Since the time of his “birth,” Goudji Amachoukeli, or Goudji as he is widely known, has lived in France: “When departing from the Soviet Union I promised myself not to ever return to wild countries. Therefore, I have traveled very little – to Belgium, Italy, the United States, Great Britain…”
Works created by him are unique – not produced in series. “I oppose the concept of design,” he explains and studies my expression as if trying to guess whether I have grasped his meaning.
Gold, silver, stone… material which defies time, acquires character and form in Goudji’s hands. Birds, lions, antelopes, fish, people… sculpted as distinct pieces or as ornaments. Jewels, swords, candlesticks, baptismal fonts, even a saint’s reliquary….
The French Ministry of Culture conferred the title of Maître d’Art on Goudji, but he considers himself a craftsman of artworks.
He usually works alone without anyone’s help.
They say in Georgia that Goudji is a reclusive person. As he explains, the reason for that is too much work: “I work for twelve hours a day without raising my head. I start at eight o’clock in the morning and come back home at about nine o’clock in the evening.” He has taken only one vacation in the past thirty-eight years. He believes that talent means nothing without hard work and curiosity. And one more thing… he hates when an interlocutor demands that he show nostalgia for that place from which he managed to escape with great difficulty decades ago.
“I decided to defect from that country at the age of eleven or twelve when I developed awareness,” he responds tersely to my question about the homeland as he opens a bottle of champagne. It is midday. We are in his studio in Paris, on a slope of Montmartre.
He learned much about France in his childhood with the help of a stereoscope. His grandfather had brought that optical instrument, along with hundreds of photos, from the 1900 World Fair held in Paris to celebrate Nineteenth Century achievements. It was for that event that the Eiffel Tower was built. “Many photographs featured panoramic views, streets of Paris, stations, Gothic cathedrals – Chartres, Saint-Denis, Rouen, Beauvais… I was a child when I looked at those photos, wondering how those buildings were constructed before reinforced concrete and cranes existed.”
In the biographical book Goudji – des mains d’or et de feu (Goudji – fiery golden hands), he tells authors Bernard Berthod and Manuelle Anne Renault-Langlois that his main point of interest then was the station of North direction: “I studied Gare du Nord, its Neo-Hellenistic architecture thoroughly. I was especially interested in this station because I knew that trains from Russia arrived there. Back then, however, I only dreamt…” That was in the 1950s.Some forty years later, in the 1990s, a baptismal font created by Goudji found its place in Notre Dame de Paris and, subsequently, in the hands of Pope John Paul II.
“When I enter a Gothic cathedral I start trembling,” he explains when I inquire about his inspiration. “When I arrived in 1974, I asked my wife to show me around those churches which I had seen in photographs in my childhood. Have you even been to Ghent?” he asks, referring to the Flemish city of Belgium. I have not, but I understand the reference – van Eyck’s altarpiece, the Mystic Lamb, in Saint Bavo Cathedral. Before I can utter a word, though, he cuts me short: “If you have not, it means that you have not seen anything. You can’t imagine what that is! It nearly drove me mad! I developed the Stendhal syndrome.”
He returns to the topic of Georgia, speaking about Colchian gold. He reveals that he had traveled around the whole of Georgia except for Svaneti. He was interested in historical monuments, their architecture and painting. Achaemenid Empire, ancient Greece and Rome, Sasanid Empire, Islam, Byzantine – all those influences, he believes, co-exist in Georgia.
He prefers for his artwork to be displayed in a place where everyone can see it. Accessibility is important for him and a church is the best place to ensure that. “I have created items for private collections, but there they are locked inside four walls,” he notes regretfully.
How is it that the Catholic Church became interested in an Orthodox Christian goldsmith? “I got acquainted with a very good person, a conservator at Paris Museum of Decorative Arts, Catholic by belief. He suggested I create religious items for a church. That was exactly what I dreamt to do… When the episcope commissioned me to arrange liturgical space of Chartres Cathedral, he did not ask whether I was Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Jew. The only thing he was interested in was my art. I was very much impressed with that.”
