama stage in 1921, was created by Alexander Salzmann, an artist and architect of German origin working in Georgia. In 1923, the scenery of the play “Macbeth”, directed by Michael Corelli, was painted by Valerian Sidamon-Eristavi.

The return of Kote Marjanishvili to Georgia in the 1920s dramatically changed the Georgian theatrical life. For the director, the decorative arts were one of the most important means of expression. General features of the director's style, and emphasized forms of the performance, expression, images were corresponded by the decoration system. The decoration system reflected the psychological and emotional expressive load of the performance.

In collaboration with Kote Marjanishvili, the group of artists - Petre Otskheli, Irakli Gamrekeli, Elene Akhvlediani - laid the foundation for the highest artistic decoration of Georgian Shakespearean performances of the XX century. It was during this period, in the 1920s and 1930s, that the masterpieces of scenography were created, such as artistic decorations by Irakli Gamrekeli and Petre Otskheli for “Hamlet” in Shota Rustaveli Drama Theater in 1925 and “Othello” in State Drama Theater in 1932.

Marjanishvili's stage version of “Hamlet” was different from other productions of that period. The scene of Hamlet's monologue - “To be or not to be” - was moved from the third act to the beginning of the second act, which changed the structure of the whole play.

It is known that by 1925, the main trend in the theatrical world of the United States and Europe was to share and embody the ideas of an artist-scenographer Adolphe Appia.  He provided a unified set of architectural and flexible stage sets, steps, podiums, a good example of which is the works of German expressionists. Such is, first of all, the model of “depiction”, “construction” of the staircase, which gave a generalized look to the place of action. It was a model of archetypal ascent and descent, a difficult path from the bottom to the top. The same expressive means is employed in the decoration of “Hamlet” where the emphasis is on the monumental staircase. The main place throughout the play was occupied by the staircase, the symbol on which the fate of people depended. The staircase was located on a revolving stage which created favorable conditions for the actors to play. The shape of the staircase was dynamic, fluid and expressive. Within the stage space, the artist, in addition to the device, places a small number of important objects and assigns them a functional purpose. Therefore, the decoration suggested by I. Gamrekeli is metaphorical and dramatic. The accents contributed to the dynamic development of “Hamlet” and defined the form of the artistic-decorative space of the play; the essence of the tragedy was shown in each detail of the performance and all the constituent components of the decoration united the performance into an organic whole. The actor,  playing the part of Hamlet, Ushangi Chkheidze wrote:  “The construction remained unchanged in the play. Only the decoration was changed and by turning the stage, the images followed one by one without interplay, which added more dynamism to the play” [Chkheidze, 1956: 170].

The monumental, multifunctional form of the decorative constructions in the play ensured the creation of a generalized-assembly type of place of action. For K. Marjanishvili, a new reading of Shakespeare's “Hamlet” further emphasized the eternity and universal significance of the themes in the play. According to Lado Gudiashvili, this theatrical spectacle was a perfect artistic creation. “I would say the artists played the major role in the success of the play. The joint work of Kote, Ushangi and Irakli gave us an unforgettable play” [Gudiashvili, 1958: 45]. The play was a landmark. The performance showed the artistic principles established in the Georgian art of the 1920s, which is to share different stylistic movements in modernism, not only in terms of form but also, in terms of meaning. In this particular case, we are dealing with constructivism. This trend can be found in Georgian scenography with different interpretations after the 1950s.

The decoration synthesizes the character and performance functions of the scenery, which means assigning an independent role to the artistic form of a moving, acting character that shows its acting character, involvement in the directorial concept of the play with generalized content. It carries a psychological and emotional charge and creates the atmosphere, the mood of the play. Maximum arbitrariness and conditionality are emphasized. Accordingly, decoration plays an ideological-visual and organizing role.

Character and, partly,  performance principles in Georgia are based on folklore traditions (berikaoba, keenoba). By combining them with active decoration, which plays an ideological, visual and organizing role in the staging, the basis for the development of theatrical art was created. In particular, Georgian scenography, as well as a new Georgian painting in general, is based on a fusion and understanding of tradition and innovation.

