Natela Iankoshvili – Feminist Hero

Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki, 1976, oil on canvas

Exhibition Essay from Natela Iankoshvili Centennial exhibition at MoMa Tbilisi, June 2018

Image credit: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki, 1976, oil on canvas


Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is the crown jewel of Georgian painting, bringing with her vibrancy and authenticity of the Eastern Europe. Iankoshvili was the greatest Georgian woman artist who refused to conform to the standard social realistic demands of the Soviet art, busy with portraying idealized scenes of the grim Communist reality, and created highly individual manner to painterly technique and poetic approach to color. Even though Iankoshvili was drastically different from her contemporary Soviet painters of the period in 1960s during so called Krushchev Thaw years of comparative liberalization in the Soviet system, she was given a generous opportunity to travel to Europe and Cuba, thus enriching her visual dictionary and becoming even bolder with her artistic choices. During her lifetime, a museum was opened to house her legacy of over 2000 paintings and drawings. It is noteworthy that a substantial number of public figures who own Iankoshvili’s works are people of letters: national Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, important Italian poet Mimo Morina, Russian art theoretic M.S.Kagan, piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter, the last Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze among others. Iankoshvili stimulates viewer’s eye by Neoexpessionist, laconic, and atypical color contrasts and saturations, there is an air of invigoration about her luminous jewels that look as though put on canvas only yesterday. Iankoshvili’s works have received a wide acclaim when exhibited in the Rediscovery section of Brussels Art Fair in 2017 and they were presented at New York Art Frieze exhibition in May,2018.

In addition to being a deeply authentic visual thinker Iankoshvili was a true feminist, without actually naming herself one, pushing for creative independence in a country where family and childcare have always been considered the only appropriate oeuvre for a woman. Iankoshvili was born in Tbilisi and came from a middle class Georgian family, her father an economist and teacher, her mother was also a teacher with numerous private students and thus fairly limited time for her three children. To be able to keep the house in proper shape and to continue her work without interruption Iankoshvili’s mother took an orphan from a village as help. By doing so Iankoshvili’s mother early on provided her daughter with a practical illustration that not every woman has to be surrounded by only the menial tasks of domesticity and can actually become a self-realized human being.

In her own personal and family life Iankoshvili tried to emulate that same independent approach. She shared a close and trusting relationship with her husband, novelist Lado Avaliani. They met and fell in love when studying at the Tbilisi Art Academy, where Avaliani was studying drawing, showing promising abilities. Yet, after meeting Iankoshvili her future spouse gave up his study of the art to focus on Iankoshvili’s career and became a writer. He never regretted this sacrifice and went on to write acclaimed novels centered on local geosocial themes, modernization, and identity. In private conversations with friends and in her diary Iankoshvili often observed that without her husband she could have never become an artist. As even if she were talented, her gift would have disappeared without Lado Avaliani who took care of all practical considerations, and handled everything that was not directly related to her art.

Spouses differed by their personalities and temperaments, this helping them to balance one another. Iankoshvili was stubborn and straight-forward, while Avaliani was diplomatic, calm, intelligent conversationalist who had a very good grasp of contemporary art. Together they created a harmonious couple. They had an established working routine giving them sufficient time to work apart and share evenings in conversations and discussions. Touchingly, Iankoshvili never stepped into her studio and gave up painting altogether when her spouse died, nine years before her own passing in 2007. She was brokenhearted and considered her creative impulse gone together with Avaliani.

Early in her marriage Iankoshvili announced that she was never going to have children, because that would interfere with her and her spouse’s art and their shared creative lifestyle. “My every painting is my child,” was her unorthodox position in the time when the Soviet government was openly encouraging its women to bear new generations of future communists. Her paintings and unhindered ability to create was the purpose of Iankoshvili’s life, she considered herself lost without those and if nothing else only for this steadfast commitment to her art Iankoshvili is a feminist hero. She never sold her pieces, even as Georgia was going through socially and economically dire times of electric shortages, lack of food and security and when she still declined when the painter could have gained some financial advantage by selling to the interested art collectors.

Iankoshvili was a genuine free spirit who adhered to a high degree of individual freedom. The fact that she actually was able to attain this independence in the Soviet setting of paranoia, mistrust, lack of goodwill is fairly paradoxical. In 1960 solo exhibition of Iankoshvili was organized at the Tbilisi State (Blue) Gallery and she was the first woman painter who had such a showing in this official space. The exhibition stirred many voices in the Soviet art community since shown works starkly different, dynamic, progressive, fresh, and emotionally raw.  Some of art critics of this exhibition aptly compared Iankoshvili’s works to compositions by Scriabin, Bach, and Beethoven by their sophisticated, yet, poetic structure and approach.

