About the Artist

Awards & Honors














The Making of a Nonconformist Artist

Vladimir Kandelaki's art has been shaped es­pecially by his proud Georgian heritage and the many tragic and dramatic upheavals which affected him and his family and their native Georgia during the revolu­tion, civil war and three quarters of a century of So­viet oppression. These circumstances reinforced an independent and rebellious streak in Kandelaki's char­acter which sustained and motivated him in Soviet Georgia and, more recently, here in the United States.

Kandelaki's heritage, while primarily Geor­gian, was closely intertwined with the history and culture of St. Petersburg which was, until the over­throw of the Tsar in 1917, the center of Russian im­perial power. After its founding by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg's centripetal forces reached out into the provinces and drew them into its orbit. Many high ranking Georgian families, such as the Bagration, Chavchavadze, Cholokashvili and Orbeliani families, became heavily involved in the Tsar's court and in the military, administrative, and cultural life of the city and the empire.

For Kandelaki his Russian heritage came pri­marily through his two Russian grandmothers both of whom grew up in St. Petersburg. His paternal grand­mother, Maria Alexandrovna Kolachova, daughter of a hereditary orthodox priest, was born and educated in St. Petersburg. After the revolution she retreated with her husband, Vladimir Kandelaki's grandfather, to Tbilisi. Kandelaki's maternal grandmother, Maria Nikolaevna Ivkova, was born to a noble family in St. Petersburg. Her mother's family estate, "Babushkino," bordered on the Pushkin estate in the Pskov region. Her husband, Vladimir Antonovich Vinitskii, Vladimir Kandelaki's materal grandfather, was born in Tbilisi and showed considerable artistic talent. He was trained, however, as a cadet in the Junker School in Tbilisi before studying in the Artillery-Engineering Academy in St. Petersburg. By the 1917 revolution he had achieved the rank of colonel in the Russian army and was a Knight of the St. George Cross. Dur­ing the Civil War he served in General Denikin's head­quarters staff and, after the White Army's defeat, he settled with his family in Georgia. He later became the director of the Batumi Technological School and chief engineer of the Adjaria region where he built several important bridges before being repeatedly ar­rested in the early 1930's due to his earlier affiliation with Denikin's army. He died unexpectedly in a prison infirmary in 1936.

Kandelaki's paternal grandfather, Valerian Andreevich Kandelaki, also was extensively involved in St. Petersburg's activities. He was born in Kutaisi in the western part of Georgia when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Imeretia and a lively cultural cen­ter which produced classics of Georgian poetry Galaktion Tabidze and Georgian music Zakharia Paliashvili, as well as Vladimir Mayakovski, the tal­ented Russian poet. After finishing the gymnasium there, he entered the University of St. Petersburg. Fol­lowing his graduation, he taught Russian, Greek, Latin, and history in a St. Petersburg gymnasium before transferring to one in nearby Gatchino where Tsar Nicholas II had his summer residence. Later he was appointed inspector of the Alexander 111 Technical School in St. Petersburg, named a court counselor and decorated with a number of medals. After the 1917 revolution he and his family, along with almost the entire Georgian community of St. Petersburg, fled to Georgia in the Kandelaki's case first to Kutaisi and then to Tbilisi in the early 1920's where Valerian was appointed director of the first Georgian leading school No.55. He died of natural causes in 1936 thereby escaping the fate of many of his colleagues who died in Stalin's great purges in the following year.

Kandelaki's father, Andro Valerianovich Kandelaki, was born in Gatchino in the outskirts of St. Petersburg in 1916 and left for Georgia with his parents in 1918 as a result of the Revolution. He spent his first years in Kutaisi where he studied architec­ture in the Railway Technikum. Although Andro had shown great artistic talent as a boy and as a student in the technikum's architecture program, he entered the Tbilisi Institute of Railway Transport where he re­ceived his degree in 1940 just prior to the outbreak of World War II.