In the decoration of the stage with Gamrekeli, the central place is taken by the staircase moving towards different directions. However, with Petre Otskheli, in the scenography of “Othello” (Marjanishvili Drama Theater, director K. Marjanishvili, 1932), the staircase is the only device open throughout the stage. It starts in the foreground, near the central circle, and opens with a nine-marble step arch. The staircase forms an amphitheatre over the entire area of ​​the stage. The stage opens into the depths with an endless staircase.  A similar construction is the opening of the theme with Otskheli, which indicates an ascent and a tragic fall. The central circle is associated with a fatal place and is equated with the amphitheatre orchestra as a generalized archetypal place of action, associated not only with ancient tragedy but with tragedy in general. At the same time, a monumental staircase gives a festive, marching rhythm to the performance. It presents a Renaissance greatness in which there exists the main character of the tragedy - Othello - and, wearing a white costume, he is perceived as the central part of the world of the composition. Staircases help to intensify the sculpturality of the target scenes, emphasize the relief structure and significance of the characters.  However, in contrast to such a rhythm, there is an expressive rhythm of the vertical, various trapezoidal-shaped planes that define the upper part of the staircase, that slightly dig into the stairwell space and vary the composition of the stage space. From time to time, the planes cover the stairs and leave only the amphitheatre circle for the performance. With the dynamism and rhythm of the form, they respond to the inner state of the hero. With Otskheli, Shakespeare means creating the image, which freely manages itself and is shaped according to its own rules, following what the artist wants the audience to perceive. The characters depicted in Petre Otskheli's sketches are energy-bearing human beings, beyond the material form of whom one can feel a living vibration emotionally transmitted first to the artist, then to the viewer through the language of visual form and is formed only as an image. The artistic style that the artist developed is a result of a lot of observation, cognition and work. His world is whole, constructed and personified by him.

Numerous examples of Shakespeare's tragedies and, consequently, scenographic samples can be found at different stages of the history of Georgian theatre. Their authors are well-known scenographers Sergo Kobuladze, Parnaoz Lapiashvili, Giorgi Gunia, Simon Virsaladze, Dimitri Tavadze, Gogi Alexi-Meskhishvili, Teimuraz Ninua, Teimuraz Murvanidze, Mirian Shvelidze, “The Trio" (O. Kochakidze, Al. Slavinski, I. Chikvaidze), Nikoloz Kazbegi, Nikoloz Ignatov and many others.

In the following period, scenographic Shakespeareana stands out in Georgia in a peculiar way. Here emerges a characteristic trend for decorative arts, which dominated the Georgian theatre in the second half of the 1930s. It is a realistic decoration, the description of the place of action according to the pictures. It is noteworthy that some artists retain traces of their artistic style. It is laconicism and the expression of artistic means. An example of this is  Gamrekeli’s “Othello”,  where the artist depicts the view of Venice through a single pillar, with a winged lion mounted on its capital. (This detail was later repeated by Soliko Virsaladze as one of the fine details in combination with other scenographic elements). By excluding details and the genre motives, Gamrekeli offered a romantic version.

In 1948, Sergo Kobuladze created scenery in the Rustaveli Drama Theatre for Shakespeare's “King Lear” (dir. Ak. Vasadze), where you can find the shining romantic, elevated spirit. We also encounter pictorial quests. The decoration is monumental, illusory, narrative in nature, skillfully executed, sophisticated and beautiful. In the same year, D. Tavadze in Shota Rustaveli Drama Theatre staged Shakespeare's "Othello" (dir .: Akaki Vasadze, Shota Aghsabadze, 1948). While expressing the exact place of action, the sense of theatricality is not lost on the stage. The view of Cyprus Square is magnificent, and a large part of the stage is occupied by a castle with merlons, digging deep into the depths; the monumental nature of the scenery matched the overall uplifting mood of the play. D. Tavadze repeatedly staged Shakespeare's plays.

