Aram Issabekian, a Meritorious Artist of the Republic of Armenia, a prominent painter and the Rector of the National Academy of Fine Arts, devoted his life and spirit to two nameless Muses; Painting and the Fine Arts Academy. The first guided him throughout his life; the second accompanied him for more than twenty years.
These lines are about his first Muse, Painting, or, rather, Art in general. The choice of vocation did not come by accident. Both his father, Edward Issabekian, a professor and a People’s Artiste, and the mother, Arpenik Nalbandian, as well as his uncle Dmitri Nalbandian, the People’s Artiste of the Soviet Union, were critically acclaimed in Armenia and across the former Soviet Union, notably in the Russian and Georgian artistic communities. Aram Issabekian is their worthy heir.
Outwardly smooth and straight, his creative career was not really an easy one. His ordeals would have devastated many, and could have changed the course of his life. He was 12 when he lost his mother, Arpenik Nalbandian, who cherished and encouraged his talent for drawing. She took him on his first drawing trips. His father, Edward Issabekian, played a no less important role in his creative career. Edward Issabekian played an equally powerful guiding role in the careers of hundreds of his former student artists. Famous, decorated academicians and those who earned no titles but were no less talented never failed to express their gratitude and always spoke warmly of Edward Issabekian.
It is almost too obvious a statement that classical precision is the antipode of the romantic element. This obvious statement is nonetheless always and unfailingly accurate. Rubens’s figures, Delacroix’s historical scenes and the liberation of color from the domination of lines, the Impressionists’ tonal values (les effets de valeur) guided Issabekian the father. Issabekian the son, on the one hand, was more interested in the life of objects, while curiously nostalgic about the metaphysics of the Middle Ages, with their Knights and myths; definitely a new phenomenon in Armenian visual arts. Issabekian the senior found inspiration in matters heroic, historic, womanly. Issabekian the junior sought inspiration in Caravaggio, the Dutch still lives, Velázquez, Goya and why not, Morandi, de Kiriko, Picasso, Delveaux and Garzou.
Those for whom art is not a game or a dispensable source of inspiration, but a matter of life and serious vocation, should follow and study their favourite old and new masters. Of no less importance is anchoring one’s creativity on the mental and spiritual axis that defines his own nation, its history and important moments.
These days many tend to escape these eternal existential issues; others try, as much as their talents allow, to explore them deeply and thoroughly. The depth of such exploits varies from shallow poster-like to complex and dramatic. From this perspective the image of Andranik, created by Aram Issabekian in 1991, is charged with drama. For the first time, the general’s destiny is depicted in all its complexity. All details of the painting are symbolic; Shapin-Garahisar, Andranik’s birthplace in the background, with its stone houses perched across rocky hills, a river flowing at his feet, with the last survivors of the Armenian Genocide walking across an arched bridge, the bleak space on his left, the figure of young Andranik himself, clad in haydouk attire, his mother and son in front of him, gazing at human bones scattered across barren land, the old and desolate Andranik in a trench, with guerillas on horseback behind him, the Statue of Liberty on the right, casting a slender ray of light over the exiles crossing the bridge.
In 1993, the artist’s studio caught fire; shortly afterwards, in 1994, his father’s apartment where he was staying with his family, burned down; Mher, the artist’s son, barely managed to put it out. Many paintings perished in that fire. This drama was depicted in Silva Sukiasian’s book, entitled Aram Issabekian’s Hues (Yerevan, 2001). It took him a lot of time to forget the heartbreaking smell of oil paint, the phantom of his perished paintings. For quite a while, he stopped painting in oil and engaged in various drawing techniques, including oil pastel, with mystical white ornaments drawn over layers of color; he also drew in silver and gold pencils, and his enchantment for Goya’s metaphysical painting got even deeper. Venetian scenes, nudes, knights, architectural phantoms rendered new life and spirit to Aram’s painting. He creates hundreds of compositions using different motives and techniques; these could serve an excellent example for many a discerning artist, capable of grasping the meaning of evasive phantoms of metaphysical reality. These nudes, knights and women, idol-like human and animal figurines, with blooming bushes growing on their heads, and others opened new artistic vistas in Armenian painting.
The artist probably has an ideal. This ideal is not about conforming to what appears to be right, but rather about the image of ideal culture. Most likely, this is Italian Renaissance. Nightmarish and grotesque images born out of the Sumgait tragedy and the earthquake eventually gave way to a beautiful world; the crucifix does not make this world any less beautiful. Two Crucifixions painted in 1999, one in Pisa and another in Florence, are a good example. The first is drawing-like, painted in sanguine and coal, in a free style; the second is in color, in Pre-Raphaelite style.
