By Janet Samuelian
His name is currently in eclipse in Western art circles, and at Sotheby’s the occasional Aivazovsky earns a paltry $80,000. Yet, in 1842 Hovhannes Aivazian was becoming an internationally famous 25-year-old from southern Russia. His magnificent Italian landscapes made him the talk of Europe. Turner, the aging English artist, was so influenced by his Bay of Naples by Moonlight that he changed the style of his own painting, calling Aivazovsky a “young genius” in an Italian sonnet he dedicated to him.
It is no wonder, then, that at a recent international symposium Aivazovsky’s works enraptured modern viewers as they had his contemporaries.
In 1844 Aivazovsky’s widened reputation extended to honorary memberships in the art academies of Rome, Stuttgart, Amsterdam and Florence, where the self-portrait received by the Pitti Palace still hangs there today. He became the first non-Frenchman awarded the Legion of Honor medal. Pope Gregory XVI acquired his painting Chaos: The Creation of the World, calling it “a miracle of artistry.” Despite the limitations of Armenians living under the Czar, he graduated with a gold medal from the St. Petersburg Art Academy and earned his scholarship for Italian art study. During a tour of duty with the Black Sea fleet, he had painted one great maritime work after another.
Because of his fame, he was given the honorary title, Painter of Chief Naval Headquarters, and was offered the post of Russian Imperial Court Artist. Instead, the Czar granted Aivazovsky’s modest wish to return to his birthplace, Theodosia, where his beloved Armenians had lived for centuries. The large Italianate oceanfront house is where the painter lived until his death in 1900.
Nowadays, that ornate villa and picture gallery, painted the color of Armenian Easter eggs, is a central tourist attraction.
Officially launching their joint enterprise with Crimeans – the First International Aivazovsky Symposium-Armenia’s best performers took the stage of Theodosia’s seaside theater last July. They faced an audience of Ukrainian dignitaries and media people, Tatar soldiers, vacationing Soviets, including Aivazovsky’s great-grandaughter, a dozen Europeans and a smattering of the 25,000 Armenians in Crimea. Ajemian’s 14 tuxedo-clad violinists swept into Come Back to Sorrento (the painter, after all, had spent many years depicting Italian seas). Songs by Crimean – born Alexander Spendiarian, Hungarian dances and Khatchaturian pieces, dramatic Sayat Nova and Paruyr Sevak recitations in Russian, Naregatsi by two haunting duduks, bilingual Toumanian poetry, an excerpt from Gayane, even soprano Arax Mansourian of Anoush opera – it was breakneck entertainment.
Next, old-fashioned love songs and patriotic anthems like Mer Hyrenik and Hye Gabrink, Yeghpyrner were impeccably played by Yervant Yerkanian’s ensemble. Selections were announced in Russian, but this was a far cry from the old days of toadying up to Moscow. Finally, wild applause greeted Vanoush Khanamirian’s more familiar State Dance Ensemble as they unleashed their best character dancers in Tbilisi Ginto with ethnic orchestra. After Sophie Davoyan’s exquisite white-bird solo, 14 pretty women with arms linked, swayed with graceful precision to Alexander Spendiarian’s Enzeli, ending with a leaping grand finale of Saber Dance. Three more free concerts prepared by Laert Movsessian’s Philharmonia organization took place in Yalta and Simferopol, the last one televised live. All five state-sponsored groups were superb, maintaining discipline on innumerable, long bus rides to and from performances.
They were old hands at packing their own Armenian cheese, brandy, portable coffee makers, soap and large towels to enjoy a Black Sea vacation far from the heat and turmoil of Yerevan.
Seventeen guest artists also sharpened survival skills after living one month in Yalta hotels, solving daily shortages of food and art materials. To absorb quickly all the nuances of light on water which Aivazovsky observed every day for years was an unfair challenge.
Bedros Aslanian of Greece, Edmon Aivazian and Khachatur Pilikian of England, Richard Jeranian of France, Harout Minassian of Iran, and Hratch Tashjian of America, heartily mixed with painters from Armenia, Latvia, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moscow.
Armenia’s tradition of plein-air painting showed its strength in the colorful group art show. Also impressive was the subject matter-steep mountains verdant with cypress, poplars and pines which rim Yalta’s busy port and its hillside Armenian cathedral, Gurzuf’s beach and rock formations jutting out of the bay, the large seaside city of Alushta sloping down from inland cliffs, and the craggy blue heights of Sev Kar and Bear Mountain, leading eastward to Koktebel’s and Theodosia’s turquoise waters.
Those Black Sea landscapes form the heart of Theodosia’s famous picture gallery, created by Aivazovsky in 1880 to house his best paintings. He traveled worldwide in 60 years and painted close to 6,000 works. To his city he brought water, a railroad, printing house and school, and he helped Armenian churches and refugees.
Papers delivered at the symposium discussed Aivazovsky’s place in Russian art, his letters and relationships; but art historian Shahen Khachaturian, showing slides and guiding tours, proved the national character of Armenians is best exemplified by Aivazovsky – “that God-given talent who painted the sea from a room with no windows to better capture its color and light.” The new Aivazovsky Museum opening in Yerevan is partly due to the efforts of the Sarian Museum director.
Thus, by offering attention and cultural gifts, the Armenians succeeded in reclaiming Aivazovsky. The ancient architectural charms of Theodosia’s tiny Armenian churches and 15th century Genoese walls and towers in the Garantina area also were spotlighted.
In 1992, under the auspices of UNESCO, Armenia, a nation without an ocean, will be able to celebrate with a broader audience the 175th anniversary of the birth of that eternally great seascape painter, Hovhannes Aivazovsky.