In search of Grigor Khanjian
by Gregory Lima
One artist sees a glimmer of light glowing in the shadows and able to find his way moves confidently on; another sees the gathering darkness and tries to find matches and candles. Is fate a matter of temperament and the prevailing ethos at your date of birth? Grigor Khanjian, born 1926, was able to travel as a Soviet artist: Paris, Rome, Madrid, and beyond. He was able, whereas another celebrated Armenian artist living in Yerevan, Ervand Kochar, born 1899, a generation earlier, was forbidden even to accompany his own paintings to Paris for a major exhibition in his honor. At the last minute even the packed paintings were forbidden to leave. Here follows a curious story as it unfolded. It is a story about seeking to understand a greatly talented artist who was able to work within the system and still be true to Armenia. Seeing this contrast with Kochar occurring within roughly the same time frame was too sharp to just let pass. Who was Grigor Khandjan? For all his travels, Grigor was emotionally and physically anchored here. A conservative intellectually, viewing life and culture through a long timeframe, he would prove courageous in advancing Armenian interests. But he was no firebrand. He would argue that to be otherwise under a totalitarian system was simply to be slammed into silence. He was not silenced, and his work, as we shall see, speaks for itself. Creative Armenia today is all the richer because an inspiring diversity of artists felt in their own way and with their own diverse temperaments that here is where they belonged.
* Discovering Khanjian
No one pointed him out. It was one of those happy days in Yerevan when a Grigor Khanjian exhibition seemed to loom up a step ahead and beckoned. The pleasant pattern made by the curved prows of a row of moored gondolas, black hulls with touches of red and blue in the interiors, whispering of balmy, carefree evenings as a tourist in Venice is what first drew me to him. “Grigor Khanjian, ‘Travel Impressions’” was printed on a poster accompanying a copy of the painting. It invited attention at the entrance to the Academia Gallery as I walked up Marshal Baghramyan Avenue toward the American University in Yerevan. I was already inside and alone in the gallery before I was even aware that I had pushed open the door. Inside the gallery it appeared that Khanjian was first able to travel outside the Soviet Union to Enver Hoxa’s Albania, politically close at that moment to the Soviet Union. His sketchbook evoked an Illyrian odyssey of a people who still clung to their traditional costumes and folkways in the late 1950s. He was able to capture significant detail in a few deft strokes, concentrating on outward appearance but nevertheless vividly depicting a way of life. He called it, “In Scanderberg Country,” which to me said more about the artist than the sketches. Scanderberg in that nation’s history is their Vartan, their great warrior who led then Christian Albania to stunning victories in the religious and ethnic struggle against the invading Turks. It was not Hoxa’s but Scanderberg’s Albania he was visiting. The difference is that he went abroad with his own sense of Armenian history and this fact will be reflected in his work. I had personally become acquainted with the Albania in his sketches, perhaps visiting the same villages, but it was just before the end of a particularly harsh Communist rule, and signs of social upheaval were then palpable. Khanjian, there a generation earlier, was looking for something else. He discerned folk rhythms, and seemed to build his sketches from the ground directly beneath his feet as it stretched up the page, generally following a sinuous road that could disappear and reappear in interesting new forms, as if he were a poet painting in visual rhymes. I liked him, feeling he was eloquent and speaking to me.
* Odd years, even years
With regularity, every two years it seemed, he was again able to leave the Soviet Union with a small group of artists. Now to France and you could find him sketching in Paris contrasting an emotive Rodin statue whose romantic posture is almost lost on mothers and their children peacefully asleep in baby carriages; soon now in Italy with Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Khanjian is concentrating not on the ceiling but again building up from the ground beneath his feet he focuses on the intent faces and up-craning necks of a group of nuns of various ages and responses whose eyes move upward, making an original and arresting scene. The key figure, a young nun with a sharply upturned head, makes a striking figure. Beyond a saintly posture, you can read her awe and her innocence, and still beyond that, perhaps Khanjian’s own heart. It seemed the odd years were spent in Armenia, the even years punctuated with a trip abroad, and here he was now in Spain. His sketches are unfailingly excellent in their own genre. He was certainly clever and obviously immensely talented, but that could hardly explain why he was able to regularly travel outside the Soviet Union even during the iron grip of Stalin. It was a question that clouded my view. In every impression hung on the gallery wall his stance as an artist is well outside the scene; he is a traveler who is passing by. And we pass by with him. He doesn’t pretend to know what is inside people’s heads, but he is nevertheless perceptive. He has more eyes than a dozen tourists. I begin to realize there is not one photograph in these paintings here. This or that view exists only because he created it. It pulses with verisimilitude, but he created it. He composed it in a way that establishes a dialogue between the scene and the viewer. If this comports with Stalin’s Socialist Realism, we have just discovered a master. That could be the answer. He is a perfect example of an artist blooming within the system, happy in his life and work. He paints a portrait of his attractive wife against fruits and flowers, another of his son Ara, who has his mouth, and then one of his beautiful daughter Seda. He is settled with a happy family. He was able to go because he was a good choice. These were the thoughts before seeing the one painting from his series done on a visit to Mexico that changed everything. I stood there, gaping in amazement.
