Dimitri Shevardnadze – modernist artist, painter, stage designer and curator; founder of the museum management program in Georgia – along with being a well-known artist he represented a public figure who, in many aspects determined the cultural life of the country throughout 1920s and 1930s and made huge contribution into the establishment of the state museum collections of fine art in Georgia.
He was born in 1885 in the village of Bakhvi, Georgia. In 1906-1914 he lived in Munich, where he studied in the Art Academy. Upon his return to Georgia, in 1916 he founded and led the Association of Georgian Artists. Great is his contribution into the establishment of two main cultural institutions: the National Gallery of Fine Arts (1920) and the Tbilisi Academy of Arts (1922).
On his initiative, one of the areas of activity for the Georgian Society of Artists was the inventory and preservation of the national cultural heritage. In 1916 he organized scientific expeditions to explore unique frescoes of the Nabakhtevi and David Gareji monasteries. For this purpose he gathered together the best young artists of the time to copy frescoes and make sketches and measurements of the objects of architecture.
In 1917, together with Professor Ekvtime Takaishvili, he organized a scientific and artistic expedition to the historical southern parts of Georgia to study the monuments of the Tortum-Ispir valley and photograph the frescoes there.
In 1917, together with the brothers Ilya and Kirile Zdanevich, he organized the exhibition of Niko Firosmanashvili in his apartment.
In 1918, commissioned by Professor Ivane Javakhishvili, the rector of the university, he made sketches for the coat of arms of the Tbilisi State University – the newly founded first higher education institution in Georgia as well as banknotes of an independent country and the sketches for the postage stamps.
In 1920 Noe Zhordania, the head of the government of the Georgian Democratic Republic and Ekvtime Takaishvili, Professor and the Deputy Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of the democratic Republic of Georgia signed a decree establishing the Georgian National Gallery and transferring to the new institution the building of the former Temple of the Military Glory the former Russian imperial institution designed by Salzman,. The fact that culminated the long-term efforts by Dimitri Shevardnadze to achieve the goal of his life, preceded by a number of large-scale exhibitions, purchases, negotiations and expeditions.
As director of the newly established National Gallery, he organized the first major exhibition which brought together collections of Western European, Oriental and Georgian art purchased by his own efforts. He also established a gallery library and organized spring and autumn exhibitions of Georgian artists on the basis of which a group of talented young artists was sent to Europe to continue their studies.
Shevardnadze as a public figure remained very active after the Sovietization of the country. He didn’t flee but stayed in Georgia and spared no efforts to further develop the cultural institutions he helped to create.
In 1922 Tbilisi Academy of Arts was founded by the Decree of the People’s Commissars and it was Dimitri Shevardnadze who interceded before them for this cause.
Shevardnadze like all his contemporary artists paid special attention to the new form of art – cinema. He was a film set-designer for the first full-length Georgian feature film Christine (1918) and Who’s Guilty? (1930), both by Alexandre Tutsunava and Eliso by Nikoloz Shengelaia (1928).
In 1937, he was invited as an art director and consultant for the film Journey to Erzurum, dedicated to the jubilee of Alexander Pushkin. He was also in charge of decorating Tbilisi for this event.
Shevardnadze was also prolific in the field of scenography: he created scenic design for the opera performance Abesalom and Etheri (1924) adapted by Kote Marjanishvili, the modernist theatre director, Tamar the Sly, a five-act opera by Meliton Balanchivadze; he designed costumes for Shota Rustaveli, an opera performance composed by Dimitri Arakishvili and pantomime Mzetamze by the composer Tamar Vakhvakhishvili a set designer for which was Lado Gudiashvili. Mzetamze pantomime was first presented to public at the State Studio of Tbilisi Academic Theatre in 1926.
In 1933, Shevardnadze moved the collections of the Georgian National Gallery to the building of the abolished Metekhi prison and turned it into the Georgian Museum. On the basis of Metekhi museum the Georgian State museum of Fine Arts was subsequently established as well as the Institute of Art History.
In 1936, with the beginning of the period of Repressions, Dimitri Shevardnadze was dismissed from the post of Director of the Metekhi Museum. He is said to have said a year before his arrest: “I am not afraid of anything because I am not guilty of anything.”
In 1937 Lavrenti Beria decreed the building of Metekhi prison built around the 12th century Matekhi Church to be blown up together with the church in order to make room for a memorial of Shota Rustaveli.
Dimitri Shevardnadze, together with the art-historian Giorgi Chubinashvili, theatre-director Sandro Akhmeteli and writer Mikheil Javakhishvili strongly opposed this decision.
The prison building was demolished, church survived.
Dimitri Shevardnadze was arrested on June 10th, 1937 on suspicion of subversion, sued as the enemy of the people and sentenced to death.