By Aram Arkun
NEW YORK — Cubist-Impressionist Simon Samsonian (1912-2003) painted for six decades in Egypt and in the United States. Orphaned as a toddler by the murder of his parents and separated from his sister for decades, he was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide whose work became well known in Egypt. After moving to the United States, he continued painting, but, over the years, fell out of the spotlight. Now, his family, primarily his daughter Hilda Semerdjian and her son Alan, is trying to restore his place in the pantheon of significant internationally known painters.
Alan Semerdjian is a writer, artist, musician and teacher. His first full-length book of poems reflects growing up in Samsonian’s presence. In a recent interview he spoke about how the family is attempting to promote interest in Samsonian’s legacy.
Samsonian was moved from orphanage to orphanage in the Ottoman Empire and Greece, and eventually transferred to Egypt. He did not even learn of his true surname (Klujian) until relatively late in life in 1960, when he was reunited with his sister in Alexandria, Egypt. He attended the Kalousdian Armenian School of Cairo, and then won a scholarship to go to the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in the same city. He later returned to the Kalousdian school to become its art teacher, and began to exhibit his paintings widely. In the 1950s, he visited the great art museums of Europe.
In 1961, he had a solo exhibition at le Salon de Caire, and an Egyptian Minister of Culture for the first time ever personally inaugurated the exhibit of an Armenian’s works. During the 1960s, President of the Egyptian National Assembly Anwar Sadat, later to become Egypt’s president, acquired one of Samsonian’s paintings and wrote him a letter of praise. Several of Samsonian’s pieces are held by the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Cairo.
He painted in a very cosmopolitan environment, and he had other active Armenian peers, such as Puzant Godjamamian, Ashot Zorayan and Hagop Hagopian. He was influenced by them and non-Armenian Egyptian painters such as Mahmoud Said and the symbolic work of Ahmed Morsi and Effat Nagy, according to Semerdjian, who categorizes him as “at heart, a Cubist-Impressionist with leanings towards Abstract Expressionism.”
Samsonian was working in styles that had already been pioneered in Europe and elsewhere. “Samsonsian’s originality,” according to Semerdjian, “is in the manner in which he brings together mid-20th-century aesthetics to create a narrative kind of abstraction that was not duplicated by any other artist in the Armenian Diaspora, to my knowledge, with the exception of [Arshile] Gorky…and most of the world understands Gorky through his nonfigurative work, so that might make Samsonian even more unique.” There is at present one monographic work on Samsonian: M. Haigentz’s Simon Samsonian: His World Through Paintings. (New York: Armenian General Benevolent Union, 1978.
Moving to New York had a direct impact on Samsonian’s art. Semerdjian said, “The skyline of NYC was a paradise for his Cubist inclinations and he created a small but gorgeous set of pieces in response to it. NYC’s great paradox — that despite its hustle and bustle and the jaded and disaffected stereotypes, there are tremendous moments of intimacy — was also a source of inspiration and fascinated him. See ‘In the Subway,’ which was one of the first large pieces he made when he got here. It’s a painting of a couple caught in a beautiful moment of intimacy on the subway…a head resting on a shoulder. Another example of how we need each other.”
On the other hand, despite the powerful effect of the Armenian Genocide on Samsonian’s life, he only created a few pieces directly on that theme. One was for a show on the fiftieth anniversary of the Genocide. There is however an indirect effect. Semerdjian said that “his work captures these glances into what I like to refer to as interpersonal or sometimes intrapersonal moments of reflections in our lives. One critic said that what the genocide took away for Samsonian he built back up in his paintings. That’s why you see so many images of parenthood, protection, dark musings, and simple exchanges between lovers in the figurative works. The nonfigurative stuff is purely evocative.” Semerdjian further explained that this means “evocative of emotional states of being that became motifs for him: protection, family, love, hopelessness, partnership, etc.”
Samsonian has not been forgotten in Armenia. His works are still occasionally exhibited there. Semerdjian visited Yerevan’s National Gallery of Art six years ago and saw its collection of 25 Samsonian oils. He also visited painter Hagop Hagopian, who told him “You know, your grandfather was the one we all looked up to in Cairo.”
Armenians in various parts of the diaspora also still remember Samsonian. Semerdjian said that often they contact him via email to “discuss the impact of a piece of art they bought or he gave them…He made indelible impressions, and I think he made them because of the quality of his work and vision, which lives on in private collections, museums, and family homes across the globe.”
Still, Samsonian is not remembered at the same level as other notable Armenian painters such as Gorky. Semerdjian said that part of the reason was that Samsonian was “not much of a business man. He didn’t promote very well.” His wife tried to fill in the void, but she died at an early age. Afterwards, Samsonian stopped trying to show and sell his works. He never tried to use a publicist, as far as Semerdjian knows. The move to the US also changed his exposure to the outside world. Semerdjian speculates that if he had stayed in Egypt his works might have appeared in big auctions of Middle Eastern art and received high valuations.
Furthermore, Semerdjian pointed out that “Money, or rather investment in the form of money –thinking of one’s art as a business creates value. Why one painter who really never won any recognition – whether it be through community groups or state agencies – sells works posthumously at $100,000 [each] and another who did win awards and garner attention through exhibitions, etc., and was beloved by so many, sells privately for $15-20,000 has much to do with the kind of machine that is creating the story/allure. And to do that requires capital and time and business savvy.”
Now the family has initiated an effort to change this situation. It has begun to have his private collection of works professionally catalogued and photographed, and is trying to get scholars interested in placing Samsonian in the broader context of mid-twentieth century painting and Armenian diaspora painting in particular. It is approaching museums, according to Semerdjian, in order to get shows covering his seven decades of work. The first one recently took place at the Armenian Museum of America last September through November, and plans are afoot to have a version of this exhibition in Los Angeles by late spring of this year.
Samsonian’s work sometimes pops up in unexpected places. A publishing company called McDougal Little used some of his images in a ninth grade textbook featuring contemporary artwork paired with contemporary literature. However, the family had to remain vigilant and ended up pursuing a class action lawsuit because the company published many more copies than it had agreed to originally with Samsonian.
Another way the heirs promote his art is through the website rediscoveredmasters.com, which presents biographical information and images of 26 of his works. This website “proactively” promotes artists it feels are worthwhile to museums, galleries and collectors through curated exhibitions and essays. A second Armenian artist Rediscovered Masters promotes is Arthur Pinajian.
Samsonian’s works are for sale privately through the family and through the Rediscovered Masters website. Gallery Z in Providence, according to Semerdjian, has a few pieces too. Samsonian does have a dedicated group of followers outside of the art auction house world. His smaller pieces sell for around $1,000, while the larger oils are between $15,000 and $20,000 at present.
Semerdjian is optimistic about the future of Samsonian’s works. He concluded, “But what’s remarkable is how his work affected people and continues to affect. One look at those bold colors and gorgeous strokes and…I don’t know…it just seems to continue to resonate and vibrate at a high frequency for those in the know.”