In the second half of the fifties, the signs of a new turning point in Georgian scenography gradually became more obvious.  The year of 1957 brings the period when Soliko Virsaladze staged A. Machavariani’s ballet "Othello" (ballet-master V. Chabukiani) at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre. The scenery of the play fascinates us with its sharpness and harmony of painting, colorfulness and color combinations. In general, S. Virsaladze is recognized as a wizard of colors.  “Already in the sketches, it is clear how light enriches the color choices: sometimes it spills like blood-stained spots on black, heavy curtains, sometimes it shines pale gold on the details of the costumes” [Alibegashvili 1977: 72]. In the scenery, Virsaladze continues the artistic tradition of decorative laconism, stage conditionality, and broad generalization. These signs existed in Virsaladze’s work with different strengths in different periods, and in his staging of musical or dramatic theatre performances, there are parallel tendencies, which emphasize the artistic vision and certain character principles formed in the Georgian scenography. In the 1960s, the staging of Shakespeare's tragedies in the theatre manifested itself with a new force - an appeal to conditional, laconic artistic means complemented by the monumental scale of the stage composition.

The emergence of a new generation of Georgian directors played a major role in the re-emerging of Shakespearean themes. The stylistics of the performances led to a transformation of the artists’ creativity which influenced the process of decorating the performances. Famous, most significant Shakespearean performances were created in the 1960s and the 1970s. These works are distinguished by a variety of artistic solutions. They reflected the ongoing changes in the world of theatrical art and, at the same time, preserved the national spirit and style. There is a classical illusory, narrative approach side by side in theatre painting as well as a conditional-generalized model of stage design well- assimilated by the Georgian theatre. A new artistic visual-intellectual vision emerges. Again, metaphorical thinking and symbolic reading come to the fore.

One of the examples of tradition and innovation is the sketches made by Nikoloz Ignatov for the tragedy “King Lear” (Shota Rustaveli Drama Theater, 1965), where the performance of a unified transformed architectural-construction unit is still in the foreground, creating a generalized look of the place of the action.

“Julius Caesar” (directed by M. Tumanishvili, Shota Rustaveli Theater, 1973), staged by Mikheil Chavchavadze, was performed on a stage set on boards. The area between the walls was transformed into a place of action, thanks to various simple constructions. The scenery featured short texts and names in Latin script, giving the stage a poster-like character that allowed it to be perceived on the brink of irony and tragedy.

In the early 1970s, Giorgi Gunia staged “King Lear” (Rustavi Drama Theater, director G. Lortkipanidze, 1972). It was the first attempt to create a self-played scenographic character. In the empty stage space, massive boulders were hung on heavy, large, coarse linen curtains hanging on 16 thick ropes. “The curtain moved and was alive, changed its appearance and plasticity following the action on the stage, and embodied all the forces that opposed King Lear” [Beriozkin, 1984: 69]. The curtain was not only perceived physically but the soul of Lear was also wrapped up in its contradictions. In the end, the curtain fell on the main hero of the tragedy and consumed him. G. Gunia was the first to use the structure of the scenographic material and give it the role of an acting character. This is where Georgian scenography as a conceptual art was born. At that time, the postmodernist search for Georgian theatrical art began.

Mirian Shvelidze continued to work in the postmodernist direction in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, at Shota Rustaveli Drama Theatre, in the play "Richard III" directed by Robert Sturua, Mirian Shvelidze used soft cloth as a play element in the artistic decoration, which is not a scenographic character but participates in the overall acting.

The artist is equal to the director. The scenery is as equally important in the play as the author, director and actor.  With R. Sturua, the actor and the audience, the stage and the hall form one emotional whole. Painting plays a key role in expressing this approach.       

R. Sturua's “King Lear” was called a play-judgment by theatre critics. The world is doomed without love, justice, compassion and mutual understanding. Not only the plot of the play, but also the messages for the present and future are conveyed by these feelings.  Leveling of senses, longing for power, the ambition into which the world falls, stand aside from all religious, philanthropic moralities, and are destroyed like the personality of Lear.

In Sturua-Shvelidze's “King Lear”, both the spectator and the actor appear in one space. This space is Shota Rustaveli Theatre. Shvelidze's decors continue the line of the hall on the stage, in their pictorial-dramatic form. Empty loggias, building materials, fallen plaster, brickwork, soil, planks, rails on which an iron cage moves - all of these create a modern image in the play. In the finale, the character's function of the scenography is fully revealed. The construction of the tiers collapses towards the viewer as Lear’s world collapses. The collage artistic principle exactly fitted the director's associative thinking. The stage space is loaded with details. The symbolic, metaphorical associations allow for the multifaceted interpretation. The clear proof of the postmodernist philosophy in the play is the destruction of the world and its fragmentation.

