TSKALTUBO, Georgia – It was the year her husband died when Elene Chantladze stopped painting on rocks and started painting on paper.
She had just turned 50, and in her village in Tskaltubo, western Georgia, collecting stones – an object associated with death in Georgia – attracted unwanted attention following the death of her husband. “People would think I was crazy,” she said. “So I started drawing on whatever I could find: scraps of paper, pieces of cardboard, the back of a wall unit.”
In the wood paneled living room of her Tskaltubo cottage, the casual treatment of her many painted canvases resting along one wall along the floor belies the value of her work. At the age of 76, Chantladze carries the unlikely profile of a recently discovered artist who has just begun a career as an internationally acclaimed painter.
In 2012, Tbilisi-based Georgian artist Nino Sekhniashvili came across Chantladze and her work at an open-air art fair in Tskaltubo. Since then, Chantladze’s work has hung in galleries from Tbilisi to New York, and a selection of her paintings is currently on view in the group show Girls Girls Girls at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland.
Chantladze’s work itself is remarkable in its style. Colors are often muted, but even when they’re not, and a dash of cerise or mauve marks the canvas, it’s always naturalistic. With a blurred, impressionistic quality to the paintings, her subjects, invariably people and nature, are effortlessly captured. Nature is unfussy but somehow sublime, and scenes feel pure and unpretentious.
“It’s the honesty of her work that’s so interesting,” said Nika Lelashvili, gallery owner and partner at LC Queisser, the Tbilisi gallery representing Chantladze. “How raw it is, how emotional it is.”
Born in 1946 in Supsa, a Georgian port village on the Black Sea, Chantladze’s journey from nobleman’s daughter to widowed painter is both a tale of unlikely coincidences and provincial quintessence.
After a childhood spent with her brothers in the fields and rivers of western Georgia, Chantladze was forced to spend some of her later teenage years in hiding in Kutaisi. Bride kidnapping, illegal today, was widespread in Georgian villages at the time, and Chantladze was actively persecuted. However, when she came home from studying in Tbilisi, her mother was informed that she would be picked up that night. In Georgia bride-kidnapping, young women were kidnapped from their homes by a suitor, who would then often force the woman to marry him. Chantladze and her mother hitched a ride in a construction truck and immediately left town.
During her time in Kutaisi, men came to the house and offered to take her in. “Nobody asked me what I wanted,” she recalls from an armchair in her living room. Her home, a one-story detached cottage with vines growing in the garden, is typical of western Georgia. “I told my mother, ‘Take me away from here or I’ll just have to marry someone.'”
One of her paintings, a small canvas full of characters, depicts the alleged founding history of the western Georgian mountain town of Bakhmaro. Men in traditional mountain robes stand behind a fallen woman whose crimson has smeared her dress with crimson. “A man from Guria fell in love with a woman and took her to the mountains,” Chantladze said, referring to a story she read in a book on Georgian ethnography. “The woman’s family followed them. When they got to them, the man shot the woman so they couldn’t take her away from him. That’s what they called Bakhmaro. ‘Bakh’ is the sound Georgians use for a shot. ‘Maro’ was the woman’s name.”
Not all of Chantladze’s paintings are so ethnographic or local. Another painting, one on a large canvas, features Chantladze’s ubiquitous pastoral trope laced with tragedy. Children playing happily among flowers are dwarfed by the scene above: the image of children bathed in orange paint and trapped in a building engulfed in flames. Painted underneath is the word “Beslan,” the Russian city in the North Caucasus that was the scene of a terrorist attack on a school in 2004 that killed over 300 people, more than half of them children, and injured hundreds.
“When I’m happy, I don’t paint,” she said. “When I have insomnia or think of something focused, then I paint.”
Like many of her generation, Chantladze agreed to marry her husband before meeting him, the result of meeting and sympathizing with his mother. But it shouldn’t be. “We got married without love,” said Chantladze. “He would ask, ‘Do you love me?’ and I said, ‘No, I hate you.'” Sometimes he would throw her out of the house. Other times she would run away.
In the generation of Chantladze in Georgia, arranged and loveless marriages are the order of the day. It’s far rarer, however, for a widowed village grandmother in her 70s to become an internationally acclaimed artist, says Lelashvili. “I can’t think of any other examples like Elenes,” he said. Often responsible for looking after family and domestic life, it is indeed rare for women of Chantladze’s age to be publicly prominent in a country where patriarchy is so entrenched in all sections of society.
Although Chantladze is best known today for her paintings, she is also an avid writer of short stories and poetry. Discussing her writing, much of which she calls “humor,” means making both Chantladze and everyone in her company laugh. But there is also a poignancy in her writing and an abstract evocation of the natural world that so populates her paintings.
In Tbilisi, the small but vibrant contemporary art scene is open and flexible, making it a good fit for someone like Chantladze, who bucks many contemporary artistic trends in both her light-hearted work and profile. Posta Press, a Georgian publisher, printed a book of Chantladze’s paintings in 2019, with one side of the page a reprint of a painting and the other the back of the material she painted it on: used calendars, scrap paper, and pieces of cardboard.
Despite unfortunate periods, Chantladze enjoys the company of her two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom she now supports with the proceeds from the sale of paintings. “Powerful emotions have permeated every part of my life,” she said. “Sometimes I hated myself, but being discovered as an artist and having the kids around me gives me a reason to enjoy life more.”
Chantladze’s relationship with nature has a cyclical quality. Many of the memories she recalls are of a carefree childhood with her siblings, spending time in the woods and by the river.
“I love nature and kiss trees sometimes,” she giggles. “I planted a small plum and it grew into a tree. I planted a branch and something came of it. I plant things and they grow.”