Georgia on its mind, but not its lineup

Art: Despite no word from the former Soviet republic, the Walters Art Gallery has pulled historic exhibit.

August 05, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Political protests in the Republic of Georgia have forced the Walters Art Gallery to cancel a landmark exhibition of 160 gold and silver artworks, manuscripts and religious objects representing 8,000 years of Georgian history.

Called "Land of Myth and Fire: Art of Ancient and Medieval Georgia," the exhibit, which was organized jointly by the Foundation for International Arts and Education in Bethesda and by the Walters, was scheduled to open in Baltimore on Oct. 26. It was to include textiles, ancient ceramics, jewelry, illuminated manuscripts and religious icons, some of which have never been exhibited outside Georgia. One object, an 11th-century manuscript, has never been publicly displayed.

"The story this exhibition was going to tell is wonderful. It is a story shown in the influences of Greece, Rome, Persia all being transmuted by a common thread -- the metal work and semiprecious stones of Georgian art," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters, who also was curating the show. "It is a spectacular story, and I regret not being able to tell it."

Two years in the planning, "Land of Myth and Fire" was scheduled to open in Baltimore and to travel in the spring to the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and in August 2000 to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The Walters now is scrambling to fill the void: A survey of the history of French art up to the beginning of the 20th century will be presented instead.

Georgia, wedged between Russia and the Black Sea, became a Christian kingdom in the fourth century, a period during which the Slavs to the north still remained unorganized and pagan. It was annexed in 1801 by the Russian empire and -- except for about four years after the 1917 Communist Revolution -- was under Russian control until the Soviet breakup in 1991. Throughout the years, its residents maintained a deep sense of national pride.

Critics of the exhibition say that some of the artworks, which include a 15th-century silken shroud and a standing lion that was fashioned in gold between 2300 and 2000 B.C., are part of Georgia's cultural heritage and hold too much religious importance to be sent abroad.

Protests against the exhibition began in April, with students staging hunger strikes and picketing in front of the American Embassy in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The controversy blossomed into a nationwide cultural debate that pitted exhibit advocates (including Vikan) against its detractors on national television and in newspapers.

Since regaining political independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has struggled with self-understanding and definition. The Georgian president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, is a cosmopolitan ex-Communist who served Mikhail Gorbachev as Russian foreign minister. He is reported to have seen the Georgian art exhibition as a way of bringing his small country to world attention.

Opponents of the exhibit tend to be more nationalist in outlook.

"This is a country of people who have not had the benefit of self-government for 600 years," Vikan says. "They measure being Georgian by two things -- language and religion. Things that for us are documents of the past are for them manifestations of national indentity."

Vikan says that one scholar who opposed the exhibition told him: "I would rather have my child die of starvation at my side than to send it away and perhaps never see it again."

The Foundation for International Arts and Education is a 4-year-old Bethesda-based nonprofit group founded to organize exhibitions and other projects that showcase and preserve the cultural heritage of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

As part of its contract with the Georgian government, the Walters had agreed to conserve a number of artworks, including the 11th-century Hebrew Pentateuch, or a manuscript containing the first five books of the Old Testament. The manuscript was scheduled to arrive in Baltimore early this week but did not.

For the museum, the cancellation represents a greater scholarly and aesthetic loss than financial blow. "I can't say that I thought the exhibition was going to be a blockbuster, because I didn't. I thought it would open the eyes of some people. It was just going to be illuminating," Vikan says.

Though neither the foundation nor the Walters has received word from the Georgian government that the exhibition contract officially has been canceled, the Walters decided to abandon its plans for the show when the manuscript did not arrive on time.

"We haven't received any official communication of any kind; in part because it is such a huge embarrassment to them ...," says Gregory Guroff, president of the foundation. But, he added, "We believe that the exhibition would be spectacular and that it would be worth doing. I hope [the foundation] can salvage this exhibition, and I hope the Walters will be a part of it somehow."

Sun staff writer Hal Piper contributed to this article.

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