Marina Vagharshyan

Marina Vagharshyan: On Ancestors, on Art, on Herself


YEREVAN — Artist Marina Vagharshyan’s apartment is one of my favorite places in our city. Everything is beautiful here — the interiors, the paintings on the walls, and the hostess herself. She is the fourth generation in her family who has made art, and even the youngest member of the family, the artist’s 8-year-old grandson, Mher, is a fan of drawing. Bright colors, sunny paints, multi-figure compositions on the canvases create an atmosphere of positivity and optimism, filling the soul with calmness, warmth and creative motivation, even if you do not paint yourself.

Marina Vagharshyan (born in 1953 in Yerevan) studied at Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Fine Arts, Department of Design. In 1975-1986 she participated in two feature films and six animations at “Armenfilm” Studio, also directed the cartoon film “The Weathercock” (1986). She had solo exhibitions in Yerevan, Vienna, Kassel (Germany), Lodz (Poland), Dubna (Russia) and participated in numerous group exhibitions in Armenia, Georgia, France, UK, the US, Poland, Sri Lanka and Japan. Many works by Vagharshyan are held in public and private collections in Armenia and abroad. About 10 books have been published with her illustrations; more than 70 illustrations she created for magazines and newspapers.

“The miniatures of the artist from distant Armenia are made with the greatest scrupulousness, almost filigree finishing of details. But I wanted to note something else. Marina is an excellent ‘storyteller.’ Her works are small essays, short stories and even whole novels. They contain the philosophy of life, which has learnt love and disappointment, bitterness of separations and not devoid of self-irony wisdom,” wrote Gerhard Matthias of Germany.

“Marina Vagharshyan’s world is the world of women. Women surrounded by millions of secrets — and, of course, belonging to this fabulous existence. The paintings, designed in the style of Chagall’s fantasies, are an impulse to enter the peculiar atmosphere of a woman’s boudoir. From the very beginning, the style presented, the warm colors and the climate of optimism, together with the paintings, created an equally friendly atmosphere around the remarkable artist. Marina’s ideas are an inner need to express her feelings. Her painting is a psychotherapeutic exercise, which relaxes the psyche by talking openly about herself. The view of a woman in art, it is a conceptual view of life, it is a worldview,” wrote Jaga Milton of Poland.

“The aptly found wording of her paintings — ‘visual storytelling’ — resembles a psychotherapeutic act of releasing, relaxing the psyche by means of storytelling, revealing one’s gut. Moreover, Marina often tells her dreams. This is the psychological subtext of her extremely sincere creativity. And there are also social, moral and ethical, and even visionary overtones. After all, she paints as if she is presenting through the prism of her personal experience and subjective vision what she has actually experienced – what people tell and say to each other in ordinary relationships or in fateful collisions, what they generalize and draw conclusions from,” writes Lilit Sargsyan of Armenia.

“Old Gods and Christianity” by Marina Vagharshyan (2022)

Dear Marina, from your personality, environment and work one can sense an innate intelligence and urbane tradition not often found among us, which is not surprising – your roots go back to such significant centers of Armenian culture as Shushi and Tiflis. You were five years old when your grandfather, the noted intellectual, actor and writer, People’s Artist of the USSR Vagharsh Vagharshyan, passed away. What memories do you have of him?

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On the one hand I was lucky to be my outstanding grandfather’s granddaughter, but on the other hand I was too young when he passed away. I can definitely say with him went a big layer of happiness, allocated to us, meaning our whole family, in which I was lucky to be born. To a greater extent I recognize him now, getting acquainted with his books and the literature about him. However, that small period of time, which fell to my share, still left its imprint. Our family was characterized, I would say, by a unique atmosphere. Very rarely was there boredom — this noisy, artistic family did not sit idly and enjoy themselves. In the evenings, when grandfather was free, he often took us, grandchildren and neighboring children, in considerable numbers, out of town in his Zim car. Jacques, an Armenian from France, was his personal chauffeur.

His attention and kindness to anyone, even strangers, was boundless. He and his wife lent a helping hand to people many times. He adopted a boy from an orphanage when he lived in Krasnodar, and now I am Facebook friend with the son of this boy. After moving to Yerevan, he adopted a girl whose parents, originally from Shushi, were listed as “enemies of the people.”

