Oskar Schmerling

  • Born: 1863-07-01
  • Died: 1938-01-02
  • Roles: Author, Illustrator, Subject
  • Images: 272
    Sources: 15

Oskar Ivanovich Schmerling was born to German parents in the North Caucasus city of Stavropol on July 1, 1863.

His family had come to the Russian Empire in the wave of German emigration of the early 19th century. His father, Ivan, was a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian military. We don’t know anything about his mother Matilda, but her brother was the architect Albert Salzmann, who designed a number of prominent buildings in Tbilisi, Georgia, including what is today the National Gallery on Rustaveli Avenue.

According to Schmerling's granddaughter, Alla, her grandfather grew up in the Tbilisi home of his uncle Albert. After graduating from the Realschule in Tbilisi, the aspiring young artist went to St. Petersburg ("Oh that horrible climate!") to study at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in 1884-1889, and then completed his education in Munich at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1891-1892.

On his return to the Caucasus, Schmerling went to stay with his father in Khankandi (Stepanakert) in Karabakh, where he had organized a theater troupe earlier in a sort of gap year between St. Petersburg and Munich. Soon, however, he returned to Tbilisi where, except for a brief interlude in 1920-1921, he would spend the rest of his life.

Schmerling was a talented painter and a dedicated educator. He gave private lessons and taught at various institutions, including the Tbilisi Academy of Arts and a school founded by the Caucasus Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, where he also served as secretary. Meanwhile, he illustrated a number of books, especially for children, notably Iakob Gogebashvili’s Mother Tongue (დედა ენა), the classic Georgian primer.

Schmerling’s wife, Anzhelika, gave birth to their daughter, René, in 1901. René would go on to become a prominent historian of Georgian art and architecture, and a talented artist herself. A son, Edgar, was born in 1906.

A Career in Caricature

By his own account, Schmerling self-published a caricature journal called Mosquito (კოღო) as a student at the Tbilisi Realschule in 1880-1881. Soon afterwards, he gained his first experience at a professional publication, contributing caricatures to Phalanx (Фаланга), edited by Ivan Petroev. "My caricatures rained down on the publisher’s table like ripe fruit from a tree," Schmerling wrote later. "As a rule, only a few were selected to be published; the rest were sent to rest in peace in an enormous, bottomless sack."

After moving to St. Petersburg, Schmerling worked at the local German-language periodical Pipifax (Nonsense), and also contributed to the Russian-language Son of the Fatherland (Сын отечества) and The Jester (Шут). In Munich, he produced caricatures for Die Münchener Volks-Zeitung (The Munich People's Paper) as well as the hobbyist journal for cyclists(!), Radfahr Humor (Cycling Humor).

Upon his return to Tbilisi, there were no satirical newspapers or journals publishing local artists until Aleksandre Jabadari introduced an illustrated weekly supplement to his daily newspaper News Sheet (ცნობის ფურცელი) in 1901. Schmerling was a primary contributor starting with the second issue.

It was after the 1905 revolution, however, that Schmerling's career as a caricaturist really took off. After the revolution, censorship was relaxed somewhat, resulting in a satire boom across the Russian Empire. In 1905 and 1906, new satirical publications were sprouting like mushrooms.

In Tbilisi, Schmerling was in a unique position to take advantage of the satire boom. As the administrative and cultural capital of the South Caucasus at the time, Tbilisi was an extremely diverse, cosmopolitan city. The satire boom there was multilingual and multicultural, and as part of the German minority, Schmerling transcended the divisions between the larger ethnic groups in a way that most could not.

And yet, as a native of the Caucasus, Schmerling was able to satirize social and political problems with the insight of a local. Viewed as a whole, his work from this period (1905-1920) is a day-by-day chronicle of the turbulent political life of the Caucasus, but perhaps uniquely, one that is not limited by any particular national or ethnic viewpoint.

Andria Abramishvili’s catalogue* of pre-Soviet Georgian-language periodicals lists 52 different publications containing Schmerling caricatures, including the aforementioned News Sheet (ცნობის ფურცელი), as well as Devil’s Whip (ეშმაკის მათრახი), Slingshot (შურდული), Labor (შრომა), Georgia (საქართველო), etc.

Simultaneously, Schmerling worked for Russian-language journals such as The Caucasus Region (Кавказский край) and The Whistle (Свисток), all while supplying iconic images weekly for two lavish color periodicals: Molla Nasreddin (Molla Nəsrəddin), published in Azeri by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and Khatabala (Խաթաբալա), the Armenian periodical edited by Bagrat Yeritsian.

Later Life

After the October Revolution of 1917, the countries of the South Caucasus enjoyed a tenuous independence for a time as war raged all around, until the region came fully under Soviet control in 1921. In early 1920, Schmerling left Tbilisi for Ganja, Azerbaijan, where he headed the arts section of the local People's Committee of Education and the state lithographic publishing house, while also producing propaganda posters based on breaking news for the local office of the Russian Telegraph Agency (KavROSTA).

In July 1921, Schmerling returned to Tbilisi, where he would spend the rest of his life (although he was to receive job offers in Baku, Azerbaijan and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan). He continued to produce caricatures for Georgian-language Soviet publications such as Tartarozi (ტარტაროზა) and Crocodile (ნიანგი), and at least one Azeri-language publication, New Thought (Yeni fikir).

By the mid-1920s, in his sixties, Schmerling complained of poor health and a lack of money. In 1925, he wrote to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, "I work a lot, even too much, as an employee of four publications, while always remaining thankful that my fate does not leave me jobless. After all, I am already 63 years old, it would seem that I should slow down, and I dread to think of a time when I won't be able to work; I haven't saved up anything, not a penny and I can hardly count on any pension - all I've been left with is a bleak old age..." **

Schmerling died of natural causes on January 2, 1938. He is buried in Vake Cemetery in Tbilisi alongside his wife Anzhelika (grave unmarked), his daughter René, and his granddaughter Alla Edgarovna Schmerling.

* Абрамишвили А. З. Грузинская периодика: Аннотированный каталог грузинской периодики (1819-1917), хранящейся в ГПБ им. М. Е. Салтыкова-Щедрина. Тбилиси: Тбилисский государственный университет, 1968.

** Schmerling's letter to Mammadguluzadeh, 10/15/1925, translated by Suel Hoseynzadeh, in Javanshir, Hamideh Khanum. Awake. DC: Mage Publishers, 2016, p. 184.


Schmerling's Pension Request
In September 1928, at 65 years old, Schmerling wrote this letter to the presidium of the Central ...
Schmerling's 1914 Résumé
In February 1914, Oskar Schmerling began work as a drawing instructor at the Mikhailov Trade Scho...