By Gregory Lima
Once upon a time we lived in a world where eternal love could result from a single glance at an endearing face, where a fish might be able to talk, a cow could be the truest friend in the travails of a family, giants strode the earth but were generally not too smart, and, believe it or not, even a frightened peasant with a lot of luck could become a warrior king.
That world of folk and fairy tales, of lyric and epic poetry, as brilliantly illustrated by Martiros Saryan and published under the direction of Yeghishe Charents between 1929 and 1937, is currently on display in a special show at Yerevan's Saryan Museum.
Going on a Friday, the free day for children, I found myself in an excited crowd, four deep in 9 to 12 year olds. Schools in the city had scheduled visits on this day. This is a show with much that is close to the hearts and childhood memories of many, and it was good to be at an exhibition where there was such palpable excitement that the illustrations seemed to shake on the walls with all the finger waving at them.
I watched as children pointed out favorites, one exclaiming, laughing, "There's Kikos, Kikos," the invisible child that never was, and I remarking to myself that so many of these young schoolgirls could easily pass as fairy princesses or "Nunufar," whom the folktale describes as being more beautiful than the rising sun.
Foundations of a new culture
Yet, with the conditions that existed in Soviet Armenia in the 1930s, this is an exhibition that had a precarious birth. Armenia, it had been declared from above, was to have a new culture. Age-old traditions and what were seen as narrow national ways of thinking would have to go. They were to be replaced by a new culture of "proletarian values."
It would have been difficult to find more than a few actual proletarians at the time in the whole of Armenia unless the term was changed to include just about anyone with little left to lose, and then there were many. But that didn't matter to the social architects. A new proletariat was going to be created through massive, instant industrialization and by the collectivization of agricultural production. It was to be accompanied by mass literacy and a new set of social values.
Yeghishe Charents, despite acid criticism that he had become a "nationalist, chauvinist, reactionary," was now in charge of Armenian publications. He had only recently returned from a long journey through Italy, Germany, and France, during which he had modified his earlier firebrand view of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was now resistant to the recent direction the Moscow leadership under Stalin had taken on how to proceed with cultural change. The author of the lyric poem, written at this time, "I love the sun-drenched fruit of my sweet Armenia," passionately believed you could not create a new literature or culture worthy of "international significance and having universal dimensions" unless its starting point was the living national tradition. He would act forcefully on this premise, and do so ultimately at the cost of his life.
He would start with the publication of as much recent literature reflecting enduring popular attitudes in the national culture as he dared, including the national folktales. But he didn't want just words. He wanted to produce and publish Armenian tales, poetry, and prose illustrated by Armenian art and to distribute it to as wide an audience as possible, giving older or younger Armenians pictures if they could not yet read.
A new Armenia in the making
To meet this challenge, he called upon Armenia's leading artist, Martiros Saryan, who had also just returned from abroad. Saryan had gone to Paris from 1926 to 1928, where he had sought to refresh his artistic outlook, rubbing shoulders and trading ideas with the new international avant garde, and while there, organizing landmark exhibitions of the new work of expatriate Armenian artists, reflecting their contributions to the art of the times. Upon his return home, all his new Parisian work mysteriously disappeared by a fire in transit. Charents advised him that in the current social climate in Armenia, it would be best for now to leave what passes as modern art to Paris. Illustrating Armenian literature and folktales could serve as a rewarding new starting point for his own artistic vision, as well as being a relatively safe temporary refuge in turbulent times.
The phrase that seemed to persuade the reluctant Saryan, who was a free spirit, not ready to be tied to the text of someone else's imagination, was this: "A book cover can be the front door to art." The more so as it will be art and literature directly in the hands of, and before the eyes of, the new, widely literate Armenia that is in the making. It would be images you could put in your pocket or keep by your bedside.
Add to that the fact that book illustrations are an ancient Armenian art, recognized as among the treasures of the world's heritage. Illustrations of medieval manuscripts having been an integral part of the Armenian national tradition, it was argued, should find new, persuasive forms today.
Some of Saryan's most beautiful early work was his series "Fairytales and Dreams," delicate and romantic. This would be an opportunity to reprise that period with new purpose.
The backward pull
Saryan responded by restricting his colors to book covers, creating what he hoped was a wide-open door to his art, while he created black-and-white illustrations for the interior of the publications. His purpose was to use vivid colors and dynamic expression with the profound simplicity that characterizes his art on the cover, but to call upon the reader to find color and movement through his or her own imagination in the interior of the book, guided by the story and the descriptions as they unfold in the text.