Still lives have a special place in Aram Issabekian art. The first and subsequent articles on his art commended the virtuoso execution and the rather unusual, for an Armenian artist, choice of objects (H. Igitian, Foreword to Aram Issabekian Album, 1999, V. Harutunian, Armenia Reborn, 1990, M. Stepanian, A View of the Mysterious World, Golos Armenii, 10.1999, etc.). Unlike the more or less marked naturalism of the portraits, which either convey or bear the imprint of the emotions of a person or reflect the artist’s admiration with the model’s character, beauty, attire and charm, Aram Issabekian’s still lives are symbolic, metaphysical, surreal or nostalgic. In the 1970-80’s some Soviet, especially Russian and Armenian artists, relinquished the decorative, industrial (agricultural and factory settings) and ethnographic styles of painting and turned to hyper-realism and a naturalistic surreal mode of expression. This rendered the world of their emotions and imagination almost palpable.
Aram Issabekian’s objects tell a story. He effortlessly includes in his still lives marble-floored seaside terraces and antique facades in the background and never uses redundant generalizations to alter objects beyond recognition. He uses objects that are dear to him and talk to him, bringing back pleasant memories about grand cities he had visited. Nature comes alive with objects that make up an artist’s routine (an easel, a chair, a stick of pastel, a palette, a frame, a sponge), as well as objects linked to his own life and that of his family and kin (a clock from Igdir, feathers, crayfish, a twisted horn, a parrot in a cage, etc.) as well as mementoes from the artist’s travels, exotic objects like seashells, mysterious Venetian masks and luxurious berets, an Egyptian figurine, and, finally, assorted bottles of glass, copper and crystal, retorts, vessels, coffee pots and jars. In this incomplete list of still life paraphernalia, a special place is taken by various flowers and fruits, including all kinds of flowers from the artist’s garden, thorny twigs, sunflowers, nuts, apples and others.
In still lives, the artist changes his style, but always remains true to the object even at the level of minutest detail. The change of style is informed by texture and volume of objects, depicted with almost invisible delicate strokes. Such sculptural style of depicting volume is characteristic of the period and the aesthetic emotions that guided the artist (different from his private emotions and related mostly to the process of creation).
Of course Aram Issabekian’s still lives are based on the classical approach, which started with Caravaggio and the Dutch (substance, details and integrity) and culminated in the classical perfection of Chardin’s still lives. In Armenian art, such still lives were painted by Zakar Zakarian and Gregor Sciltian (the latter paints his flowers and insects with almost scientific precision). This is different from the still lives of Armenian masters (Terlemezian, Hm. Hakobian, Sarian, Galents and Minas Avetissian) who mostly relied on the play of light and shadow. In the beginning of the 1980’s several young Armenian artists responded, in a variety of ways, to photography-like hyper-realism that spun off of pop-art in response to decorative painting and against abstract trends. In Aram Issabekian’s still lives, made in the 1980’s, emotions are expressed through objects that represent his mental and spiritual perturbations. Chardin was unrivaled when it came to attaining the highest aesthetic levels of objects and through objects. Chardin’s self-portrait is depicted in Memories (1983) by M. Manoukian, a young Armenian artist of the 1980’s.
The title Memories always means much more than the artist’s memories. The life of objects was an important research area for the 20th century poets (from Ulke to Allen Grinsberg) and different styles of painting and sculpture (the cubists, Morandi, Bochioni and Manzu’s still life sculptures, Sciltian’s herbarium still lives, finally pop-art and hyper-realism).
Issabekian never tampers with his objects or the classical perspective, irrespective of the level of generalisation or detail. Chardin made the still life genre a classic, contrary to the statutes of the French Academy of Fine Arts, where the still life was considered a lowly genre compared to historical and mythological scenes and portraits. Diderot broke this stereotype and declared Chardin the greatest artist of France. In the beginning of the 20th century, after Cezanne, thanks to Matisse, Sarian and Galentz in Armenia the landscape, portrait and even thematic painting became «still-lived», i.e. on the one hand the portrait was brought down to the level of the still life, whereas the still life was elevated to the level of a historical scene; in terms of the hierarchy of genres, Cezanne’s still lives and Puvi de Chavannes’s biblical scenes appeared on the same level. Aram Issabekian’s still lives as if challenge Edward Issabekian, the patriarch of historical scenes.
Our objective here is to discover new developments in Aram Issabekian’s still lives both in terms of iconography and, to a degree, the means of expression of the genre.
The first type of still lives represents the recovery of this classical (Chardin’s, in our case – Zakarian’s) genre through the analysis of the texture and volume of mundane objects rendered in conventional cinnamon, ochre and local color schemes. The objects of study include clay vessels, a piece of lard, cheese, onion, garlic, a bread knife, a carving board for meat and vegetables, local or foreign fancy wine bottles and pitchers, fish, a basket, some colored fabric. In some cases, objects represent the anxiety of the period, like the deprivation of the first years of blockade; an oil lamp, a fancy old globe next to it, a seashell, fruits, an old coal iron, sunflowers, nuts, thorny twigs, a Jeanette parrot in a cage, fish, a copper mortar, etc. This group of still lives was eventually complemented with new pieces.
