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Monday, September 7, 2015

Martiros Saryan

Poppies, 1958, Martiros Saryan
Armenia, (light brown) lodged between
Turkey and Azerbaijan.
How do you write about an artist almost no one has ever heard of before, from a country many people have never heard of, and one which few people could find on a map, even if their life depended on it? Yet that artist is probably the most outstanding that country has ever produced. First of all the country is Armenia. Okay, it is a pretty small country as you can see on the map (right). It's lodged between Turkey and the only slightly larger former Soviet satellite of Azerbaijan. Quite mountainous and landlocked, it's roughly halfway between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea just south of Georgia, north of Iran. It's not hard to see why most people could never find it on a map. Historically, the country is most famous for the Armenian genocide during WW I. For as long as anyone alive today can remember, Armenia was under the thumb of the USSR, until that government's dissolution in 1991 when they became independent. If you're now saying, "Oh, that Armenia," don't pretend; I didn't know most of that either.

Ararat at Spring, 1945, Martiros Saryan. Can you spot Noah's ark? Probably not.
Self-portrait, 1909, Martiros Saryan
Martiros Saryan is arguably the best and most famous artist Armenia has produced in modern times. The fact that you've never heard of him simply indicates he was a big fish in a very small pond. Insofar as I can recall, I've never written about an Armenian artist; which, alone, would be reason enough to do so. Most of his career Saryan was an Expressionist, which means I'm not particularly fond of much of his art. He has his moments of brilliance, though, such as his Poppies (top) from 1958. His Ararat at Spring (above) is also quite stunning. Mostly I like quite a number of his portraits, such as his self-portrait (left). As might be noted in seeing Saryan's touching, Portrait of Mother (below, right), from 1898, his portraits vary in style considerably according to when they were painted. Saryan was less expressionistic in his early years and much less so as he grew older. Over his lifetime, Saryan painted several self-portraits. The one at left dates from 1909 when Expressionism was running rampant all over Europe and Saryan was at the height of his Expressionist period.

Village Makravank, 1902, Martiros Saryan
Portrait of Mother, 1898, Martiros Saryan
Martiros Saryan was born in 1880. I could mention where, but if you couldn't find Armenia then locating his birthplace would be rather pointless. He was born in Russia, in any case. Following the Russian equivalent of high school, at the age of fifteen, Saryan moved on to the Moscow School Arts where he was influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. His early work reflects a kind of mixture of the two. Though he's considered an Armenian artist, Saryan was twenty-one before he first visited Armenia around 1901. There he painted several rather dull landscapes such as Village Makravank (above) from 1902, which were well received back in Moscow. It's hard to see exactly why, but then, there's no accounting for Russian tastes in art. Whatever the case, Saryan's Bedouin with a Camel (below), from roughly ten years later (1911), would seem to indicate that, in adopting the prevailing style of Expressionism at the time, at least it lightened and brightened his palette.

Bedouin with a Camel, 1911,  Martiros, Saryan. You sort of have to like Expressionism to appreciate Saryan's work during this period in his career.
Saryan at work on a portrait of Ida Kar.
The years just before, during, and after WW I were turbulent years for Armenia and virtually anyone living in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas as political power and military dominance passed from first the Ottoman Turks to the Germans, and finally the Russians who eventually turned the tiny countries into minor parts of the Soviet Union. Saryan traveled around the area frequently, sometimes to escape the conflicts, sometime in helping others do the same. He traveled as far away as Egypt to help refugees fleeing from the Armenian genocide before eventually settling in Soviet Tbilisi (Georgia) where he married in 1916. There he worked to establish the Society of Armenian Artist, while also finding work designing for the Armenian State Theater. For two years, 1926 to 1928, Saryan and his wife lived in Paris, where he gained some degree of international recognition. However all during the difficult 1930s, until his death in 1972 at the age of ninety-two, Saryan lived and worked in Soviet Armenia painting landscapes and portraits (above, left). Most of the work I consider to be his best was done in the years during and following WW II, paintings such as his Grapes (below) from 1943. Today, his former home in Yerevan has been made into a museum featuring his work (bottom). Considered the founder of the Armenian national school of painting, Saryan was buried nearby, next to Komitas Vardapet, the founder of the Armenian national school of music.

Grapes, 1943, Martiros Saryan
Martiros Saryan Museum, Yerevan, Armenia.

The sculpted monument marking
the grave of Martiros Saryan,
Yerevan, Armenia.


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