He thinks that if a Jew or an Armenian in Georgia were tasked to arrange a liturgical space in Svetitskhoveli Church that would create much confusion. Such an attitude worries him. Goudji recalls how a young Georgian Orthodox priest once turned down his proposal to see Notre Dame de Paris because the priest refused to step inside any church of infidels. Goudji explains the difference in theologies by, inter alia, the fact that the Catholic Church after its reformation continued to change with the times while the Orthodox Christian Church stayed in Medieval Ages.
Goudji is from Batumi. He remembers the Catholic Church of Batumi very well and believes that its appropriation by Orthodox Christians was a big mistake.
His belief in God can be traced back to his childhood in Batumi. Religion entered his life by way of a fresco rather than the Bible. He was thirteen when he entered the church and found spiritual inspiration in a fresco of Christ walking on water.
Goudji was on friendly terms with the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia when Ilia II was still the bishop of Batumi. Goudji recalls the Patriarch’s passion for painting: “He had a bench and made copies of works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael. He copied Leonardo’s Madonna Litta very well, the one that is kept in the Hermitage Museum. Back then, he was criticized for his Western orientation.”
Goudji’s mother occupies the most important place in his life. He credits her for what he is today: “I owe immensely to my mother… She was a teacher of natural sciences. She made me develop the habit of work. One could not get anything then and she herself made exhibits for her students. I assisted her in that work. That helped me much; it made me develop the skill of manual work.”
When Goudji was born in 1941, his mother, Nino Kakabadze, was forty-two and considered, especially then, rather advanced in age for childbearing. “Benefits” of the socialist revolution had already deprived that daughter of a rich timber trader of everything except for several silver spoons, a piano and a wealth of knowledge. She was an educated person of refined taste. “She shunned conversationsabout the past. She was afraid, believing there was no sense in speaking of the past. I learned, accidentally, that the musical school she wanted me to attend once belonged to my grandfather. My mother concealed that fact.”
Nino Kakabadze wanted her son to learn to play the piano, but Goudji opted instead for art school. “There was a small workshop nearby,” he recalls with a smile, “with two craftsmen making coffins. I was so interested that I spent two to three hours every day there, watching how they sawed boards, coating them with lacquer. There were three types of coffins – one simple, another for better-off people and the third for the rich. I still feel that smell – they call it ‘shellac’ here. It is a natural lacquer with a sharp smell.”
He was very fond of drawing. He remembers always having a pencil in his hand at a time when even that trifle was in short supply.
He is still heartbroken that his interest in art was obstructed by the Soviet system: “Georgians made me suffer. They did not admit me to the Academy of Arts for three consecutive years. My parents had neither money nor connections there. That tortured me. And that happened during a time when, if not admitted to the Academy, I would have been called to serve in the army. Frankly speaking, I did not want to serve in the Red Army. In short, I suffered much. Finally, during the third year, an evening faculty was opened. I was not eligible for even a stipend. I attended classes in the evening and had to work in an enterprise during the day. Why so? Because they pushed through their own children. Only five students were admitted to the faculty each year. One place was allocated for an entrant from Abkhazia; another place was reserved for an entrant from Azerbaijan because Azerbaijan did not have an art school. Of the remaining three vacant places, one was taken by the central committee of the Communist party, one was sold to the highest bidder, and Academy professors fiercely competed to have the last place filled by their children or relatives… They say things have changed and that is not the case now,” he says with such raw emotion that one might think this had all just happened.
In 1962, Goudji had to leave Georgia and move to Moscow. That was because he helped rent a room in Batumi for two friends who planned to defect from the Soviet Union. Their plan was to swim to a Norwegian ship anchored in the sea beyond Batumi and to reach Turkey as stowaways. While swimming to the Norwegian ship, one friend experienced severe leg cramps and, disoriented, they both ended up onboard a Yugoslav ship whose captain promptly contacted the border guard. Captured and charged with treason and illegally crossing the border, one friend was sent to prison for fifteen years and the other for ten years. “I swear I knew nothing of their plan, but they mentioned my name during the trial,” Goudji insists. “I do not judge them. That is such a situation that anything can happen.”
Goudji’s father, then chief doctor of the Batumi hospital, was warned by a KGB officer that his son would be arrested as an accomplice in the crime unless he left the city. Goudji considers it lucky that, at the time he was born, his father at fifty-two years of age was established in his profession and was known and respected by many people. Fortuitously, one of those people was the helpful KGB officer on whose wife his father had performed successful surgery.
