Georgian Artist Niko Chocheli, of the Chocheli School of Fine Art in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, shares a selection of masterpieces he saw as a teenager. Growing up in Soviet-occupied Georgia meant Chocheli could only travel within the Soviet bloc to view art. Here’s how viewing those artworks shaped his understanding of art.
When I was very young, my parents would take me to great museums. I already loved art, well enough that it was my life, but now I needed to know how it was all done and who these great artists were that I’d been so inspired by.
Both my parents were traditionally trained artists, so they knew and understood how important it was for me to understand and to appreciate the tradition. They knew that I needed to meet these people in person, so to speak, to see the original art in front of me. I had many art books, but a reproduction cannot really do what a real painting can.
Seeing a Masterpiece, ‘You Feel Life’
I first encountered great paintings at The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Many great masters’ paintings are there, and for an impressionable young artist, it was like entering a paradise—a garden of Eden.
In my early teens, Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” was a painting that struck me. It is a remarkable painting. When you look at it, you see the father is depicted as blind. He’s old and feeble, and his son has returned home after squandering everything. His father disregards all of his son’s transgressions, his mistakes, and all he wants is to just embrace him and welcome him and say: “Welcome, you were lost and now you’re found.”
The painting is so wonderful, so beautiful, and so warm. You just have to look at the hands of the father; he’s blind, but he feels his son’s shoulders—his son is home. He has his head buried in his father’s chest. It is so powerful and so moving.
This is one thing with great masterpieces: You forget that they are painted. You feel life, you feel the real thing, and you experience it as if you are there.
When artists try to show off their skills and techniques, that’s remarkable, that’s commendable, but it’s not the whole deal. It’s just the beginning. The masters knew how to paint and draw and then tried very hard to hide and remove all the technical things in order to portray real life. That’s why great paintings look so sincere and almost spontaneous that you feel like they were not hard work to paint at all; in reality, it’s very hard work to hide the hard work.
When you stand in front of a masterpiece, you don’t think of the techniques: the brushstrokes, lines, and crosshatching. You look at how well it’s been painted. Of course, it’s all there. But just as in real life, when you look at a person or an object, you don’t look inside of it and its workings. You see what strikes you the best and the strongest.
I stood in front of this painting, and I felt I was in front of the real thing.
Awakening to a Neighborhood of Color
I was slightly older when I saw Francisco Goya’s painting “The Young/The Letter,” at The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, but still maybe in my mid-teens.
It was an exhibit from the Palace of Fine Arts of Lille in France, which has wonderful great masters’ collections and wonderful Flemish masters like Rubens.
The painting is of a woman reading a letter, with a little attendant holding a big umbrella over the lady’s head. There’s a little dog in front of them, and it looks like washerwomen in the background.
This painting was hung in the center of the exhibition, and what struck me was the black skirt of the woman reading the letter. I’ve never seen anything so powerful. It was so black, and so strong, that all the masterpieces surrounding the painting were put in a kind of shadow; they all looked as if they were fading away. I couldn’t see anything else but this picture.
Of course, as a young and impressionable artist, I wanted to learn how in the world Goya did it. My mind was racing: He had all these pigments; he had all these exceptional traditions and wonderful materials that we’ll probably never have. He probably had the best black in the world.
I went up close to see that black skirt, and how surprised I was: I found every color but black. Black was there, but it was not predominant. It was dark reds and purples. That’s when I learned what painting was all about in terms of understanding that it’s not one perfect color; it’s a neighborhood. It’s what is next to it that makes a color become what it should be.
The woman’s chest was painted a brilliant white, which, of course, wonderfully contrasts with the black. And the black wonderfully contrasts the white. Everything was, in a way, choreographed together. That’s how this black became so powerful. I said to myself: This is Goya’s secret and how he achieved it. He didn’t have any magical materials; he had wisdom, and that’s when I actually learned what painting is. This glorious painting was a kind of awakening for me.
Painting With Joy
Then there was a big exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg by The National Gallery in London. I saw a Frans Hals painting of a young man holding a skull. It’s a wonderful painting that’s painted with such flair and such brushwork that it looks like he’s singing. In that painting I saw joy.
That’s when I learned that masters were not just people who sit in dusty old studios and paint serious paintings to scare you off, but they have joy. They love beauty, they celebrate their discoveries, and they are not inhibited by anything.
To find out more about Niko Chocheli’s art and the Chocheli School of Fine Art, visit NikoChocheli.com
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.