By the way, Shushi is a separate theme in our family. My grandfather was born in this city. With what pleasure, I got acquainted with the life, manners, people of different kinds, who lived in Shushi before 1919, thanks to my grandfather’s book, My Friends, Relatives and Me. The pogroms of the ill-fated year touched the grandfather’s family directly – the deceived father was thrown into the well of his own house, which was burnt together with other houses of the white-washed, once beautiful for that time city. About this tragedy in the family little talked about, tried to keep silent. It seems to me that having experienced a lot of grief, my grandfather had a pronounced empathy for his kind.

And yet, grandfather did not lose his sense of vitality and love. I remember the feeling of love that filled the atmosphere of our family and no wonder – the love of loving couples of my ancestors, as well as the love for the children who reciprocated, created this unforgettable state. Nowadays it is a rare phenomenon.

The best films of your father, filmmaker Laert Vagharshyan, have entered the golden lore of Armenian cinema. I read with great pleasure the two volumes of his memoirs — valuable documents about the Soviet era and about many major Armenian figures. What struck me was that as a Soviet official, Laert Vagharshyan was not a member of the party for a long time and faced many obstacles.

The path of director Laert Vagharshyan, I would say was not an easy one at all. To work and create in a country where art was the main tool of the Soviet ideology and where he was forced to bend to it was not in harmony with his perceptions and worldview. Hence, several films created by him were put “on the shelf.” Then the party and its top-brass forced him to become the director of “Armenfilm” studio, which led to the fact that he invited Paradjanov and thanks to his support the film “The Color of Pomegranate” was made. Authoritative masters of art were invited to discuss the film on father’s initiative, as the film frightened and angered people from the party and was on the verge of being banned. However, the opinion of Martiros Saryan and others influenced the result. One of the officials could not stand it and said: “It  is all Vagharshyan’s fault!” In his notes, Dad proudly stated: “I do not need any better praise.” He was right — Paradjanov’s name and his film about Sayat Nova are known in the world. After Dad left this position, no one called Paradjanov to Armenia.

As for the children, or maybe the whole family, he tried to protect us from bad information, moreover he tried to keep the atmosphere at home mostly positive. And love always won!

In 2023, one of the top films at the world box office was Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” And I remembered that back in the 1970s your father wanted to make a film about this scientist, but he was told in Moscow that “Armenfilm” would not be allowed to make such a picture.

The fact that he planned to make a film about the creator of the atomic bomb Oppenheimer once again proves that he went his own way. He had to like the material of the future work: everything he was interested in (and he was interested in many things), he wanted, as a scientist, to plunge into the very essence and present it to the audience. He was very close to the poetry of Vahan Teryan — he was collecting material for a film about him, as well as on William Saroyan, with whom he had the opportunity to communicate, but, unfortunately, life dictates its own.

When Dad decided to give up shooting “Hello, it’s me” — he refused to shoot a film with an almost ready script with a non-problematic from the ideological point of view subject — for this period he did not get any money. And the whole load of the family was carried by my fragile, but strong-in-spirit mother. My mother, Ekaterina Saghatelyan, who graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, was the first harpist in Armenia and therefore the load was heavy — she not only had to play with the symphony orchestra, but also to teach at the Yerevan Conservatory to educate the staff in the harp class. With such a schedule, she was still a loving wife and incredibly caring, focused on raising me and my older brother, Vagharshik.

Because of such ancestors, you have interacted with many prominent figures in the arts since childhood. Here I see that the portraits of your grandfather painted by Martiros Saryan. Were there other noted artists who were close to your family?

My father undertook a documentary film about the great, but at that time not quite in line with socialist realist art, Martiros Saryan. Naturally, this film, too, fell into disgrace. But the film was so beautifully shot that thanks to the efforts of Ruzan Saryan, Saryan’s granddaughter, the film has been restored and is constantly shown in the Saryan Museum. Martiros Saryan was one of the most revered artists in our family. My father often took me to visit him, where we were more interested in his studio. One work by Saryan – a portrait of Sergei Eisenstein, Dad said, was saved by him at the moment of the author’s dissatisfaction with the painting. At that time, my father asked Martiros Saryan to paint a portrait of me. I have the most vivid and unforgettable memories of those moments when I posed for the great master. Surprisingly, the portrait turned out to be a bit older than me at that time, but I recognize myself, as I became like that much later.

