A painting by Hrair Diarbekirian

Hrair Diarbekirian: “I wish that Armenians would love and help one another!”

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YEREVAN — Hrair Diarbekirian is one of the prominent representatives of contemporary Lebanese fine art. Born in Beirut, in 1946, he attended the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts. A staple of the Lebanese art scene since 1961, Hrair has exhibited extensively in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas. He is the recipient of several awards, including gold medals from the Sursock Museum in Lebanon and the Sao Paolo International Biennial. Several of Hrair’s paintings housed in the collections, of both statesmen and celebrities, most notably among the private holdings of Queen Elizabeth II of England, Prince Rainier of Monaco and actor Kirk Douglas.

Hrair Diarbekirian in Yerevan

Last January, Hrair visited Armenia for the first time. Our meeting took place in the hospitable and beautiful apartment of our common friend, Lucy Topalian, who has worked all her life as a gallerist.

Hrair, you are welcome, it is so good to meet you!

Thank you very much. This is my first trip to Armenia and I am very happy to be in Yerevan, in my capital!

Although your works appeared here already in the 1960s?

Yes, in 1967 or 1968, I donated my painting “Annunciation” to a Yerevan museum, but I don’t know which one. I think it was the old museum [meaning the National Gallery – A. B.]. They sent me an album with my work in it. It was one of my first paintings, I drew it in miniature style. In the beginning, I was much influenced by Armenian and Byzantine art.

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I have known your works for many years, and with the arrival of the Internet, I got to know them more. I am always delighted to see a lot of plasticity and movement in your works. The lines of your women and horses are very plastic. And since I love dance very much, I have always thought that this artist is not far from dance either.

You are right. I have danced. I did a little ballet with Ani Daba [Ani Daba-Odabashian was one of the founders of Lebanese ballet – A. B.], then I did a little modern ballet, but I did not continue. But I like to dance and feel the music profoundly. Dancing is also like making a painting. When you dance, it is like you are painting, and it is like you are dancing while painting.

Once French director René Clair said: “Today I saw the film on the ceiling. Only one easy thing was left to do: to shoot it.” Can we say the same about painting?

I also see the picture beforehand: before starting I know exactly what I have to do. I already have in my head the upcoming image, whether a tree, a human character, or a horse. The horse is also very close to me, it is very symbolic; it is a perfect one for me. You can find everything in the horse: beauty, strength, lines, movement, sun, life, death (if you fall from it, you die). Being professional, I know everything in the process. I work with no doubts. That is my world!

We have had many good Armenian artists in Lebanon. Some of them remain in the community while some of them are recognized in the world as Lebanese artists. You are of the second group. How did you manage to get out of the community circle?

I received offers from different galleries of the world. At the beginning of the 1970s, the first place was Paris, then Greece, then Brazil, and the USA. The Arabs became interested in me during the 1975 war. There had never been an exhibition in Saudi Arabia. They invited me and held my personal exhibition in the Hotel Intercontinental. It was opened by the current king, who was a prince at that time. There is something in my art that speaks to the hearts of different nations. The Arabs said that there is an oriental spirit in my works; the Russians said that they are very Russian, seeing a kind of romanticized Russia; in Brazil they said my paintings have their own colors.

And what do you say? What is your art, Armenian, Lebanese, or Lebanese-Armenian?

I am Armenian; if I was not Armenian, my work would not be what it is now. The Lebanese and Arab countries encouraged me a lot, until the Lebanese Armenians recognized me, because I was not in any party. I was the first Armenian to leave Lebanon and represent the country in different countries.

Have you had Armenian teachers?

I never had an Armenian teacher. I studied at the French lyceum of Beirut. But my parents sent me also to the [Nshan] Palanjian Djemaran [Lyceum], where I learned to read and write in Armenian. Then we would study Armenian twice a week.

I studied architecture for four years. It helped me a lot. I was busy with architecture classes in the afternoon until 4:00, then I studied drawing at the Lebanese Art Academy. An artist should have a base to be a professional. After that, you can do whatever you want. Now, anyone can put together colors and make some kind a painting, but if you ask him to draw a portrait, he won’t be able to do it. Sometimes some great artists visited us at the Academy, like Paul Guiragossian or Jean Khalife, looking at our drawings, saying “not bad,” and walking away. But we had one French and one Canadian professor who taught us well how to look and how to draw. As an architect, I know how to draw a painting.

In the last year of the Academy, there was a competition for tapestry design with three subjects in the new presidential palace. The jury came from France. I don’t know how many hundreds of people participated in the competition. I made three tapestry layouts: one with war and horses, one was a Lebanese landscape, and one for a dining room where there would be big dinners. At the end of one week, I received all three first prizes. I was still a student, but I became famous overnight. In the same year, I also received the first prize of the Sursock Museum. After this, people started to look after me. Thus I started, without much effort.

And is it possible to live only as an artist in Lebanon?

It is difficult. But I have lived well and live well, because I succeeded. My grandfather was not rich, and my mother never gave any money to me.

Does your surname Diarbekirian have anything to do with Diyarbakir – historical Tigranakert?

Yes, my father was from Diyarbakir. He was an orphan, who has lost his family in the genocide. The family was scattered to France, USA, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Argentina. There was a Diarbekirian foundation in New York, and a Diarbekirian rest house in Buenos Aires. And my mother was from Yozgat; she was also an orphan. Their family name was Vartanian, but later we found out that the real surname was Pehlivanian. She had three sisters; her brother and father were killed, while her sister Noemi was three years old and sister Isabel was nine months old. They must have been rich, because the Kurds who worked for them saved the girls. Such an Armenian story.

And now you just came to visit Armenia?

Yes. A month ago, I had an exhibition in the US, in Pasadena [California], and then I came here. From Beirut, I arrived just in one-and-three-quarter hours. I am so happy being in my fatherland and I love it very, very much. For me, Yerevan is Europe. Our Armenians have built many great buildings. And what a great weather: beautiful snow, but with sunshine and blue sky. I wish eternal peace for Armenia; the situation in Artsakh is very sad now, but Armenians always stand up. I wish that Armenia will move forward and that our capital city will be open for more tourists. I am very proud to be Armenian. Everywhere I say that I am Armenian, and Lebanese people love Armenians, they have made great contribution in Lebanon. And I also wish that Armenians love each other and always support each other, as we don’t have another Armenia – this is the only one. And I always will visit Armenia!

I also hope that you will visit again this year, this time with an exhibition.

In Arabic they say: if God wills! Thank you very much!

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