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TH E  AR M E N I A N  MI R R O R - SP E C TAT O R,  S A T U R D A Y,  J U N E  2 5 ,  2 0 1 6

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

 

BERLIN — This is a most rare art exhibition. Not focused onone artist or even a school, it presents the works of distinctindividuals joined through family ties, whose creative endeav-ors trace out a multifaceted cultural itinerary across vast geo-graphical expanses through decades of turbulent political andsocial developments. The show that opened in Berlin on May14, entitled “Four Life Paths: Two Artist Couples in theArmenian Tradition,” is indeed something very special. Theworks displayed are by four artists whose lives span a century,from before the First World War to the present. Two areGenocide survivors from Western Armenia, who made theirway across the Middle East to Yerevan, whereas the other twowere born and raised in Armenia, studied and worked thereand in Russia. Through their personal and artistic histories,one encounters life in the diaspora, struggles in the Sovietperiod and the challenges of the independent Republic of Armenia.

 

The artists are Mariam Aslamazyan (1907 – 2006) and herbrother-in-law Nikolai Nikogosyan (born 1918); HarutyunKalentz (1912 – 1967) and his wife Armine Kalentz (1920 –2007). Three of the four continued even after the collapse ofthe Soviet Union, and their artistic endeavors provide rareinsights especially for the younger generation into these twocrucial epochs in modern Armenian art. For many youngartists active 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is dif-ficult to conceive what life at that time was like.

 

The exhibition at the Kulturhaus Karlshorst, which runsuntil July 3, is part of the German-Armenian Cultural Days, aninitiative taking place this year for the second time, which aimsat strengthening the bonds of friendship between the twocommunities. Among the sponsors are the Association ofEuropean and Armenian Experts e.V. (AEAE), the BerlinLichtenberg Department of Education, Culture, Social Affairand Sports as well as the InteriorDAsein/Berlin artist runspace. Curators are Dr. Peter Michel, a leading expert in Sovietart, and Archi Galentz, artist and creator of InteriorDAsein,which houses many of the 30 works on display.

 

Perhaps Archi Galentz is the only person who could haveput together such an exhibition. All four artists are his ances-tors, and most of the works come from his collection, which he received as memoirs, or as pieces to be restored, or to put ondisplay. But it would be wrong to reduce this to a family affair.Certainly, due to his personal relationship to the artists, he hasbeen able to afford the visitor a privileged insight into theircareers as well as their personalities. But his aim in presentingthese works, shown here together for the first time, is toexplore the question raised, not only by them, but by theyounger generation that came after, the generation to whichArchi Galentz belongs: how should we evaluate that period inart?

 

The catalogue for the exhibition, itself a little masterpiece,opens with a rich exchange of views between Michel andGalentz on this central theme. In their dialogue on “TheDestiny of Artists and History,” art critic Michel noted that“before 1990 in Armenia and in East Germany there were infact similar developments in the arts.” Following the collapseof the Soviet Union, “it was not a matter of chasing after somenebulous ideas of freedom, but rather of uniting artistic aware-ness of responsibility with the actually contradictory reality, not to throw grand human ideals overboard, but rather to pre-serve them and at the same time make people aware of the fail-ures.” Artists in communist East Germany and those inArmenia adopted different means to this end; the formerexplored “the language of myths” whereas the latter became“conscious of the power of national traditions.” For Galentz, itis important in evaluating the Soviet experience to avoid “sim-plistic half truths,” for example, by pitting “communism”against “experimentation,” or “freedom” against some “partyline” approach. In his view, the value of artistic expression can-not be reduced to formalistic criteria: “Soviet art was …involved in continuing a certain humanistic project, with thequestion, what kind of society one should live in, and how thissort of man should be, and so forth.”Michel recalled an observation made by German painterBernhard Heisig, who said, “The artist’s position in society –even in a socialist society – does not necessarily have to benegative. His significance does not have to lie exclusively inprotest against his surroundings.” Such a negative approach infact has given rise to ridiculous excesses, for example, amongthose, he said, “who confuse avant-gardism with the progres-sively creative,” that is, those who think anything “new” is nec-essarily creative or, that to be creative one has to seek novel-ty.The four artists featured in the exhibition found themselvesin a historical framework following the collapse of the SovietUnion in which, as Galentz put it, they had to “rediscoverpainting as their art form and field of interest.” The maintheme of the exhibition is “the interconnection of two schoolsof realism” represented by these four classical artists: concen-tration in the traditional form of representation was developedby Mariam Aslamazyan and Nikolai Nikogosyan, both born inArmenia, after their education in Russia. As for HarutyunKalentz and Armine Kalentz, who moved from the diaspora inLebanon to Soviet Armenia, “it unfolded from the yearning todevelop their own national ‘artistic language’ in great variety”in which paint functions as “a means to achieve depth in thecanvas.”

