A story of a Georgian Modernist set and costume designer, who revolutionized Georgian theatre in the 20th century and who was one of the most outstanding Georgian avant-garde artists of his time

A THINKING ARTIST, FIRST AND FOREMOST
Georgian Modernist set and costume designer Petre Otskheli was undoubtedly an outstanding professional of his time. A great deal of his drawings were created for stage productions but the sophisticated nature of his sketches effortlessly turns them into autonomous masterpieces of graphic arts, imbued with independent aesthetic value.

Critics speculate about why he decided to remain in theatre instead of becoming an independent artist. The answer is that theatre meant so much to him precisely because it allowed him to capture the figures of some of Georgia’s greatest artists and use them as models for his art.

The world was a different place when Otskheli was starting out in the beginning of the last millennium. It was the first major cultural break of the twentieth century and creativity and experimentation were in the air not only abroad but in Georgia too. Despite the fact that he never made it to the art centres of Europe, times were good for the young man of twenty burning with the obsession to paint and draw. Counter-culture in the world of art meant a reappraisal of traditional forms of expression and, on a larger scale, of reality itself.

Those were the years of Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstractionism, Constructivism, Neo-primitivism and even more “-isms”. In those Modernist times, the artist's self-expression meant everything. Otskheli’s artistic ideals coincided with those of the epoch he lived in.

Today it can be safely said that, in his art, Petre was ahead of his time and, if young Georgian artists eventually stopped alienating themselves from abstract language of expression in art, it was thanks to such artists as Petre Otskheli.

Otskheli’s formative years coincided with the tremendous cultural movement flourishing at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe. A vital new culture known as ‘modernist’ art was being born. It gained force as it moved along opening up artists around the world to new artistic possibilities, leaving a profound mark also on leading artists in Georgia.

It was a time when creativity took what it needed from artists who possessed it - or who were possessed by it - charging the air with powerful creative impulses and innovative tendencies.

These creative impulses were so powerful that it took years for the totalitarian Soviet ideology to suffocate them and they thrived until the late 1930s. For some reasons, film and theatre retained this drive longer than the other arts. The same is true in case of stage and costume design for theatre. Such luminaries of the Georgian artistic word as Irakli Gamrekeli, Soliko Virsaladze, Joseph Sumbatashvili, David Kakabadze, Elene Akhvlediani and others all channelled their considerable talents into theatre work.

Some of the most compelling works of art were created not only in Paris, Munich, Moscow, Dresden or Saint Petersburg, but regionally in Tbilisi and Kutaisi as well. Otskheli, like most of his contemporaries, was influenced by the artistic currents brought to Georgia via Europe in the first decade of the century.

AN INFANT PRODIGY
Petre Otskheli was born in 1907 in Kutaisi, Georgia. Drawing had been his passion from early childhood. According to reliable sources, he was rarely seen without a pencil in his hand and he received regular drawing lessons at the art school from his first teacher Ivane Cheishvili. After a move to Moscow, in connection with his father's work, in 1914-18, the extraordinarily talented child studied at Saint Philip Neri French Catholic school wherefrom he graduated with success.

In 1926, he went on to the Academy of Fine Arts in Tbilisi where he studied under Professor Charlemagne. Although it is hardly possible to tell anything about Iveane Cheishvili’s teaching methods, there is no doubt that Professor Charlemagne’s class was enormously important and mind-opening for the nineteen-year-old Otshkeli. The Academy of Fine Arts in Tbilisi had been regarded as the best art school in the region throughout the 20th century and its faculty boasted many big names capable of expanding the students' artistic awareness.

A NEW BEGINNING
Petre Otskheli, still in his teens, was one of the most promising young artists. In 1927, he was given the chance to design a production of A. Lunacharsky’s play “The Fire Starters” at the so-called “Workers’ Theatre” in Tbilisi. That was when Kote Marjanishvili, a renowned Georgian director, saw his work for the first time.

The famous director was so impressed that he immediately invited Otskheli to join his company, thus beginning the perfect partnership between the aged maestro and the talented novice which lasted for years.

