Genocide in Armenian Art

On the 16th of May, in London’s Navasartian Hall, took place the lecture and art exhibition of the well-known Armenian art critic: Mr. Shahen Khatchatryan- on the topic of “Genocide in Armenian Art”. The lecture and the art exhibition were dedicated to the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide and were organised by the Heritage and Cultural Committee of the ACC.

By Seda Ananian

The Chair of the Armenian Genocide Centenary Committee (AGCCC), Mr. Raffi Sarkissian, welcomed the public at Navasartian Hall in London. He summoned up the work accomplished by the Committee for the centenary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in the UK. He equally mentioned that there was still a lot to be achieved by the Armenian community in the UK and worldwide for the full recognition of the Armenian Genocide across the world.

After Mr. Raffi Sarkissian’s opening speech, journalist and art critic Mrs. Seda Ananian introduced the speaker of the evening: Mr. Shahen Khatchatryan, presenting a brief biography. Shahen was born in the city of Aleppo, Syria, in 1934, to Genocide survivors. After World War II, Shahen and his family returned to Armenia from Syria in 1946. The young boy continued his education in Yerevan, where he soon revealed a particular talent in swimming, becoming Junior Champion of the Armenian Republic. However, in having a profound passion for creative arts, Shahen entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad, one of the best Universities for studying Arts in the former USSR. Since his graduation from the Academy, Shahen Khatchatryan has held various important posts in Armenia. When he was appointed Director of the Armenia’s Art Gallery on the Republic Square, he renamed it the National Art Gallery of Armenia. In 1969, he initiated the construction and opened the Museum of Martiros Sarian on Moskovian Street, in central Yerevan. Being the closest “confident” of the Master Martiros Sarian until the end of his life, Shahen became the Museum’s first director serving from 1969 until 2003.

 Cover of the book “Genocide in Armenian Art” (by E.Tadevosian 1901), editor Khatchatryan

Mr. Khatchatryan has authored over 50 books on Armenian art, and has written articles and edited books on Martiros Sarian, Minas Avetissian, Aivazovsky, Arshille Gorky, Hagop Hagopian and many other prominent artists published in Yerevan, Los Angeles, Paris, Montreal, Beirut, Marseille, St. Peterburg and Moscow. In recent years, Shahen Khatchatryan has been the Armenian art expert for the exclusive Auction Houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

For the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Shahen Khatchatryan has published a 208-page illustrated art book, entitled “The Colour of Pain”, where over 180 masterpieces of sixty Armenian artists around the world are sampled, on the theme of the Armenian Genocide. All the work presented in this sumptuous edition are from National Gallery of Armenia, Museum of Genocide, art galleries across the world, but also from private collections outside Armenia. Some 55 paintings in this edition were unknown to the wider public before the book was published.

“Many works are presented to the public for the first time. I was able to find paintings in France, Italy, America and other countries,” mentioned Mr. Khatchatryan.

The London presentation of Mr. Khatchatryan based on his above book, consisted of four sections: artists before 1900; the Genocide Generation; artists, who were children of the Genocide generation and contemporary artists of the second half of the XX century.

H.Aivazovsky, “The Burning Ship”

Section one of the presentation comprised artists of the end of the 19th century expressing the tragic mood among Armenian artists after the first mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire of 1893-4. Among the most memorable works presented was the last painting by Hovhannes Aivazovsky, where the great artist represented the spectacular explosion of a Turkish ship on a background of the sublime blue sky. On the day of his death, the 2nd of May 1900, he began working on the painting. Another iconic painting of the period was by renowned artist, poet and Shakespearean translator Vazgen Surenyants: the deathbed of the handsome King Ara and the powerful Assyrian Queen Shamiram weeping at his side. This painting also expressed the tragic state of mind of the nation and the feeling of loss of the glorious past symbolised by King Ara’s death.

The second period was dedicated to artists, who escaped the Genocide of 1915 at a young age, and who have expressed the horrors of their experiences later in their creations. The most famous among them, of course, was the American abstract artist Arshille Gorky (Vostanik Adoyan).

Another artist of this generation was French-Armenian painter Zareh Mutafian, who never abandoned the topic of the Armenian holocaust in his expressive paintings.

The third section of the lecture was devoted to artists who were the children of the Genocide generation, and had heard about the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide from their parents. One of the most illustrious artists of that generation was Garzou (born Garnik Zoulumian, France), Honorary member of the French Academy. The celebrated French-Armenian artist Jansem (born Hovhannes Semerjian), who received the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur, was also born to Genocide survivors. The artist indefatigably painted the Genocide throughout his long artistic career in France. Significant part of Jansem’s paintings were donated to the Museum of Genocide in Yerevan after the death of the artist in 2013.

The Armenian Genocide painted by JANSEM

“Creations by these artists are the expression of deep emotional experiences of their parents, who survived the genocide,” Shahen stated in his London lecture in May.

The fourth section of the lecture highlighted the celebrated artists active in the last decades of the Soviet regime. Mr. Khatchatryan mentioned that in the Soviet Union, “Armenian Genocide” was not subject for discussion until 1965, due to the censorship by the communist regime. Only after the massive outburst of the national feelings during the first ever commemoration of the Genocide on the 24th April in 1965, the theme of Genocide was expressed by Armenian artists, poets, writers and intellectuals. Among those artists were Minas Avetisian, Hagop Hagopian, Grigor Khandjian, Sargis Muradyan, Grigor Aghasyan, Ashot Hovhannisyan, Gayane Khachaturian and many others.

Grigor Khanjian, Komitas, illustration of  P.Sevak’s poem

The presentation was followed by a lively debate with the speaker. The audience had the opportunity to view the reproductions of famous paintings kindly prepared by Mr. Gagik Tamanian, and were able to purchase illustrated art books on Aivazovsky, Sarian, Arshille Gorky, Minas Avetissian and many others published by Mr. Khatchatryan.

It is worth mentioning that over 40 valuable works of art by Aivazovsky, Sarian and other Armenian masters have been returned to Armenian museums, thanks to Shahen Khathatryan’s continuous and active campaign among private owners and collections in the Diaspora worldwide.

After London, Mr. Shahen Khatchatryan is taking his enlightening show and lecture “The Genocide in Armenian Art” to Marseille and other cities in France, where large Armenian communities have been established since 1915.

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