"Peppers: Flames" painting by Mariam Aslamazyan

The Armenian Frida Kahlo: On Mariam Aslamazyan’s 110th Anniversary


By Lilit Sargsyan

Translated from Russian by Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN – When the creative image of an artist is deeply intertwined with her personal image, they merge into a single whole. Mariam Aslamazyan is presented in such wholeness. Her character, her life principles, contrary to all stereotypes, served her sole creed – art and development of her creativity. Nothing could stop this Soviet woman with Armenian patriarchal roots on her difficult and contradictory path, or even slow down her movement. From the stories and memories of the artist, it becomes clear that she grew up in a rather progressive and highly esteemed family and from early childhood she received those basic impulses and attitudes which raised her not just as a talented but as an independent, emancipated woman artist.

Mariam Aslamazyan

If we try to characterize her image briefly – both artistic and personal – it combines will and temperament, vital energy, exotics, and incredibly forceful beauty with power. Power and strength are masculine concepts, polished in Aslamazyan’s hands so aesthetically, as only a woman can do. The artist confessed: “I wanted so badly to be a man, but only one with a strong, hard character.” According to the eminent sculptor and artist Nikolai Nikogosyan, recently deceased at the age of 100 —  to whom this confession of the artist was entrusted – “she possessed such a character.” Aslamazyan’s art stands firmly on the combination of strength and beauty, and these qualities characterize her image.

Aslamazyan’s painting is one of the brightest pages in the history of Armenian and Soviet painting of the second half of the 20th century. Her name is inextricably linked with the development of post-war and later – post-Stalin fine art. Like many Armenian artists of the Soviet era, fatefully connected to Russia, Aslamazyan also represents two cultures – Armenian national and Russian and Soviet. She was born in 1907 in the village of Bash-Shirak in the Kars region and spent her childhood there. From 1878 to 1917, this Armenian land, rich in cultural traditions, was a province of the Russian Empire, and in 1918, as a result of the politics of the First World War, it was handed to the Ottoman Empire.

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The future artist received her secondary and primary art education in the Armenian city of Alexandropol (now Gyumri), at that time also part of the Russian Empire. This is a special city, famous for its sharp strong ambiance, rich cultural traditions and a school of fine arts. Gyumri is the second most important city in Armenia, the administrative center of the Shirak region and the last outpost of the country on the border with Turkey (after the loss of Kars), that survived by the force of incredible national mobilization in the fatal for Armenia year 1918. It was also the largest cultural center of Armenia, where refugees from Kars found shelter. Many of them later became prominent figures of Armenian culture and art, Mariam Aslamazyan among them.

painting by Mariam Aslamazyan

No wonder that one of Armenia’s best art museums, the Aslamazyan Sisters’ Gallery is in Gyumri, located in an old black stone mansion built in the combination of the traditions of Kars and Gyumri and Russian imperial architecture. By the way, the names of Yeranuhi and Mariam Aslamazyan are usually mentioned together, as they were not only sisters, but also colleagues and seemed to be the alter egos of one other.

After Gyumri, Mariam Aslamazyan went to Yerevan, where serious professional training awaited her. In the years of the artist’s becoming, the Sovietization of Armenia simultaneously took place (during the beginning of the 1920s), and the foundations of an Armenian national school of art – formerly being developed outside the country – became strengthened on the native land. The first such school of fine arts was the “Geghard” Industrial and Art School in Yerevan (now the Panos Terlemezyan Art College), where the artist studied in 1926 to 1928 the patrimony of Armenian painting of the 20th century – with impressionist and plain-air painter Sedrak Arakelyan (student of Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov) and realist artist Stepan Aghajanyan. Though it might not have been the best time for the country or for art when Mariam Aslamazyan received her higher academic education, at least it was with the best teachers.

At first she studied in Moscow in Vkhutein (Higher Art and Technical Studios) in 1928-1930 with the leading figures of the Russian avant-garde – N. Udaltsova, A. Drevin, as well as V. Favorsky, A. Goncharov, S. Gerasimov, M. Rodionov, and K. Istomin. After transferring to the Faculty of Drawing of Vkhutein of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Mariam Aslamazyan moved to the northern capital of Russia, with which the fruitful years of her active artistic, pedagogical and social activities are connected. Here, at the Leningrad Institute of Proletarian Fine Arts (now – St. Petersburg Academy of Arts), the artist studied under K. Petrov-Vodkin (1930-1932), and from 1932 to 1934, she was a graduate student with Professor A. Savinov.