 

Related through Art Mariam Aslamazyan and Nikolai Nikogosyan are consideredan artistic “pair” here, not because they were joined in matri-mony, but because they worked together in art and had closefamily ties. Aslamazyan, Archi’s great-aunt, came from Bar-Shirak, a village near Gumri (formerly Leninikan) and hadchildhood memories of Turkish occupiers in 1918-1920. Shestudied art there and in Yerevan, as well as Leningrad, whereshe met fellow art student Nikolai Nikogosyan in 1938. Sheexhibited in Yerevan and Moscow in the 1930s, and moved tothe Russian capital after the war at the same time thatNikogosyan did. In 1944 or 1945, he married a younger sisterof hers (there were six girls in the family), and as a result ofthe close family relationship that developed, “one can consid-er the two,” Archi says, “as an artist couple. They lived andworked side by side for 60 years.”Aslamazyan received wide recognition for her work. She wasnamed a member of the board of Armenian ArtistsAssociation, was honored for her antifascist stance in the warand in 1990 received the title Peoples Artist of the USSR, buther fame extended beyond the Soviet Union. Her works were exhibited across Europe, in Mexico, Africa, and the Far East;she met world famous personalities like Indira Gandhi and shereceived prizes in India and Egypt. She loved to travel, andeverywhere she went portrayed individuals from different cul-tural worlds, especially, but not exclusively, women: mothersand grandmothers, peasant women as well as ballerinas andactresses. With an energetic use of bold, bright colors, she alsoexplored architectures and landscapes, be it cloisters inArmenia or city scenes from places like Calcutta and Bombay,Madras and Cairo. “I sought for my language in art,” shewrote. “I drew everything very thick, the color was extremelyintensive; I wanted my pictures to make people happy.”Whereas she was “active in painting, graphic arts and ceram-ics,” we read in the catalogue, her artist companionNikogosyan “is known above all as a sculptor who also paintsand draws.” Or, as he so aptly put it, “Sculpture is my wife andpainting is my mistress.” Born in 1918, Nikogosyan, who isArchi’s maternal grandfather, is still active at 97 and has everyintention of continuing. Truly a “living legend of Armenianand Soviet art history,” he left his native village Shagar in1930 for Yerevan, then studied in Leningrad at the Institutefor Painting, Plastic Arts and Architecture of the Academy ofArts. He exhibited as a member of the Soviet ArtistsAssociation, won numerous prizes, was named Peoples Artistof the USSR, appeared in 1956 at the Biennale of Venice, andcontinued to exhibit widely with personal shows. Armeniansand foreign visitors know him for his monumental statues,crafted out of a variety of materials — bronze, plaster, wood,marble or granite — portraying, for example Avetik Ishakyan inGumri and Mikayel Nalbandyan in Yerevan, or the sculptedportraits of Louis Aragon, Aram Khachaturian, DmitryShostakovich, the monuments to Komitas Vardapet and thefifth-century historian Moses of Choren, Vladimir Mayakovskyand Yuri Gagarin, among others. Among the pieces on displayin Berlin is a profoundly moving piece, a study for a monumentto Paruyr Sevak, seated in a pensive attitude.No less impressive are the countless drawings and sketchesby this extremely prolific artist, portraits which capture thepsychological essence with great empathy. Among them hisself-portraits, from 2006 and after, occupy a special place. Theyare, we learn, not designed to be ambitious representations ofhimself, but rather works in which the artist poses questionsto himself, sometimes “ruthless, or thoughtful, sometimes bit-ter or angry…” They are the self-reflections of someone who,at that age, “loses his vanity in the self-consciousness of hislife’s achievements and is at peace with himself.”Harutyun and Armine Kalentz were more properly speakinga couple from the diaspora, Galentz told Michel. Archi’s pater-nal grandfather Harutyun was born in 1910 in Gürün, in cen-tral Turkey, into a family that traced its origins back to prince-ly beginnings in the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. ArmineBaronyan was 10 years younger, and came from Adabazarinear Istanbul. Both Harutyun and Armine lost their fathers