Sumbat: A Son’s Tribute to His Father’s Unique Style, Creativity


“Roadside Teahouse, Iran,” watercolor, 1962

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Dr. Armen Der Kiureghian is the Taisei Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and the winner of numerous awards and patents. He is also a dedicated son and art lover, who wants to shed light on the legacy of his late father, painter Sumbat Der Kiureghian.

His efforts have culminated in a beautiful coffee-table book, The Life and Art of Sumbat, filled with the paintings of his father, which often captured Iranian village life, as well as traditional Armenian life. The book was published in Armenia, where, incidentally, Der Kiureghian was the founding member of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Armenia.

The younger Der Kiureghian was at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) on Wednesday, May 25, at a program jointly sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), where he discussed the genesis of his father’s art.

The artist, who is generally known by his first name, Sumbat, was born in New Julfa, the old Armenian quarter of Isfahan, Iran. Armen Der Kiureghian stressed that by writing the book, he was not claiming to be a historian or art historian, “but my credentials are my intimate knowledge of the artist.”

He added, “I admired Sumbat as a man and as an artist. Sumbat’s art was an integral part of his life.”

Der Kiureghian explained the history of his family, which was typical of Isfahan Armenians. He said his father was descended from the 17th-century Armenians who were forcibly brought to Iran by Shah Abbas, the Persian king, from Jugha, in Nakhijevan, Armenia. The reasons were many for this forced migration, but mainly, they were for bringing the silk trade in which many took part (and thus the Silk Road) to Iran. Many settled in the Iranian cities of Hamadan and Arak but the majority went to Isfahan, Peria and Charmahal. In return for the violent uprooting, the government treated them fairly liberally as far as the practice of their religion or the maintaining of their culture was concerned.

Many of Sumbat’s early paintings involve those of the old Vank or church in New Jugha, which Der Kiureghian explained, because of the cultural juxtaposition particular to that city, had vaguely Islamic architectural features, as well as traditional Armenian elements. Because of the Armenians’ travels for trade all over Europe, there were even influences from as far afield as Venice in the churches there.

Sumbat’s father, a watch repairman, died fairly young, leaving his mother, Takouhi, a widow with several children. “Sumbat was exceptionally likeable” and already showing signs of talent as a painter when in the 1924-25 school year, he won a painting competition. A painter, Sarkis Kachadourian, mentored him. He also received a medal from the king, Reza Shah, for his efforts in promoting Iranian art.

Eventually, Sumbat dropped out of school and opened an art studio. His business thrived, and he produced many paintings for a seemingly- insatiable clientele. He met and married a young woman in Isfahan, Arax Aftandilian, and the young family eventually moved to the port city of Abadan. He organized an exhibit of his paintings there and one of the people attending it was Stanley F. Foster, a Briton who was touring Iran. He was so impressed with Sumbat’s style that he asked for lessons from him, in return for funding travel to Europe. They left for almost a year, during which Sumbat taught and created many paintings.

Sumbat was not only an artist, he was also a family man. Armen Der Kiureghian recalled that his father started a tradition of taking actual pictures of his family and then transposing the pictures of their faces onto other scenes that he would paint. For example, the family members — father, mother and three children — are on a canoe, as a Gypsy family, etc. Many people, he said, clamored to receive the cards and in fact asked for them.

In addition, Sumbat would create colors and textures of his own, giving particular warmth and affability to his works. For example, the younger Der Kiureghian said he used coffee grounds from traditional Armenian coffee.

Another of his innovations, his son said, was painting on newspapers (“Sumbatism,” as Der Kiureghian called them). The newspaper paintings on either Armenian- or Persian-language newspapers, which eventually became one of the hallmarks of Sumbat, started out, Der Kiureghian explained, as a means for Sumbat to clean his brushes in between colors. Afterwards, when the colors would make patterns, he would take his time and add just the right shapes to transform the random colors into a cohesive picture.

What interested Sumbat was village life and he would often leave for a few days at a time, taking only a few essentials, including his easel and paints, and just paint.

He also visited Armenia and painted many villages there. In fact, his paintings are in the collections of the Armenian National Gallery and Echmiadzin.

Sumbat moved to the US in 1980. For more information on the book, the artist or to see a collection of his paintings, visit www.sumbat.com.