Thus, through her Armenian and Russian teachers, Mariam Aslamazyan absorbed the best modernistic and academic traditions of both Russian and European painting, fusing them with the traditions of Armenian art, and, in a certain sense, of Oriental artistic thinking (mostly, this is the magnificent Armenian medieval miniature with its inexhaustible possibilities of decorative expressiveness of color).

Topics: painting

As is known, in the Western European painting of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Post-Impressionism and Fauvism – Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse) to which Mariam Aslamazyan gravitated so strongly, a synthesis with Oriental artistic traditions and an emphasis on the pristine exotics was evinced. Bright, colorful decorativeness, flatness, and ornamentalism are not simply expressed in the transmission of ethnographic attributes, but also in the ornamentally ordered pictorial plane as a consequence of a special thinking, monumentality in the easel format, the predominance of pure decorative color and contrasting juxtaposition. It should be recognized that the artist, formed in the era of the total domination of Socialist Realism and the persecution of the “formalists,” was not just brave and self-sufficient, but infinitely faithful to her creative credo and the tenets of pure art, to carry them through her entire creative path. These tenets, as already was mentioned, Aslamazyan took from her teachers, and also were absorbed in the Moscow halls of the New Western Art of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. She drew on the rich traditions of painting of her native Armenia, and especially on the works of its patriarch Martiros Saryan.

Sometimes she conveys her native Armenian and also Russian motifs with an emphasis on ethnographic exotics. Her painted ceramics – a special field in the artist’s creations – can be attributed to the same range of works to which she first turned in 1958 and definitively became fond of. Decorative ceramics attained an unprecedented popularity in Armenia and other Soviet republics in the 1960s, in connection with the fashion for “ethno-modern.” As A. Sarabyanov correctly noted, “the living sense of modernity in conjunction with the national tradition is typical for Mariam Aslamazyan’s ceramics.”

Mariam Aslamazyan is a multi-genre artist. Virtually all major genres of painting – portrait, landscape, still life, thematic picture – have a certain place in her rich artistic legacy. Landscape is certainly the main genre in Armenian painting. Practically all studies on Mariam Aslamazyan’s work note the special role of Armenian nature as the main inspirer of the artist in her rich landscape painting.

The importance of still life in Mariam Aslamazyan’s painting legacy is not ignored by the researchers. And yet we must admit that this subject is inexhaustible and has not been fully covered yet. The artist’s aesthetic vision and worldview is being manifested in the still lifes with the greatest completeness and freedom: still life as a “small” genre gives her great opportunities for free form creation. Mariam Aslamazyan is rightfully considered the leading master of her time in the field of decorative and planar still life. Her depictions are not just a set of objects, located on the plane of the picture artistically and far from mimetic reproduction of nature. There are juicy fruits and bright flowers, gifts of the sunny Armenian land, copper ethnographic utensils, carpets with magic ornaments – symbols of national life or exotic Far Eastern masks (how can we not remember Saryan!). This is a special microcosm, built strictly tectonically by the artist in a harmonious wholeness. Here, each element is not just a “fruit,” a “vegetable,” a “plant,” a “drapery,” a “dish,” a “mask,” etc., but valuable parts of the universe with their own form and color. And the artist completely freely operates these forms as with abstract units, collecting them into an indivisible construction.

Perhaps the crown of Mariam Aslamazyan’s still life genre and the quintessence of what has been said can be considered her “Peppers: Flame” – a sensual, “scorching” picture, striking with simplicity and at the same time, with the utmost veracity. Collected in a planar carpet and ornamental composition, Aslamazyan’s peppers cease to be “vegetables,” but rather turn into certain hieroglyphs.

The artist’s orientalist, in some ways, even “masculine” look is being seen in her beautiful female models in a vivid ornamental entourage. Looking at them, of course, we remember Gauguin’s Tahitian women. The artist admitted that she loves to draw women, which perhaps explains her courage and fineness. But I especially want to mention the images of the famous artist Lavinia Bazhbeuk-Melikyan, her self-portraits and joint portraits with her sister Yeranuhi Aslamazyan. Through these portraits she seems to comprehend herself and her colleagues as free creators – strong-willed, talented and infinitely beautiful, and their unchanged silver necklaces, national costumes and ethnographic attributes accentuate the identity of the model even more. It is not accidental that she was often called the Armenian Frida Kahlo.

painting by Mariam Aslamazyan

To paraphrase the well-known definition of Russian female avant-garde artists, we would add to the image of Mariam Aslamazyan the “Amazon of the Sixties” – one of the brightest stars in their magnificent galaxy. It was the boom of the sixties that gave an all-time first of national consciousness against which “national modernism” was formed, and the role of women in these processes was great. But Mariam Aslamazian, even taking into account her social activity as an emancipated Soviet woman, was able to remain faithful to the aesthetic understanding of reality.

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