While at the Institute he continued to develop his artistic talents and began to contribute caricatures and political cartoons to satirical journals such as Niangi, the Georgian equivalent of the Russian jour­nal Krokodil. This work provided him with valuable on-the-job training which served him well when he was drafted into the army in 1941. His satirical draw­ings and political cartoons soon began to appear on the pages of various Soviet army publications. When he resumed to Tbilisi for a month's leave to visit his wife in October of 1942, he resumed work for Niangi as well as for other periodicals before returning to the front. Andro's wife, Natalia Vinitskaya Kandelaki, was born and grew up in Tbilisi. As a student, she wanted to accomplish her French, what she had known from a childhood, but was advised by her relatives to enter the Agricultural Institute in order to "blend" with the proletariat for safety. She was never employed in ag­ricultural work but devoted herself during the war to nursing and to her family.

It was into this dramatic and tragic multicultural but largely Georgian heritage that Vladimir Kandelaki was born a Gemini to Andro and Natalia in Tbilisi on June 4, 1943, at the height of World War II. Fortunately the Germans had been turned back at Stalingrad and in the North Caucasus and, therefore, never achieved their goal of occupy

ing Georgia. As Vladimir grew up in the years fol­lowing the war, his own artistic interests were stimu­lated by his father's work as a caricaturist and car­toonist who dealt in a politically orthodox fashion with the various events of his time. Meanwhile, his mother, Natalia Vinitskaya-Kandelaki, and grandmother, Maria Ivkova, stimulated young Vladimir's imagina­tion with tales of Georgian and Russian folklore and past heroic deeds, as well as with selected readings in European and American literature. From 1956 to 1963, Kandelaki attended the prestigious Nikoladze Art School in Tbilisi and then entered the highly respected Tbilisi State Academy of Arts where he won a num­ber of special awards as a young artist and was recog­nized for outstanding work six years running in re­public-wide competitions. In 1966, when only 23 years old, he was selected out of a large field of older and highly respected artists to do the illustrations for the 800th anniversary of the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli, and to participate in a special exhibition.

As an artist and as a person, Vladimir Kandelaki owes much not only to his father and fam­ily but also to the outstanding Georgian painter Sergo Kobuladze, who was considered one of the best illus­trators of Shakespeare and whose art was recognized in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another artist who had a significant influence on Kandelaki and his work was the Russian, artist Vasili Shukaev who had been a member of the avant-garde artists' group Mir Iskusstvo in St. Petersburg. Much later, having been "sent to the provinces," Shukaev spent a number of years teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tbilisi where Kandelaki was one of his prize students.

Kandelaki's first solo exhibition was arranged in Tbilisi just after his graduation from the Academy in 1971 by Merani, one of Georgia's largest publish­ing houses. A reviewer of the exhibition noted favor­ably that this was Kandelaki's "first step into the world of great art-a step that is firm and certain." From 1972 to 1975, Kandelaki was given several solo exhibitions in Moscow and its environs-at the Central House for Soviet Writers (more than 100 works), at the exhibi­tion hall of Smena magazine, and at the House for Scientists in Dubna, an important site for research on the atomic bomb. Russian critics praised the "originality of Kandelaki's imaginative thinking based sol­idly on a fine academic grounding."

Later in the 1970's and 1980's there were solo and group exhibitions of his art in Poland, Finland, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Japan, Cuba, Canada, and the United States ( New York City and Washington, B.C. in 1976). Sadly Soviet travel re­strictions prevented Kandelaki from attending any of these exhibitions with the exception of those in Fin­land where he participated in the 7th Finnish-Soviet Youth Friendship Camp. His exhibition at the camp attracted considerable interest prior to its traveling to several Finnish cities. Articles he wrote for Finnish publications indicated how important this experience in Finland was in opening his eyes, exposing him to new ideas and enriching his artistic imagination.

While Kandelaki was enjoying increasing rec­ognition at home and abroad and official acceptance or, at least, toleration by the art authorities and politi­cal watchdogs, the suffocating atmosphere of the Brezhnev "stagnation" and the continuing repression of artistic freedom was affecting him and other inde­pendent and creative young Georgian artists. In this atmosphere of repression, Kandelaki's dangerous fam­ily history and his choice of Georgian historical and religious themes as well as ambiguous or satirical sub-

ject matter made him suspect 10 uuin iviumu Georgian communist party officials. Those in Mos­cow were particularly disturbed by Kandelaki's na­tionalistic tendencies while the Georgian communist officials, who tended to sympathize with these pro-Georgian sentiments, were suspicious of Kandelaki's mocking of the endless and meaningless communist ceremonies and his critical allusions to restrictions on individual freedom by the Soviet regime.