It is up to the viewer to see and savor these modest objects, representing an Armenian lifestyle, memories of grannies and daddies and the essential attributes of an Armenian commoner’s life. This impression is created by conventional artistic discipline of painting the background, the table, the table cover and balanced arrangement of objects that are almost tangible. That is, the objects depart from their mundane nature and elevate to the level of symbols. The still lives connected with music, painting and family memorabilia are imbued with special warmth.
Another set of still lives is linked with exotic, mostly Venetian and European objects. These were mostly painted after the fire at the artist’s house and studio, when, while drawing numerous sketches he fought back the sad memories brought about by the smell of oil paints. This is perhaps the Latin Mediterranean with Italian masks, mannequins, wine glassware (the land of glass, since the times of Roman antiquity, was Murano, a city close to Venice), crystal, porcelain, and small reddish feathers amidst piles of shells. These landscapes have a foreign, metaphysical air. Objects familiar to any family in Yerevan, a water pitcher, a ceramic pot with a broken rim, a chrysanthemum, a jewelry box, retorts and dry butterflies, appear fresh and new. Marble and granite paper weights typical of old educated households, delicate porcelain vessels, flower vases, foreign wine bottles and goblets with fancy handles are rare in Armenian still lives. Some Diaspora Armenian artists were keen on exotic objects like Indian and Egyptian pottery and glassware. Zakar Zakarian liked painting glassware. The still life becomes even more exotic when its key objects include Venetian colorful masks, proudly displayed in Venice souvenir shops and flea markets, sad guests from the Venice carnivals; Pierrot, Harlequin and enigmatic Egyptian Nefertiti. They are surrounded by equally exotic whitish, pink and greenish big and small shells. China pieces are often decorated with Mycenaean or Roman ornaments. Is this the old carnival, the performance of serious mimes, or is it something else? The artist adorns them with old Italian fancy hats and pieces of lavish silk; there is even a white card with a calligraphic rendering of the artist’s name. Except for the table and the furniture, everything else in these still lives is rendered in cold colors. The artist is overwhelmed with doubts and anxiety about the unknown, an emotion even more strikingly expressed in My Way, 1993, and 1988. Armenia. The latter expresses a national and philosophical cadence, a farewell to a youth (a self-portrait in a frame), with a firm grip of the national flag, a violin and a trumpet, symbolizing the Karabagh Committee and the sources of the liberation of Karabagh, a yellow cedar leaf, immortelle flowers in a metal vase and a big sketch of Jesus. This is a symbolic painting, almost a readable one. My Way bridges the path from symbolism to metaphysics and the great unknown expressed in the wooden cross with one broken arm, an oil lamp (our small world), a seashell and an apple, which often accompanied medieval minstrels (§stone me with apples¦). In the background, there is the sea of the Ararat Valley encircled with the Armenian Dance mountain range and dear Igdir behind them, turned into a new national epos by the brush of the artist’s father.
The third group of still lives are flowers, in full bloom, budding, with sharp or round leaves, against bluish-green or almost orange background, in tall flower vases, surrounded by fruit. There are asters, daisies, flowers with big yellow heads and of course, various roses. My Garden is a special series depicting different kinds of roses planted and tended by the artist, with big and small blooms, bathing in soft rays of the sun. These roses look more like a landscape than a still life, and the style of painting is more like the luminous style the artist uses to paint his landscapes.
The most recent ten to fifteen years of Aram Issabekian’s life have been full with duties of the Fine Arts Academy Rector, especially after its division from the Cinema and Drama School, which became a separate entity. These were, both literally and figuratively, years of reconstruction of the Academy, which included the building, the auditoria, the opening of a special exhibition hall, to the expansion of the schools and departments, review of the curricula, modernisation, establishment of the school of Graduate studies, gradual promulgation of new advanced views and methods, and even the change of the name from Institute to Academy. This operational and creative activity continues in the artist’s garden and studio. Impressionism, especially Claude Monet’s art, has always been admired in the artist’s family and in the art of his parents and uncle. Claude Monet had also been a skilled gardener and often depicted his own shrubs and bushes, bridges and trellises covered with rose vines and lotuses growing in his garden pond.
The paintings made in his own garden radiate the same bright feelings. This is not metaphysics, neither is it symbolism. This is like inebriation with life and nature, especially strong in those who breathed spirit into the landscape. In these paintings, the light and color are impressionistic, but the rose petals and leaves, the grass beneath the rose bushes, the moist soil, the dry black leaves, and the radiant azure sky delicately reflecting the pink and the yellow and the greens from the garden, are depicted in minutest detail. The way the artist treats each single petal and leaf is reminiscent of the special way the masters of Italian Renaissance painted their flowers and shrubs.
Self-portraits and Family-pieces
A group of portraits that are not state portraits, like those of Aleksan Kirakossian, Sos Sargsian, Paravon Mirzoyan and Varouzhan Vardanian, will be discussed below; they rather express the artist’s personal attitude towards his sitters.
