By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
WIESBADEN, Germany — That the fine arts are alive and well in Armenia is displayed in an exciting exhibition of works by young Armenians that has opened in Wiesbaden, Germany. The show, entitled “Melody of Color: Armenian Art,” held its vernissage on November 25, and will run for a month. Not only will 65 art works be on exhibit during that time, but several workshops will also be held, to help youngsters venture into the magic world of art. Four of the six exhibiting artists have travelled to Germany for the occasion and have shared their experiences with a large number of visitors.
“Youth – Art – Integration”
As guests at the vernissage learned from welcoming remarks by Vera Maier (read by Sergei Schultz), the association she leads and which is hosting the exhibition is not a gallery in the normal sense of the term, but an institution dedicated to integrating newcomers from other countries, especially Russia. The Haus der Heimat (Homeland House) located in Wiesbaden’s historical center, has served for decades as the home away from home for refugees and the organizations they have founded here. The majority are Russia-Germans, that is, Germans whose ancestors had migrated to Russia centuries ago, and who have returned to their native country since the end of World War II. Maier is one of them; after having arrived with her family in 1988, she began work as a volunteer cultural consultant and has been active ever since. In recognition of her valuable contribution to understanding among peoples, she received the “Integration Wiesbaden 2012” prize four years ago.
This is the point: the Haus der Heimat seeks to promote integration in a program called “Together in Wiesbaden,” through culture; in addition to art exhibitions, the group offers language instruction, especially in Russian, dancing and music lessons, and organizes youth exchange programs with other countries.
From Yerevan to Wiesbaden
This is not the first time, in fact, that young Armenian artists have come to Wiesbaden, the state capital of Hesse. The initiative dates back to 1992, when Guy Ghazanchyan, then just a child, was here with his artist parents and grandparents, whose works were being exhibited. Vera Maier knew the family well. Twenty years later, when she saw works by the young Guy in the internet, she launched a project to promote cultural exchange between youth here and in Armenia. The children she had contact with in the Haus der Heimat, she said, had had no experience with drawing or painting and were initially hesitant to take a brush in hand, but through workshops with the Armenian artists they overcame their fears. The project for integration through this kind of cultural activity has been awarded several prizes.
Guy Ghazanchyan, born in 1991, represents the third generation of a family of artists. As he relates, “My entire childhood I spent in my family’s atelier, with my parents, and with grandma and grandpa.” Art was the natural environment in which he grew up. “I always thought everybody was an artist,” he says. “I began to talk and to scribble at the same time.” Among the works he is presenting are two paintings of vocalists, one entitled “Oratorium” and the other, “Duet N. 1.” On seeing them, I was reminded of Luca della Robbia, an Italian Renaissance sculptor whose choir boys are immortalized in his marble Cantoria in the Florence cathedral. Like those figures, here too in Ghazanchyan’s singers, one can almost hear the notes they produce. Yet, as I learned, they are not singing praises to the Lord with the verses of a psalm, as in Florence, they are raising their voices in protest. When I asked him what inspired these two paintings, he said it was certain social actions taking place in Armenia in recent years; protest yes, I thought, but he has transformed them here into things of beauty.
Although Ghazanchyan is well acquainted with the Renaissance masters, having also studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Yerevan, and attended master classes, he shuns labels, preferring to “leave that to the art historians.” For him, “painting is a possibility or an alternative means of communicating with people.” The themes he treats are of current relevance – like the social protests– and he is interested in “exploring beauty, especially the beauty of female faces and bodies.” It is not the identical that fascinates him but rather the unique, in that “each portrait has its own feelings.” Specifically Armenian motifs are not easy to identify in his art; “I work and live and think like an Armenian,” he explains, “but my feelings are universal.”
Zhora Gasparyan is also no newcomer to Germany, having put some of his art on display here in 2013 at a show under the rubric of “Youth – Art – Integration.” Gasparyan, 26 years old, was born in the holy city of Etchmiadzin and from 2007 to 2011 studied at the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts, where several of his companions also studied. He had the good fortune to travel to Italy, and study for one year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, the capital of the Italian Renaissance.
