With students in Latvia

Inguna Kurcens: ‘Armenia Is an Inexhaustible Storehouse of Beauty and Wisdom’


YEREVAN / ALUKSNE, Latvia — Art critic Inguna Kurcens was born in 1951 in Riga. Her entire family was oppressed during the time of Stalin.

Inguna graduated from the Music College in Abakan (Khakassia, Krasnoyarsk Krai), then the Academy of Arts (1975-1981) in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). She graduated from her postgraduate studies at the Moscow Research Institute of Art History, where in 1993 she defended her PhD thesis on the work of Minas Avetisyan.

From 1981 to 2000 Inguna lived in Yerevan, worked at the National Art Gallery and Yervand Kochar Museum, taught art history at the Yerevan Art Institute and at the art history faculty of Yerevan State University. Her articles on the Armenian fine arts of the 20th century were published in the Russian and Armenian press of Yerevan, as well as in the Haigazian Armenological Review of Beirut. Inguna Kurcens represented Armenia at international conferences in St. Petersburg and Warsaw. She is the author of the catalogue of artist Eduard Isabekyan’s Moscow exhibition (Moscow, 1988) and a booklet on Minas Avetisyan (Yerevan, 1989, both in Russian).

Since 2000 Inguna has been living in the city of Aluksne (Latvia), where she teaches at the School of Arts and the School of Music.

In 2014, the monograph by Inguna Kurtsens “Minas Avetisyan. Painting and Drawing. (On the Question of the Forms of Associative and Symbolic Imagery in Armenian Painting of the 1960s – 1970s)” was published in Yerevan (in Russian).

Inguna, is it true that your love of Minas Avetisyan’s art brought you to Armenia? How did it come about?

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

It was my love for an Armenian brought me to Armenia! And the love for Minas’s art arose already in Armenia after getting acquainted with the artist’s works at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was struck by the suggestive power of his pictorial language, existential fundamentality with the ascetic simplicity of plots. The task of creating an analytical toolkit for obtaining and reading the content of Minas’s works fascinated me, especially since even from the first year of the Academy of Arts an art critic was obliged to distinguish verbal essays based on a picture from a professional analysis of the form of a work.

It is known that at that time the indirect monopoly on the study and popularization of Minas’s work belonged to late art critic Henrik Igityan. Was it easy for you as an art critic to find a place in the Armenian professional environment?

I did not have any problem in finding a place in a professional environment only because I had been washing windows full time for 11 years at the Zvartnots airport and simply did not “shine” among my colleagues. Therefore, by the way, I never mastered the Armenian language, although it is dear to me.

I have great respect to Henrik Igityan, for the very fact that he opened the Yerevan Museum of Contemporary Art. Popularization of the works of Armenian artists was necessary, and in this Henrik Igityan excelled. But at the same time, there remained a wide field for art criticism analysis of specific works of art of the 20th century, the period of interest to me of the 1960s-1970s. I settled on this field and no one bothered me — on the contrary, there was the joy of communicating with colleagues like Ellen Gayfedzhyan, Martin Mikaelyan, Poghos Haytayan — everyone could learn something from them which was a valuable experience. But the most valuable thing was live communication with the artists themselves – God, how grateful I am to all of them and how I love them all!

KODAK Digital Still Camera

I have repeatedly heard the opinion that the greatness of Avetisyan is somewhat exaggerated by his contemporaries. Do you agree?

Here it would be good to know who is speaking, then much will disappear as meaningless. The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on. And then, at what time such an opinion was expressed about the exaggeration of greatness — during his life, in subsequent decades, or today?

I think that if we were talking about exaggerating the greatness of Minas’s work, I would not be talking about greatness (these are all games of vanity), but about the significance of his art, which is difficult to exaggerate due to its deep meditative content.

I would not use the word “great” in relation to Minas. He was neither a tribune nor an orator, he does not address large masses of people, he conducts a quiet one-on-one conversation with the audience. In the way of pictorial expression, Minas is rather a chamber artist, unlike, say, Michelangelo.

I told the students that if you so thoughtlessly distribute the epithets “genius,” “great,” then what should we call Homer, Aeschylus, Grigor Narekatsi, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Goya, Bruegel, Durer, Picasso?

Minas Avetisyan was an outstanding Armenian artist, original and inimitable. Some of his portraits are comparable to those of Rembrandt in their realistic penetration into the image.

Another thing is that in interpersonal communication we sometimes say to each other: “Well, you’re a genius.” However, in the face of history, there is still a gradation of such epithets.

Many people say that during the Soviet years Armenia was quite liberal, and that modern art, which you studied, flourished here. What is your personal experience in this regard? If you stayed in Russia, would you have the same opportunity to study the art of modernism?

I will not use the concept of modernism in our conversation at all. The term “modernism” was coined by the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario in 1890 to contrast national modernism with the European Hispanic tradition. In our Academy, even when we analyzed the work of Salvador Dali, this term was not used.

Another matter is “underground;” we had access to it by visiting “apartment” exhibitions. In Yerevan, the “underground” was well represented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which, undoubtedly, facilitated access to it, and the officials from art did not bother you. My love for Soviet art of the 1960s-70s originated in Leningrad, and Minas fully fit into this period, which I presented in my book, for the publication of which I thank you, Artsvi jan, in my prayers.

I am more impressed by the altruistic origins of shaping in art. Therefore, in relation to the work of Minas, I can repeat after Van Gogh “What can be more artistic than loving a person!” For me, this is a motto for all time.