Another example of a new reading of Shakespeare's work is the scenography of Temur Chkheidze's “Othello”, staged by the “Trio” (Ol. Kochakidze, I. Chikvaidze, Al. Slavinski) where the artists moved the scene to another environment or another epoch. The place of action is the lower level of a ship enclosed from every side with cannons, wooden floors, ceilings, walls, etc. This performance is another example of how the "Trio" used - in the search for world theatrical art - methods of non-traditional reflection, creating a completely new image in Georgian theatre painting.

Gizo Jordania's vision of the same play on the small stage of the Shota Rustaveli Theatre, staged by Temur Ninua, stands out among the variants of “Hamlet” in the 1980-1990s. In Pikria Kushitashvili's review, we read: “Collage, as an independent work of art of the XX century, became the cornerstone of Gizo Jordania's directorial interpretation, therefore merged with different genre-expressive thinking, which became the most tangible in the artistic decoration of a play. Shakespearean tragedy in modern costumes, played by the actors in coloured vests and modern hats, and the more this connection of time is broken, the stronger and more solid is the newborn aesthetics that resembles the thinking of modern man and collage view. ”[Kushitashvili, 1991: 3. 12.04].            

N. Gurabanidze notes: "Gizo Jordania ignores the epic beginning of Shakespeare's tragedy and offers an intensive montage." [Gurabanidze, 1991: 87].

Both the work of T. Ninua and M. Shvelidze's scenographic thinking is characterized by the creation of an allegorical environment with a completely unexpected arrangement and combination of individual items and objects.

Sh. Glurjidze offers a peculiar version of "King Lear" decoration on the stage of M. Tumanishvili Theater. The minimalist scenery, which is a fragment of separate constructions, creates an intensive dramatic atmosphere, focuses on the actors' play in a closed, tense environment, and is metaphorical by nature.

Therefore, Shakespeare's plays staged in the Georgian theatre are characterized by eloquent conditionality, metaphorical thinking, abundant use of allegorical details, representation of symbols and conciseness. A large-scale generalization is projected at the feeling of the viewer, at their subconscious perception.

The directorial and artistic interpretation of Shakespeare's works indicates that Georgian scenography has occupied a significant place in the history of the world of Shakespeare.

In addition to theatrical art, various genres and forms of artists appeal to Shakespeare's work have been formed in Georgia. Portraits of the writer, samples of book graphics, illustrations, posters, cinematography have been created.

The process of Georgian Shakespeareana began in the early twentieth century; the works created since then until recently can be fully attributed to the achievements of the world fine arts of Shakespeareana.

The first period of illustrations concerning Shakespeare's works began in the 1930s. Sergo Kobuladze created four drawings for Shakespeare's tragedies "Macbeth", "Antonius and Cleopatra", "Richard III" and "King Lear". He returned to “King Lear” in 1946 to create an extensive, large-scale series of illustrations. Many of the features characteristic of Georgian illustration art, were present in the paintings manifesting elevated and romantic mood; denial of existence, longing for great themes. The radical changes in the twentieth century affected all fields of art, including book graphics. Instead of concrete-narrative, illustrative, often boring pictures, the artists aimed to create conditional-artistic fine images on the theme of the author's thought. The conditional method of reflection coincides with one of the unavoidable conditions of the book's graphics, its flat and decorative nature. This method gives the artist more freedom to interact with the text as it provides more generalization skills.

The publication of the first complete illustrated collection of Shakespeare's works in Georgian became an impetus for revealing the capabilities of Georgian artists concerning the flexible interpretation of Shakespeare's works. Olesia Tavadze, Zurab Nizharadze, “The Trio" (Oleg Kochakidze, Alexander Slavinski, Yuri Chikvaidze) and Loretta Shengelia-Abashidze are the authors of most of the forty graphic series performed for Shakespeare’s collection of works. The illustrations are characterized by a wide variety. Each illustration is done in a free manner. The materials used by the artists are also diverse - charcoal, watercolour, gouache, oil, sanguine, pastel, pen, ink. The manner of performance is also different; Academic, realistic, expressionist and abstract. The illustrations for Shakespeare's works depict the difficult and transitional stages of the development of Georgian books. The first illustrations are characterized by dramatic facial expressions, elevated heroic pathos. Such a way of expression became traditional in Georgia for some period.