Goudji next needed to figure out how to register in Moscow: “There were two options – either bribe a police officer or enter into a sham marriage. I found a young woman who agreed and we got married.” Thereafter, however, he ran into problems with the Soviet commissariat for evading military service. The commissariat found him at his “wife’s” address and he had to divorce in order to spare,as he puts it, an “innocent lady” from trouble. He does not explain how he eventually managed to escape military service, nor do I press him for those details.
He found a job at a decorative and applied arts plant in Moscow using a false document he had forged at a housing department. “Working there was not interesting, but it provided a means for existence.” He designed toys – ships, airplanes, cars. He entered the Union of Artists as its youngest member at that time. That, he recalls, proved to be much easier than entering the Academy of Arts in Tbilisi.
He then needed another sham marriage because of what he calls a “perverted system.” “The only good thing in Moscow was free time which I had. I visited libraries, traveled a lot. That is how I gained knowledge. We were too limited in Tbilisi. Only one ‘poor’ library was there. After becoming a member of Artists’ Union, I gained access to the ‘special hall’ in the Lenin Library.”
Other than that, he has grim recollections of the Soviet Union capital: “Do you know what Moscow was at those times? There was extreme indigence. One could obtain nothing there. You needed good connections in everything.” As a member of the Artists’ Union, he could secure Japanese brushes and pencils while others had to make do with poor-quality Soviet products. He lived in a communal apartment, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with five or six families. Interviewed years later in Paris by biographers Bernard Berthod and Manuelle Anne Renault-Langlois, Goudji and his wife described how their Moscow neighbors stole soap, meat and everything else from one another; how one could “buy” benefits in exchange for a bottle of vodka. They recalled wax hens and sausages displayed in windows of shops “to spite the enemy.”
When his father died, Goudji finally returned to Georgia and stayed for forty days. There, he became acquainted with two craftsmen – an Armenian and a Greek, both émigrés from Turkey. They taught him to work with copper in oriental manner and, as he describes it, he realized then that he would give shape to metal.
His friend, Andrei Valkonsky, introduced Goudji to his only “real” wife, Katherine Barsacq, in Moscow in 1974: “Andrei was born in France, actually, he was French.” Back then, Katherine worked in the French Embassy and lived in the so-called Moscow ghetto, which was a settlement where “dirty capitalists” lived under special control: “Buildings were under electronic surveillance. I proposed to Katherine on paper in order not to be overheard. She drew a pistol in reply, meaning I had gone mad. Then we burned that paper.”
Many doubted the sincerity of Goudji’s feelings toward his future wife. They believed his only interest in marrying for a third time was to get out of the country and that he was using Katherine to achieve that end. Such doubts were very likely exacerbated by his twosham marriages. “There was a French cultural attaché at that time who was on friendly terms with my wife. Once Katherine asked him to help me with an entry visa but received a negative answer. Not long ago, that person met us and he apologized for his behavior many years ago. He was told to advise Katherine not to be fooled, that I was a swindler and was using her to leave the country. Therefore, that person was against our marriage and he felt ashamed when he learned that we have stayed together for such a long time and we have a good family.”
Some acquaintances also suspected that Goudji was connected with the KGB and even claimed to have seen him dressed in an officer’s uniform. “The society was very uninformed and prone to invent much. The more uneducated the society, the more it invents. You do not know what that period was like.”
Katherine accepted Goudji’s proposal even though that meant nothing to the Soviet authorities. The final say still belonged to the regime and the regime impeded the marriage. After finally obtaining official consent to the marriage in 1969, Goudji was still prohibited from leaving the Soviet Union. The process of securing his exit visa was protracted for five years.
Goudji’s new father-in-law, Andre Barsacq, was a theatre director, producer, scene designer, playwright and an influential person who knew French President Georges Pompidou personally. He sent Pompidou a letter requesting assistance.
In 1974, the French President traveled to the Soviet Union on an official visit and met with Leonid Brezhnev. Within two weeks of that meeting, a telephone call from the Soviet visa and registration department informed Katherine Barsacq that Goudji Amachoukeli had fourteen days to leave the country – forever. Until then, Goudji had never traveled outside the Soviet Union. As he explains, those who traveled abroad then were only people trusted by the government. Presumably, he means people who cooperated with the security service.
