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The Fine Arts Museum

Just off the northeast corner of Tavisuplebis moedani is the Fine Arts Museum (Gudiashvili 1; 11 am-4pm Tue-Sun), a comprehensive if underwhelmingly presented storehouse of Georgian art and artisanry from several centuries BC up to the late 20th century.

The Museum of Georgian Art built between 1827 and 1834 is located down the Pushkin Street, at the corner of Gudiashvili Street. Originally a hotel, the building next functioned as a seminary until 1905. A plaque to the left of the entrance once proclaimed that Stalin studied there from 1894 to 1898, until it was removed in 1989. The museum was founded in 1933 by bringing together other diverse collections of artworks. The permanent collection of sculpture and painting from all over the world is enriched by unique works by Georgian painters and sculptors.

The major highlight is the treasury section, which can only be entered with a guide (no extra charge). This contains a great wealth of icons, crosses and jewellery in precious metals and stones from all over Georgia and old Georgian churches and monasteries on what is now Turkish territory. Many of Georgia’s most sacred and revered objects are here. Don’t miss the beautiful little pectoral cross of Queen Tamar, set with four emeralds, five rubies and six pearls – the only known personal relic of the great 12th-century monarch.
A visit to this museum is a must.

The museum also has sections devoted to the wonderful paintings of Niko Pirosmani; 19th-century Persian and Azerbaijani art and crafts; and Georgian, European and Russian paintings of the 18th to 20th centuries. The building was once a seminary: Stalin studied for the priesthood here from 1894 to 1898 until expelled for revolutionary activities.

The treasury is immediately opposite the main doors of the museum. Here you will see extraordinary masterpieces of Georgian repousse work from the ninth to the 19th centuries. With the exception of the jewelry of the Georgian kings and queens, most of these objects served ecclesiastical purposes, as shown by the chalices, processional crosses, and icons (hat abound. The pride of the collection is the Khakhuli Triptych, which has been kept here since 1952. Its name comes from the Khakhuli Monastery in Tao (now in Turkey) where the tenth-century cloisonne icon of the Virgin was originally kept. Believed to be miracle-working, the icon was brought to the Monastery of Gelati by King David the Builder and given a new repousse case with pearls, rubies, and cloisonne enamels from an earlier period. The preserved side panels of the triptych exemplify tenth-century silver-chasing techniques. All that remains of the central part of the triptych are the cloisonne hands and face of the Virgin. The background of precious metals has been lost.

The Icon of the Saviour from Anchi from the sixth century is the oldest extant example of Georgian icon painting; it came to the Anchiskhati Basilica in the Old Town from the Anchi Monastery in southwestern Georgia. The embossed gold setting is the work of the famous 12th-century goldsmith Века Opizari. The Tondo of St. Mamai Riding a Lion is an llth-century silver plaque with masterfully executed embossing. The Gold Pectoral Cross of Queen Tamara dates from the end of the 12th century. Set with four emeralds, six pearls, and five rubies, it is a superb example of the bejeweled splendor with which religious metalwork was decorated. The Golden Goblet of King Bagrat III and Queen Gurandukht dates from 999. Made from a single piece of gold, the chalice is embossed with figures of the Virgin, an adult Jesus, and ten saints.

Among the works in the collection of European paintings are a 14th-century triptych by the Florentine painter Bernardo Daddi, a polyptych by Paolo Veneziano, Landscape with Waterfall by the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, and The Procuress by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. The museum also displays Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Iranian art. Noteworthy is the collection of 19th and 20th-century Russian masters, including llya Repin, Valentin Serov, Ivan Aivazovsky, and Apollinary Vasnetsov. The first and second floors also contain a significant collection of medieval Georgian stone carvings: bas-reliefs, altar screens, and fragments of carved stone.

Perhaps of greatest interest to the inveterate gallery-goer are the examples of 19th- and 20th-century Georgian paintings. Note especially the works of Gigo Gabashvili (1862-1936) and his contemporary, Mose Toidze. The work of the following three 20lh-century painters is housed in separate museums: Lado Gudiashvili (1896-1980), David Kakabadze (1889-1952), and Elene Akhvlediani (1901-1976).

Besides the medieval works in the treasury, the other most significant holdings in the museum are the paintings of Niko Pirosmanashvili (1862-1918). The sell-taught Pirosmani was born in the small Kakhetian village of Mirzaani and became an itinerant sign painter, rendering scenes of the Caucasus on the walls of wine cellars and laverns. He captured the quintessential nature of everyday life in Georgia by celebrating the traditions of towns and villages in an unaffected, startlingly straightforward style. Georgian admirers of his animal paintings are equaled in number only by those who favor his historical narratives. Others prefer his portraits, and still others his scenes of feasts and celebrations. Pirosmani is revered in Georgia as the painter who best captures the national essence. Certainly, new generations of Georgians have come to define their vision of themselves through his work.

In his own time, Pirosmani was appreciated in the milieu in which he worked and lived: the owners and patrons of the shops and taverns (duknebi). He was never part of the artistic establishment, and his work was not considered "art" but at best a rough and quirky kind of primitivism. Only in 1912, through the efforts of painters Kirill Zdanevich and Michael Le Dentue and the poet Ilya Zdanevich, was Pirosmani's work introduced to a wider public. In time Pirosmani's genius at expressing the essential aspect of whatever he depicted-a tsvadi (shish kebab), a loaf of bread, a shepherd with his flock-came to be recognized. Unfortunately this recognition didn't come until after the painter's death in April 1918. He died penniless in a cold basement that had been one of his temporary abodes.