Petre Otskheli and Georgian Modernism

Petre Otskheli, one of the most important representatives of Georgian Modernism, was born in 1907 into a wealthy Kutaisi family. At that time, Kutaisi was a city where the theater and several gymnasiums functioned alongside the cinema. In 1913 the Otskheli family moved to Moscow, where Petre's father began to run a broadcloth factory.


The Otskheli family took great interest in the care of all four children. They were brought up under the supervision of a French tutor, and were enrolled at a French school. The children often attended theater performances – a fact which significantly influenced the formation of Petre’s inner universe. 


This happened at the beginning of the 20th century – an era of great political, social, intellectual, and aesthetic changes, when in parallel with social and technological innovations, various art movements were born. The foundation was laid for a new form of artistic thinking - Modernism. In the history of art (namely, in the realm of painting) this period is known as one of the most fruitful, marked with new discoveries that reflected the ongoing social processes. The accelerated rhythm of life and obsolescence of existing ideals led to a reassessment of the established norms and conventional forms imposed by classical art. This was a direct rejection of academic, representational art, where the principle of presenting reality was replaced by self-expression. It is no coincidence that the theater became a kind of laboratory of the avant-garde. Along with Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavski, the theater welcomed innovators like Meyerhold and Marjanishvili. Naturalism and earthliness were replaced by symbolism and conditionality, paving the way for artists who became engaged in conducting bold spatial, constructivist, and colorful experiments. In the 1910s and 1920s, Moscow’s theater performances were decorated by distinguished artists of the modernist era. It is a known fact that after having watched a performance, Petre made sketches in his notebooks.


After the October Revolution of 1917, the Otskheli family property was confiscated, and as a result the family was forced to return to Georgia in 1920. In 1925, Petre enrolled at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts (he left after a year), where he studied under the guidance of Joseph Charlemagne and Eugene Lanceray. In 1927, the 20-year-old Petre Otskheli produced designs for the play “Fire Starters” at the Workers’ Theatre, and with his unusual, very bold, and completely original scenography captured the interest of Kote Marjanishvili, the then already renowned Georgian theater director and reformer.

Petre Otskheli. Decoration sketch of the play - Lunacharsky "Firemen", Tbilisi, Workers' Theater, 1927. Director - V. Abashidze. Paper, gouache, watercolor.  Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch for the play Karl Gutzkow "Hurriel Acosta" (1929) Director - K.Marjanishvili. Paper, pencil, watercolor. 25,5x13,5 cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

In 1929, Kote Marjanishvili entrusted the young artist with the decoration of his perhaps most important performance, “Uriel Acosta.” After the resounding victory of the play, Otskheli's life became closely involved with Marjanishvili and the theater – the universe that turned into an integral part of his existence. 


Otskheli’s deep understanding of dramaturgy demonstrated his creative range. The artist expressed the inner universe of a protagonist so accurately that the visuals he produced actually prompted the director’s style of performance. 


The costume sketches he created are as diverse as the dramaturgy itself. The contour is at times stern, straight, and sharp (The Robbers, 1932), and at others so stylish that it clearly shows the protagonist’s character through exaggerated gestures (Beatrice Chenchi, 1930). Otskheli manages to manifest the spaciousness and texture of a fabric thanks to the use of just two or three modest colors. The vertical folds emphasize the rigidity of the costume (Uriel Acosta, 1929). In other cases, to the contrary - the amazing flow of a line is dynamic and plastic, merging the colorful texture of a costume and its contour with the body (The Whites, 1930), thus affording the figure maximum expression and artistry.

