a source on Armenian Art

Paravon Mirzoyan's 'Unprecedented' Gift to the National Gallery of Armenia

I am desperately trying to remember a case in the history of museum management, when a gallery director would turn much-needed exhibition halls into his private studio in order to paint couple of enormous paintings and then present (and accept!) said enormous paintings into the permanent exposition of the gallery. It seems that such a precedent has occurred for the first time in Armenia (correct me if I'm wrong) just a couple of weeks ago, when the National Gallery director Paravon Mirzoyan officially presented his panneux to the gallery and hung them in one of the most visible spots of the entire building - the 4th floor foyer which leads to the halls containing medieval Armenian frescoes.

The event was a cause of derision among the artistic circles, and quite a few attacks in the press (see here). But of course, this comedy of errors pinpoints to fundamental flaws in the management and use of an extraordinary institution that since its foundation in 1921 has bore the flag of Armenian art for over 90 years (the last ten years the flag has been passing from hand to hand and is in a constant state of a limbo).

Not having witnessed the 32 square meter panneu, which reportedly depicts some kind of a synthesis of 'Armenia' (the second, yet to be painted work will depict 'Artsakh') - I can not judge the artistic quality of Mirzoyan's latest opus. However, what astonishes me is the blatant form of self-promotion by the director of the largest art museum in the country. Mirzoyan has always generously given his works to the museum, which is now bursting with examples of his art. I don't need to explain what this 'official' presence in one of the most venerated artistic repositories of the Caucasus signifies for the market value of Mirzoyan's output.

The gallery has gone through many upheavals in recent years. Restructuring of personnel, claims of theft, illegal money-laundering activities, etc... etc... Mirzoyan's reign in the past seven years or so hasn't been entirely unproductive however (as some critics would note). Under his stewardship the museum hosted an increasingly large slate of important exhibitions, acquired a wholly new department of film (essentially a cinematheque run by Melik Karapetian), activated the publication of highly important catalogues which revealed the many riches of the national art collection and finally some long-due renovation and building maintenance work was done to freshen up the gallery and bring into a semblance of a modern museum.

Yet in other, equally important areas the director's vision leaves a lot to be desired... The constant, blatant misuse of gallery's exhibition spaces to hold retrospective exhibition by artists less than worthy of the honour is the most obvious transgression. I will not shy away from naming at least one such artist - Valmar - a widely ridiculed painter of little consequence, who recently had a large one-man show at the gallery. These exhibitions take place with blind disregard of gallery's long-standing policy that it should only hold retrospectives of major, long-established painters (who are usually dead or in very advanced age).

It is no secret that the director has himself used the gallery to hold two retrospectives of his own, publishing a lavish catalogue, the cost of which was subsidised from gallery's coffers. Meanwhile an important exhibition of Minas Avetisyan, which showcased many hitherto unknown works of was relegated to two pathetic rooms and the catalogue barely even registered on the radar with mere 300 copies seeing the light of day.

All this is taking place while the museum has so far failed to note the major jubilee of Armenia's greatest master of modernism - Yervand Kotchar and seems not to have taken any steps yet for the celebration of Vardges Surenyants' 150th anniversary. Surenyants (1860-1921) is one the most significant Armenian artist of the late 19th early 20th century and is still a consistently strong drawcard for the gallery's visitors. His 1907 painting 'Salome' is undoubtedly one of the very few internationally famous works of Armenian art. Hence this major jubilee is one that should have been noted on an unprecedented scale. Despite a proposed plan for these celebrations in the Ministry of culture, there are no signs yet of it taking place.

While Mirzoyan has stated a number of times that the mission of the gallery is "the study and publication of its collections and Armenian art history in general" (see here) - which supposedly excludes any contemporary art - Mirzoyan and co are actively involved in the propagation of the 'master's' oeuvre for nation's benefit.

