Irakli Parjiani was a native son of Svaneti, a rugged Northwestern region of the Caucasus Mountain republic of Georgia that is one of the highest continually inhabited places in Europe. Isolated from the outside world in the high-lying gorges of towering peaks, the local Svan people lived in defensive stone towers and so successfully kept out foreign invaders that the treasures of the Georgian Orthodox Church were brought there for safe-keeping. The region can boast some of the most ancient church frescoes in the country and the oldest illuminated Georgian Gospels. Growing up with one foot in heaven and the other on earth, Parjiani was destined to become the greatest Georgian metaphysical painter of the 20th century.
Born in the regional center of Mestia in 1950, Parjiani was the third son of a Communist Party official with a passion for woodcarving and a teacher of German at the local school. Artists and intellectuals from across the Soviet Union were welcome guests in their home. All three Parjiani boys pursued artistic careers and studied at the Tbilisi State Academy of the Arts in the Georgian capital. Shortly after Irakli enrolled in 1968, the family relocated to Tbilisi, giving up their home in Mestia with its ancient watchtower. Parjiani regretted the move all his life, and his visionary, semi-abstract works are imbued with a yearning for portals opening from this world into the next.
Parjiani was profoundly shaken by the death of his mother in 1971. Within a year, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and would spend the rest of his life in and out of clinics, anxious his periods of treatment took precious time away from art-making. Living in the shadow of death, he rejected the atheistic materialism of the Soviet worldview and joined a circle of Anthroposophists in Tbilisi, followers of the Austrian esoteric philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, who believed the spiritual could be apprehended by scientific means. Parjiani devoted himself to the study of the New Testament, inspiring an artistic project outside the bounds of officially-sanctioned Socialist Realism.
In 1978, Parjiani set about creating handwritten, illuminated copies of the Gospels in Georgian—each one to be in a different style. In defiance of Soviet cultural watchdogs, he managed to complete manuscripts of Mark and John and portions of Luke, using calligraphy copied from ancient Georgian texts. He pioneered the use of oil pastels, often in naïve, folk-art inspired illustrations, based on canonical imagery and his own interpretations. Parjiani had already set pen to parchment when he discovered he was not the only “scribe” in the family. An 11th century manuscript from Svaneti revealed that a certain Ivane Parjiani had copied in “his own hand” a “Holy Testament,” given, it is thought, to the Parjiani family church in Latali village
Parjiani’s sacred works in my listings depict divine-human encounters. He conveys the ambiguity of those chosen by God to be holy oracles in the mixed media drawing, The Prophet, where the eye and brow of a somber face in profile morph into a figure whose arm is raised toward heaven in awe, lamentation or defiance. Parjiani was drawn to the story of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she will be mother of the Son of God, depicted here in a minimalist preparatory sketch for one of his many paintings on the theme. As he explained: “Sometimes I think I’m through with the Annunciation, but the more variations I paint, the more ideas come up, and it has become an endless, inexhaustible theme in my work.”
The artist’s masterpiece in the Collection is a mixed media drawing of the Baptism of Christ, when the human Jesus was revealed to be God’s beloved son in an epiphany at the Jordan River. An angelic being replaces the dove of tradition and tiny figures with exaggerated features enact sacred history in a vast, watery expanse of etched lines and textured patterns, representing a realm beyond time and space. The work dates from 1989, when Parjiani went to West Germany to prepare a joint exhibition with two fellow Georgian artists and created a series of paintings, dubbed "The Berlin Cycle,” considered to be the culmination of his work.
An undated acrylic on paper sketch of the Crucifixion in the gallery may also belong to this period, when the artist was muting his color palette and paring down figurative elements into fluid, ephemeral forms. The expressively painted piece appears to be a working sketch for finished canvases of Christ on the Cross from the Berlin suite, where the insubstantial figures at Golgotha appear as fleeting intimations of things eternal. As Georgian Art Critic Baia Tsikoridze writes: “Those works seem to suggest the conscious anticipation of the artist's possible transcendence to the next world.”
Parjiani’s health took a turn for the worse during his stay in the West, brought on by his intense artistic activity. Cutting short his treatment in a Berlin hospital, the artist returned home to Georgia in 1991, explaining that “without painting my life is death,” and spent the summer with his family, sketchbook in hand, at a mountain spa west of Tbilisi. Parjiani succumbed to his illness on December 23, 1991, when warring political factions had just set fire to the historic House of Artists in the heart of Tbilisi and hopes for a democratic Post-Communist Georgia went up in smoke. Parjiani never had a solo exhibition during his lifetime.
A major retrospective of Parjiani’s work at the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, built on the site of the gutted House of Artists, was planned to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth on May 22, 2020, before the onset of the global pandemic. His daughter, Sofia, has launched a commemorative website with virtual displays of her father’s work in different genres. She is represented in the Collection by a painting she made as a child of Christ on the Cross from the Berlin period. The work copies her father’s Crucifixion scenes, but it is not hard to imagine Parjiani drew inspiration, as well, from the innocent simplicity of his daughter’s piece—for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.