You have studied intensely and took a fresh look at the works of not only Minas Avetisyan, but also such famous Armenian artists as Yervand Kochar, Vruyr Galstyan, Hovhannes Ter-Tatevosyan and others. How would you rank the works of Armenian artists living and working in Soviet Armenia, in a visible world context?

This raises the question of the criteria and the objects of comparison. I think it is unproductive to compare painting with other types of visual and often non-visual activity. For example, Moscow conceptualists are beginning to write texts, and what has to do with fine art? It is better to read Viktor Pelevin. Or these installations, well, so boring or performances – theater students make them much better and more interesting.

For example, in Armenia there were no conditions for the emergence of pop art, it was imported, which means it is very imitative, so judge and decide for yourself — to import or not to import. And so with other phenomena such as the corpse of a shark in formaldehyde by Damian Hirst. But it was sold for $ 12 million! The price of a work, according to the author, is one of its meanings, but the Apostle Paul warned that the love of money is the root of all evil.

I understand, young people need to hang out and try something. But in any kind of fine art, and indeed any art, I do not remove the criterion of giftedness, talent and the criterion of mastery.

There are many epigones of any of the trends in the world of art all over the planet, but such painting, which, according to Vrubel, brings a special pleasure to a person, is what attracts me to Armenian painting, which generously endows any sophisticated viewer.

Your student, art critic Lilit Sargsyan, asked me to share the following: “You are remembered in Armenia and your services are highly appreciated not only in the artistic environment, in the museums where you worked, but also in the university environment; you were a favorite lecturer of many young art critics. What did your teaching work give you, what do you think about the Armenian art school?”

First, I bow deeply and thank all my students for those hours and days spent together in the art world. As for the Armenian art school, it is bright, original, immensely interesting, and it is not lost in the history of world fine art as a kind of forgotten island.

It was important for me to develop the taste of younger colleagues for high art. It was no coincidence that I introduced them to the masterpieces of the world of fine art in the hope that they themselves would build a scale of values between significant phenomena and those phenomena that are not art, but are imposed on society with the help of PR. I absolutely agree with Vazgen Bazhbeuk-Melikyan’s idea that you need art like a crust of bread – in that case it is something real!

The artist is not “crucified on an easel.” An easel is a tool of labor, maybe even a creator’s refuge. But here’s the self-portrait “Crucifixion” by Minas — a painting where the artist is really crucified, here it contains a human and creative concept of life — this completely sweeps away the spectacular phrase “Crucified on an Easel.” I wanted students not to be afraid to sacrifice an effective word in the name of meaning and to be able to defend their point of view, to justify it. Here I ask you to convey my respect to Lilit Sargsyan and Knarik Vardanyan.

And what did Armenia give you in general?

The best years of my life, both creative and personal, have passed in Armenia. In Latvia, for 20 years now, I have not had the opportunity to communicate not only with Armenian, but also with Latvian artists. It is a fact. I don’t regret it, because love is sacrificial.

And then, such phrases as Great Latvia or Great Poland are perceived (by me in any case) as absurdity, while Great Armenia is still Great for me today. As an art critic, let me remind you that achievements in science tend to become obsolete, while in art nothing becomes obsolete and is always open to aesthetic pleasure and modern interpretation. Armenia in this sense is an inexhaustible storehouse of beauty and wisdom.

In Armenia, I learned the joy of lively communication with young people, my students with their inquisitive mind and thirst for knowledge of the world of art.

Armenia is my second homeland.

Yes, I do not forget your words when you returned from a trip from Poland: “Here I am again in my native land.”

Armenia has truly become dear to you, Armenia sheltered me, I am still a citizen of Armenia. Armenia gave me the opportunity to get acquainted personally with one of the world’s most ancient cultures, to really broaden my horizons and fully realize the modest scale of my own knowledge.

Some great Armenian artists live in Riga. Living in Latvia, do you keep in touch with local Armenians?

The answer is no, and here’s why. Arriving in Latvia in 2000 at the request of my mother, all the years until her death in 2018, I helped her was with her. This was my mission. I am infinitely sorry for my mom. I was born in Riga Central Prison. Then my mother was sent with me to the Mordovian camp, where two years later it was supposed to take me away from her and send me to an orphanage. Then my grandmother, who was in exile in the city of Chernogorsk (Khakassia), took me to her. I called her mom until I was seven. It was my grandmother who introduced me to the world of music (she was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, but did not graduate from the St. Petersburg Conservatory). But I am not talking about that now. I will tell you about one episode in my mother’s life, when after the Mordovian camp she was redirected to Siberia. During logging work, her leg was injured and showed signs of gangrene. The doctor told us about the need to amputate the leg. And then my mother said how a dog began to come to her every day, licking her wound, and she did this until the need for amputation disappeared. I cried bitterly for this. But I also cried when, getting acquainted with the work of Vostanik Adoyan (Arshile Gorky), I learned that his mother had died of hunger in Yerevan in 1919.

In Aluksne, I still teach piano at the Children’s Music School. But, I repeat, a lively contact with artists remained in Armenia, not in Latvia. You know, I still cannot even visit the Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Riga, although there are only 203 kilometers from Aluksne to Riga. I live in the provincial Latvian town of Aluksne, notable, however, for the fact that it was from here that Peter the Great took Marta Skavronskaya, the future Empress Catherine the First, as his wife. Of course, while teaching at the School of Arts, I got acquainted with the history of Latvian art, including contemporary art, but not through personal communication, as in Armenia.

You follow the events in Armenia. Now the country is again in crisis. The words and wishes of such a connoisseur and Friend of our country as you sound like a balm for our hearts.

Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh, historically belongs to Armenia. I am with you, brothers Armenians! I am a citizen of Armenia!

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: