The Demise of a Cultural Icon


When an artist attains a ripe age and continues to create and to surprise his fans, people forget their mortality for a moment and begin to believe that the artist in question is there forever, he or she is the journeyman of the eternal, of course, until he or she faces the inevitable.

I had that feeling when I heard Picasso passed away. I thought eternity had collapsed and destroyed the traveler of that unending journey.

I experienced the very same feeling upon hearing about the loss of painter Hakob Hakobian (Hagopian), who at the threshold of 90, was still surprising his fans with new and refreshing phases of his art. I was also overcome with intense emotions as he was very much a part of my life. While still in Egypt, he had shared many collective art shows with my wife, Nora, and we had come to treasure his friendship, his art, his wisdom and his inexorable quest regarding the destiny of the Armenian people and Armenia.

I will never forget one evening in 1962, his grueling questions on life in Armenia, as I had just returned from Yerevan, after my first trip there, with mixed feelings. We were walking for miles along Cairo streets and I was trying to convey my reservations about the limitations of artistic freedom behind the Iron Curtain, trying to tread on a fine line, mindful of my principles of supporting Armenia under any condition.

Hakobian was already an upcoming artist with a solid reputation and his wife, Marie, was the foremost dress designer in Egypt. They both had opportunities to settle in Europe or North America.

As we parted late that night, I was convinced that he had understood my subtle message that Armenia was not yet for him.

Little did I know that soon he was moving his family to Armenia. “After all, it is our homeland,” he said, “no individual, no matter how talented, can be greater than his nation. We are destined to share the fate of our homeland.”

Hakobian, an unassuming person and the personification of humility, never expected rewards and glory as he settled in Armenia, first in the city of Gumri (Leninakan), where he was inspired to create immortal landscapes. Later, he moved to the capital Yerevan.

Hakobian’s art radiates a universal sadness. He was a meditative artist and he was first misunderstood in Armenia. One of his early paintings featured a poor neighborhood in Gumri, where chickens were roaming free and colorful laundry was hanging to dry. The critics in Armenia jumped on him as a result, to force on the artist the straightjacket of “socialist realism,” interpreting that the artist was sad and despondent under capitalist rule, and now that he had arrived at the “socialist paradise,” he opted for brighter colors and an optimistic outlook on life.

Hakobian remained true to himself and continued his trademark philosophical concept of art and, indeed, he achieved fame and recognition. In 1986, he was awarded the coveted prize of the Artist of the Soviet Union and in 1988, he was invited to join the USSR Academy of Fine Arts. Later on, he was twice awarded the prize of Artist of the Republic of Armenia. Although he was fond of subdued colors, Hakobian became the rainbow bridging the diaspora to Armenia. He was among the constellation of Egyptian-Armenian artists who repatriated to Armenia, at great personal risk, to contribute to the development of artistic life in Armenia. The other members of that group were world-renowned coloratura Gohar Gasprarian, opera singers Mihran Yergat, Armineh Tutunjian and Anna Nishanian, artist Arakel Badrik, intellectuals Hagop Aramian, Hagop Triantz, Garnik Stepanian and others.

Hakobian had a characteristic style with a penchant for economy of colors. His monochromatic landscapes hide so many hues that the painting begins to “speak.” Dead tree trunks emerge from nowhere like skeletons to tell the stories of the centuries.

Hakobian has always reminded me of the French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet, without the latter’s bitterness and sarcasm. Clearly cynicism and sarcasm in Buffet ran deep, eventually causing him to commit suicide in 1999. On the contrary, Hakobian’s pessimism has a submissive fatalism, accepting the realities of life as they are, as desolate as they may be.

The material Hakobian’s soul was made of was derived from the historic land of Armenia, yet somewhere in the philosophical eternity, his soul meets that of Georgia O’Keefe, because both are the masters of extracting so much emotion, so much brooding out of isolated desert landscapes.

Hakobian’s art has relentlessly undergone development; he always has been on the threshold of a new vision, a daring jump into unexplored vistas.

His early depictions of ordinary people gradually gave way to his experiment with tailors’ dummies, which were humanized to express love, sadness, dancing, remembering, etc. His paintings also depicted simple instruments, ordinary objects with powerful messages. His fragile eggs against the threatening teeth of pliers depict the frail feature of human lives versus iron logic of destiny. His headless crowds feature another message about horrors of the nuclear age.

Hakobian was a gentle person and an even gentler artist, yet he could tear your heart apart with his symbolism on Armenian history; his painting depicting a herd of sheep, heads against a wall in the summer heat, while one slaughtered sheep hangs on a pole. The herd is “sheepishly” resigned to its destiny.

The last stage of Hakobian’s art was to move from the canvas to metals to animate simple instruments. After painting instruments with loud human messages, he actually resorted to working with the metals themselves, which he collected form junkyards and turned into tiny sculptures, each one with an artistic expression. He then would cast those molds into large and impressive sculptures. The last time I visited his studio, he had already 300 tiny sculptures. It is ironic that he was planning his first large-scale sculpture exhibition for March 19 in Yerevan.

He was not only an artist, but an articulate writer. He published many essays which appeared in a voluminous book in 2006. They feature his observations, sharp criticism and questions about Armenian history, as well as artistic life in Armenia and in the diaspora. He would lash out against ugly developments of Armenian life with a sharpness no one would else would dare to express.

He was tormented about the destiny of the Armenian people. “What happened to us, where are our traditional values?” he would ask almost in tears. He would satirize, sometimes the political immaturity of our leaders and everyone accepted his comments with reverence, knowing they came from inner torment and introspection, rather than personal motives.

The economic conditions in Armenia bothered him tremendously. “My paintings are selling well and I have a comfortable life. But I am embarrassed to go into the street and look into the eyes of the ordinary people who are miserable in rampant poverty.”

During my last visit, he showed a large painting depicting a forest of Armenian skulls, his grandparents included. Right in the middle of the painting is Ataturk’s notorious racist motto: “Happy is the person who claims to be a Turk,” in Turkish.

“I would like to donate this painting to a museum,” he said. “This is my message to my people and this is my message to humankind. Let everybody know that this is the only  contribution of Turks to human civilization.”

Last November, as I took my leave from his studio, Hakobian, accompanied by his wife, walked me to the door, saying, “Don’t forget to visit us the next time you are in Armenia.” I replied, “How could I forget since every visit to you is a pilgrimage for me, when I get to enjoy intellectual discourse and artistic novelty?”

I did not know that this was to be my last pilgrimage to Hakobian.

The artist was a man of dignity and humility. He was extremely modest. He never clamored for fame and celebrity status. Yet, his humility propelled him to the peak of fame. The Armenian government has decided to bury Hakobian’s remains in the National Pantheon. He will be in good company, with Aram Khachatourian, Martiros Saryan, Minas Avetisian, William Saroyan Paruyr Sevak, Silva Kapoutikian and the other creative minds of the Armenia nation. May his tormented soul rest in peace.