Mother of Georgia – Tbilisi

Mother of Georgia from Tbilisi old town

Mother of Georgia from Tbilisi old town

Mother of Georgia – Tbilisi

Kartlis Deda, the 20m high, aluminium statue that presently stands on the top of Sololaki hill, overlooking the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, is the work of the sculptor Elguja Amashukeli.

And that seems to be all that is agreed upon by those who make reference to one of the most notable landmarks in Tbilisi. When I decided to write about this statue I thought it would be an easy and straightforward exercise – a few facts, a slide-show and them move on to the next topic. But that’s not the case.

To explain.

The Name

Kartlis Deda is the transcription from the Georgian to the Roman/Latin alphabet but there’s no agreement on what should be the English translation. Most references like ‘Mother of Georgia’ but that version presents difficulties when considering what the image represents to the population of the country. This translation gives the impression that the Mother gave birth to the country – strange but in pre-historical mythology even stranger ideas were considered valid.

Contrast this interpretation with ‘Mother Albania’ – the name given to the statue which stands high above the city of Tirana, Albania, in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery. Here ‘Mother Albania’ stands as a protecting symbol for all the people and it’s from this concept that we get the term ‘Motherland’. But I’ve never seen any reference to ‘Mother Georgia’.

It gets even more complicated. Another translation is ‘Mother of Georgians’. This suggests that she is the mother of all those who are genetically Georgian. The problem here is that Georgia is, and has been for centuries, a country that has had large populations who were not genetically Georgian. Now many of these people can trace their ancestors back generations, they would probably – in many ways – consider themselves Georgian but not according to the ‘Mother’. So we have a national symbol which doesn’t represent all the people within the national borders – potentially somewhat divisive I would have thought.

Then the third translation is ‘Mother of a Georgian’. This is even more complex. Which Georgian? A male or a female? Why was s/he chosen? And why doesn’t anyone know who s/he is? And why should that have any meaning for the millions of other Georgians (or the people who live in the country)?

The Symbolism

When it comes to the symbolism there’s even a difference of opinion here. There seems to be general agreement that the bowl she holds in her left hand symbolises hospitality, the welcoming of a stranger, or visitor, with a offering of wine – which was first cultivated in Georgia around 6,000 years ago.

The sword, however, has a couple of interpretations. One is that it is to fight off any enemies and that seems fair enough and possibly valid in the past. The other is that it represents the Georgians’ idea of independence and freedom. If the second interpretation is pushed then Deda will have to give up her sword – although Georgia is not too friendly with Russia at the moment they would dearly love to become part of the European Union – like most so-called ‘independent’ countries (or wanting to be countries) many ‘nationalists’ want to change one dominant power for one, more powerful, multi-state entity.

The Date

Next there’s even a disagreement about when the statue was erected. Many refer to 1958, as the 1,500th anniversary of the founding of the settlement of (what is now) Tbilisi. But in the only ‘authoritative’ source I’ve come across it states 1959 – in the Georgian text as well as the English translation.

Two Versions

Probably the most interesting point I came across in my research was the fact that what stands above Tbilisi now (whatever name it might be called in English) is not the same statue that was erected in 1958 (or 1959) – see, it starts to get complicated.

This reference is in a digital book entitled ‘Elguja Amashukeli – Sculpture, Painting’, published in 2013. It was a collaborative affair but the text is attributed to an Art Historian called Tamta-Tamar Shavgulidze with another Art Historian, Nana Shervashidze, as editor.

”The Mother of the Georgians’ also underwent changes later by the efforts of the author himself and became more womanly: the masculine image was transformed into a feminine one.’ p6

The original mother

The original mother

And here is the only picture I’ve come across of the original. Quite different from what we can see now and when comparing the ‘before and after’ the text by Tamta-Tamar Shavgulidze below makes sense.

