by David Zenian
Yerevan — The National Gallery has come a long way since opening its doors 75 years ago to put on permanent display a collection of paintings from the first art show in communist Armenia.
Some of these early paintings, including several based on communist-inspired themes, still hang on the walls of the Gallery which today boasts one of the largest and richest art collections among the republics of the former Soviet Union.
What is sometimes classified as “communist art” is just a very small fraction of the 3,000 paintings and other artifacts on permanent display — part of a 25,000-item collection gathered over the years from the four corners of the world.
The Gallery, an eight-story stone structure that dominates Republic Square in central Yerevan, has separate exhibition halls devoted to modern and contemporary Armenian paintings, Armenian paintings from the Diaspora, Armenian sculpture, Russian paintings, Western European paintings and decorative arts from ancient Egypt, Iran, China and a recently- acquired collection from Japan.
Back in 1921 the National Gallery of Armenia was known as the artistic section of the State Museum, and while some of the early Armenian “art” was politicized, the objective was to build an artistic treasure house.
Under the direction of Armenian painter Martiros Saryan, a valuable art collection from the Lazarian College in Moscow was returned to Yerevan paving the way for future acquisitions.
But the true image and character of the Gallery did not start taking shape until the arrival from Leningrad in 1925 of art historian Rouben Drambian.
Under Drambian, who served for 25 years as Curator, the Gallery’s collection grew from day to day as valuable paintings were purchased, bartered or received as gifts.
Armenia was already an open air museum under the sun because of the hundreds of ancient historical monuments and churches that dot the mountainous landscape and now it had a world-class Gallery where visitors could spend hours admiring hundreds, if not thousands, of masterpieces from around the world.
As the Gallery grew, its collections were divided into distinct categories tracing the development and changes in West European, Russian and Armenian art.
Today, the Gallery’s collection of Western European art includes numerous works by such Italian artists as Garofalo (1481-1599), Donatello (1386-1466), and Tintoretto (1518-1594); numerous Dutch paintings and a collection of 15 etchings by Rembrandt (1606-1669); works by German painter Jacobsen (1610-1664); Swiss painter Calame (1810-1864); Spanish painter Goya (1746-1828); French painters Fragonard (1732-1806), Courbet (1819-1877), Rousseau (1812-1876) and many others.
An entire floor, consisting of nine large halls, is devoted to Russian art and is considered by many as the largest collection among the republics of the former Soviet Union.
The collection includes masterpieces by such renowned artists like Serov (1865-1911), Kandinsky (1866-1944), and Chagall (1887-1985).
While the impressive collections add an international flavor to the National Gallery, it is its unique collection of Armenian paintings that not only tells the history of Armenian art, but also acts as a safe haven to preserve one of the cornerstones of the national heritage.
The modern period of Armenian paintings dates back to 1828 when portions of eastern Armenia became part of the Russian Empire, thus influencing generations of artists.
Many, with the exception of portrait artist Hagop Hovnatanian (1806-1881), were educated in St. Petersburg, Paris and Munich, and thus influenced by other cultures and artistic trends.
These include painters like Stepanos Nercesian (1815-1884), Emmanuel Mahtesian (1857-1908), Vartan Makhokhian (1869-1937); Vartges Sureniants (1860-1921) who is considered the founder of Armenian historical paintings; Karabakh-native Stepan Aghajanian (1886-1940); Edgar Chahine (1847-1947); Hovsep Pushman (1877-1966); and Ivan Aivazovsky (Hovhannes Aivazian 1817-1909).
Among the Armenian contemporary painters, the National Gallery is rich with hundreds of paintings from such giants as Martiros Sarian (1880-1972); Hagop Kojoian (1883-1959); Setrak Arakelian (1884-1942); Yervand Kochar (1899-1979); Grigor Khanjian (1926-); Rudoph Khatchatrian (1937-); Haroutiun Galents (1908-1967); Minas Avetisian (1928-1957); and Hagop Hagopian (1923-).
But true to its mission to preserve Armenian art in general, the National Gallery also has built an impressive collection of paintings from the Armenian Diaspora.
While the Gallery has only a single drawing by Arshile Gorky (Vostanik Adoian 1905-1948) — its exhibition halls have a rich collection of paintings by Carzou (Karnig Zouloumian 1907-); Jansem (Jean Semerdjian 1920-); along with artists from Lebanon, England, Canada, Egypt, Iran, Greece and other Diaspora Armenian communities.
During most of the communist era, the National Gallery — like Armenia itself — was behind the Iron Curtain.
But thanks to the collapse of communism and the return of independence and democracy, Armenia is now open for the world to see.
“Art is universal and it should not be hidden,” Gallery Director Shahen Khachaturian said in a recent interview.
With that premise in mind, Khachaturian has been busy in recent years taking one small collection of Armenian art after the other on tour to various countries in Europe, Iran and most recently — China.
In Germany last year, works by contemporary and modern Armenian painters were seen by well over 200,000 people. In France, a month-long exhibition of more than 80 oil paintings by Aivazosky opened in May.
Another exhibition of Armenian paintings from the National Gallery opened in Beijing in May to coincide with the first state visit to China of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian.
“This is just the beginning,” says Khachaturian. “We want the world to see and enjoy our artistic heritage.”
“We have published numerous editions on our collections. Some of our catalogues are not only on display in Europe, but are being sold in such famous museums as the Louvre,” he said.
With freedom, however, came financial difficulties to not only preserve and sustain the vast collection, but also to add new works of art.
As a first step, Khachaturian and some of his colleagues will embark on a nation-wide search for new talent and paintings by young artists to refresh the collection.
“We have entered a new era in Armenia. We have to make sure that this is clearly and prominently reflected in our collection. In the past, it was the government which did the purchasing, now we have to depend more on the generosity of the artists themselves … here in Armenia and the Diaspora as well,” Khachaturian said.