'Unlayering' Historical Yerevan for the sake of History: The Imminent Demolition of 'Moscow' Cinema's Open-Air Hall

A useless, ghostly, worn out shell of cement is being torn down in Yerevan. A familiar enough sight in a place where many a building has 'miraculously' been wiped out under the mantle of a single night. But this particular disappearing act is causing a lot of havoc and noise than is normal. Architects are aghast, the Church is voicing its 'rights', while the government is busy drafting various justifications for yet another act of cultural vandalism. The 'concrete shell' in question is a building in a city that had somehow forgotten about its existence, outgrowing, outsmarting its once noble function - to show cinema.

But a city like Yerevan, which operates more as a tableaux vivant or better yet a 'living theater' that would terrify even the glassy-eyed "Magus" from John Fowles' eponymous novel - obviously has no need for the safe dangers of cinematic fiction which can be quietly experienced in a movie theater. The visceral thrills of fiction have spilled onto the street making most Hollywood films pale in comparison.

In fact, out of nearly forty movie theaters that operated throughout the city up until 1991, Yerevan currently has only two commercial cinema houses left - one of which barely operates these days. Which leaves us the 'Moscow' cinema. Built in 1934, it was the first grand movie 'palace' in the capital and has unquestionably remained the favorite film-viewing venue for the locals up to this day. It shut down briefly during the mid 90s due to Armenia's economic meltdown and re-opened in 1997 to a tired, exhausted and in many ways indifferent population that had quickly learned to drown its sorrows in an endless cycle of Latin American TV serials.

By cleverly turning the architecturally beautiful complex of the cinema into a central hub of social networking, the new, capitalist managers had succeeded in slowly luring back the audiences into the theater - despite the abundance of pirated DVDs, illegal TV screening and now, internet downloads.

However, this enterprising beginning did not extend to the open-air Summer hall of the complex that has remained generally unused and shut off from the public for two decades. It is this 'useless' appendage of the Moscow cinema complex that has been put on the chopping block. The Government published its decision on February the 25th, announcing that the management of the 'Moscow' film theater has decided to give this territory (without any monetary compensation) to the Holy Seat of Ejmiatsin, which plans to reconstruct a 17th century church that once stood in that same area.

The announcement generated an large-scale outcry from architects, historians and the general public alike. This must have come as a shock to the parties concerned as the building in question didn't have nearly the same kind of public profile as numerous other now demolished buildings in Yerevan (most striking example of which was the enormous Youth Palace which was dismantled a few years back despite being one Yerevan's significant architectural calling cards).

A bit of back story:

The current site of the 'Moscow' theater used to be an extremely important area of historic and archaeological significance. The central structure of the site was the 17th century St Peter (Surb Poghos-Petros) church, which was built upon the ruins of an earlier, 5th century church that was destroyed during the enormous earthquake of 1678. The entire surrounding territory was heavily built up over the years with quite significant public structures (a large mosque, bathhouses, shops and the like) which in itself constituted an irreplaceable cross-section of medieval Yerevan - now forever lost. After the arrival of Soviet power in 1921, the local government took active steps towards 'rebuilding' of the little 'oriental' town into a modern city worthy of a Soviet capital. This effectively meant the total destruction of the medieval architectural layer - including most of the churches, the mosques, the ruins of the Persian palace and over 90% of traditional houses.

Alexander Tamanian's general plan of the city grafted an entirely new grid-like composition upon the tightly woven, irregular structures of the ancient city. Which meant that everything that stood on the way of the wide, long streets with their sidewalks would have to go. To be fair, Tamanian was very sensitive to the issue of architectural heritage and was closely involved in the study, preservation and restoration of numerous architectural monuments throughout the country. And he did try to save what he considered to be the heart of historic Yerevan - the Abovyan street axis - from significant destruction. Neither are we to suppose that he agreed with the utterly senseless vandalism that resulted in the disappearance of so many of the city's valuable historic buildings. In fact, the demolition of the St Peters occurred AFTER Tamanian's untimely death in 1936. But the fact remains that the great architect planted the seed of rather blind practice of 'renewal' and 'modernisation' and a incomprehensible prejudice against anything 'old' that has plagued Yerevan for over 90 years now.