'New' Mother of Georgia

‘New’ Mother of Georgia

‘In 1959, in connection with the 1500th anniversary of founding Tbilisi, he [Elguja Amashukeli] made a model for the monument ‘The Mother of Georgians’ which was erected in 1959. The monument was made of steel [this must be a bad translation, it would have been aluminium from a aircraft factory] sheets at the Tbilisi aircraft factory, while the base was a wooden sculpture which could become rotten with time. Besides, although ‘The Mother of Georgians’ had a symbolic charcater, Elguja was worried that he had failed to give his creation, so aggregated and original, the form of a round sculpture. That was why, quite a long time after, he worked on the sculpture for nearly one year, and as a result the subject remained the same although the face and the body became more feminine having acquired the elements of a round sculpture.’ p32

Unfortunately, there’s more confusion caused in the text of this book. The dates under the image of the ‘Old’ Mother are 1958-1963 yet the date under the ‘New’ Mother is 1995. Also when it comes to the 1995 statue it is called ‘Mother of Georgians’ whilst in 1958-1963 version she is called ‘Mother of Georgia’ – probably the most schizophrenic sculpture I’ve encountered.

‘I gave preference to the ‘old’ version,’ p6,

Shavgulidze writes, and I think I agree.

How Georgian sculptors portray the female body

Whichever version you look at the strange breasts (even more pronounced on version one) are ‘noticeable’ – perhaps where Madonna got her ideas. I thought this was a later, revisionist affectation but it obviously was accepted in a very public arena at the end of the 1950s. Whether this was following a Georgian sculptural convention that had been around for some time I don’t know. Yet another gap in my knowledge I’ll try to fill at some time in the future.

Mother of Georgia

Mother of Georgia

This also might make some of the points I made in reference to the young woman in the terracotta sculpture of telecommunications workers in Tskaltubo desiring of revision – again when there’s more clarity of the local conventions.

What is clear, however, is that this is a clear departure from what had been the tradition of Soviet Socialist Realism (as seen in Tbilisi on the facade of the Rustaveli Cinema) and whether this was as a result in the changing attitudes in the Khrushchev ‘era’ or just a maintenance of a local approach remains to be seen.

At least I haven’t seen anything as bad as the ‘modern’ statue of the Albanian People’s Heroine Liri Gero that appeared in Fier a few years ago.

Workers nominate for art prize

One other notable point that comes from this study on Amashukeli is that;

‘ .. ‘The Mother of Georgians’ was nominated for the Rustaveli Prize by the staff of the Kirov Machine-Tool Plant together with the Union of Artists and the Union of Architects.’ p5

After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 the road to Socialism became rough but still, at least in the early years, there existed a situation where workers in a local factory were making nominations for an art prize. Where have you ever seen that in present day capitalist societies?

Another ‘Mother’

Although ‘The Mother’ is big in Tbilisi I haven’t been aware of seeing such statues in other parts of the country. Perhaps I’ve just missed them or if they did exist in the past they might have been victim of anti-Communist vandalism.

Mother of Georgia - Tskaltubo

Mother of Georgia – Tskaltubo

However, there is at least one example – and that’s in the spa town of Tskaltubo. On the east wall of the ‘It’s my business’ Sanatorium there’s a metal bas relief with the figure as ’rounded’ as the one in Tbilisi became. It’s high up on the wall and that might have saved it from destruction. In fact it looks down on and across the road from the telecommunications workers’ mural.

How to get to ‘The Mother of Georgia’/’The Mother of Georgians’/’The Mother of a Georgian’

The easiest way to get to the top of Sololaki Hill is to take the cable car from the southern end of Rikhe Park, on the other side of the river from the old town. This runs from 10.00 – 00.00 and costs GEL2.5, but you’ll need the Tbilisi Transport Card.

If you want to walk then head down Shalva Dadiani Street from Freedom Square, at the end turn left along Lado Asatiani Street for 100 metres or so to Betlemi Rise on the right that ends at a set of steps (view from photo at head of post). This is a steep climb but there are good steps all the way. Also passes close by a couple of churches and a half way viewpoint.

Mother of Georgia from footpath

Mother of Georgia from footpath

This approach also gives you the opportunity to have a reasonably close look at the statue from the front. Once at the top the structure is so close to the edge that when you are at the plinth and look up you are looking up Mother’s nose.

Mayakovsky in Kutaisi, Georgia

Mayakovsky - Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky – Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky in Kutaisi, Georgia

Vladimir Mayakovsky, was born in Baghdati, about 15 kms south of the city of Kutaisi, in western Georgia, on 19th July 1893. Described by Joseph Stalin, in 1935, as

‘the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch’

he also criticised the Soviet intellectual establishment of ignoring Mayakovsky’s achievements after his death on 14th April 1930 adding

‘indifference to his cultural heritage amounts to a crime’.

