Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grigor Khanjyan’s mural tells the story of Armenia

Middle Panel "Vardanank"Mural/Triptych at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan. First conceived by Khanjyan as a set of giant tapestries to be woven in France for the Catholicos's residence at Etchmiadzin, the work was received with popular acclaim when the original tapestries were completed and hung in place in 1985. 

Khanjyan was determined, however, to bring his murals to a more accessible public forum. In his travels he had been profoundly influenced by visiting Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and by the revolutionary murals in public spaces of the Mexican artists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros - particularly Siqueiros. In the last years of his life, in failing health and with dimming eyesight, he climbed the scaffolding at the Cascade, painting alfresco a new version of his famous Vardanank (center panel), the battle in 451 where Prince Vardan Mamikonian fought the Zoroastrian Persians to retain Armenian Christianity. Khanjyan conceived of the struggle as ongoing to the present day. In the right panel, he incorporated the emergence of independent Armenia. Yerevan - Grigor Khanjyan spent a large part of the last eight years of his life on a scaffold with his color box and brushes in a broad hall allotted to him in Yerevan's Cascade. Here he painted al fresco the vast triptych that is his final masterwork. His last days on the scaffold were in bitterly cold weather; old, sick, and eyesight failing, he seemed to know the end would soon come. On the day before his death, working on the final panel, the "Rebirth of Armenia," he summoned his last reserves of strength, completing - one could say illuminating - in a single day the critical central area that had remained unfinished; on this day he painted the beautiful face of Mother Armenia and her child, the new Armenia. 

Only hours later, he passed away. The huge triptych, completed and in full restoration, graces the entire wall in its own designated, stately hall, open and free to the public, an integral part of the new Cafesjian Center for the Arts. In this environment I see it and feel it as a sacred space. I believe Grigor Khanjyan also thought of it that way. He created a mural of this ancient Christian land and its people, telling of struggles, early triumphs, tragedy, and rebirth in independence. He did it with heart and soul on a public wall for everyone who wishes to know what it means to be an Armenian. 

Hee would do it in a way that speaks to the generations into which he was born, inspiring and legible to the common man and woman. Who was Grigor Khanjyan? Born in Yerevan in 1924, he graduated from art schools in the city as World War II ended. His work spans the second half of the 20th century. He lived to see the end of Stalin, the resurgence of the Apostolic Church, and to take active part in the movement for the independence of Armenia. He passed away in the year 2000, with red, blue, and orange on his palette and under the skin of his hands. 

Khanjyann, was a man of prodigious talent, understanding of Armenian literature, and abiding religious faith. As an artist he possessed an uncanny ability to catch, and to express graphically, the decisive narrative moment. It led him to unfashionable clarity. By choice, because it suited his way of thinking, he was as modern as the vivid moment, capturing its mood, its light, its musical movement. 

He recomposed for dramatic effect, painting the world as he felt it before his eyes, but without painterly devices that might compromise lucidity at the popular level. Trained as a prodigy by his Armenian teachers, he learned how to get along within the system, the Soviet regime finding little to criticize besides too little of the rootless, mass modern man and too much specifically of Armenian national consciousness in his work. Under these circumstances, he turned to the masterpieces of Armenian literature as an effective shield, becoming its most successful graphic interpreter. 

As a consequence, with the strength of the literature, combined with the artistic strength and clarity of his illustrations, the highest exhibition prizes and honors in the Soviet Union began to heap up. In his earliest period his favorite writer was Hovhannes Toumanian. Khanjyan illustrating Toumanian's beautiful "Anoush," the story "Gikor," and the poem "Sako from Lory," for each of which he received great praise and prizes. 

He turned to Khachatur Abovyan for The Wounds of Armenia, receiving an award of "The Best Book of the Year" in the Soviet Union. He was able to use this success as a passport to the world. He was first able to visit Albania. What he saw there, his exhibited works suggest, is a nation that had kept a vital connection to the genius of its traditional handicrafts - something he would come back to fight for in Armenia. 

Hee also recognized the deep, emotional attachment on the popular level of the people of Albania to their own Vartan, their Scanderbeg, the abducted Christian Albanian who learned as a general in the Turkish Army how best he could destroy the oppressive Turks, leading greatly outnumbered but victorious Christian Albanian armies against them. There was an affinity to Armenian struggles that Khanjyan would also not forget. Over the next few years he would go on to tour Poland, France, and Italy. In Rome he would visit and sketch a reverent scene in the Sistine Chapel. In a sense a part of him never left the scaffold that held Michelangelo aloft. He returned do some of his best work in the illustrations for Paruir Sevak's "The Ever-Tolling Bell Tower," dealing with the Genocide and the life and death of beloved Komitas. 

No work of art was more completely embraced by the Armenian public in its time. It would find a place here in virtually every Armenian household. More success followed with further illustrations of Armenian literature and travel abroad. A critical journey was in 1974 to Mexico. He had earlier been to Spain, but it was in Mexico that he caught the spirit of Latin rhythms, the focus of the mind on what is personally most hallowed and important that distinguishes prayer, along with the momentary relief from oppression and the spiritual qualities that may be found in some of the popular arts. His canvases from this period done in Mexico and back in Armenia have an especial brilliance. In Mexico he studied the wall murals of Diego Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, discussing al fresco painting and becoming a close friend of Siqueiros'. He would devote his moving "Where are you, Son of the Lord?" to Siqueiros. It was in this period that he also decided to openly reconnect with his church. In 1975, he painted "He Returned," and accompanied Catholicos Vasken I to Jerusalem, developing a strong friendship and productive working relationship with the Catholicos that directly bears on the murals in the Cascade. While applying himself to plans to restore to brilliance the Holy See at Etchmiadzin, he illustrated Avetik Isahakyan's "Fables" and a personal favorite, Gevorg Emin's "The Dance of Sassoon," which now hangs in Yerevan's National Art Gallery, and he went on to complete the illustrations for "Western Armenian Poetry."

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