A TANDEM OF TWO GENIUSES

Otskheli owed a lot to Marjanisvili and his company. The director played a crucial role in forming and establishing Otskheli as one of Georgia’s most remarkable stage designers. Both men had similar views on theatre aesthetics, both shared an interest in the ever-changing Russian art scene and both took poetry, emotion and spirituality extremely seriously.

Especially interesting is the way they incorporated highly eclectic Modernist means and Constructivist ideas into their stage work, adapting them with ease and harmony to the Georgian temperament and pathos, present in Otskheli’s evolution before and after Marjanishvili.

Marjanishvili’s production of “Hurriel Acosta” is a good example of how Otskheli’s ability to invade scenic space by means of abstract-Constructivist forms and to create a symbolic-metaphysical atmosphere on stage helps the characters to take hold on their personal styles of action, gesture and speech. His drawings of costumes and set determine the style of all the productions he designed.

Admittedly neither K. Gutskov, the author of the play "Hurriel Acosta", nor Kote Marjanishvili himself suspected that the production was going to turn into what it did until they saw Otskheli’s drawings.

It should be underlined that he was only 22 when he designed “Hurriel Acosta”, which is why he was called a “wunderkind”.

This does not deprive Petre's set and costume drawings for “The Fire Starters” of their magic touch. Quite the contrary, they have a special charge and the marvel of it lies in the rhythmically organized and plastically expressive clear lines of the silhouettes.

The same can be said about his work for “Othello”, “The Master Builder”, “Dumb Speak Up”, “Beatrice Cenci”, “Spartacus”, “Rigoletto” and others.

The sharply accentuated forms of the figures and a visible exaggeration of the proportions: small heads, long limbs and slender palms as well as flat and narrow foreheads, aquiline noses and almond-shaped eye sockets; in short, the entire arsenal of expression he kept returning to in his later works.

It is often said that Otskheli transformed the approach to set and costume design.

UNUSUAL CHARACTERS
Otshkheli’s characters, from the battered Othello to the imperious Beatrice Cenci, contend with a surreal landscape which is at once profoundly Classical and, in its nods to Art Deco and Expressionism, thoroughly twentieth-century in its nature.
HIS DRAWINGS DID ALL THE TALKING
Otskheli’s drawings never belonged solely to the world of theatre. His drawings captured a vital human quality which allowed the characters to breathe on and often, off stage. He created characters with the help of gesture, posture and facial expression. 

He worked to peel away the characters’ layers to reveal the fundamental essentials. No matter what technical devices he employed, his art was deeply personal, completely individual and certainly could not have been done by anyone else. In short, his drawings did all the talking.

Approached for the first time, Petre Otskheli’s sketches of stage, costumes and sets shape our feelings with their dazzling inventiveness.

His art astonishes our eyes with a unique combination of delicacy and extensiveness.

His ability to imbue the ordinary with a sense of the numinous is at the heart of his aesthetics. Yet, at the same time, it is also increasingly elusive, for despite being breath-taking in its beauty and simplicity it is, like faith, hard to grasp and explain.

Petre's drawings can be solid as Roman temples and supple as Greek sculpture.

Remarkably, almost all of Otskheli’s drawings are easily seen as independent pieces of art. Regardless of their style – abstract, constrictive or surreal – all are powered by a harmonically synthesized feeling of monumentality and delicacy.

Individuality was never at the top of the priority list of the totalitarian and materialistic Bolshevik regime. Free thinking, individualism and abstract aesthetics belonged to the world of their ideological enemies.

No Place for Exclusiveness
In 1936, Otskheli fled Beria’s (Stalin’s lieutenant in the Caucasus) persecution to Moscow where he was employed by his fellow countryman Sergo Amaghlobeli, then the director of Moscow Maly Theatre. In 1937, both Otskheli and Amaghlobeli were arrested and shot on trumped-up charges of treason. The artist was only 30 and his active career spanned only nine years.

A REAL ARTIST NEVER DIES

In 1939, Petre was no longer alive when his sketches were put on display at the stage design exhibition in London and his artworks earned a gold medal.

Another exhibition of his works was held in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) in 1973.

Credits: Story

Georgian State Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography - Art Palace


George Kalandia
Irakli Zambakhidze
Mary Kharaishvili
Anna Bakuridze
Irina Moistsrapishvili


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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