inthe Genocide. Armine fled with her mother and siblings acrossthe Syrian border to Damascus. After the death of his motherin an Aleppo hospital, Harutyun and his siblings ended up inan orphanage. It was there that the young boy’s artistic talentwas discovered and encouraged. After studying with Armenianartists, he travelled through Syria and Lebanon, and in 1931started working in Beirut in the atelier of French impression-  ist Claude Michelet.It was in Beirut that Armine, who had discovered her ownlove for art while visiting Italy in the 1930s, met Harutyun andbecame his student. She worked with him on the Lebanonpavilion for the world exhibition in New York in 1939-40 andin 1943 the two married. Three years later they moved toArmenia, where they held exhibitions together and with otherartists who had also returned, and won honors. In 1963,Harutyun was named Outstanding Artist of the SovietRepublic of Armenia and only four years later died young of aheart attack. Armine had begun to exhibit in personal showsinternationally in 1963, with repeated appearances in the1990s in the United States. She died in 2007.
Other Times, Other Places How has the work of these four artists, in their particularartistic and personal itineraries been received? As Armenianartists active during the Soviet period, how should they beconsidered? How were their works received, aside from officialhonors and titles? And how did they assess this experience?Archi Galentz, who has been in Germany for more than 25years, says one cannot forget that Armenia was once part ofthe USSR. The men and women whose works he has put ondisplay “were pillars of Armenian national art but also highlyrevered personalities in Moscow’s greatest museums.” Forexample, there are 26 works by Nikogosyan in the TretyakovGallery and a “Niko” Cultural Foundation is in the process ofcoming into being in the Russian capital.It was often said that his grandfather Harutyun Kalentz,though acknowledged as a great artist, had not been trulyappreciated. But Archi points out that, after his prematuredeath in 1967, the Yerevan city authorities decided to turn hishome into a museum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union,there were those who wanted to present him as an opponentof “the communist regime,” but if that were the case, Archiwonders, why was he spared in the 1940s and 1950s? Hisgrandfather was certainly not a Russophobe, Archi can say forcertain, and he must have realized the security for Armeniathat Russia could provide at the time. He may have been anopponent but he cannot be classified as an enemy. In the cat-alogue both aspects of his political personality are reflected: ina brief account of his dismay at learning that the son of anartist colleague had died of starvation, one may see the oppo-nent; yet he crafted a magnificent portrait of a Russian soldierin uniform in 1964 (a work which has curiously disappeared).His grandfather, Archi remembers, managed to walk a fineline, maintaining his independence and integrity. He succeed-ed in raising two sons and giving them higher education.Blessed with a patron, who purchased his works and intro-duced them to a circle of connoisseurs, one might think thatcompared to today, Kalentz lived the life of “a prince ofpainters in paradise,” says Archi. Living in his own house witha garden, he could paint whenever and whatever he liked, hadadequate materials, could entertain guests, drink coffee withthem or play his beloved game nardi (backgammon). In 2010,on the centenary of his birth, the Galentz Museum opened inYerevan, and in Armenia a commemorative stamp was issued.For his wife, Armine, life in the Soviet Union after 1946 was not easy. But she said she had no regrets about having movedthere, since only there could she, as an Armenian women, findfulfillment as an artist.As for Nikogosyan’s fame in Russia, there are a number ofstatues he was commissioned to create as a young sculptor,commemorative plaques, and critical studies of the period fea-ture his activity. Aslamazyan, who lived to be almost 100 yearsold, died in Moscow and rests in the pantheon in Yerevan. Inher native Gumri, an Aslamazyan Sisters Museum housesworks by her and her sister, Eranuhi. At the same time, asArchi points out, they are also part of the Moscow culturallandscape.