Ashkharhabek Kalantar (1884-1942) - a pioneering Armenian archaeologist - left an invaluable historical study of Yerevan that gives us a bitter picture of the immense loss of our patrimony in the hands of the Soviet government. His description of the St. Peters' dismantling is particularly heart-breaking (see here). It was done on the spur of the moment, without any preliminary studies or the presence of archaeologists. As a result most of the buildings inscriptions, frescoes and valuable architectural details were lost to posterity. Moreover, during the deconstruction works, many, much older (and more valuable) historical layers came to light, including the well preserved foundations of what appeared to be an extremely large pagan temple. The presence of pagan burials around this structure as well as the discovery of two well preserved Ionic capitals (only a photo of which survives alas) testifies to this exceptional archaeological find that now lies forever buried under thick layers of concrete.

But the deed was done and soon enough the current structure of the Moscow cinema by architect G. Kochar - a handsome and beautifully realised fusion of Bauhaus, Social Realism and Art Deco - was built in the exact spot of the church. The architectural harmony of the small semi-square formed by the cinema and the neighboring hotel Yerevan (designed by another classic of modern Armenian architecture N. Buniatyan) resulted in one of the most perfectly formed corners of the New Yerevan. It was immediately embraced by the public and praised as a complete architectural success all over the USSR (no major overview of Soviet architecture has so far failed to mention this stunning ensemble).

In mid 1960s, during a particularly heightened period of cinema-going in Armenia, a whole slate of new movie theaters were going up all over the city. A very popular mode of film-viewing were the open-air theaters that operated during the summer months in all the major cities of the country. Yerevan to my knowledge had no major structures of this kind and plans were put in place to construct such a hall directly behind the main building of 'Moscow' cinema. The job was given to architects Spartak Knteghtsian and Telman Gevorgian. Both of these architects were proponents of high modernism that was taking a strong foothold in Yerevan during those years. Inspired by the works of such prominent Western figureheads as Sol le Wit, Miers van der Rohe, Asplund and others, Knteghtsian and Gevorgian designed a building that was radically, almost indignantly opposed to the predominant paradigmatic notions in Armenian architecture of the time.

Their hall was poured in concrete, white, cleanly modulated in the simplest of forms, utterly devoid of decorations (aside from mosaic lobby interiors by Hovhannes Minassian and Nikolay Kotanjian - artists who were active proponents of modernism in Armenian painting) and ... most shockingly of all, hardly visible! In short, the building was a stupendously successful example of cutting-edge minimalist aesthetics that was fundamentally different in formal qualities from their surroundings yet seamlessly blended and reflected the more 'extroverted' structures it was called to complement. The hall was not only a small architectural masterpiece (as testified by numerous fellow architects like Jim Torosyan and Albert Zurabian - see here) but also a triumph of urban planning. It turned what used to be a very ugly, empty backyard in the center of the city into a fully functional, modern cultural 'temple' (the building purposefully recalled a Greek amphitheater).

The Hall served its purpose successfully for the next twenty odd years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequently of Armenian economy forced the shut-down of the 'Moscow' cinema in 1992. It has not been in use since, despite the increasing demand for more cultural venues that can accommodate the numerous film, theater and music festivals that have sprung up in Armenia in the last decade. The failure of the 'Moscow' cinema's current management to utilize this unique structure in a constructive fashion is particularly puzzling considering the presence of the major international film festival 'Golden Apricot' that is held in Summer and which it hosts, as well as the enormous festival of theater arts 'Hayfest' (held in September), which is always in desperate need of appropriate venues for its ever-expanding program.