It refers to not only family-pieces, but also self-portraits and portraits of women. We may say that the artist’s manner in portraying facial traits, especially the precision with which the portraits are rendered, was revealed while still a student, e.g. the self-portrait of 1974. It is palpably clear that the 22-year-old painter is already educated and tries to portray every detail of his handsome youthful face: rich, disorderly hair, thick eyebrows, beautiful big eyes, sensitive lips and, first and foremost, the charm of the boyish face at the age of early 22.
In another self-portrait of the same year, executed with freer strokes, the artist presents a synthetic character of a mischievous youth of the Yerevan streets and yards of 1960-70s. It somehow recalls the Homeless by the classical painter Stepan Aghajanian. However, the artist does not claim the background of the youth as in the Homeless, but rather the phenomenon of self-fulfillment which, for many, took place in the streets rather than at home. For the 22-year-old artist, this self-portrait is executed with an unusual mastery, with unfettered penetrating strokes and a somewhat Curbetesque spirit, as shown in the portrayal of emphasized cheekbones, nose, mouth, eyes, forehead and the unruly hair.
In a 1979 self-portrait we see a totally different person. Instead of a child the viewer encounters a young dandy with a brush in his hand, seated by the easel. Youthful romanticism is replaced by a classical expression of dignity, where straight lines and flat surfaces of the canvas, easel and chair assume an important role, in addition to the portrayal of neat clothes, the sweater and beautiful big eyes.
Self-portraits of 1973, 1979 and 1980 make up a single stylistic group, depicting the artist standing or sitting in a clean white robe with a brush in his hand. They seem to be the degrees of consciousness of one’s “ego,” that are being groomed towards the more mature “ego” in the self-portraits of 1990s. The artist’s surrounding is as neat and reserved as he is. He seems to have responsibility not only for himself, but also for others. For such outstanding merit he is probably indebted to his family and the intellectual background.
In a 1988 self-portrait, apart from seriousness, there appears anxiety. It precedes the above mentioned pieces, owing to its monumentality and volume treatment of the robe.
Portraits of children and women occupy a special place in Issabekian’s gallery. Art critic Marina Stepanian mentions a series of portraits of the artist’s daughter Anna. The Little Anna with a Dwarf (1989) reveals the artist’s inspiration drawn not only from the child, but also from Velázquez’s Las Meninas. It refers both to the child’s clothes: starched collar, long pleated dress, white embroidered sleeves and so on, as well as to dark strokes, an artistic atmosphere created from the child’s pure face, the light and darkness with no specific transition from the floor to wall. Special attention is paid to the face, hair, hands, the dwarf with a collar resembling Santa Claus, and the shoes.
This is an intimate picture created in 1989 during a nightmarish period when Armenia was in a potentially explosive situation. Anna becomes a good fairy and a muse for the artist. She becomes a medium to project concealed tender feelings of the mature artist, which he discretely expresses, referring to the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque on the one hand, and to the simplicity of Hakob Hovnatanian on the other. He demonstrates sensitive command of the line and form, at the same time maintaining the vitality of his brush, like in Anna with an Old Lamp 1995. The feature is expressed through the background treatment: a wardrobe, a table and a chair. Brushstrokes enhance the representation of dress ornaments, gold threads, as well as the face and the hand. In other portraits of Anna as, for example, Renaissance 1995, Anna against Green Background 1997; the artist appeals to his imagination. In above-mentioned works Anna is portrayed against the azure background of the sea, the sky, Naples shore or Venice lagoon. Both in the child and maiden portraits Anna is dressed with fine taste. In both works the background is almost the same, except for the seashore. The girl wears a superb Italian beret, either red or dark coffee, animated by a red ribbon. It’s hard to say whether or not the Pre-Raphaelites inspired the artist, however the impact of Italian art is evident in the representation of fine silhouette, in a somewhat Gothic pictorial expression of the eyes, the nose and the lips. He has endowed Anna’s image with the sublimity of marble and mural.
In general we may assert that A. Issabekian’s talent as a portraitist is best revealed in the portraits of Anna, his son Mher and Issabekian the father: Anna with a Lamp 1995, My Children: Mher and Anna 1986, Mher 1995.
Portrait of Edward Issabekian (1995), the forerunner and mentor of Armenian art, is the best, executed in a completely different style, compared to the last self-portrait of Edward Issabekian. It is a dramatic portrait of a man who had a vision of another world, a man with unfettered artistic quality. This is a cry of a parting person, who had a vision like Sarian in his last self-portraits in pencil.
In Aram’s piece the painter is calm, trying to conceal his vigour behind the patriarch’s appearance, leaning against his walking stick. A man who carried out his mission is engulfed in thoughts; he has curly silver hair and beard, thick white eyebrows, red eyes and a purple, almost young mouth.
My Children: Mher and Anna was executed in the same year. The artist has applied a totally different, more lyrical, approach in the representation of the children, achieved through the background of warm blues, yellows and ochres, as well as through a twisted and circular antique wooden chair, and at times the children’s circus and outdated acrobatic clothes, that evoke children by Velázquez-Goya-Picasso; from Infanta Margarita to the child images of the Blue period of Picasso, as well as the classic portraits of the artist’s own children.