“I began to paint relatively late,” he explained. “I was already 16 years old and it was after I had read a biography of Vincent van Gogh,” who has remained his favorite painter. Gasparyan, who works with oil, says he tries to explore different “texts, techniques, colors and painting and to bring them into harmony.” One of the paintings on display, in fact, is entitled “Harmony,” and shows a figure, arms outstretched, hands balancing birds of opposing colors, white and black. Another oil painting on canvas, called “The Last King,” is an intriguing portrait of an ancient monarch in the process of fading into the dust of history. Gasparyan does not give himself any stylistic labels and hesitates to say what is specifically Armenian in his painting. But the identity is there. “It is however clear to me that very strong emotions that I have for my homeland flow into my painting and find expression there.”
From Painting to Sculpture
The other two young artists, Arman Hambardzumyan and Hakob Vardanyan, have presented remarkable works of sculpture. Hambardzumyan, born in 1988, did his undergraduate work at the Henry Igityan National Art Center and his Masters at the Yerevan State Pedagogical University. But, as he put it, “formal study was not so important; more important for me was the process of coming into being.” In one of his sculptures on display, entitled “Hector,” this is most striking, for the figures of the Homeric hero with his steeds seem to grow organically out of the bronze. The piece is fashioned from many, many small pieces of bronze welded together. Bronze is what he prefers, but he also experiments with other materials and in combination. In a piece entitled “Eruption,” he has taken a piece of ancient wood from a crater. It is petrified, that is, it has turned into stone, and he has joined it with bronze and ceramics. The female figure depicted embodies this process of coming into being, of transformation from the organic into the inorganic and further, to art.
Childhood realities played an important role in his development as well. “As a child,” he recalls, “I had no toys to play with, so I was forced to make my own.” And it is true that one can find traces of this toy-making, a sense of playful creative exploration in his sculptures. Material hardship also was a factor in his education. “My father always wanted to be an artist,” he explains, “but unfortunately did not make it. So I wanted at all costs to be an artist, as I made clear even in elementary school.” That was not easy, for financial reasons and the young boy often felt alone. But now, having realized his dream, the world looks different. “I am very lucky and am very happy to be living in this period of time and to have the possibility to work with so many different materials in my artistic activity.”
Hakob Vardanyan, about the same age as Hambardzumyan, traces his interest in sculpture back to his earliest years, when he played around with modeling figures. A graduate of the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts, he has concentrated on bronze, his favorite material, with which, he says he “can express dynamics and emotions the best.” In the current phase of his development, he is experimenting with the relationship between cold metal and warm glass. For example, one sculpture on display, entitled “Face,” is a standing figure with one hand extended, that holds a mirror. Another, entitled “I and She,” presents two fish-like shapes in communication.
In addition to creating art, Vardanyan is an organizer. As a member of various artists associations, he says, “I like to organize symposiums in Armenia, through the internet, and have taken part personally in such in Ukraine and Georgia.” His visit to Wiesbaden marks the first time he has come to Germany and he is, in his words, “thrilled.”
Art and the Spirit of Independence
As we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Armenian independence, it is refreshing to reflect on the achievements of the generation that has come into being in the interim. Here are four artists born between 1988 and 1991, years that spanned the catastrophic earthquake, the Karabakh war, the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time of great tension, extreme suffering and commitment to create a new existence for the nation and its people.
These visiting artists are only four, but they embody the strength, optimism and creative energy required to build that new future. All four have been honored with prizes both at home and abroad, all four have been featured in personal shows as well as group exhibitions, too numerous to be listed here in detail. Most valuable of all is the ability they demonstrate in their paintings and sculptures to draw lessons from their study of the great art of the past in order to generate new works of beauty, to absorb and embody the spirit of their Armenian culture, while opening up to the world at large.
The Armenian artist Archi Galentz has a quotation by composer Gustav Mahler above the entrance to his atelier in Berlin, which reads, “Tradition is not to worship the ashes, but to pass on the flame, keep the fire burning.” That fire is burning and we can see the light and feel the heat.