- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
March 5, 2004

Immortal Images: Saryan's subjects live on through the genius of his portraits

In two bright halls of Martiros Saryan's house-museum, 124 of the artist's portraits have gone on exhibition to commemorate his 124 th anniversary.
Saryan's Three Ages.

The exhibition, called Time and Contemporaries, displays Saryan's work from different periods. It opened this week and will run for a month.

Enter the hall and you are transported into the world of the last century's intellectuals. Canvasses full of bright colors greet you with well-know representatives from art, science, history, and politics, beginning with Yeghishe Charents, who was Saryan's first model (1923), conductors Konstantin Sarajev and Ohan Duryan, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, poets Hovhannes Shiraz, Avetik Isahakyan, Anna Akhmatova and many others.

Each character created by the magic master of brush and color has a special appearance, revealing the inner world of the person, penetrating the secret corners of his thoughts and dreams through a correlation of the language of art and the skills of the painter.

The central work of the exhibition is the Three Ages self-portrait (1942). Here, Saryan depicted himself during three periods of his life – as a young, mature and old man – on one big canvas.

On the right, the vigorous black-haired youth, full of courageous ideas. On the left is middle aged Saryan, a little worried and vague. In the middle is the famous Saryan, standing confident and gazing firmly at you at the height of his powers.

With this painting, he showed the course of his life, revealing not only his physical age but also his spiritual and ideological development.

There is also the famous portrait of Charents, where the painter's favorite Egyptian mask appears for the first time. Charents' strict and insightful look is underlined through Saryan's green shadows solution. The mask stands as a symbol of eternity, making the great poet immortal.

Saryan had his own method of working on portraits. Before starting work he had long conversations on issues that interested the person, hunting for expressions typical of him, his inner state.

The monumentality of his works expressed through free brushstrokes and color solutions typical of sculpture mouldings characterizes the strictness of our nature, its epic power and strength.

“The painting itself took a very short time. Fast, without any preparation drawings and with surprising precision of color, he seemed to sculpt the person's face, bringing to the surface the hidden state of the spirit. That is the secret of why his characters have fresh and living expressions,” says Shahen Khachatryan, the founder and director of the Saryan museum.

Only nine of Saryan's 124 subjccts are alive today, including poetess Silva Kaputikyan, academician Varazdat Harutyunyan, composer Eduard Mirzoyan, and conductor Ohan Duryan.

Harutyunyan, a 95-year-old architect and academician who was lucky to survive the Genocide, recalls how in 1949 Saryan asked him to tell something as he was painting his portrait.

“So I started telling him about the bloody and horrifying days of the 1915 Genocide and about my family's escape. In the middle of my story the painter suddenly dropped the brush and started crying,” he says.

Saryan lived with the life of his people. He wrote in his memoirs: “Each artist is great to the extent of his attachment to his people, of expressing its history and its soul. Great art is after all created by the nation, through the hands of its children.”

The great painter was born far from his native country, in 1880 in a village Nor Nakhichevan established by Armenians near Rostov on Don in Russia .

Recalling his own history, Saryan said: "My ancestors had come to the banks of the river Don from the Crimea, and to the Crimea from Ani, the capital of medieval Armenia . I was born into a family that followed the old patriarchal customs. There were nine children and I was the seventh.

“I do not know when the artist was born in me. It was probably in those days when I used to listen to my parents' stories about our mountainous, enchanted country, when I used to run as a small boy over the land around our home, and was filled with joy at the many colors of the butterflies, insects and flowers. Color, light and day-dreaming - those are what fired me.”

Shostakovich by Saryan. A great composer by a great artist.

During his study at the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1903 he visited the land of his ancestors at Ani, the old capital of Armenia . After traveling to many countries, the painter began the first stage of his creative life, which he called Fairy Tales and Dreams.

The second stage of his works covers the period from 1909 to 1920, when the painter's emotional response to the Armenian Genocide dominate.

The last phase runs from 1921 until his death in 1972 and is full of Saryan's cheerful colors, where everything is sunny and bright. Even sadness is proud here, silence is deserved, darkness and anxiety are meaningful and hopeful.

“A person is nature, nature is a person.” Saryan's concept of painting is wrapped around this idea. In Saryan's philosophy, a person is an inseparable part of nature, its continuation; just as in his art, masks are a unique continuation of his landscape paintings.

Saryan's art has taken his place in the constellation of painting innovators from the beginning of the previous century, and belongs to those painters whom Matisse described in the following way: “We threw aside all the influences and means of expression acquired before. We went towards color and it allowed us to express our feelings, without any mixes, without the well-worn means of building the image.”

In Saryan's works, color acquires independent value and freedom. He wrote: “Color has to reflect the essence of life. Through color I show whatever I see more clearly and light becomes especially strong in my paintings.”

Saryan's art became a messenger, which with its eagle-high scale flew over the world telling tales of his sunny motherland and its proud mountains.

French writer Louis Aragon once said: “The light of Armenia reaches us thanks to Martiros Saryan. A happy color falling on people, mountains, fruit… It's a rediscovered treasure. His color is so beautiful that Saryan has to be given a primary place next to Cézanne and Matisse.”

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