Distinct Personalities These four artists, who have shared a common, though dif-ferentiated journey through turbulent times in life and art,emerge in the exhibition as highly individualized talents. Thecurators have taken special care to provide a glimpse of eachas a singular personality, by including short passages fromtheir writings. Thus, we read Nikogosyan’s account of a chanceencounter with a man who bore a remarkable resemblance toVincent Van Gogh, and whom he joined in a moving tribute toa deceased poet. We read of how Aslamazyan continued draw-ing literally up to her dying day. “I don’t get outof the house now,” she wrote in her nineties, “butin any case I get up at eight o’clock every morn-ing and do my exercises, have breakfast and sitdown in front of my drawing board. I draw 3 to 4hours a day, otherwise I cannot live.” In this spe-cial collection of thoughts, entitled “Davtar of MyLife” (2001), she concluded, “That is all; whatcomes next, I do not know.” In the same work,she philosophized: “What would happen if onehad no dreams? A dream is the beginning of cre-ativity. A dream  is the future.”Armine Kalentz, who exerted a profound influ-ence on her grandson, also recorded herthoughts in a volume entitled, Longing …Valuable Recollections. Armine Kalentz aboutHerself. In one entry she reflects on the role ofthe creative person: “An artist is a lucky mediatorbetween God and humanity. He finds the mean-ing of life in beauty, in that he reflects it in thesoul and abandons himself unreservedly to thiscause. This striving can also be hard however,when every time, disappointed, it uncovers atruth, and communicates incessantly with death.”
A Curse and a Blessing When Nikogosyan’s daughter and Kalentz’sson met as art students in Yerevan, they fell inlove and married. Their son Archi Galentz is notsurprisingly also an artist, who has studied inRussia, Armenia and Germany, his current home.This “artist family dynasty,” as critic Michel putsit, recalls similar families, like the Brueghels,Cranachs and Giacomettis. Was this, he asked, aproblem for the younger scion of the family?Archi quoted the farmer’s adage that says:‘Under a mighty tree no grass grows.’ Born intosuch a family he had to discover himself, findwhat was truly his own. Through extensive trav-el, he was exposed to a variety of artistic experi-ences, yet “the interest in the intellectual heritageof my grandparents stayed with me.” He had to come to terms with this past, in a spirit of respect although notwithout a critical approach. His heritage he considers both “acurse and a blessing”: a curse, “because some saw me as priv-ileged, as one who could not rebel against the achievements ofhis forefathers. Most young people do not know the influenceexerted by the generation of my grandparents, who lived andworked in a state in which there was injustice.” As for theblessing, this “lay in the fact that already as a teenager I wasexcited about the euphoria about change taking place in theSoviet Union. And when, from Berlin, I witnessed the collapse,that did not correspond at all to what I had seen in the life andwork of my grandparents. So I have been forced to erect myown edifice of ideas, the way archaeologists put together a pic-ture from the pieces of a puzzle.”Archi did not know his grandfather and namesakeHarutyun, who died young, but had the advantage of closerelations with the others. Grandmother Armine impressedupon him the need to abide by one’s own convictions. And heenjoys the invigorating company of grandfather NikolaiNikogosyan — “still, at an advanced age, a very vigorous per-son to converse with.”
As Kerstin Beurich, District Councilor for Education,Culture, Social Affair and Sports, noted, “Armenian painting isless well known in Germany than Armenian music.” This is cer-tainly the case, and not only in Berlin. All the more reasonthen for such shows to travel to faraway places. It is to behoped that this exhibition will be invited to other lands, espe-cially those where the artists worked and exhibited, and wherethere is a large Armenian diaspora community. Would it not bewonderful to host this exhibition in New York and Boston orLos Angeles?
(Note: Quotes have been translated from the Germancatalogue text by the author.)

 

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