Goudji was shocked by Paris, though not by its celebrated works of art: “I had never seen a consumer society before. I was stunned by stores packed with products. I touched hens to make sure they were not made of wax. The florists’ shops made the strongest impression, especially given that it was February. I touched everything to make sure they were not artificial.”
He had arrived in France without any idea of what to do there: “I was not prepared at all.” Katherine suggested that he utilize his skill at molding metal by crafting jewelry from the silver spoons given to him by his mother. “His interest lay elsewhere, in liturgical art, unique artworks. But I explained to him that, in the epoch of design, there was no demand for that product and it would be difficult,” his wife, Madam Goudji, later recalled.Goudji followed his wife’s advice and crafted jewelry from his mother’s silver spoons. He borrowed some money from his sister-in-law and rented a stand at a jewelry exhibition, where he sold every item. With those proceeds, he bought raw material and made more jewelry. “In addition, I am good at anything done manually - renovation, repair of furniture, restoration. That enabled me to save some money. That is how it started and went on well.”
After a few successful salons, he acquired new friends. One of them introduced him to maitre of French fashion Hubert de Givenchy. “I showed him my products. He received us well and asked me to make a special line of his jewelry. I thought that, if I were to make jewelry, I would like that to be made under my name and I told him that. That is how naïve I was then,” he says, laughing out loud while sipping champagne.
“Monsieur vous avez raison,” Givenchy replied, agreeing with Goudji’s reasoning. “Givenchy took a phone and called one of the gallery owners on the Rue Saint-Honoré, asking him to receive me. That is how my work with galleries began. He was the first person who helped me in arranging an exhibition. We met each other later and talked about that. Now he must be about ninety years old. He has an estate near our village in the Loire Valley. Back then, I was thirty-five.”
Seeing Goudji’s artwork for the first time, well-know gallery owner Claude Bernard assessed him as “the world’s greatest goldsmith.” Since then, the goldsmith has had a number of exhibitions at Bernard’s gallery in Paris on the Rue des Beaux Arts which, at various times, has hosted exhibitions of the paintings of David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson and many others renowned artists.
Notables for whom Goudji has created artworks have included Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, members of the Academy of France and President Mitterrand, who has ordered his artworks as gifts for heads of state.
For Goudji, an idea for a new work of art emerges as a result of a dream. He has never been afraid of starting with a “clean slate.”
Sometimes he is commissioned to create a specific item. In one story retold in the book Goudji, an American lady living in Paris approached him with a request to make a urn for her ashes: “I will die soon. My children live in the United States. Please make a beautiful urn for me; make it so beautiful that my children would never wish to depart with it.” The goldsmith had no idea how such a vessel should look or what size it should be. He went to Père Lachaise Cemetery to investigate: “I understood that lady easily when I saw ugly copper and brass urns.” So he made an aesthetic vessel suitable to hold the ashes of an aesthetic lady.
Now and then, he has had to take on apprentices. As a Maître d’Art, he is required to pass on his knowledge to students sent to him by the French Ministry of Culture. He always asks students to show him their sketches, to share their ideas with him. Quite often, students determined to learn how to work with metal cannot even draw. That is unimaginable to Goudji because drawing is the foundation of sculpting with metal. Even more important in his view is curiosity; if a student lacks passion for discovering and learning new things, noteacher can ever develop that quality.
After Pope John Paul II used a baptismal font made by Goudji, the goldsmith received a letter: “On behalf of the Pope I would like to thank you for that beauty which your art….” Then, Capuchin monks commissioned him to create a gift for the Pope on the occasion of the beatification of Padre Pio and later ordered a reliquary for the beatified saint. Goudji and Katherine were invited to Rome for the beatification. “We stopped on Saint Peter’s Square,” Goudji relates to his biographers, “The Pope came as well. He was tired. He was decorated with my artworks – a cross, two candlesticks and Padre Pio’s reliquary, which he kept in his flat till his death. Katherine cried. Later, she explained that she was recalling how I used to dream in Moscow, in the capital of the state where atheism was a state religion, of making things for glorifying God.”
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 111, published 30 July 2012.