Since the 1930s hued mosaics have illustrated the Soviet life - from governmental buildings to large apartment blocks, from train stations to gargantuan factories, the tiny, colorful fragments portrayed the beautiful life and the bright future that the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was creating, for the people and through the people. Those times are long gone and those collages are fading, like the memory of the life they portrayed.
The mosaic on one of the external walls of Kutaisi’s electromechanic factory heralds workers in the process of developing the power of (then) modern technologies. The factory mainly manufactured oil pumps. The facade started crumbling in the 1990s due to lack of maintenance.
Mosaics started to decorate Moscow’s metro in the 1930s and by the 1960s they became a common feature across the Soviet Union, a colorful trait of the Soviet storytelling - on schools, they depicted smiling Soviet pioneers, on factories, stern-looking Soviet workers, and in the kolkhoz, cheerful Soviet farmers.
Radish Tordia, one of the famous Georgian artists in his generation, is among those who authored the mural decorating the Technical University metro station in Tbilisi in 1979. It’s the only mosaic art he has ever worked on. Now 80, Tordia still keeps the original drafts on the wall of his office. “It was a lengthy, bureaucratic process,” he recalls.
“When I represented my drafts to the Artists Council, the chair didn’t like my ideas and requested me to draw fist, a gun and bayonet in detail to make the mosaic a more revolutionary piece of art. But the metro station was between the Polytechnical University and a park, and my drawings had already been accepted by lower-ranking councils. These places were very far from the idea of revolution, so I refused to develop those details.”
The mural in the hall of the metro station by the Technical University (former Polytechnic University) in Tbilisi is unique as it combines mosaics and sculptures made with Schamotte clay. Tordia worked with his partners, Iden Tabidze and Apolon Kharebava, masters of mosaics and sculpture.
“The color fragments are made with enamel (სმალტა) which we received from Moscow. However, we were sent only nine colors, and my draft features many more. We had to mix the colors by burning the pieces. Eventually, we got 28 colors.”
Thousands of passengers walk past the artwork without pausing to look at it. The lack of proper upkeep and bad lightning worry Tordia. A thick layer of dust lays on the fragments’ colors.
“I’ve tried so hard, asked to so many people for mediation with the authorities to light my mosaic the way I had planned and it would shine in so many bright colors. But to no avail,” he says.
Nini Palavandishvili, 41, has been studying Soviet art for decades and is particularly fond of the mosaics. Alongside a few like-minded aficionados, the art curator and project manager at GeoAir, a Tbilisi-based organization that manages international cultural projects and runs a residence program, has organized a database of murals in Georgia on Google Maps. The directory maps out almost every remaining example of Soviet mosaics in the country. Nini underlines that mosaics were the street art of past times.
“They are the USSR street art and they were a particularly popular form of art in Georgia. It is difficult to say why exactly but between the 1960s and the 1980s mosaics became a common form to decorate facades,” she explains.
Palavandishvili maintains that the Soviet mosaics were not per-se propaganda: “I wouldn’t use the word “propaganda” in the case of this art form. I think that it was just a period when one had to go over many departments to carry out his idea. It was mainly a chance for artists to have some income and mosaics were a popular form in that period.”
In some cases, the colorful patchwork was an integral part of a project to build a specific building like in the case of Trade Union Cultural Centre (by Zurab Tsereteli, 1971 - 1973) and the Laguna Vere swimming complex (by Koka Ignatov, 1978) in Tbilisi. In both cases the plan was to have a giant mosaic on the facade.
In those cases, Palavandishvili points out, mosaics and architecture blend in and form a more organic structure. Where the murals have been added afterwards as a mean of ornating a building the result is less charming and meaningful.
The main concern for Palavandishvili as art curator and mosaic lover is is the conditions in which most of them are today. “It’s a fragile form of art. If a piece falls, others around it might follow them right away and whole picture can disappear in a short period of time. We’ve seen many examples and the government doesn’t do anything to preserve them. But this is our past, this is the history of social art in Georgia,” she comments.
The Octopus, a former cafe’ in Batumi, is one of the most famous tiled constructions in Georgia. It was designed by Georgian architect George Chakhava and painter and professor of Tbilisi State Academy of Arts Zurab Kapanadze, built by a group of professionals, including road engineer Paata Doborjginidze. Completed in 1975 on the Batumi sea boulevard, the landmark building rests on eight octopus arms with eight arched openings between them.
The structure of the building was created using special rods bent into complex shapes by hand, before the shapes were filled with a purposely-developed liquid glass material. The exteriors was decorated with shapes and mosaics representing sea scenes and creatures.
In 2014 fears that the neglected construction would be demolished drew a public call to preserve it. Palavandishvili was part of the community defending it and organized a photographic exhibition showcasing the Cafe’ Fantasy in its heydays. The building has been preserved but, to date, has not been restored yet.
The large tessellated wall as it looked in 2010 at the litophon factory in Kutaisi. The building and its mosaic was destroyed in 2014. The factory used to produce color paint for interior and exterior use, its blue vitriol was in a high demand. The factory worked exclusively with domestic minerals.