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch for the play 0 D. Shengelaia "Whites''. Tbilisi, K. Marjanishvili Theater, 1930. Director - K. Marjanishvili. Paper, pencil, watercolor 28x32.8cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch for the play Henrik Ibsen "Master Builder" (1931) Moscow Theater. Director - K.Marjanishvili. Paper, pencil, watercolor, mascara. 30x19 cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch for the play Henrik Ibsen "Master Builder" (1931) Moscow Theater. Director - K.Marjanishvili. Paper, pencil, watercolor, mascara. 30x19 cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Otskheli’s stage design sketches are generalized. For example, for the play “Joy Street” (1932), he opted for an avant-garde style - Constructivism. Rejecting volume and perspective, diagonal fragments of the script or other geometric elements are used interchangeably on the surface of a conditional façade to create vertical and horizontal modes. Otskheli's only work for the cinema is also marked by its expressive character and boundless imagination. These are sketches of interiors and costumes for the movie “Flying Painter” (1936). The full-length superhero, who is dressed in a fantastic costume and presents a confident, benevolent aviator, has become one of the most memorable creations and a business card of the artist.

Petre Otskheli. Decoration sketch of the play N. Zarkhi "Joy Street" (unrealized), Kutaisi Theater 1932. Director - A. Chkhartishvili. Paper, watercolor, gouache. 29.9x40.3cm.  Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch of the play F. Schiller "Robbers" (unrealized) Tbilisi, K. Marjanishvili Theater, 1932. Director - K. Marjanishvili. Paper, pencil, gouache 39x20 cm; Art Palace of Georgia Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. “Etude” - 1932. Paper, pencil, watercolor, mascara. 32x40,3 cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Petre Otskheli. Costume sketch for a film  'Winged Painter' (1936) Director - Leo Esakia. Paper, pencil, watercolor. 43,3 x 31,7 cm. Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History

Clearly his work is not only limited to scenography: it constitutes independent, high-ranking works of fine art. Peter Otskheli was a versatile artist on a constant quest for different directions. Some of his works are abstract, some constructivist, expressionist or symbolic, and thus all the characteristics of Modernism are united in one. He established his own aesthetic with its depth, dramatism and light irony in line with his life and its tragic finale.


In 1939, when the works of Petre Otskheli were awarded a Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Stage Design in London, the artist had already been dead for two years. He fell victim to the Stalinist repressions of 1937, being punished for free thinking in a totalitarian country where people of his kind were simply executed. 



Lelo Chichinadze                                                                                                                                              

Art historian

Biographical highlights:

1907 – Petre Otskheli was born in Kutaisi into the catholic family of entrepreneur Grigol Otskheli. 

1913 – the Otskheli family moves to Moscow. 

1917 – In the aftermath of the October Revolution, the Otskheli family property was confiscated. 

1920 – the Otskheli family returns to Georgia. Petre enrolls at a Kutaisi school, and in parallel attends drawing classes at a creative studio under the tutelage of Ivane Cheishvili. 

1925 – Petre Otskheli moves to Tbilisi. 

1926-27 – Studies at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, taught by Joseph Charlemagne and Eugene Lanceray. 

1927 – Petre Otskheli decorates his first performance “Fire Starters” at the Workers’ Theater in Tbilisi. 

1928 – Painter of the Kote Marjanishvili Kutaisi-Batumi State Theater. The young artist produced the stage designs and costumes for Kote Marjanishvili’s “Uriel Acosta.” 

1930 – Painter of the Kote Marjanishvili State Drama Theater, Tbilisi. 

1931 – Invited to the Korsh Theater in Moscow, together with Kote Marjanishvili. 

1932 – Works  at the Kutaisi and Tbilisi Theaters. 

1934-1935 – Decorates performances at different theaters in Moscow. 

1936 – Painter of the movie “Flying Painter,” Sakhkinmretsvi, Tbilisi. 

1937 – Konstantin Stanislavski organizes a competition of theater decorators for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto.” The work submitted by Petre Otskheli is awarded first prize, and K. Stanislavski invites him for cooperation on the design of the opera performance. 

1937 – Otskheli is arrested in Moscow and accused of being a member of a Trotskyist counter-revolutionary organization. He is sentenced to death, and the sentence is summarily carried out. 

1939 – International Exhibition of Stage Design, London: Petre Otskheli was posthumously awarded a Gold Medal.