BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
On the last Saturday of each month, entrance to museums in Yerevan are free for senior citizens. Although the fee to enter a museum is a pittance, my friend Dzovik encouraged me to take advantage of the offer and visit the National Gallery of Armenia (NGA) at the Republic Square.
Dzovik is an old friend from high school. She lives in Tehran. She often visits Yerevan and we meet each other there. Her father, Harutiun Minassian, was a well known painter in Tehran and she has a wealth of knowledge about Armenian painters and art in general. She keeps me on my toes, informs me of all the events happening in Yerevan, and makes my stay in the city most meaningful.
On Saturday, I met Dzovik around noon at the entrance of NGA. The building that houses the gallery is one of the most imposing buildings in Yerevan – a true jewel built during the Soviet era.
A trip to a museum usually means broadening ones horizons and learning something new. It’s nearly impossible to exit a museum without having gained any information or insight. On that day we explored and walked the museum for from nearly two hours. When we exited the museum I definitely felt richer than when I had gone in.
First, Dzovik introduced me to Vardges Sureniants. Born in 1860, Sureninants is considered the founder of Armenian historical paintings. His pieces usually depict scenes from fairy-tales and various historical events.
Sureniants was born in Georgia. His family later moved to Moscow where in 1879 he graduated from the Moscow School of Paintings, Sculpture and Architecture. He then moved to Munich, Germany where he received more education in painting and ultimately graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich in 1885. While studying in Munich, Sureniants took a trip to Venice, Italy and visited the island of San Lazzaro, where the Armenian Catholic congregation of the Mechitarists is located. There he studied Armenian fine arts and the manuscripts.
When I read the biography of our artists such as painters, writers or musicians, I’m always fascinated to learn how much they traveled during those days. After graduating from Munich academy, Sureniants visited Persia for two years.
While at the National Gallery we saw a large Sureniants’ painting. It was a scene from a slice of Persian history that every child in Iran has learned in school. The passage is about the iconic Persian poet Ferdowsi presenting the Shahnameh (the Book of Kings) to the sitting King. The Shahnameh is the mythical history of Iran composed in verse.
The story goes like this: Ferdowsi toiled for 30 years writing the Shahnameh and when he finally completed the Epic Poem in 1010 A.D. and presented it to the King, the latter, did not praise nor value the work enough causing Ferdowsi to leave the court infuriated. Sureniants’ work appealed to me a lot. He painted in pastel colors and there is a delicate feel about his work.
Next, I learned about Hacob Hovnatanyan. Hovnatanyan was the fifth and the last generation of painters from the Hovnatanyan family. The patriarch of the family Naghash Hovnatan (1661–1722), was a famous poet and painter. Naghash in Farsi means painter. I made an assumption that Naghash Hovnatan should have had close ties to Armenians in Persia during those days.
Hovnatanyan achieved and accomplished techniques as a portraitist. Princes, clergy and the wealthy mostly from Georgia became the main subjects of his works. I marveled over his paintings where he had portrayed women with their lace headresses. I found them so delicate. Dzovik pointed to a portrait and said this is known as the Armenian Mona Lisa.
Later in his life Hovnatanyan became interested in Persian art. He moved to Iran where he stayed at his daughter’s home in Tabriz. A year later he moved to Tehran and became the principal painter at the court of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. Shortly thereafter he was awarded a Courtesy title as Naghash-bashi, which means master of painters. He stayed in Iran until his death in 1881.
Our next stop was the gallery which encompassed works by Ivan Aivazovsky. There in the corner of the gallery Dzovik pointed to a collection of Armenian painters who had depicted marine scenes. Among them was her father’s painting, which I remember hanging in their home about 50 years ago.
We could not finish our visit of the museum without seeing the the 5,500-year-old leather shoe that was found in 2008 in a cave in Armenia. The moccasin-like shoe is kept in a climate controlled room in the prehistoric section of the museum.
I also learned something about museums that I didn’t know. On or around May 18, there’s an International Museum Day. Dzovik said that on that day National Gallery of Armenia is open 24 hours.
While at the Gallery, we met groups of children being guided through museum. They were all wearing T-shirts with letters COAF imprinted on them. COAF stands for Children of Armenia Fund. COAF is one of the many charitable organizations with the aim to reduce rural poverty in Armenia, with a focus on education, healthcare and economic development.
There were about 180 kids in attendance. They had come from Armavir region as part of their two week camp. I’m so moved when I see these kinds of programs available in Armenia through the generosity of Armenians in diaspora. To learn more about COAF, visit their website here.
Later I had a chance to speak with Vehanoush Punerjian, one of the museum’s curators. She gave me a brief overview of the museum. The NGA currently houses around 40,000 pieces and a large collection of prehistoric artifacts of Asia Minor. From this large collection only 10% is displayed in the museum’s 56 galleries and halls. The entrance fee is 800 AMD is about $1.50. They have nearly 65,000 visitors per year.