Armenian art has been profoundly influenced by Armenian culture, Armenia’s long history, ever-changing geography and unique mountainous landscape.
One of the most important periods of Armenian art was that from the ninth to the sixth centuries BC. Armenia was, at this point in history, the Kingdom of Van or Urartu. Citadels, temples, irrigation canals, carved stone seals, glass, ceramics, jewelry and arms were characteristic of Urartu’s artistic endeavors. The Urartians were major producers of bronze objects. They were also very skilled in the use of silver and gold. Vases, medallions and amulets were fashioned from silver while gold was used to create articles of jewelry.
In the 4th and 5th centuries AD very important events in Armenian history greatly affected the arts. As Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in 301 AD, Christian iconography came to play a very important role in Armenian art and architecture. Also, after the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 405-406 AD by Mesrop Mashtots, the written word helped to developed the Armenian language, literature and arts, allowing for the advancement of the art of the illuminated manuscript. Armenian scribes began to copy and translate Christian texts onto parchment adding to them symbolic illustrations and introductory folios. These manuscripts were then used in religious services.
Churches soon became the main mode of Armenian architectural expression. The seventh century is often referred to as the “golden age of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture.” A great many cathedrals and monuments with interior frescoes and stone carvings pertaining to the Biblical stories were constructed.
Monasteries, founded in the 10th century, grew as important artistic centers. Illuminated manuscripts, a major component of Armenian art history, were created and assembled into books here. Today, the largest collection of these can be found in Yerevan’s famed repository of ancient documents, the Matenadaran. The twelfth to fourteenth centuries witnessed the development of manuscript illumination into the art of book illustration. Manuscripts became smaller, no longer for use in religious services. These more elaborately designed and varied works were now for private use in the libraries of monasteries and homes.
These monasteries also provided for the production of khatchkars (literally, “cross stones”), constructions unparalleled in the world of art. These carved stones were most commonly used as gravestones as well as to mark victories, foundations of villages, the completion of a church and the like. For all their diversity, the basic khatchkar design was always the same, the Cross being the central object often surrounded by elaborate ornamentation. Khatchkars can be seen throughout Armenia even today.
In the 16th century, changes in social and political life resulted in the dramatic alteration of Armenian culture and art. At this time, Armenia lost her independence and was divided between the empires of Turkey and Persia for the next 250 years. Armenian architecture and related arts virtually disappeared during this period. Armenian monasteries, churches and schools were built only outside of Armenia. Slowly, the traditional art of manuscript illumination gave way to printing. This new method of making and copying text was first introduced in Armenia in the year 1512.
From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the orientation of art turned increasingly to that of everyday life. The minor arts such as carpet and lace-making developed into well-known crafts. These arts were inspired by sculpture, architecture, and painting . The creative impulse is quite evident in the surviving examples of metalwork of earlier centuries, in the carved doors of monasteries and in the fine collections of Armenian carpets found in the museums of Yerevan.
The art of carpet-making has existed in Armenia since the fifth century BC. But, perhaps the most noteworthy period of Armenian rug weaving is that of the thirteenth century. The great “dragon” rugs showing indigenous designs resembling highly stylized dragons woven into a latticework of plant and animal forms were created during this period. They are among the most original and abstract creations in textiles.
Early in the nineteenth century when the sultans of Turkey wanted to establish rug weaving around Constantinople, it was the Armenian master weavers whom they called upon to do so.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Kutahia (now in Turkey) became a pottery and ceramics Center. Art experts have contributed the entire output of this area to Armenian potters. This attribution is confirmed by Armenian inscriptions found on the works, the characteristic representation of saints on the pieces and the treatment of ceramic tiles both purely decorative and religious.
In the 19th century we see the development of new trends in art both in Armenia and in the world as a whole. With the annexation of Eastern Armenia by Christian Russia in 1828 after the Russian-Persian war, the situation changed for the better. Armenian writers and artists were seized by the liberating ideas of Romanticism and, although most of them lived outside Armenia, their works seemed to recreate their native land, the “heavenly country,” towards which their gaze was always turned.
The first Armenian to graduate from the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg was the famous seascape painter Hovhanes (Ivan) Aivazovsky, whose work is also allotted a significant place in the history of Russian art. He gained wide recognition while still a young man, being the first foreign artist to be awarded in the Le’gion d’Honneur and becoming a member of five European academies.
Among those educated in the French school of Realism, we should note S. Agadjanyan, who gained recognition for his portraits of children, and P. Terlemezyan, a man with a heroic biography who captured the inimitable beauty of Van, his native land. Products of the same school were the fine and original still-life painters Zakar Zakaryan and Hovsep Pushman, who were less well known in their native land.
