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Louisiana Museum of Modern Art: Sheds Light

Louisiana Sculpture Park, The Glass Passage in The North Wing. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kim Hansen

By DELIA CABRAL, July 2023

Often referred to as one of the best museums of modern art in the world, this should be on every art lover’s bucket list. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, is located in the scenic coastal town of Humlebæk, Denmark. It houses an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art across its expansive grounds. These grounds cover approximately 30,000 square metres (322,917 square feet) and include not only the museum building itself but also beautiful gardens, outdoor sculptures, and panoramic views of the Øresund Strait. While I don't have the exact number of works of art it houses, the museum's collection consists of over 3,500 works, including paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations. This museum houses many iconic works by some of the leading artists of our time. The collection includes both Danish and international artists, names such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, Alberto Giacometti, Anselm Kiefer and many many more. I would say this is a very complete and comprehensive world class modern museum. However, what sets this museum apart from the rest is its fascinating and varied exhibition program. Showing us not only the blockbuster art superstars we come to expect from world class museums.

The Lousiana also challenges the way we view art. Art beyond history, art as a way of life. This summer’s exhibitions are a perfect illustration of this. One of the currently-running exhibitions is Niko Pirosmani (1862- 1918) Georgian artist running from the 4th of May until 20 August 2023. The exhibition is called "Black Light: Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918)",  also known as Niko Pirosmanashvili, was a renowned Georgian artist who lived from 1862 to 1918. He is considered one of the most important representatives of naïve or primitivist art and a cultural treasure for Georgian culture.

Pirosmani primarily painted scenes from everyday life, landscapes, animals, and portraits. His work is well known and beloved in his home country and is considered an integral part of Georgia's cultural heritage; however, Pirosmani is virtually unknown throughout the rest of the world. I had never heard of him until I stepped into Louisiana and was surprised by this exhibition, Black Light. Unknown to most art connoisseurs outside of Georgia, the Louisiana places an artist such as this in a broader context. This outsider artist is brought into the dialogue of the established global art conversation. How does Pirosmani’s work stand when put into a museum with modern and contemporary artists such as Warhol, Picasso and current exhibitions of current rising painters? As I like to say, curation is king. A well curated exhibition can challenge and broaden our perspectives. 

Niko Pirosmani, The Actress, Margarita, 1909. Photo by Delia Cabral

The very first thing that seized my attention was the vibrancy of the subjects of each painting, whether it was a woman standing looking boldly at you or a bear on a moonlit night, or a bustling village at dusk, for example “Fete of St. George in Bolnisi”. There is something haunting in each work. I understand why the exhibition is titled Black Light. Most of the paintings are painted on black backgrounds.

Pirosmani was a sign painter and a vagabond, he had no fixed abode and lived hand to mouth, and his resourcefulness led him to paint on black oilcloth. In the 18th century oilcloth was an inexpensive waterproof fabric made by treating canvas with linseed oil. This commonly used material, black oilcloth, became the base for many of Pirosmani paintings.  Pirosmani drew his subjects out from the dark. Despite his humble resources, he used oil paints to achieve depth and dimension, and convey the atmosphere and mood of his subjects.

Though mostly self-taught, Pirosmani was commissioned to paint a wide variety of subject matter, from portraits, to commercial signs. His paintings are direct and to the point, honest and unassuming, what you see is what you get… or is it? Take a portrait of a woman. On the bottom it reads, “The Actress, Margarita”. She stands in the centre of the canvas looking out to the viewer in her costume, a white ballerina-like dress, she is holding a bouquet, three yellow birds fluttering around her.

The painting is naïve: bold outlines, her proportions are not accurate, her shoulders slope straight off her head. Pirosmani was not concerned with technical accuracy; he depicted his idea of a woman, this woman. Then we discover this was not just any commission, this woman was his unrequited love. Looking at her again, that bouquet, a wedding bouquet? What about the yellow birds? This seemingly straightforward painting seems to intimate a love story, the facts we can only guess at. Then there is the painting he did of a large giraffe. Standing, taking up most of the canvas, black and white spots. Had he ever seen the actual animal? My guess is he may have only seen a black and white photograph somewhere, hence his giraffe is white with black spots. Again, Pirosmani painted his idea of giraffe; this one has a tear running down one eye. Is this a self portrait? We will never know for sure. 

Niko Pirosmani, Giraffe. Oil on waxcloth, 137.4 x 111.7 cm. The Collection of Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts of Georgia
© Infinitart Foundation

Most of Pirosmani’s paintings are less of a mystery and more of an account of Georgian culture and perspective. Pirosmani painted prominent patrons, janitors, musicians, which are featured prominently and occupy most of their canvases. He also depicted life in bustling settings with detailed cityscapes, trains filled with people under the night’s sky.

He lovingly depicts everyday life in Georgia in the early part of the 20th century. Pirosmani lived most of his life in Tbilisi, and at the turn of the 20th century this was the capital of the Tiflis Governorate in the Russian Empire. It was an important cultural, political, and economic centre in the region. This was a vibrant and busy city, The Tbilisi cityscape featured a blend of styles influenced by Persian, European, and local Georgian traditions. The architecture was characterised by its colourful houses with ornate balconies and distinctive wooden carvings. The museum’s exhibition also houses black and white photographs showing Tbilisi, a fantastical and densely layered city with spires, domes, intricate bridges and roads. This was Pirosmani’s stage. 

How does Pirosmani’s work fit into the bigger curatorial landscape of The Louisiana? Pirosmani’s paintings are very much at home in the Louisiana museum under the same roof as works by other artists that also had a commercial drive behind their work and used this as a catalyst to engage the general and paying public. Take for example Andy Warhol, American 1928-1987.

Warhol, like Pirosmani, has also painted his subjects with bold outlines, using eye-dazzling colour; he featured his subjects centre stage; a portrait of the infamous and prominent Mao and the iconic Marilyn Monroe amongst many known and now iconic characters and cultural themes. A century later we can see how two artists employed their way with colour and simplistic images to shape the way we see the cultures from whence they came. It is a great experience to muse through the museum galleries and gardens and appreciate how the Louisiana’s permanent collection adds surprise and context to the varied and interesting temporary exhibitions.

In the words of Dana Schutz American (B 1976), who was also recently featured with her thought-provoking exhibition Between Us, “The thing about art is it affords us to… make and remake meaning”. Every time we look at a great painting, a great sculpture, a great museum. WM


Delia Cabral

Delia Cabral is a curator and an international art dealer, as well as an art critic and writer. As an innovative leader in the art world for 20 years, Cabral cultivated her access to an international network of arts professionals and institutions. Having built a reputation in Los Angeles, CA as a gallery owner (Founder, DCA Fine Art), Cabral consistently gained attention for mounting dynamic and critically acclaimed exhibitions. Now based in London Cabral’s experience as an international entrepreneur informs a unique skill set which enables her to access art from global cutting edge to privately held sought after historical works. As a passionate writer and member of the British National Union of Journalists, Cabral is always looking for what’s next in art. 




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