A recently held week-long festival of rock music which finally made use of the open-air hall was an immediate success with the young public who crowded the 'abandoned' amphitheater making it come alive once more. Hopes were raised that this occasion would mark the rebirth of hall. But all these illusions were shuttered when the government and the city council announced its plans to demolish the building and build in its stead a small replica of the St Peters basilica. The ludicrousness of the decision is underlined by the same provincial stupidity that governed the attitudes of the ruling bodies back in 1930s. The senseless destruction of the cinema is called above all "an act of historic justice" (see here) through which the mistakes of the past are somehow going to be redeemed. The proposed new church, aside from its obvious religious function, obviously can not restore any sense of the historical or architectural heritage that has been irrevocably lost. It can not even be an exact replica, since the exact measurements of the old St. Peters don't exist and the exact spot of the structure is taken not by the summer hall (which is much too small) but by the main building of the 'Moscow' cinema.

As a result, if the proposed plan goes ahead, Yerevan will become devoid of a truly unique architectural marvel, not to mention one of the very few working cinema halls still in existence only to gain an unquestionably hideous, ill placed, ungainly symbol of cultural backwardness and religious fanaticism.

The supporters of this ghastly plan argue that the hall has lost its significance and is not a major monument - despite its being placed on the national architectural heritage list (from which it was promptly taken off just prior to the announcement) - and that the city's growing population is "in need for more places of worship" (again, see here). This statement, made by the press secretary of urban development beggars belief, when one considers that barely a kilometer down the street, another large building (the Institute of Languages) was demolished to make way for the Yerevan residence of the holy Catolicos - together with a new, enormous church. Besides, with at least four churches in the small center of Yerevan, it can hardly be argued that there is need for more places of worship in what is quickly becoming a business and shopping district. Whether Yerevan and its population needs more churches is in effect, besides the point. These can be of more use in the immediate outlying suburbs where there have already been successful examples of new temples (such as the church in the suburb of Bangladesh that has helped to humanise the hitherto monstrous conglomeration of ugly high-rise concrete panel buildings). The prerogative is to stop making the same irrevocable, unpardonable crime of ignorance that we've been committing for the past 90 years.

The constant, I would say rabid 'stripping' of Yerevan's historic layers has resulted in a 2800 year old city which has no history to speak of. In the last twenty years especially, we have a lost a more or less architecturally formed city with a distinct aesthetic character and gained a unfathomable Frankenstein monster composed of unclassifiable, idiotic architectural bric-a-brac poured in concrete and thinly covered in a stupefyingly random rainbow palette of tufa stone. Perhaps this latest attempt by the government and real-estate speculators has finally cut down to the bone of the rather passive and apathetic community that had been blankly watching the vanishing act of their city for the last twenty years. The almost unanimous outcry by architects against the cinema hall's demolition, led by the head of their union was echoed by the numerous voices of other intellectuals (from which the filmmakers were somewhat conspicuously absent) and the general public at large.

In a country that is notorious for the severe embargoes placed on free speech, the sound of protest is being loudly heard on online blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook. Initiated by architects Sarhat Petrosian and a group of fellow activists the Facebook group 'Save Cinema Moscow Open-Air hall' attracted over 2000 supporters in just two days. Social activism of this scale (especially in regards to cultural matters) is considered to be unprecedented in Armenia and is getting wide-spread media attention who are closely monitoring the escalating debate surrounding every development in this controversial project. It is hoped that the official appeals sent to the President, the Prime Minister and the Holy Catholicos by a large group of intellectuals will somehow prevent this travesty from becoming a reality.

While the founders of the Facebook group have stated that they're not campaigning against the church (see here), but simply against the demolition of Yerevan's architectural heritage, the unfortunate side-effect of the debacle is that it has pitted the cultural elite against the church. Thus the 'battle' has quickly spilled into a somewhat trite discourse on culture vs religion - an arena where the unquestionable heavyweight is the Mighty God.

Whatever the consequences, it is heartening to see that social activism can make a difference and can make itself heard through the last bastion of democracy we call the Internet.

By Vigen Galstyan March 2010.