Aram Issabekian stated in an interview that the artist’s originality is expressed through his freedom. Then he added, “the constructive factor is of great importance in art. I’ve always considered the significance of architectural and musical canons in my creative life. Realism is the central tenet of my art.” (“Yerazhisht” (Musician), 2 (3) February, 2006).
We distinguish the extravert and introvert types in psychology. Similarly, there are objective and subjective types in the psychology of style. Love of architecture and music accounts for symmetry, proportion, volume, space and time order. In particular, this refers to portraiture.
In another interview Aram Issabekian answered ironically the question why some of his portraits of 1990s represent officials. As far as I know, these “officials” are close friends of the Issabekians; or they are the artist’s friends of his age. Most of them are distinguished artists of his and elder generation: People’s Actor Sos Sargsian, artists Paravon Mirzoyan and Varouzhan Vardanian, poet Armen Shekoyan and others.
The artist’s so-called “realism” is palpable in these portraits. On the one hand they look alike, on the other the sitter’s mood or, rather, inner tension and seriousness are inherent to the portraits.
Three-quarter representation of the head and body, which endows the sitter a solemnity, stems from the images of seated poets and philosophers of Antiquity, inherited from the Antique theatre statues as an effigy of the author, to the early medieval images of Virgil and Terence. They were subsequently modified into seated or standing evangelists, as portraits of authors. Such representation is immanent in early and high Renaissance period state portraits, as well as in the photographs of outstanding and venerable people. Certainly, early Medieval Armenian art, particularly Cilician miniature, Hakob Hovnatanian and Yenok Nazarian, maintain this tradition. In the latest period few Armenian artists follow the trend; if so they alter it by the use of decorative and bright colour play.
Aram Issabekian strives to achieve solemnity without losing the sitter’s individuality. Solemnity is achieved through a century-old approach and respect towards his sitter and the latter’s occupation. At the same time the artist aims to create earnest characters, depending on the sitter’s occupation.
Such portraits were created in 1990s, when the pathos of the just victory was replaced by social and psychological depression, that the artist had to overcome, too. That is why he chose to depict people of firm social standing; actors and artists: Sos Sargsian, Paravon Mirzoyan, Edward Issabekian, as the forefather in Armenian painting after Sarian’s death, Varouzhan Vardanian, prominent statesman Aleksan Kirakossian, political figure Artashes Geghamian, Navasard Kchoyan, Primate of the Ararat Diocese, and others.
By maintaining the sitters’ earthly appearance, Aram Issabekian has idealized them to a certain degree. Nevertheless, his heroes are not romantic, nor are they beautified. The artist avoids special enhancing effects and the grotesque. The portrait of Paravon Mirzoyan is constructed on dark and light chiaroscuro. The artist has achieved strong likeness to the sitter. The viewer is presented a determined and hard-working man. Geometric simplicity (cone, oval of the head and a round beret) makes the portrait solid, decisive and determined. The construction is animated thanks to the three-quarter pose.
The coat and sweater, covering the mass of the body, are tangible through the light and shade receding into the background. General cone-shaped composition is completed by the oval of the head and the beret. The face and the body are portrayed in three-quarter, with photographically minute depiction of the face. The character is slightly idealized, resembling more a political figure, provided the artist’s attributes (beret and robe) are excluded. The eyes are tense and fixed. The eyebrows are divided by the bridge of the nose; and the two vertical wrinkles above the nose enhance the sitter’s determined look.
Portrait of Aleksan Kirakossian is a more monumental work, with the same conic composition. His gown and fine sweater are highlighted in certain parts: at shoulders and around the folds, which makes the sitter look more concerned. He is the man who, together with Karen Demirjian and Fadey Sargsian, once initiated the building up of our small republic with its metro, highways, massive blocks of flats and factories in different towns of our country. He also organized great events and international art symposia on Armenian art. And now nothing is left; the blocks of flats have been abandoned or destroyed by the earthquake, the factories have been sold and deserted. We need time to erase the aftermath of the war, depression, brain drain and emigration. Aram Issabekian has captured the minuteness of disappointed expression on the tragic face of a public figure.
The portrait of poet Armen Shekoyan (1998) is one of the best pieces. It has undergone a thorough treatment, which is of benefit to the sitter. Shekoyan is the funny storyteller of the post-Soviet political and economic life in Yerevan streets, with its ordinary and unusual people. Thus, he is not merely a poetical character, but one of the heroes of his poetry, wearing blue jacket and bright azure shirt, seated in an apricot velvet arm-chair against a simple coffee background. In such a colourful space his face is shining, executed in minute details: high forehead growing bald, big ear with a rather long earlobe, eyelids, eyes, aquiline nose, thin lips and elongated double chin.
Our hero is placed a little above the viewer. This feature endows the character with sublimity.
The jacket is well treated; it is more generalized in ultramarine drapes, which empower the poet’s character. Many people and families of Yerevan from every walk of life know Armen Shekoyan.