In the graphics of the 1960s, and in the fine arts generally, the process of searching for a new fine form began and flattening tendencies intensified. In the beginning, the pursuit of flatness is carried out within the framework of schematic stylization of the illusory form. There is a tendency towards generalization and figurative speech. In the graphic series of Shakespeare's illustrations, the form of reflection obtained by the stylization of the illusory form and the elements of the plane-conditional system coexist with each other, although the latter dominates.

Such form, naturally, is more suited to figurative speech and creates the possibility of free reading of the work. Thus, in the 1960s, the art of Georgian graphics was in a stylistic transition period from illusory to conditional. One big stage ended, and a new one began to develop, which is also typical for today. This process has affected the entire contemporary Georgian art.

Shakespeare's ability to speak to the reader in a relevant to a given epoch way makes his work contemporary for all generations. In the era of socialism, when reading the plays by Shakespeare, a tragic pathos comes to the fore, a greatness that is later replaced by a solution imbued with mystical or fairy-tale aesthetics, and strong elements of grotesque, skepticism and farce enter the scene. The artist gives a subjective mood to Shakespeare's perception, a free interpretation of his feelings. He does not try to show what the playwright wanted to say but portrays the emotion that Shakespeare evoked in him, always giving a conditional form of the play.

The illustrations for Shakespeare's plays are based on tradition, approaching the aesthetic direction of the second half of the twentieth century, revealing the personal “I" (self) of each creator. Sergo Kobuladze noted: "Innovation lacking a solid, centuries-old foundation is permeable and ephemeral" ... (Gachechiladze 2016: 36). "The sharp characterization of the 20th century full of cataclysms in art is sometimes carried out in the form of a light, “funny” game, while sometimes sharp, manifested in an ironic grotesque, it is imbued with the fatal consciousness of mysticism, and sometimes with the "nihilism" hidden in aesthetics. From the second half of the twentieth century, artists faced the issue of attitude towards the method of reflection. In the art form, there is an appearance of elements of a flat system, the strength of which increases over time. Starting in easel painting, this process affected all fields of fine arts: theatre painting, graphics, and book illustration.

The peculiarity of the Georgian fine art of Shakespeare is the relative scarcity of easel paintings. Mostly these are the portraits of actors painted in the Shakespearean repertoire - with a quick sketch from nature, or with complete paintings. Such are, for example, Veriko Anjaparidze, repeatedly painted by Petre Otskheli in the role of Ophelia (portraits and scenes of the actress), Irakli Gamrekeli's friendly caricatures of  "Veriko-Ophelia", "Ushangi Chkheidze-Hamlet". Famous painter Korneli Sanadze created a monumental portrait of Ushangi Chkheidze in the role of Hamlet. There is also a sculpture of the actor performed by Giorgi Shkhvatsabaia. The image of Vakhtang Chabukiani in the role of Othello belongs to Corneli Sanadze. Zurab Nizharadze, a well-known representative of the 1950s, created a portrait of actor Edisher Magalashvili playing  Mercutio. Oleg Kochakidze, Aleksandre Bandzeladze, Giorgi Totibadze also worked on the portraits. The generation of the 90s continued this tradition: Alexander Berdishev, Gogi Lazarishvili, Oleg Timchenko, Gia Gugushvili Jr. and others.

The theme of Shakespeare is significant for the history of the Georgian poster. There are mainly posters created for various performances, the authors of which are Merab and Elguja Berdzenishvili, Gogi Aleksi-Meskhishvili, “The Trio" (Oleg Kochakidze, Alexander Slavinski, Yuri Chikvaidze), Yuri Gegeshidze.

Thus, Shakespeare theme is reflected in Georgian arts in a very diverse way and covers almost all fields of Georgian art. In general, due to the aesthetic needs of the twentieth century, the use of reflection methods, comprehension of the work itself and its interpretation in some cases exist in parallel development and at the same time is a visible example of the pursuit of search. A separate issue is the authors' attitude towards Shakespeare's plays and their sentimental interpretation. This material has created the sense that tradition coexists with innovation and that there is a way of general unified development. Along the way, Georgian art and its masters created several masterpieces, which won Georgian Shakespeareana a worthy place among the achievements of world art.


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