This form of double jeopardy was also a prob­lem for nonconformist artists in other outlying repub­lics such as neighboring Armenia as well as in Esto­nia, Latvia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. In these republics, with their distinctive foreign languages and cultures and histories of Russian and Soviet oppres­sion, art which might be stylistically acceptable to Soviet authorities at the center could be rejected lo­cally because it was thought to promote undesirable "formalism" or western influences. On the other hand, local national pride and the struggle for some degree of independence from Moscow by local art authori­ties lead to an acceptance in Moscow of deviations from the Socialist realist norm on the ground of per­mitting cultural diversity. In this way national cultural and other differences might provide a degree of pro­tective cover from distant Moscow controls. In these republics almost all of the best and some of the most independent artists, like Kandelaki, were members of the artists' union of their republic. These artists ex­hibited at home and even abroad. Although many were respected teachers in art schools, as was Kandelaki, certain of their works were noticeably provocative and were refused exhibition or had to be altered for ac­ceptance. Each of these artists had to decide just how far he or she would go in provoking the wrath of the authorities. As a consequence, some of the best works were never offered for exhibition and teachers often succumbed to self-censorship in order to avoid trouble or even the loss of their jobs.

Kandelaki did not seek to be identified as a nonconformist artist despite his conviction that he was born with such a mandate as a consequence of the tragic experiences of his parents, his grandparents and of his own generation. In his youth, his rebellion found expression in a variety of ways—sometimes childish and often outrageous and dangerous. One example comes from his time as a student at the Tbilisi Acad­emy of Fine Arts. The faculty of the Academy could be divided into two groups, those who loved art and creative freedom and those who held that artistic ex­pression must be subverted to the needs of the state. Those in the latter group were, of course, communist officials. Every year students of the Academy were obliged to participate in the parade on November 7th that commemorated the October Revolution. In 1964, Kandelaki failed to attend. The following day, as he arrived at the hall where a special party for students of the Academy was being held as part of the Novem­ber 7th celebration, he was accosted by the First Sec­retary of the Komsomol organization who announced loudly that Kandelaki was not permitted to partici­pate in the party because of his absence from the pa­rade. Kandelaki was at first hurt and ashamed and left immediately. However, the next day after brooding about the episode he impetuously sought out the First Secretary in his Red Corner office and slapped him

about the face, reddening his nose and cheeks. This very nearly ended Kandelaki's career as an art stu­dent. He was saved from disaster only through some high level intervention by a number of supportive pro­fessors from the first group who prevailed over the second group. As a consequence, Kandelaki achieved a fabled status at the Academy for his daring and very risky act.

Another incident involved Kandelaki and a small group of his nonconformist artist friends who were always ready to resist or even criticize commu­nist officialdom. During an All-Union symposium of Soviet artists, producers, poets, actors and architects in Bakuriani in 1977, members of this group re­proached communist officials for persecuting artists who attempted to show their avant-garde or ironic Sotsart-style paintings in public exhibitions. In the face of this criticism officials hastily disbanded the sym­posium hoping to prevent further trouble and avoid negative publicity. These events did not escape the notice of the Voice of America, however, which reported on them in its broadcasts. Unfortunately this international exposure did not shield Kandelaki's group from retribution. For a long time the members were neither allowed to participate in local, republic-wide or all-union exhibitions nor to make purchases in the official state-run art supply stores. With such tactics communist art officials were able to carefully manipulate and repress the creative impulses of So­viet artists.

Despite Kandelaki's disparaging attitude to­ward the Communist Party and its restrictions on ar­tistic freedoms, his many awards and other honors-both domestic and international-made him one of the "elect" whom the Party hoped would grace its mem­bership. Although the Party asked him to join numer­ous times, he always demurred, saying facetiously that he didn't have the money for the membership fees and that he had not yet matured enough to warrant the honor.