* Far more subtle than expected
This was the final painting and unlike all the other works in the exhibition. This was propped on an artist’s easel at an angle to a running wall of glass, light streaming through. The painting, covered by its own plate of glass, was sketched in the interior of a church, facing the altar. To the right a parishioner is on his knees, head bowed in an attitude of prayer. There is not the slightest doubt we are in a holy place. But straight ahead, over an altar and above, there is neither cross nor religious fresco; there is only an impenetrable darkness. Without the glimmer of an icon, it stands on its own as an expressive composition that conveys a mysterious spirituality. Impressed, and about to turn away, I noticed something even more mysterious. My face was reflected in the darkness of this holy place. My likeness emerging out of the dark wall was a sudden illumination and unsettling. He had painted the impenetrable darkness of that wall in a size and shape to reflect the face of the viewer. I bobbled about to be sure, walked away, came back. Khanjian had created in this painting not only spirituality but a profoundly effective and immediate dialogue. There could be little doubt about it. He had provided a haunting image that centered on my own likeness, mine and yours and that of everyone who looked into it, and he seemed to ask questions more than make statements. Who are you above this altar? What do you believe? This artist is far more subtle than suspected. Now awoke a determination to turn his basic questions back on the questioner: “Who are you Grigor Khanjian? What do you believe?” I don’t think you are as tame as the totalitarian system may insist. Having departed this world in the year 2000, he cannot be consulted. The only immediate recourse is to turn to his body of work and discover whatever we can. Luckily, the National Gallery of Armenia is holding a retrospective. His daughter Seda is one of the curators. His son, Ara, provides some taped interviews in which his father discusses his work. But we will largely do our own “Travel Impressions” of Khanjian; do it as perhaps he would do it, standing outside most of the descriptive and interpretive literature, and in passing just see what we can see and compose. Starting with the obvious, one of the first things we can discover is that he was born in Yerevan, and we can trace his development after he graduates from the art college here at the end of the Great War. At 16 years old he has already demonstrated his mastery of realistic drawing in his self-portrait. He introduces himself to us as a sensitive youth, precocious and alert. He cannot have had much trouble being admitted, some two years later, at 18, to higher studies and we find that all his major teachers through the next six years at the Yerevan Art Institute are Armenian artists. It is clear that here he learned how to cope with the system. We also find that he is rooted in Armenian history, its art and poetry. Among his favorite poets and authors is Hovhannes Toumanian, for he comes to public recognition for his illustration of Toumanian’s poem “Anoush.” He goes on to illustrate “Gikor,” a story by the same author, and Toumanian’s poem, “Sako from Lory.” His daughter Seda indicates that “Sako” begins the clearest development of his distinctive style and his mature work. For this and other work, he becomes a member of the Union of Artists of the USSR, and is elected a member of the Presidium of the Artists’ Union of the Armenian SSR. Clearly, he has now been accepted as one of Armenia’s own within the Soviet system. Before the age of 30 he is decorated with the Badge of Honor at the celebration of the Decade of Art and Literature of the Armenian SSR held in Moscow. Meanwhile, he is also gathering gold medals. The saccharine, happy oil on canvas of fishermen, “On the Shores of Lake Sevan,” wins a gold medal in Moscow; the canvas “Anahit” wins one in Yerevan. Another medal come from abroad (Belgium, gold) and still another from the Academy of Fine Arts of the USSR (Moscow, silver) for his illustrations of the Khachatur Abovian novel, “Wounds of Armenia.” It is at this point that he is permitted to leave the USSR with a group of Russian artists for the tour of Albania where we started earlier at the Academia Gallery. He apparently behaved well, for two years later we find him in Paris, and upon returning exhibiting his French impressions in Moscow where they are well received. He now sports the title “Honored Artist of the Armenian SSR.” Another two years and the tour of Italy behind him, we find him elected to the Presidium of the Union of Artists of the USSR. He is now in the top ranks of the Soviet art scene. He will continue to work almost exclusively in narrative art as an illustrator of Armenian literature, in time illuminating Avetik Isahakian’s Fables and Gevorg Emin’s The Dance of Sassoon. The Dance includes one of his most beautiful illuminations, a group dance alive with color, rhythm, and music. But before all that he begins to work on the beautifully apt and sensitively rendered illustrations for Paruir Sevak’s poem The Ever-Tolling Bell Tower, published to acclaim in 1965. The acclaim he receives, including the gold medal in Moscow, even though he has been cautioned by the commissariat that he has included too many priests and still keeps them in the illustrations anyway, becomes a major turning point in his life.