Ashot Avagyan: A Magus from Ukhtasar

Working from his almost rural base tacked away in the isolated and ruggedly mountainous town of Sisian in southern Armenia, Ashot Avagyan is somewhat an anomaly in contemporary art today. Unlike most post-structuralist artists who work across different media, Avagian is vehemently against deconstruction and analysis. His elegantly reinterpreted paintings artfully reuse motifs and themes gleaned from Neolithic petroglyphs scattered in the nearby mountains, as well as late medieval folk imagery found primarily in the numerous village graveyards near Sisian. The formal simplicity and aesthetic finesse of these paintings, which is achieved through very careful and premeditated layering of images and colour fields is never tempered with unexpected 'post-modernist' intrusions that would call forth intertextual musing by the viewer. There are no slogans, messages or statements in these works - other than image itself of course. The image becomes an icon, a myth and attains certain 'functionality' (as a device that is much an artwork as it is a blatant signifier/marker/talisman) quite different from the plethora of conceptual painting that is the rage du jour in Armenia today. It is Avagyan's yearly performance pieces however, that truly showcase the breath and ideological depth of the artist's vision. Organically incorporating a stunning variety of elements - from the natural environment, the ancient monuments, costumes, performers, paintings and not the least, the audience - these irreverently experiential and unashamedly ritualistic 'happenings' echo the New York school of performance art only in their subversive methods but are wholly aimed at creating a 'total' experience for the audience who is not asked to 'destroy and erase' but to become a constructive element of whatever process or event the artist chooses to establish a discourse on. His most recent action pieces involved a two-day enactment of his own 'funeral' as well as a highly elaborate performance devoted to the cult of fertility whose 'showpiece' was the starting and stopping of the largest waterfall in Armenia. Birth, death, creation, nature of humanity - the themes are fearlessly direct and perhaps, the artist can be accused of philosophical naiveté in the face of theoretical enquiry. But standing three thousand meters above the sea level in a landscape that has been shaped through millions of years and surrounded by layers of human history, the viewer/participant as led by the magus-like artist is completely unable to attain any kind of critical distance from the work in the process. In order for the 'piece' to work and function, the artist demands total engagement, which is tantamount to enchantment. We may question and deconstruct the performance after it is finished, but by then it has already left an undeniable emotional and spiritual mark. The joy of Avagyan's art lies in his refusal to negate and satirize the themes that feed his work and to allow us a small dimension in which we could indulge in some mythmaking of our own. Vigen Galstyan 2009

Artists From Our Collection - APRESIK ALOYAN

HayasArt is not just a blog. It is serious about its commitment to Armenian Art. So serious in fact that we've been collecting it for fifteen years. Among the many quite exceptional artists in the collection, a number of names stand out, simply due to the lack of preconceptions associated with them. One of these is Apresik Aloyan - a name that is as evocative as it is unique and in perfect tandem with the creative personality that it adorns.

Outside a very narrow circle of art lovers, Aloyan's name says absolutely nothing. The artist has rarely exhibited, is not in any major museum collection and lives in almost complete isolation from the artistic circles. It would not be too misleading to describe Aloyan as latter-day hermit, except instead of a cave he has chosen an abandoned factory as his abode and art instead of prayers.

While Yerevan is the undisputed center of Armenian art, an interesting 'clique' of artists actively works in the nearby city of Ejmiatsin - the religious heart of the country - where Aloyan lives. A number of these artists have achieved prominence not only in Armenian art circles but also overseas. But the relative success of painters such as Albert Hakobian and Ayvaz Avoyan is not symptomatic of the general atmosphere of absolute ignorance shown to artists who have chose to live and work outside the artistic capital.

Aloyan's last solo exhibition took place in the now closed Ethnographic museum of Ejmiatsin in 2006. The touchingly bathetic display of awkwardly pasted sheets on paper upon which his tiny paintings were glued upon spoke volumes not only about the artist's dire circumstances but also his irreverent attitude to the reception of his work. This home-made 'exposition' reminded somewhat of a children's room where the walls are hung with the most sincere expressions of introspective thoughts, unhindered as they are by societal constraints, value systems and 'performativity'. The simplicity of artist's subject matter, the directness of his approach and the unclattered purity of his aesthetics has an immediate impact on the viewer, who is not invited to 'deconstruct' but merely to contemplate and indulge in the sweet blue haze that emanate from these works.