Landscape and Subject Compositions
Landscape is the genre where Aram Issabekian displays freer artistic approach. That is, he puts aside the straightjacket of linear and inner responsibility. He is neither concerned with distinct appearance of the sitter, nor realistic or metaphysical content of still life, concerning thematic content and technical limitations. We are presented with pure enchanting nature. The artist’s affiliation with his elder predecessors, Edward Issabekian and Dmitry Nalbandian, is apparent especially in the genre of landscape. The former committed himself to the romantic aspect, disregarding the difference between the subject-matter, e.g. king Artavazd on horseback and an oleaster on the edge of the rock. The latter found liberation from official portrayals in sunny luminous landscape.
The two landscapes we have seen feature changing anxious moments, broken weather (Fishermen in the Evening, 1985, Cloudy Day in the Sevan, 2006). The former is a genre landscape, while the latter is only a natural element.
Another group of landscapes presents an idyll: sunny more or less steady weather. They are Impressionist landscapes to a certain degree, with definite motifs, as the Sevan or the artist’s garden. The paintings are free, made from immediate perception of nature. Bright colours, definite strokes seem to reproduce deliquescent forms: water, grass, even sand, the play of light on the rocks, branches, leaves and clouds.
The influence of Van Gogh’s paintings – executed in his personal Impressionist technique – is palpable here. The work My House in Ashtarak (2009) differs from the others in its documental acclaim. The two-storied house, almond tree in bloom, newly sprouted trees with straight or curved branches, the blue bench in the garden, bushes, alleys and trimmed parts of the garden are depicted in every detail. The viewer experiences the same warm feelings that the artist has transferred onto the canvas. Besides Van Gogh, Chagall, Mirò, Sarian and Gorky, others created such documental landscapes too. There is the feeling of one’s secure shelter with blooming trees and spring sunlight.
If we experience the artist’s spontaneous and intimate feelings, projected in his landscapes with more or less precision, then the so-called subject compositions pursue certain objectives: enquiry, colour, patriotic, metaphysical, religious and so on. They emanate from both the motifs and the mode of representation. It is impossible for the viewer and art critic to understand the creative motivation of the artist. Nevertheless, the paintings speak for themselves.
For example, two small-scale works may properly be called experimental: Ira with Child on the Couch (1982) and the Nude (1982). They differ from the artist’s subsequent works. Here we see an experiment of applying the paint straight away by a spatula, exactly like in the works of post-war Tachists de Staël and Faurtier. De Staël and the Tachists furthered this method with colour and claimed to release the painting from the linear bonds of Cubism and Suprematism. The artist has even framed those small-scale paintings by squeezing the tube of oil.
He has executed the figures of mother with child and the nude against red background by a spatula applying a few local colours and achieving an almost hieroglyphic texture. These paintings not so much stimulate tonal mixture as do the reliefs exploited by spatula. Such a painting was indulgence in those days (1980s). So he had to quit using expensive French paint Le Franc, prompted by a gentle hint by his father.
A series of paintings encode certain interpretations of artistic motifs within the confinement of romantic painting. Such interpretations of renowned or less distinguished old masters is not educational, but rather it puts on display one’s primary concerns and interpretations and has a rather old history. It was common in the 19th century to recreate El Greco’s works by young Cézanne; Delacroix, Daumier; Millet’s works by Van Gogh; Goya and Giorgione’s interpretations by Manet; Velásquez, Davide, Poussin and Ingres by Picasso; Velásquez’s works by Francis Bacon and so on. Each of these artists pursued a certain objective: aesthetic, robotic, biological interference and so on. There exists such an attempt in Armenian painting as well; Karen Smbatian has created colour interpretations of Daumier and Millet. Aram Issabekian also appeals to this method by creating a series of reclining nudes or odalisques. We are familiar with them from the Sleeping Venus by Giorgione, Danae by Rembrandt, Goya’s Naked Maja, Odalisque by Ingres and finally Olympia by Manet.
Aram Issabekian’s Nude (1982) – in local colours with dense colour surface achieved through the use of spatula – as if makes complete the simplification of the scheme of the image. That is he destroys the mysterious image of the nude. Other works with the Nudes were subsequently created. New lyrical, tragic and allegorical interpretations of nudes came about after such an ample simplification.
I do not think these interpretations were deliberately made. A whole new range of situations and conditions arose in newly independent Armenia, and the artist himself, that could bring about various – even contrasting – interpretations of the nude. The Nude was extremely “undressed” in the Beauty, seated half-naked in an armchair, with bracelets around her wrists, iridescent shawl on her head, leaning back on red pillows against warm well-tried coffee background, which heightens the woman’s bare white breast, neck, face, jewels on her shawl and dress. At first sight it seems to be the continuation of Manet’s Lola. Another nude (The Odalisque, 1999) with a simple female body is lying on the couch.
The only luxury in the painting is the drapery of bright and contrasting colours and luminous female figures which recall Alexander Bajbeuk-Melikian’s late period interpretations.