Iankoshvili was a nonconformist, never engaging with the Communist themes or subjects, dominated by cheerful scenes with workers, war propaganda machine, or still lives, usually in updated Flemish style. Yet, Iankoshvili was never penalized for such independence because of her boldness and outspoken manner of communicating in altercations, as documented by some of the close circle attendants. Iankoshvili never used visualizations adherent to the Soviet gender role and gave her women air of feminine mystique and uniqueness rather than commonplace athletic, androgynous outlook of the Soviet women workers or cloying figurative representation of mothers. Iankoshvili together with other prominent Georgian women Eka Gogvadze, Elene Akhvlediani went beyond the expected visual representation and fought with decorative approach so traditional for the Georgian women painters.

After all these years Iankoshvili stands tall, embodying willpower, character, intensity, integrity, raw, and emotional talent. In memoirs of her friends Iankoshvili always was noticeable not only by her paintings, but also with her bold, original, tasteful outfits when she strolled in the city. Apparently, the painter designed her own dresses, and her shoes, bags, gowns contrasted with drab, everyday women clothes of the Soviet times.

In professional life Iankoshvili never allowed anyone to see her work in progress and if someone did not listen she would get furious and would destroy the seen and yet unfinished work by cutting it with a knife. Iankoshvili relied substantially on her inspired mood and emotional approach when working. For this reason, she never contacted anyone while painting a particularly challenging composition or exploring of a new theme. Once she was working on a piece depicting the great 12th century queen of Georgia, Tamara. Iankoshvili was out of touch with the outside world for a week or so and when, finally, she was reached with some distressing news about a family member she was deeply affected also because of this interruption in her creative flow she now would never be able to finish her ambitious piece.

Iankoshvili’s gifts occupied a prominent position even in Tbilisi of the Soviet times. Together with her husband the couple resided in a rather small studio apartment in one of the outer districts of the city. When in 1960 an official delegation visited painter’s apartment   visitors were appalled by its cramped quarters on the last floor of 5-story walk-up. The whole space was occupied by canvases, paints, brushes, frames with a roll-on bad and chairs serving as only pieces of furniture, ready to be repurposed for a night’s sleep. With a friend’s help in one year’s time Iankoshvili received a new sizable studio with an adjacent apartment in the center of the city. Today this space houses her personal museum, opened in 2000 when Iankoshvili was still alive. That year the American Institute of Biographies “Who is Who” conferred on Iankoshvili the rank of “Best Woman of 2003.” In the previous years, she has been awarded numerous national prizes including the Honorary Citizenship of Tbilisi and the Georgian Medal of Honor.

Exposure to the outside world, its cultures and visual identities have significantly influenced Iankoshvili’svisual vocabulary. Surprising trip to Cuba had a grand effect, she was impressed by plasticity, strength and beauty of Cuban women who were valiant and accustomed to expressing their opinions. One inspiring figure who Iankoshvili met was Elekta Fernand in Santiago de Cuba, the first woman mayor in the country and a brave innovator. Yet, Iankoshvili found plenty of inspiration in her own country. An important contribution of Iankoshvili as a feminist artist are her illustrations to the national Georgian poem Knight in the Panther Skin, here she also underlines the strength, virtue, nobility, stoicism of the women protagonists who play key roles in the story.

Writing about Iankoshvili as a feminist hero without providing at least a brief overview of women portraits she so brilliantly accomplished seems unreasonable. In words of insightful Georgian philosopher Lia Chavchavadze Iankoshvili always underlines psychological nuances as they stand out, the unity of the exterior and interior are always visible. Iankoshvili’s famous green is “color of life, hope, joy.”[1]

At Paris International Portrait Competition in 1977 Iankoshvili’s portrait of a Georgian actress Zina Kverenchkhiladze won the grand prize. As much as Iankoshvili created national idea of expressionist landscape she did the same with her portraits. By painstakingly creating a whole gallery of her contemporaries Iankoshvili also created a national idea of feminine beauty and Georgian feminine character, mysterious and charming. By generalizing specific facial features Iankoshvili has created national psychological portrait. All her women are full personalities, not just beautiful people or visually impressive feats of Iankoshvili’s mastery. Her portraits are created with minimal colors and minimal gestures. Her blacks are not depressive or bleak, rather uplifting. Iankoshvili stands out by her way of making bold decisions and is not scared to challenge existing stereotypes, boundaries, or rules.

[1] Chavchavadze, Lia, “Natela Iankoshvili,” Tbilisi: Khelovneba, 1983.