Niko Pirosmani (1863-1918)
Niko Pirosmani (1863-1918)

Arsenal Hill at night

Niko Pirosmani (1863-1918)
Arsenal Hill at night
oil on oilcloth
43 5/8 x 34 5/8 in. (110.8 x 87.9 cm.)
Painted in 1907-1908
Nicolas Bayadze, Tiflis, until circa 1920s.
Acquired from the above by Kirill Zdanevich (1894-1975).
Acquired from the above by the Soviet Government or the Union of Soviet Writers, probably on the advice of Lily Brik (1891-1978), Moscow.
A gift from the above to Louis Aragon (1897-1982) in 1957 on the occasion of his 60th birthday.
Private collection, Moscow.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 17 April 2007, lot 366.
Private collection, Europe.
Anonymous sale; MacDougall’s, London, 10 June 2010, lot 248.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
T. Tabidze et al., Nico Phirosmanichvily, Tiflis, 1926, illustrated, listed pp. 143, 169 and 188, no. 98.
K. Zdanevich, Niko Pirosminashvili, Moscow, 1964, p. 46, illustrated p. [43], listed pp. 113 and 126, no. 97, size incorrect.
K. Zdanevich, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Tbilisi, 1965, listed p. 108, no. 98.
E. Kuznetsov, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Leningrad, 1984, illustrated p. 310.
N. Kobiashvili, We are in search of Pirosmani, Tbilisi, 2004, illustrated on the cover and p. 81, visible in a photo on p. 170 and endpapers, mentioned on multiple pages.
E. Kuznetsov, Pirosmani. Biografiia [Biography], St Petersburg, 2012, p. 181, listed p. 346.
Probably, Paris, The Louvre, Nico Pirosmani, 1969.

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Aleksandra Babenko
Aleksandra Babenko

Lot Essay

While Niko Pirosmani’s Primitivist concerns associate him with such masters of the Russian Avant-Garde as Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944), the sincerity of Pirosmani’s work, coloured by his lack of formal and therefore prescriptive art education, combined with his instincts to result in paintings that were bound by their very existence to reach heights his aforementioned contemporaries could only aspire to.
Pirosmani was born in the Kakheti province in eastern Georgia and was orphaned at a young age. In 1882, he opened a painting workshop but was unable to sustain himself on the profits and later became a railroad conductor, the bureaucracy of the organisation ensuring that this is the best documented period of his life. The majority of his paintings were commissions for taverns and small shops, often in exchange for food and drink rather than money. In 1912 Kirill (1892-1969) and Ilya Zdanevich (1894-1975) and Mikhail le Dantiu (1891-1917) came across Pirosmani’s works in a wine cellar in Tiflis on an excursion to Georgia and duly acquired a number to show to Larionov and Goncharova. Pirosmani’s work was subsequently exhibited in the Target exhibition of 1913 alongside Russian wood prints (lubki), children’s drawings and African sculpture, this championing by his more sophisticated and established peers echoing Picasso’s promotion of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and foreshadowing Kit Wood (1901-1930) and Ben Nicholson’s (1894-1982) ‘discovery’ of Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) in St Ives in 1928.
Where the Neo-Primitivists advocated the rejection of the finished 'salon-style' and the rigid academicism of the realist school in favour of works executed in a consciously naive style, Pirosmani did not elect to be self-taught. He demonstrated a significant talent for drawing at a young age and aspired to pursue his interest but was prevented by the prohibitively high cost (25 kopecks) of lessons. Nor was his selection of subject matter political. Unlike Goncharova, Pirosmani’s depictions of local people eating, drinking, feasting and working in the fields was born out of observation rather than any intention to promote an idealised vision of rural or small town life as a warning against the dangers of industrialisation. While for young Georgian poets and artists, Pirosmani became a symbol of their struggle against the older generation and their traditions, the passionate ensuing debates over the older artist’s work and the future of Georgian culture hardly concerned the artist himself, indeed it is unknown as to whether he even attended the first exhibition of his work, held on 5 May 1916 at Ilya Zdanevich’s studio, which only lasted a few hours but was attended by 80 people. That said, while, as Erast Kuznetsov suggests (Pirosmani, Leningrad, 1975, p. 16), Pirosmani’s contemporaries recall him as notably trusting, it would not be accurate to portray Pirosmani as a naïf or a holy fool of sorts. He was literate and a great lover of poetry, particularly that of Vazhi Pshaveli (1861-1915). The influence of Iranian culture, widespread in Georgia, is also immediately discernable in his work: the restrained palette, plasticity of form and facial features emphasising heavy brows and rounded dark eyes. As Kuznetsov notes, while Pirosamni is unlikely to have ever had the opportunity to hold and examine a Persian miniature, he would have had access to the related woodcut publications in books while many of the stunning 18th century Iranian portraits that now enrich Georgian museum collections were at that time still in private hands and as such could have been another source of inspiration.
Arsenal Hill at night was likely painted for N. Bayadze, a tavern owner in Tiflis, who commissioned numerous works from Pirosmani and whose collection was lost in the chaos of World War I, the Russian Revolution and Georgia’s declaration of independence. In 1920 Kollau Chernyavsky (1892-1947), the poet and author of the first Pirosmani monograph, discovered twelve works from Bayadze’s collection, which had disappeared from a railway station cellar some years prior. Chernyavsky contacted the Zdanevich brothers and Bayadze himself, and arranged for Kirill Zdanevich to acquire the works. Arsenal Hill at night was subsequently taken to Zdanevich’s Moscow home and was later presented as a gift on behalf of either the Soviet Government or the Union of Soviet Writers to the French communist poet Louis Aragon (1897-1982) in 1957 in honour of his 60th birthday. Lily Brik (1891-1978), sister-in-law to Aragon and a passionate admirer of Pirosmani, likely prompted this gift and indeed due to the work’s delicate state it remained in the apartment of Brik and her second husband Vasily Katanyan (1924-1999) for many years.
It is important to note that Arsenal Hill at night is a masterpiece on grounds entirely distinct from its rarity and illustrious provenance. While Pirosmani produced a large number of works, the artist’s inconstant but pervasive impoverished state, limited degree of contemporary recognition and restricted access to good quality materials has resulted in a distinct paucity of surviving works, Arsenal Hill at night is also marked out by its unusual subject matter, depicting, as it does, an engaging landscape rather than a tavern still life whose motive for commission is immediately apparent. Painted directly onto black oilcloth, the figures' stylised forms and lack of distinguishing characteristics or mood simultaneously indicate the ephemeral nature of life pitted against a consistency of human activity. Rendered particularly distinctive by its expressive colouring; the moonlit sky lending the figures in the foreground an otherworldly quality, Arsenal Hill at night is the most important work by this artist ever to be offered at Christie’s and one of the most significant works by this artist known to exist outside of museum collections.

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