Aram Issabekian’s nudes become victims with masks, like in the Homage to Thick-skinned, 1989. Here the interior and exterior are intermixed: skeleton-like ghosts with scythes and grim-faced well-dressed thick-skinned people with the same faces and posture are standing by the dead nude’s bed. The sinister raven is imperceptible under the nude’s feet. Here, painting and symbolic references are merged, as for example in Goya’s several grotesques, since the painting neither reflects Sumgait, nor the earthquake. The entire work is composed of the juxtaposition of warm and cold colours based on classically balanced principles. At the same time it is horrifying. The Feast (1996) and Pagan Armenia recall the Valpurgian Night. In both works the reclining nudes are holding a glass. In the first painting the model is wearing a mask on her white pale face; in the second the nude is leaning against a cushion, her body is executed in warm colours, and her head is resting on her hand. They are more or less pretty girls. Dominance of blues, the hyena or dog lying on its back, a lute in one hand and a mandolin on the other, reminiscences of blue aqueducts, basilicas, pink mountains and ominous sky depicted in the background of Pagan Armenia create an uneasy mood. In the two examples the dominance of blues is strictly Greek or pre-Greek, recalling the epoch of heroes.
The same huddled hyena with an ominous raven is depicted in anticipation of dead flesh in the Feast of the Hyenas (1989). Here a dead man is lying on a couch, and the Azeri men are howling at him holding a cudgel above his head. The artist has shown well-planned brutal insanity of the killer of tortured and raped man. This is a true story that happened to a man who had survived the Sumgait genocide in Kirovabad. Dying or dead tormented Armenians of Kirovabad were thrown into a cellar and then attacked by fanatic Azeri women who snatched out the eyes of dying men like harpies. Our survivor had pretended dead; together with other dying Armenians. They were rescued by Russian soldiers and sent to Armenia.
The artist felt the imminent catastrophe when creating the work Remember 37 in 1996. Together with his friend, painter and rector of Yerevan State Fine Arts Academy’s Dilijan Branch, Ghazaros Ghazarian, the artist was inspired by a colourful motif of a wooden and stone barrack with barred windows – that once was a pigsty – glittering under dark evening clouds in Dilijan. The whole colouring of the painting is mysterious, cold and dreadful. The barracks are surrounded with leafless trees, dead branches, fences, artificial mountains and grey clouds. Later, the artist learnt that the pigsty had once served a place of execution of the 1937 victims. Thus he painted a synthetic image of those victims in bloody-red bold linear profile.
Aram Issabekian has created images of old tailor’s dummy nudes in pure brown hues. They are enigmatic, made up of detachable parts in a kind of metaphysical environment. This metaphysics stems from the Italian painters, firstly from Carrà with his mended metaphysical horse and Hermaphrodite Idol. It assumes new theatrical forms in mysterious linear and colour visions of Dali and Garzou.
But in the works of Aram Issabekian the tailor’s dummy acquires tragic features, as for example in the Dream (1999) and The Witch (1999) in Venetian carnival dress and with a raven in her hand.
There prevails one subject-matter in compositional works that we may call “chivalrous” or “fantastic” recalling medieval Italian novels. It does not necessarily reach something idyllic, another ominous bird, a mask, a wall or a sinister colour is immanent, say, for example, bloody-red background and the cat in the Meeting (1997).
Impersonal armoured knights, either seated or on a horseback with long spears, appear along with the nudes (Woman with the Knight, 1996, Knight and the Woman, 1992). Red, blue and green are dominant colours in the interiors together with ochre of the female body made up of separate or mended parts, exactly like the body of tailor’s dummy, at the same time maintaining the figures’ femininity. These works are evasive and haunting like dreams; and there is a kind of ruined nostalgia for chivalrous ages – like in Yeghishe Charents’ Knighthood – or for Provence troubadours’ devoted love which failed, like that of Bertrand de Ventadorn and queen Melisende’s romance. They are theatrical like paintings by Delvaux and Garzou. Such robotization of human figures is converted into rebuses in several graphic plates of 1990s.
The feeling of anxiety was reflected in the work Christ on the Cross 1996, where the symbol is explicit: God is depicted on the cross after agony. Wooden sculptures of crucified Christ has been known in Armenia since the 9th – 10th centuries from the Ejmiatsin Havuts Tar of the Holy Sign.
The artist has depicted Christ as a wooden sculpture. The wooden representation of Christ reached its sensual incandescence during Gothic times, when artists started to paint wood. In the reproduction of a wooden sculpture of Christ, apart from ochres and umbras, there prevails crimson, the colour of royal blood as well as purple, dark violet and azure of the cloth covering the pubis. All these features have been rendered into the symbol of the Holy Mass in Gothic style.
Aram Issabekian’s graphical works rival his paintings for the diversity of quests and subject-matter. Something that is common for an artist of classical education. The artist has an exceptional memory for colours and combinations, facture and texture of the strokes exploited by Velásquez or Rembrandt or another artist. This is a crucial feature, since it is almost impossible to have such a memory without previous experience and enquiries.