* A clue in an implied halo
He becomes self-assured enough to permit himself to be elected a member of the Religious and Architectural Council of the Holy See in Etchmiadzin. Later he will accompany the Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazgen I, on a tour of Jerusalem. In the series of The Ever-Tolling Bell Tower illustrations, there is a subtle clue to Khanjian’s religious outlook. We are at the seat of the catholicos and the inimitable young Gomidas has been brought in to sing and be judged. It is a decisive moment. In the long room the white-bearded catholicos is deep in thought, his left hand cupped to his ear the better to hear the singing Gomidas. Three of his seated acolytes who must comment on the performance are individual studies in apt attention. Beside the boy, standing upright, is the young cleric who has brought him, beaming with pride. The clue is in the light through the doorframe. It is only directly on Gomidas. I see it as an implied halo. It adds an additional dimension to the genius of Gomidas and to the light and dark of the moment. The Ever-Tolling Bell Tower recounts the life and death of the composer Gomidas at the same time that it is a recounting of the Armenian Genocide. In the illustrations of the book there is a celebration of Armenian folk life beyond the music. The composer is usually seen leaning against a wall or a tree, listening, notebook in hand, but within the full scene there is also a vigorous folk life and folk art. This folk life seen in the musical instruments and the dance is also in the clothing and the implements. The Genocide that murdered the dancers and attempted to silence the music has also cut off the hands of the spinners and the cobblers and the carvers and the other craftspeople, striking an almost fatal blow at the very heart of Armenian folk culture. It is this enormous and profound loss even beyond the music that confronts Khanjian as an Armenian and an artist. There is a connection between his manifest interest in the diverse folk culture he witnessed and expressed in his tour of Albania and a strongly aroused interest in preserving and reviving Armenian folk culture after the Genocide. He will show a full commitment to the revival of Armenian arts and crafts in the rest of his life. He designs the book Armenian Churches (1970). He follows up by designing a book on Armenian religious stone art, Khachkars. In 1975 he is elected a deputy to the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR and becomes a member of the Presidium. This is the same year that he goes to Mexico. It is on this journey he draws the dark interior of the church in which we discover our own image. It is only now that we face the implied question in the painting: What do you believe? Could he have also been asking it of himself? We will find more of the full answer to this question when Khanjian decides, upon his return, to go to Etchmiadzin. Meanwhile, however, in the cultural thaw he completes the painting “He Returned,” illustrates Isahakian’s At the Sun, and finishes the illustrations of the book Western Armenian Poetry, while incidentally he is awarded the Red Labor Flag. He is also elected to the State Prize Awarding Committee of the USSR. In Mexico he had encountered the wall paintings of the great muralist D. Siqueiros, a favorite of the Mexican people and he dedicates the publication of his Mexican impressions to the memory of Siqueiros under the title “Where Are You, Son of the Lord?” He will continue to tour the world, France and Italy again, Portugal, Belgium and Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan. He will go to Canada. He will also go to Etchmiadzin.
* Restoring Etchmiadzin
For many years after the annexation of Armenia to the Soviet Union, the newly and grandly built residential palace of the catholicos at Etchmiadzin was commandeered and occupied by the Soviet Army as a local headquarters and as a billet for troops. Only after Stalin’s death and the subsequent thaw was the residence of the catholicos returned to the church. By this time the palace as well as the cathedral and the grounds were in disrepair. Khanjian was asked by Vazgen I to help in the restoration, redesign, and refurbishing of the interior of the residence. In the grand reception room, the elegantly tasteful simplicity of the fireplaces, the stonework and woodwork follow his designs. He also created the artwork for the great wall tapestries for the residence that were woven in France, the Vardanank and the Armenian Alphabet tapestries. The Vardanank is an especially interesting treatment. It commemorates the epic 451 battle of Vardan Mamikonian for the Christian and national integrity of Armenia, but not as an old story. It is the story of the continuing battle against every variety of darkness to this moment. Among the arrayed warriors he painted outstanding cultural figures over the subsequent span of Armenia’s continued contribution to civilized existence and the struggle for its place in the world. It is a tribute to what has proven an indomitable Armenian spirit. In the last years of his life Grigor Khanjian, recalling Siqueiros, turned to rendering his tapesties into murals in Yerevan. He worked on a ladder on huge panels on the walls of the first station in the Cascades. He completed the Vardanank and the Alphabet, leaving out a few of the angels. Going over to Etchmiadzin, in the cathedral to the deep right corner as you enter there is a set of rooms with the treasures of the church and deacons who will serve as guides. One of the knowledgeable deacons was asked where the Khanjian tapestries are. He indicated the residence of the catholicos, but, he said, “Khanjian is also here. Look to the painting at the main altar.” The Cathedral at Etchmiadzin is not a humble church in Mexico. The impenetrable darkness Khanjian painted there is now illuminated at Etchmiadzin by Khanjian’s painting of the Madonna and Child. So, we have come full circle. What Khanjian believed in all along is in prayer and in Armenia.
Khanjian in 1989 was elected a deputy to the Supreme Council of the USSR.
He renounced his membership in 1991 as a sign of protest.
In 1992 he created another tapestry, “Mother Armenia Reborn”. The subsequent mural he attempted at the Cascades remained unfinished at his death.
From 1993 to 1996 he presented the consecrated canvases “Madonna and Child,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Resurrection” to Saint Vartan’s Cathedral in New York.
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Gregory Lima’s essay on Ervand Kochar appeared in the March 24 issue of the Reporter. The author of The Costumes of Armenian Women (Tehran, 1974), he started Tehran’s leading English-language daily, Kayhan International, in 1959. He lives in Patterson, N.Y., and Yerevan.