Mayakovsky and Marxism

Mayakovsky got involved in the growing revolutionary movement in Russia soon after moving to Moscow in 1906 and during that time developed a passion for the works of Marxism.

‘Never cared for fiction. For me it was philosophy, Hegel, natural sciences, but first and foremost, Marxism. There’d be no higher art for me than ‘The Preface’ by Marx,’

he wrote in his autobiography ‘I, Myself’.

And when he is writing about ‘The Preface’ he means that to Marx’s 1859 book ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’. But not all the preface, there’s one section that is almost hidden amongst some dry text which springs out at the reader as a work of poetry, beautifully constructed, with complex ideas but expressed in a clear and concise manner. It’s no wonder that, as an aspiring poet when he first read those words, they made such an impact upon the young Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky and Russian Futurism

But for a number of years prior to the October Revolution he bounced around and, as he also wrote in his biography;

‘Revolution and poetry got entangled in my head and became one.’

In this period he was very much involved in the Russian Futurist movement, one of the avant-garde movements that developed in the early 20th century, which rejected the past and praised industry, technology, city living and speed.

Mayakovsky as a Socialist Propagandist

Immediately after the end of what became known as World War One 14 imperialist nations (who had been knocking hell out of each other for four years) invaded the young revolutionary Russia to assist the White reactionaries forces. Since the October Revolution they had been inflicting death and destruction in the Red (pro-Soviet) areas murdering anyone who had the temerity to stand up against exploitation and oppression. In this environment Mayakovsky threw his knowledge and skills into producing revolutionary propaganda to instil in Russian workers and peasants the determination to resist the re-establishment of the old order.

Ukrainians and Russians have a Common War Crime - Pan will not be the master of the worker

Ukrainians and Russians have a Common War Crime – Pan will not be the master of the worker

‘Art must be everywhere – on the streets, in trams, in factories, in workshops, in workers’ apartments’,

he stated and estimated he had created about 3,000 posters during the Civil War.

Mayakovsky and Lenin

Mayakovsky was a life long admirer of VI Lenin, the great Marxist and leader of the revolutionary Bolshevik Party. He showed his respect for the Lenin by producing a 3,000 line epic poem, called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ which was published in October 1924, nine months after Lenin had died on 21st January of that year.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin - a poem

 

The dual language version of the poem published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, in 1970.

 

Mayakovsky admired Lenin but such respect wasn’t always reciprocated.

On May 6th, 1921 Lenin wrote to AV Lunarcharsky (People’s Commissar for Education from 1917 to 1929);

‘Aren’t you ashamed to vote for printing 5,000 copies of Mayakovsky’s “150,000,000”? It is nonsense, stupidity, double-dyed stupidity and affectation. I believe such things should be published one in ten, and not more than 1,500 copies, for libraries and cranks. As for Lunacharsky, he should be flogged for his futurism.’

VI Lenin Collected Works, Volume 45, p138

However, on March 6th, 1922 Lenin said in a speech to the Communist Group at the All-Russia Congress of Metalworkers:

‘Yesterday I happened to read in Izvestia a political poem by Mayakovsky. I am not an admirer of his poetical talent, although I admit that I am not a competent judge. But I have not for a long time read anything qn politics and administration with so much pleasure as I read this. In his poem [Incessant Meeting Sitters] he derides this meeting habit, and taunts the Communists with incessantly sitting at meetings. I am not sure about the poetry; but as for the politics, I vouch for their absolute correctness. We are indeed in the position, and it must be said that it is a very absurd position, of people sitting endlessly at meetings, setting up commissions and drawing up plans without end.’

VI Lenin Collected Works, Volume 33, p223

Mayakovsky’s Death

Mayakovsky in 1930

Mayakovsky in 1930

On 14th April 1930 Mayakovsky committed suicide. As with any death of a ‘celebrity’ there’s a shed full of conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstance of their demise. I won’t be even going there. There is a somewhat prurient photograph of the dead Mayakovsky showing a blood stain in the region of his heart – an unusual choice of target in a suicide. Perhaps a sign of his vanity and didn’t want to destroy his looks.

Why Mayakovsky in Kutaisi?

During the period of Socialist construction – which effectively ended in 1956 after Khrushchev made his infamous speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU – Maykovsky was praised and respected for the work he had produced in times of crisis, i.e. the Civil War from 1917-22, as well as the efforts he made in the establishment of a new sort of writers organisation where ‘intellectuals’ would serve the people and not be the lackeys of rich patrons.