A drawing is a token of every artist’s technical and mental skills. As the 16th-century Mannerist theorist Lomazzo mentioned, the artist’s mistakes and slips are obvious in drawing; whereas light and shade may disguise them.
In drawing one can perceive the artist’s devotion to the model and nature, as well as the lessons of those masters and culture that appealed to him while creating that very piece.
At Gosh Village – done in charcoal in 1994 – is a small piece with typical scenes of the Tavoush region and the Gosh village, with trees and gable roof cottages placed amid wooden fences of the garden; a few birds and a couple of lines indicating the mountain in the background. Rows of lines are identical to the flower beds, trunks and foliage, vertical and horizontal stonework of the houses and so on. Old Watermill in Byurakan (1974) in charcoal is executed in the tradition of Dutch graphical landscapes. The window openings of a decomposing building and wall cracks enliven the surroundings. The Seine from Cité des Arts (1996) is a completely different drawing. Here the arrangement of clouds, birds and dry twisted branches stands motionless in horizontal lines of buildings and river dikes, which animate the windows, mansards, arches and the depth of the street. The Tree, a study of 1975, recalls Dürer and the High Renaissance masters. The tree with its large trunk holes and dry brunches as if wants to awake from age-old sleep. View from Dilijan (1995) is a small-scale pastel of a lyrical Dilijan scene in exquisite taste of lines and colours, like small-scale pastels by Pissaro and Sisley.
There are also studies of nudes in crayon and sanguine on tinted paper and fantastic Mutant (1997) in sanguine, which echoes drawings by Bosch and Breugel.
1999 Crucifixion mentioned above followed the Christ on the Cross (1997). The artist created a sketch in sanguine and charcoal for the first piece dated 1999, which is totally different from the oil painting. In both examples Christ is dead. The sketch is too generalized and dramatic; the sky seems to be ablaze, and fire is coming up from the graves in the background, some cross-stones are burning; there is a generalized silhouette of a temple or baptistery on the right, to the left of the cross there are three Marys and spearmen on the right. The Crucifixion in oil is devoid of sentiment. The atmosphere is refined. The foreground and background are treated scrupulously. Holy women at the cross are talking peacefully; there are horsemen and humans in the background. To the right of the cross there is a knight with a spear and a nobleman petting his hound. To the right of the cross there is a temple – baptistery on a stylobate and a carefully depicted silhouette of a high basilica. Otherwise, it is not a tragedy or drama, but rather metaphysical space recalling astonishing plans and murals by such masters as Veneziano, Boticceli and Perugino.
At the end of our concise report on Aram Issabekian’s art we come to some important conclusions. What has he achieved? What do his paintings show? What kind of artistic product does he introduce to us?
- Aram Issabekian is a sensitive artist, who does his best to express through art his feelings on the nation’s fate, the existing injustice, a peaceful corner of nature, an impression from a great artist, children, women or elderly people;
- He has classical education, a keen eye that captures and immediately reproduces the experience of various epochs and masters of the past and present, be they Armenian or European;
- He strives to immediately reflect every impulse – metaphysical or realistic and fantastic – that he gets from nature and urban landscape;
- He is constantly living in a process of progressive and perilous change, both in Armenia and the world;
- The classical eye and education prevent him from running into extremes and making haste. Whatever motif or medium he chooses, the artist always keeps the classical style in mind, along with a sense of harmony and objectivity;
- In 1960, when the artist was eight years old, Nello Ponente – one of the most authoritative experts on Modern art – declared in his book on post-war trends that figurative painting was on the verge of extinction, and that it was the time of art informel (non-figurative images). Even Surrealism that returned the life and meaning to objects had nothing to do any more (not to mention Socialist Realism).
But history turned to be different. Figurative and non-figurative art have been competing since the 1960s. Alongside the most non-figurative art movements: Opart and Tachisme, the most figurative art movements, such as: Hyperrealism, Popart, as well as the art of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud are flourishing.
As demonstrated by the legacy of the 20th century, non-figurative art paves its way through obstacles both in the art of the Diaspora and in the homeland. Such a way is open only for realistic, metaphysical, surrealistic, decorative, constructive, allegorical movements and even for ersatz-religious and spiritual art.
Aram Issabekian is the most talented representative of realistic, allegorical and metaphysical trends in Armenian art. Moreover, he acutely senses the alienation process in art and the society, and reflects it in a specific manner. After all, he is the artist in whose art the Diaspora and homeland coexist.
Finally, experience or excitement has its particular role which, if not realized in due form, may be incomplete. Aram Issabekian realizes and gives meaning to his experience, maintaining a distance from the loquacity of the subject-matter.
Great masters and our compatriots Garzou and Jeansem – having once gone through the same emotional and cognitive route in France – have acknowledged Aram Issabekian as a mature artist who does not need advice, and is able to restrain his emotions and express them through classical-symbolic language.
Vigen Ghazarian, PhD
Professor of Art History