The list of other famous people, who came to visit us, is long. Our family often organized feasts, which were fun, witty and interesting. I have in my memory remained the most vivid ones or those who liked. The actors’ house on Lenin Avenue, now Mashtots Avenue, belonged to famous people. Actors Hrachya Nersesyan, David Malyan, Avet Avetisyan, singers Shara Talyan, Tatevik Sazandaryan lived across the street and many other famous people lived in our courtyard. I remember Suren Kocharyan – he amazed me with his voice, artistry and, most importantly, his memory (he could recite poetry endlessly), circus superstar Leonid Yengibarov, showing his complicated tricks right in the room: I remember his modesty. Artist Valentin Podpomogov was distinguished by his sense of humor and made me laugh with anecdotes.

On Zikatar Mountains” by Marina Vagharshyan (2022)

Let’s move on to your creativity. Bright colors in Armenian painting do not surprise anyone, but you seem to be able to do it. What difficulties have you overcome in your art as a woman?

It always seemed to me that I would never be able to do any kind of art. Studying at Chekhov’s secondary school, I was mostly engaged in lessons, music, sports and private English lessons. I was reminded of drawing by my dad in ninth grade. His decision to have me go to university in drawing was non-negotiable. I understood this and hiding the tears that appeared at that moment (alas, not from happiness), accepted this surprise with dignity. I was at that moment in a zero position on drawing and to overcome all for one year seemed to me unthinkable. As a child I always had the opportunity to paint with oil paints on my father’s easel, liked to draw faces, like all children. But to dream about this profession, somehow did not enter my head. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist or a hypnotist or, at the worst, a physicist (laughs).

In the end, having come to terms with my unexpected fateful situation, I began to attend drawing and painting lessons. I entered the Yerevan Art and Theatre Institute, the faculty of design. We had about 20-25 students in our course, there were only three of us girls. I studied without much interest, but my first sketches with ink and pen surprised me.

How did I manage to overcome gender issues? When I was young, of course, I defended my “rights,” but gradually wisdom came (laughs). I think it is very important to remain a woman and not compete with the opposite sex. The main thing is to recognize our differences in worldviews and perceptions. Accordingly, peaceful coexistence, not competition, will improve the personal growth of both men and women. Well, there was a time when I had doubts about the right choice of profession. I was once supported by singer Melania Abovyan who compared our professions — are male singers inferior to female singers? It means we both serve art, but in different forms. I was very grateful to her for the hint!

You worked in Armenian animation at a time when it was making its mark. I think working in animation influenced your style.

After graduation, I had an assignment at the Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics, where I was given the opportunity to work as a graduate designer. But I could not enter this boring, unrelated to real industrial design. At the same time, I became interested in Armenian animation, which was often shown on TV. I remember this period of my life with gratitude and pleasure – it taught me diligence, concentration of creative thought. And yes, fundamentally I became a completely different artist. My cycle where graphics merges with “film vision” was liked everywhere I exhibited. I was very lucky – I had several solo exhibitions in Europe, where, in principle, I established myself. Exhibitions are not only a test, but also your own growth. Of course, it was not immediately clear what this “news” was, even to me. I had the goal of not being like anyone else, but what artist does not want to have their own language? I don’t know if I was able to achieve that.

I think it is obvious that you have. In the 21st century Armenia, is it possible to live only by the work of an artist?

Of course, you can! And you have to live in Armenia. If you think only from the point of view of comfort, this question is not for me. Happiness has many components. I am happy that my paintings are available in different countries; I am also happy that many families in Yerevan have bought my paintings.

And are you happy that your daughter, Lilit Vagharshyan, has also become an artist?

I am always working hard and infecting, I think, my surroundings and including my talented daughter. I am very happy that Lilith, is doing something that gives her joy. And that is the most important thing!

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