Mayakovsky - Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky – Kakabadze Art Gallery

In the period that followed the denunciation of Comrade Stalin by Khrushchev at the 1956 Congress the revisionists in the Soviet Union then turned on anything that challenged the direction they wanted to take the Soviet Union – now a post-Socialist state. This meant that Mayakovsky’s involvement in the Russian Futurist movement was played up in an inverse ratio as his role in the construction of Socialism was played down.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union into an openly capitalist society – the inevitable consequence of the decisions made in the 1950s. Georgia split from the erstwhile Soviet Union and gradually relationships between the two countries got worse and this exploded in a short 5 day shooting war. Although the firing stopped the animosity didn’t and as a consequence many of the manifestations of the Soviet past were either destroyed or neglected (such as the monument to the Unknown Soldier and the statue of Victory in Vake Park in Tbilisi which has just been left to rot.)

And the same fate has befallen Mayakovsky. Even though he was born in Georgia, in a small village close to Kutaisi (where he went to school until leaving for Moscow in 1906) he was, and still is, obviously too tainted with the Soviet Union to have a statue of him treated with any respect. I can’t imagine that where it is now to be found (in the courtyard of the Kakabadze Fine Art gallery in Kutaisi) was it’s original location.

Mayakovsky - Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky – Kakabadze Art Gallery

This courtyard is sometimes called (in the crass British guide books) as a ‘Sculpture Park’ but presently it’s more of a dumping ground for statues that aren’t politically acceptable (for whatever reason) to be on real public display. The courtyard is more correctly described as the designated smoking area for the art gallery staff.

Despite the above reservations it is a place to visit if you head to the art gallery. When I went it was the only place I could visit as although the gallery was nominally open it wasn’t to the public as ‘something was being set up in the gallery space’. (I think this was just an excuse that is given by museum staff when they don’t feel like making an effort. I encountered a similar situation in the Kutaisi Military Museum.) The only place I could visit was the courtyard.

But it was worth it. I’ll talk about the other sculptures in another post but here I want to concentrate on one statue – that of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky - Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky – Kakabadze Art Gallery

It’s not in a good condition – but not as bad a condition as some of the statues who share the space. It seems to be made of stone – but not a particularly hard stone as the environment it has been living in for I don’t know how many years has not been very conducive to its preservation. There’s a fair amount of algae growing on the surface and this seems to be taking its toll. The courtyard doesn’t really get any movement of air and it’s probably quite cold and damp in winter – and even in summer the warmth from the sun is only there fleetingly and it can be quite humid.

This is where Vladimir now lives. For how long I, and I’m sure nobody, knows. As with the other damaged statues in the courtyard it might be the weather that really determines their fate. Once past a certain level of decay the expense of restoration would become prohibitive.

Mayakovsky - Kakabadze Art Gallery

Mayakovsky – Kakabadze Art Gallery

I would like to have know more about the statue; the sculptor, where the statue originally stood, when it was moved – but have been unable to come across any information so far. Perhaps on the next visit.

Location

The courtyard of the Kakabadze Fine Art Gallery on Rustaveli Avenue 8, just across the road and slightly to the centre of town from the Information Centre in the older part of Kutaisi.

GPS

42.2709

42.7008

Opening times

Monday – Friday 10.00 – 18.00

Entrance

GEL 1

Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural - Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

Telephone exchange mural – Tskaltubo

The terracotta mural portraying a group of telecommunications workers is an interesting, and in some aspects quite charming, piece of public art which is probably missed by the vast majority of visitors to the once immensely popular, and populous, spa town of Tskaltubo, not far from the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia.

Socialist Realist?

I am presenting it here for its curiosity value alone and do not plan to look too deeply into what is depicted as I don’t consider it fits into the definition I’ve been following of Socialist Realist art.

Just because a piece of art is produced and put on show in a country that calls itself ‘socialist’ doesn’t then – automatically – mean that it is a ‘Socialist Realist’ work of art. Realist yes, even social realist, but not Socialist Realist.

This mural, showing workers doing their job, is radically different from the mural that sits above the main entrance to Spring No. 6 – which is only a few minutes walk away.

That mural, which represents a visit of Joseph Stalin to the town in the early 1950s, had a very specific rationale. It was produced to demonstrate a unity between the people in one of the Republics on the edge of the vast USSR with the leadership in the capital of Moscow.