As the eighties arrived:, the critical content in Kandelaki's art became more evident and telling. Ex­amples of his subversive and satirical digs at party or government bureaucrats are paintings depicting bro­ken down military equipment and stalled party ve­hicles carrying propaganda banners in patriotic pa­rades. Later, shortly before the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were promulgated, Kandelaki made prescient sketches and paintings of elaborate and pre­carious "Houses of Cards" which symbolized the un­stable Soviet system on the verge of collapse. Even more threatening to his status as a politically accept­able and respected teacher of art were his veiled criticisms of the system in 1986 and in following years expressed by the cruel constraint of gorgeous peacocks imprisoned in chain-link cages. These lovely birds, classical symbols of freedom, clearly represented the suffering Georgian people confined in the Soviet Rus­sian cage-but sometimes Kandelaki's paintings showed a cage with a ragged hole torn in it suggest­ing some hope for the peacock's ultimate escape to freedom. 

Norton Dodge
Profesor Emeritus
St. Mary's College of Maryland 


Vladimir Kandelaki: Between Two Cultures

Georgia is an ancient kingdom, with a long his­tory of Christianity and an equally treasured tradi­tion of religious tolerance. Of the sixty synagogues remaining in the former Soviet Union in 1988, more than half were in Georgia. Here, in the Caucasus mountains, the audacious Prometheus challenged the power of the gods, and was chained to a hillside and tortured. Here knighthood took on as important a role in history and folklore as it did in medieval Europe through the writings of the poet Shota Rustaveli. Here, in the mountains and gorges of Tusheti, Osetia, Abkhazia, Kaheti and Guria, European culture and Asian influence are both felt in the life style of the people, and in the architecture and ornament of the buildings.

From his Georgian heritage then, the artist Vladimir Kandelaki, draws a self-image of pride and individual responsibility, and a rich and complex vi­sual vocabulary. Georgians have a sophisticated aes­thetic, literary, military and culinary culture that has survived attack both from foreign conquest and the seventy-four year siege of socialist dogma.

From his mother and grandmother, who fed his imagination with Georgian history, and folktales and literature of old Russia, Kandelaki learned an expan­sive and expressive way of synthesizing imagery and information. From the use of images in his Russian Orthodox religious background, the artist learned a highly structured mode of presentation. In an early group of paintings, represented in the exhibition by Georgian Life, the structure of society and the cus­toms which hold it together are portrayed almost rev­erently. A hierarchy of importance is established by place in a kind of secular altar screen. A "madonna and child" are at the compositional core of the paint­ing, on the top rank of the images. Their proximity to the hearth, the center of the home, is no accident. It is a metaphor for their joint importance in traditional Georgian society. And, as in the traditional altar screen, events and customs that are defined by the temporal world are relegated to the lower ranks of the panel.

In a later group of panoramic paintings, Kandelaki combines images of festival, celebration, children's games and occupational routine on the streets and pla­zas of old Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city. They are cher­ished memories, apparently structured by the wind­ing streets and alleys, but they too are carefully orga­nized.

In these paintings, scale is important both to design and to symbolism. Objects dominate human activity: gigantic squashes, fruits and ears of corn are carried on horsedrawn wagons through the foreground of the paintings; massive wine bottles and jugs dwarf and sometimes replace buildings, a huge meat bone commands the attention of guests at a convivial din­ner table, and a paper airplane larger than an air trans­port glides over the city. Interspersed among family rituals and seasonal festivals, small vignettes of daily routine activate the composition: children's games with barrel staves and slingshots, itinerant knife sharp­eners, and coppersmiths hammering out great pots for the hearth.

These large canvases have a kind of choral quality, many voices of different color, range and strength, unified by a melody that all the members of the cho­rus have known for centuries and sing without refer­ence to a score.

Kandelaki's "Georgian" paintings are nostalgic, but they are also optimistic; they are suffused with light and are full of symbols of hope and strength. The Geor­gian "Christmas tree", the chichilaki, is made of wood shavings. It sits in a window, set against a sunlit snowscape over a traditional Georgian balcony. It is surrounded by seeds, beans and preserved fruits. It is an ensemble of hope, perhaps a way for the artist to reassure himself of a personal and national rebirth.

