The Doe-Eyed Girl
The Face of Post-Stalinist Georgian Modernism
In 1968 a Polish journalist, describing her visit to Tbilisi, wrote of a certain face in the crowd she seemed to encounter at every step. It was the face of a girl, a “Doe-eyed girl” whom she first encountered in the lobby of Hotel “Tbilisi”: “She appeared in profile, her head was turned downwards, lost in thought….I lost count of my meetings with this girl… At almost every step I run into her face to face.” This face in the crowd was, in fact, an endlessly reproduced embossed metal fresco (Russian and Georgian chekanka, Georgian ch’eduri) of an ethnographically typical Khevsur Georgian girl of the mountains, who becomes the stereotypical “face” of Georgian post-Stalinist "traditional-modernist" art, especially a secularized revival of metallic frescos traditionally associated with sacred icons. This “[traditional] face in the [modern] crowd”, its insistent iconographic secularization and inversion of the religious icon, and recurrent distribution across modernist urban spaces, formed a local Georgian version of what Krisztina Fehervary has elsewhere called, with respect to Hungary, “socialist modernism”, a local Georgian version of a series of post-Stalinist modernist forms across socialist space that became, in each context, the local "brand of socialism". At the same time as the chekanka, as a form, represents a specifically socialist achievement of post-Stalinist modernist aesthetics, its iconography makes the chekanka a secular socialist version of the sacred icon, in which the 2-dimensional space of the chekanka depicts an unattainable, mythic secular “elsewhere” of the nation in contrast with socialist modernity. The face of the Khevsur girl reveals the ambiguities of the daydreams of the Georgian urban intelligentsia, a city filled with modernist buildings decorated with mythic images of the national past. The stereotyped face [Russian tipazh, Georgian t’ip’azhi] of the Khevsur girl, facing away, looking down at a flower, replaces both the religious image of the saint on the icon and the socialist tipazh of the worker or peasant in the propaganada poster. The world of the chekanka embodies a new kind of secular mythology of the nation, which flattens out and decouples characters from genres of myth, legend, folklore, history and fantasy. It produces a kind of timeless daydream “elsewhere” of the national essence opposed to the workaday world of socialism which now had two complementary or competing teleologies, the timeless world of the nation and the coming world of communism.