On the other hand the mural on the wall of the telephone exchange is mere decoration. Charming though it may be.

The terracotta mural is of a much later date (although the exact one I don’t know – but would guess 1970s at the earliest). And that’s important. Three years after the death of Stalin in 1953 the then leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, not only denounced Joseph Stalin as an individual he basically attacked all the gains and victories that had been achieved since the October Revolution of 1917. He didn’t say that (after all he was a traitor to Marxism-Leninism and had to hide his revisionism from the assembled delegates at the 20th Party Congress) but all that happened during his time at the head of the Party and country, as with subsequent ‘leaders’ until 1990, was to turn back the construction of Socialism and allow the re-establishment of capitalism in the world’s first ‘Communist State’.

So those works of art produced from the mid-1950s onwards weren’t produced to aid the development of Socialism but to reflect the capitalist road on which the Soviet Union was now following. I will accept that there might have been works of art that challenged the change of direction but they still couldn’t be considered Socialist Realist as the economic base of the country was no longer socialist.

The Mural

Although the main body of the mural – which stretches the width of the shortest wall of the large rectangular telephone exchange – depicts men (and they are all men) in the task of erecting telegraph poles in an effort to create a means of long distance communication between the young couple at the extreme right and left of the mural. This is a 20th century activity but their look is essentially from the pre-revolutionary period.

This is especially the case if you look at the heads of all the workers. Their hairstyles are what you’d expect to see on some classical Greek sculpture and even their clothes point to an earlier era. This more ‘traditional’ dress is accentuated with the style of the clothing of the two young people at either end. It says more late 19th rather than late 20th century.

All the activity in the centre seems to be geared to uniting these two young ‘lovers’. They are in rural settings whereas the telecommunication workers indicate a city and industrial environment. The young woman is bringing a telephone receiver (the style of which you only see in museums now but which was ubiquitous for the majority of time of telephonic communication) to her left ear. Why the male doesn’t also hold a handset is confusing. He just seems as if he were walking on a cloud, not really aware of anything.

Georgian post-socialist depiction of women

Georgian post-socialist depiction of women

As for the young woman I have to make reference to her breasts as the unreal depiction of the female breast is ubiquitous in Georgian sculpture of the revisionist (post Socialist) period in the country’s cultural history. The breasts seem like small bowls that have been plunked on their chests. The vast majority of sculptures of women produced during times of the construction of Socialism I wouldn’t exactly say play down the female form but in Georgia it wasn’t until the success of revisionism that the emphasis on shape, and sexuality, seems to have become the norm.

This can be seen most obviously (sic) in the large sculpture of ‘Mother Georgia’ in the hills above Tbilisi. There are other examples; on the market mural, the sculptural group in the centre of the town as well as a number of (damaged) female sculptures in the courtyard of the Kakabadze Fine Art Gallery all in Kutaisi; the facade of the magistrates court in Tskaltubo; and even on the large sculpture of ‘Victory’ which dominates the hill above the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Vake Park in Tbilisi. (Links to these locations to follow.)

Contrast all these depictions with the only two female sculptures from the Socialist period still on public show, that I’ve seen in Georgia, which are part of the façade of the Rustaveli Cinema on Rustaveli Avenue in the centre of Tbilisi.

If we refer to another country which depict women in Socialist Realist art then there are many examples in Albania. To select just a couple there’s the the statue of Liri Gero (behind the National Art Gallery) in Tirana – but contrast that with the very recent sculpture in her home town of Fier where she looks like a 21st century young woman out on the town on a Friday night – or the sculpture of the female partisan and child in the Lushnje Martyrs’ Cemetery

How the mural is made

Method of construction

Method of construction

The method of construction is also quite unique (at least for me) in that rather large chunks of the terracotta seem to be made and then all is revealed when the pieces are put together as in a very large, three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. This same technique is also used in the mural on the west facing wall of the market in Kutaisi – not far from the marshrutka (mini-bus) stop to Tskaltubo. More information will be provided as and when I come across it.

Location

On the left on left as you go down Tseretseli Street from the main bazaar towards Central Park.

GPS

42.3271

42.6001

How to get to Tskaltubo

Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.

Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)

When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.

To get to the telephone exchange and the Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up) and the mural is on the left just as the road heads slightly down hill – the park spread out in front of you.