The Caged Peacock is a mixed message, a meta­phor for sadness and stubborn pride, a statement of personal frustration, but a collective one as well. Kandelaki's countrymen, the writers, say "This beau­tiful peacock is Georgia, confined in a cage. But even there behind the bars, the divine rays of real and sub­conscious hope, do penetrate."

Kandelaki was, like many of his colleagues in the former Soviet Union, a member of the Artists' Union. As such, he had an official face and an unofficial one, and came to learn the meaning of "stagnation" (as the era of Brezhnev came to be known) all too well. His paintings of Georgia were collected for major muse­ums throughout the Soviet Union, but they were viewed by many officials, both in Moscow and Tbilisi, as reactionary. He was viewed by some as too nostal­gic, too nationalistic.

As Kandelaki began to ponder the relationship of Georgia to the Soviet system and considered the suf­focation of his own creative expression, his subject matter and mood changed dramatically. Ilyich 's Lamp is ostensibly another memory of school days when the artist was taught that electricity came to the Soviet Union thanks to the wisdom and leadership of Vladimir "Ilyich" Lenin. In fact, Lenin's transparent image on the huge and fragile light bulb, while cen­tral to the composition, is ignored by the people in the painting. They go about their daily routine: talk­ing, drinking, playing, having already recognized the sham of propaganda.

In the painting called simply Composition, the emptiness of socialist sloganeering and ceremony is evoked by a parade in which masses of faceless people carry large red banners, void of message. Interspersed in the crowds are monuments of hands, gesturing rudely in defiance of authority.

As he looked at what Communism did for his be­loved Georgia, he created two paintings: one, a paint­ing of Spring which serenely portrays Christian and pre-Christian symbols of re-birth, colored Easter eggs and sprouts dominate; the other, Soviet Spring, is simi­larly composed, but depicts muddy roads, rutted by April rains. The most obvious features of this paint­ing are a Soviet truck, broken down, its driver de­feated and a work crew paralyzed by the immensity of the tasks.

Small studies focus on individual animals, sym­bols of human insecurity. A small snail creeps on a road through an immense space, isolated and vulner­able. His journey is long and his present is uncertain. A slow moving turtle is trapped behind a maze of walls. While there may be a way out, the exit is hid­den and the route demands the patience and tenacity of the legendary tortoise.

While many of Kandelaki's paintings are eerily prophetic of the demise of Communism and the inse­curity of the individual in its wake, the most powerful image is House of Cards. A childhood game becomes an allegory for the precarious foundation of the So­viet system. The sunlight of the Georgian paintings turns here to inescapable gloom. The weight of red stars and banners, hammers and sickles, and even the fragile Lenin light bulb of Ilyich's Lamp threatens the ephemeral structure, and a huge, empty bottle of vodka completes the pessimism of the scene. The immense house of cards will bury jnany when it collapses.

Since his arrival in the United States in 1990, Kandelaki has maintained his Georgian pride and in­dependence, though his experience with Americans has not always been positive. His journey to the land of rugged individualism has been a "trial by fire." He has found this country both fascinating and infuriat­ing, strangely new, and too large and unwieldy to syn­thesize quickly on canvas. All the while, though, he has been studying the details of the city: row house architecture of the city, tiny gardens with fig trees, the contrast between public spaces and private ones, and the colors of our Autumn and Halloween cos­tumes, Christmas lights, and Philadelphia's Mummers finery. He is gradually taking it all in.

In Halloween, Kandelaki has harkened back to a familiar image in the jack-o-lantern. The "great pumpkin" which dominates the canvas is a benign be ing, a Georgian harvest symbol, which seems imbued with the magic of Cinderella's carriage as it transforms the young ghosts and goblins who accompany it. It is telling that, even though the painting is nocturnal, light has returned to Kandelaki - whose name in Georgian means "candle." 

Thora Jacobson
Director of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial in
Philadelphia, January 1992