Of late 19th century artists, we should note Vartkes Surenyants, who gave history painting a place in national art, working in a style related to Art Nouveau. Egishe Tadevosyan brought Impressionism to Armenian painting. The most important of the graphic artists was Edgar Shahin, whose work was highly prized in France.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Armenian culture reached a turning point, where its future development depended greatly on the cognition of its roots, on the ability to find new means of expression to assert modern national style. The revival of ancient traditions was a historic necessity for the people with such a rich cultural heritage. Poetry and theater experienced a great upsurge, the world of Armenian music was revealed in all its original beauty, and the wonder of medieval architecture were studied and interpreted in scholar papers. The Russian avant-garde also helped shape the creative personality of Georgi Yakulov, while a little later Yervand Kochar was greatly influenced by the latest tendencies in French painting.
In 1915 the Armenian people suffered a terrible tragedy. Whilst Europe’s attention was fully engaged by the First World War, a horrendous program for the destruction of the local population was put into effect in Western (Turkish) Armenia and the same fate awaited Eastern Armenia. Victory in the battle of Sardarapat, near Yerevan, in 1918 saved the last plot of Armenian land from destruction and it was here that the Armenian state was born. Armenians living in this 30,000 square kilometers of land were once more seized by great hope and they set about the recreation of their motherland with great enthusiasm. Members of the Armenian intelligentsia poured in from all over the world. The capital, Yerevan, was built up according to plans drawn up by A. Tamanyan and in the space of a few years the city gained a university, a museum of fine arts, theaters and a conservatoire. The time had come to set about the training of local artists and thus in 1924 the first art schools opened in Leninakan (now Gyumri) and Yerevan, followed in 1945 by the foundation of an art institute.
The art of the new Armenia was a natural continuation of the colorful, vital art of Martiros Saryan. Hagop Kodjoyan turned to mythological and historical subjects, endowing them with heroic and romantic sentiment. Sedrak Arakelyan produced intimate, sincere depictions of local landscapes and traditional Armenian life, employing a delicate color range.
At the same time, there were a number of talented Armenian artists working in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a traditional place of residence for thousands of Armenians. Among those were, G. Grigorian (nick-named Giotto), H. Karalyan, H. Garibdjanian, and the superb painter Alexander Bajbeuk-Melikian.
A whole galaxy of artists emerged in the Diaspora. Their art developing under a foreign sky, the artists in the Diaspora projected onto canvas their recollections of the lost childhood. Perhaps it was to be expected that the new Surrealist movement found fertile ground in their tortured souls. “I was born in Asia Minor,” said the famous American writer William Saroyan, “and therefore in my head the real and the allegorical are intermixed.” The results of such as intermingling were soon to become visible. One important figure in the history of Surrealism was Leon Tutundjian (France), while the founder of Abstract Surrealism was the American Arshile Gorky (Vosdanik Manuk Adoyan). Surrealism also influenced the work the superb French artist Carzou (Karnik Zulumian).
After World War II, there was a widespread tendency towards realism, with artists expressing their longing, their loneliness and depression. This also reflects in the work of the new generation of the Diaspora artists, such as a Jirayr Orakian in Italy, and Jansem (Jan-Hovanes Semerjian) in France. Hagop Hagopyan (Egypt) also worked in this mood, although he was to continue his work in his homeland later on. In Italy, the Neo-classical artist Grigor Shiltrian gained wide renown.
In speaking of artists of the Diaspora we should remember that their work, while it belongs to their native countries’ cultures, has drawn substantially from their national roots, representing the Armenian fate. This, most definitely, allows us to consider the Diaspora art an indispensable part of Armenian culture.
At the same time, back in Armenia, as well as elsewhere in the USSR, art was going through a period of stagnation, and some kind of incentive was badly needed to save it from mediocre obscurity. In the sixties, a group of young talented artists entered the scene, breaking through the orthodox “socialist realism” dogma: O. Minassian, R. Atoyan, M. Petrossian, A. Melkonian, A. Hovanessian, V. Galstian, A. Sukiassian, R.Khatchatrian, and others. The leader of this group was Minas Avetisyan. Parallel to this there was a revival amongst artists of the previous generation: A. Bekaryan, S. Rashmadjian, A. Ananikyan, G. Khandjian, S. Mooradian and Lavinia Bajbeuk-Melikyan. Also of this generation were two repatriated artists: the fine, delicate painter Bedros Kontradjyan, who returned from France after the war, and the bright colourist Harutyun Galentz, who began his career in the Lebanon. Gayane Khachaturyan and Sergei Paradjanov were born in the same town, the colorful, inimitable Tbilisi, and the work of both is whimsical and full of fantasy.
Today, Armenian artists continue to develop and change just as they have done throughout history. The Armenian people, as is evident, have contributed significantly to every period of world art. No doubt that they will continue to do so in the future.
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