a source on Armenian Art


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.