It would be ease to relagate these humble works to a merely derivative type of symbolist or expressionist painting, but Aloyan succedes in creating an iconography that attains a timlessness which, like in the works of other great 'outsiders' such as El Greco, De laTour, Pirosmani and Bajbeuk-Melikian functions only according to its own set of rules that are devoid of ties to any specific context and timeframe.

Aloyan's oeuvre consists mainly of imaginary portraits and figurative compositions that conjure up the most delicate, liminal sensations and moments inbetween 'active' thoughts. It is hard to assign any set of concrete emotional states to these wide eyed personages that are strangely familiar and yet disquietingly alien at the same time. The artist never gives the viewer the possibility to 'anchor' his images in any specific reality - he just lets them float in a fog of thin paint, like some kind of a mirage on the brink of dissapearance.

There are no formal or conceptual leaps in Aloyan's painting. He is neither concerned with innovation or commentaries of any sort. In his almost monochrome pallette, rigidly iconoclastic, classicist compositions he has found a voice that (indirectly) echoes many diverse traditions: the Dutch Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, Roualt, Kotchar and even Rothko. Yet there is no attempt to emulate or reference anyone, but only to play a new variation of old themes. And what exactly are these themes?

Imbued with palpable mystery that is hauntingly indestructable, Aloyan's paintings are perhaps best read as 'materialised' dream images. It is a world which, much like the one created by Alexander Bajbeuk-Melikian, refutes logic, time and space and where there is merely the joy of being and of sensations, a world that artist desperately wants to escape to and seduces us to follow.

Vigen Galstyan. 2010


Armenia has an extraordinary number of museums for a country with only one cultural centre – its capital. Most of these institutions are little known or visited these days and often look like dying species desperately trying to adapt to the new [capitalist] ice age. Having been opened and operated during the rather optimistic post-war Soviet regime the multitude of regional galleries, home-museums, ethnographic and archaeological depositories now struggle to maintain a notion of relevance in an economic and cultural climate that resolutely rejects such a possibility. The recent robbery of Hrazdan Art Gallery is a sad but potent illustration of the situation. Only once it was deprived of its treasures (little known works by Terlemezian and Sarian) that the museum got some kind of an attention from the Armenian public.

Frederic Fringhian at the museum with Hakob  Gyurdjian's 'Salome' behind him 

But what about Armenian museums outside the country? Not surprisingly there are quite a few, scattered around major diasphoran centres around the globe, Venice, Nice, Paris, Vienna, Watertown, Antilias... What is perhaps puzzling is that a similar state of indifference graces these pockets of Armenian cultural heritage. While a number of these museums have made their existence known through an occasional exhibition or publication (such as the museum of Armenian diocese in Jerusalem and the most active institution of this kind – ALMA in Watertown, USA), their true
 worth and importance remain obscure to the 
 public outside their immediate context.         