It is of course up to the reader to tell whether or not he was successful. In my judgment he set the modern goalposts for others to follow. Particularly admirable about this phase of Saryan's work is the backward pull of the illustrations, as if he is dragging them from the storyteller's recollections of time gone into the daylight of today. That backward pull fits the story settings and is an essential part of the timeless charm of the stories themselves.
And no one does mountains like Saryan - unless they are copying Saryan. His mountains are as much attitude as actuality, a way of feeling the mountains as he sees them, and seeing them as he feels them. To live within the wide bowl of Sayran's mountains as he projects them is to live with the fabulous.
Charents first called for covers and illustrations for the work of Avetik Issahakyan, starting with "Poems," 1929; Hovhannes Tumanian's "Folk Tales," 1930; and then Gurgen Mahari's "Childhood and Youth." He followed these books with illustrated publications of his own new work, and looked outward both toward Western Europe and to Arab and Persian themes that were also part of the long national tradition. Firdowsi's Rustam and Sorhab translated to Armenian from the Shahnameh in particular lent itself to illustrations that suited Saryan. Not only were some of his best-loved pictures done in the sunlight of Persia, but he understood the Persian miniature. He brought it with his own Armenian restraint into these illustrations. But by 1937 it was over, Charents picked up and executed.
One of the most popular works from the period was simply published under the title Armenian Folk Tales, issued in three different editions, Saryan adding new illustrations with each subsequent edition. It would also be published in Russian. A valuable edition of this work was separately published years later in English in New York. It contains the familiar tales and was clearly the most popular with the visiting children.
Saryan otherwise clearly tried to associate the covers he created with the areas the authors came from.
Issahakyan came from the plains and mountains of Sirak; Toumanyan from Lori with its gorges; Mahari with his powerfully expressed memories of the Genocide was from lakeside Van; Charents was from Kars.
As for the literary texts themselves, Tumanian was a severe critic of the consequence of superstition and ignorance as it affected a people trapped in their outmoded conventions, including forced marriage; but at the same time he was no partisan of the heedless, rapid industrialization that was ripping apart the moral and social fabric of Armenian society. In addition to his other work, he wrote adaptations of a large number of Armenian fairy tales, along with many tales translated from the German.
One of the treats of the series are the illustrations for Issahakyan's Abu Lala Mahari, a retelling of the tale of the 11th-century Arab poet who seems to hold for an extra warming moment the fleeting second of happiness that may occur for all of us in what may be otherwise humdrum lives. The illustrations, with desert scenes, palm trees, and camel caravans, recall the early-20th-century journeys Saryan took through Persia and Egypt in his youth. As always, it is the burning, sun-drenched colors, painted, or once you are on Saryan's wavelength, strongly implied even in shadowy charcoal, in his disarmingly simple scenes, that makes him one of the 20th century's major artists.
Not that Issahakyan's Abu Lala Mahari is someone you might want to befriend; he renounces the usual pleasures of the world, doesn't care much for women, and is convinced that evil is so entrenched that there is nothing you can do about it but to flee from it and worldly matters in disgust. There is more than a little resonance when considering his notion of entrenched evil as Beria did his work in creating the new "proletarian culture" of the 1930s.
The wisdom of gentle kindness
An appealing part of the exhibition is a series of long, rectangular monochromes depicting scenes from the Armenian national character. Among the favorite scenes are the cultivation of the earth, village festivals, and the composition Saryan attains in "lavash baking."
It has been noted that the illustrations gain a life of their own beyond the texts to which they are associated. Saryan's reservations when starting this work that he did not want to be tied to the text of someone else's imagination is not borne out. They stand the test of time as independent, creative work.
The exhibition draws on the National Gallery of Armenia, the Martiros Saryan Museum, and the Saryan family collection. Its curator is Sophie Saryan, the granddaughter of the artist, who now has three children of her own. She was guiding the crowd of schoolchildren on this visit.
They seemed to listen to her more attentively than any guide is listened to in my experience in Yerevan museums. The trick, she said, is not to talk to the walls with a memorized script, but to talk directly to the children with what you know that might really interest them, and to do it with your own feelings. The way to have them live with and discover this art for themselves is to be kind to them.
That is what I believe Martiros Saryan reveals in his art - the most sophisticated simplicity that expresses itself in the wisdom of gentle kindness.