‘Le Musee Armenien’ in Paris is a case in point. Located in a posh, but somewhat rundown maison on the Avenue Foche – one of the most bourgeois suburbs of the city – the museum has closed its doors for over fourteen years now. The reason being that it had no proper exhibiting space and was deemed ‘unsafe’ by the city council. Bureaucracy and indifference almost put an end to what was at one time an important cultural endeavour by a man passionately committed to his heritage – Nourhan Fringhian.
Fringhian was a survivor of the Genocide and had arrived in Paris in 1917. Like most Armenians who settled in France, he became a model French citizen and achieved a degree of success with hard work and determination, yet his loyalties to his native land and its trampled culture remained constant and obsessive. Fringhian’s collection of Armenian artefacts became a central focus in his life and grew dramatically over the years. In 1949 he formed a society with a number of symphatisers and announced the foundation of the current museum. By 1954 it became an official entity with a building allocated by the French government to house the museum. The opening was presided by the French president himself.
During its forty year existence under Fringhian’s direction, the museum became a focal point for Armenian diasphora in France. Many donated their precious family relics, painters gave works and further objects were bought in auctions and antique shops. Fringhian passed away in 1994, leaving his creation to uncertain fate. The museum was forced to shut its doors to the public due to safety regulations enforced by the Paris City Council and has since then operated mainly as a storage facility. In a flash, the Armenian diasphora of Paris was deprived from the only tangible link to their heritage and the existence of the museum was quickly forgotten, as were its splendid contents.
Some years later, while the museum’s fate hung from an ominous question mark, the directorship was passed onto Frenghian’s son, Frederic. Fortunately, the passion and enthusiasm for Armenian art had infected Frederic as well and soon he was lobbying for the museum’s reopening. While this hasn’t happened yet, Frenghian jr. has been actively promoting this small treasure house. A notable event was the temporary reopening of its doors during the Armenian Days in France in 2007 as well as active collaborations with a number of major museums during the same period. When we met Frederic at the museum in 2008, he discussed his plans to bring back the dormant collection into the public sphere. “We need a much larger space to exhibit even a small part of the objects, plus additional quarters for storage and administrative facilities. Without some serious sponsorship or government interference, this is never going to happen”.

Zacharie (Zakaria) Zakarian. A 'Royal' Still life. Oil, canvas. Musee Armenien, Paris.

The extensive holdings of Musee Armenien are indeed impressive. Ranging from Urartian bronze artefacts to works by contemporary French-Armenian painters, we are presented with a panoramic sweep of Armenian art that only a few museums in Armenia can equal. Of particular importance are the fabulous examples of Kuthaya pottery, which sparkle with inventive designs and lustrous colours that made these humble wares so famous throughout the Middle-East. Also in collection are a number of Armenian illustrated manuscripts – a real coup for any museum.
But the pride of the collection is unquestionably the rich collection of works by Armenian painters and sculptors. It is not encyclopaedic by any means, but the selection on view (and in storage) astonishes with splendid and often unexpected works by classics of Armenian art. Take for example ‘Still-life with apples’ by Zacharia Zacharian – a much-honoured painter and a close friend of Edgar Degas. This majestic canvas is unusual for its size and complexity of composition. Zacharian preferred to paint small, intimate almost humble paintings with very few elements that often seem like poetic and subtle metaphoric capsules. But, the canvas in the museum is very large and with its sumptuous, undoubtedly bourgeois, products thematically very different from the artist’s usual ‘portraits’ of lower-class kitchen tables. It is grand and imposing like a Zurbaran still life and is quite unlike any other work of this fascinating painter. If it had Manet’s signature on it, no doubt the painting would be hanging in d’Orsay museum. Another revelation is a wonderful genre painting by a classic of Armenian painting Panos Terlemezian. The canvas, dated 1913, depicts two women – a mother and daughter - intensely involved in the weaving of a carpet. Terlemezian is not known for large-scale genre paintings and the extensive holdings of his work in the National Gallery of Armenia contain mainly landscapes and portraits from this period. The Paris museum work is almost completely unknown and unpublicized but its superb composition and profound realism gives this simple genre scene an allegorical dimension that certainly makes this one of the most important paintings to reference Armenian culture and daily life. The work has added significance as many of Terlemezian’s paintings from this ‘Turkish’ period perished during the Genocide.

Panos Terlemezian. c1913. Women Weaving a Carpet. Oil, canvas. Musee Armenien, Paris.

The museum is also the proud possessor of a large number of stunning impressionist pastels by Edgar Chahine, key early works by Jean Jansem that show the artist’s fascination with Armenian character and traditions as well as two magnificent early canvases by Grigor Sciltian. ‘The Fishseller’ and ‘A Bowl of Spagetti’ should be counted among the best works of this famous Italian-Armenian artist, who became an international celebrity for the rather kitschy portraits and symbolist paintings done later in his career.
Also notable are a number of valuable works by other important representatives of Armenian painting: Vartan Makhokhian, Arsen Chabanian, Sarkis Khachatourian, Byuzand Topalian, Zareh Moutafian, Karapet Nshanian and others.
Like the seductive princess that it depicts, the sculpture of Salome by the greatest Armenian sculptor of the 20th century, Hakob Gyurdjian, casts a magical spell over the viewer. Not only is this one of the most famous sculptures in the history of Armenian art, but it is also a key modernist work of immense significance. The Paris museum owns one of three versions of the sculpture. The finished bronze cast is in the National Gallery of Armenia and there is also an early plaster version of it in a private collection in Yerevan. But this terracotta rendering is undoubtedly the most beautiful rendition, owing in part to the subtle tonal colouring that gives the figure an uncanny life-like quality.
Then there is the group of sculptures by Leon Muradoff – the author of Andranik’s statue in the Pierre Lachaise cemetery. The humbly realist figurines in the museum throw much light upon this little-known but interesting Armenian sculptor.
Even this brief description should give a good idea of the museum’s significance as a showcase of Armenian art and culture – a center that has an equal importance for the Armenian and French community. Hence the sad fate of the Musee is somewhat baffling. Whether the luck of interest from governmental and private organisations (both French and Armenian) is politically motivated or not is a difficult question, but this indifference, especially from Armenian quarters, is a tool of destruction more powerful and potent than any other ‘foreign’ intervention.

Scildian, Grigor. A Bowl of Spagetti. Oil, canvas. Musee Armenien, Paris.

Frederic Frenghian’s solution to this dilemma is not perfect, yet presents a highly effective way through which the museum can be seen and ‘visited’ by more people than ever – an interactive website.
Sitting surrounded by the many masterpieces he was trying to rescue, Mr. Frenghian laid out the blue-prints of what was to become a virtual tour of the collections. The website would fulfil numerous functions at once. It would become the calling card of the museum, a place to establish contact with interested parties and of course, function as a virtual gallery. After two years of work, the website was launched in May. Replicating the structure of the collections, the website is divided into ‘showrooms’ such as archaeology, textiles, and fine arts. Each gallery presents key works from relevant departments, giving an overall, if very brief, glimpse into the museum’s holding. One wishes that many more objects and artworks were presented, yet we must be thankful for the opportunity to get at least some idea of the sumptuous masterpieces that have been hidden away fore over fifteen years.
Under Mr. Frenghian’s direction the collection is again growing and more work is being done to restore and attribute the holdings. He hopes that the website would renew interest in his institution and put the museum on a firmer ground.
On a visit to the beautiful village of Giverny just outside Paris I visited the small museum dedicated to American impressionist painters. Despite its limited scope, the museum is very successful due to its strategic location in a major touristic centre and appealing collections. It is by all counts a perfect example of a successfully run and organised small ‘diasphoran’ museum.
We run the risk of stating the obvious here… but with some investment and attention from authorities the Musee Armenien could have similar success. For it is quite baffling to find that Paris today is lacking a major cultural centre for Armenians who still live and create here in large numbers and continue to play an active role in France’s cultural life. The promotion of our culture in France is of strategic importance not only for the diasphora but for the entire Armenian nation. Today, almost every major country in Europe has some kind of a Jewish museum and their presence goes a long way towards the propagation of the Jewish ‘cause’. In contrast, the large and magnificent collections of the Armenian museums in Venice and Vienna (both belonging to the Mkhitarist patriarchate) as well as the one in Jerusalem are difficult to access and rarely open to the public.
Thus far, the government(s) in Armenia has never truly considered the enormous potential of museums as a tool for education and political lobbying (a necessary evil these days) not to mention their significance within a tourism based economic structure. Of course, a museum like the one in Paris is much more than that. It is, in effect an ambassador for a people and culture, a testament of the artistic heights achieved by a nation in eternal exile. As such, it is the responsibility not only of the diasphora, but also the Armenian government, to reopen the doors of ‘Musee Armenien’ and keep them that way for as long as possible.