Critics’ Forum: Negotiating Identity and Preserving History: Razmik Grigorian’s Collection of Armenian Paintings

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BY RAMELA GRIGORIAN ABBAMONTIAN

“Why do you collect?” I inquired over a casual dinner conversation as we were discussing his most recent acquisition. Even though his art collection is comprised of nearly 450 works of art by about 175 Armenian artists, my question caught him off guard: “I don’t know.”

And so we began our investigation: me, the art historian, tackling the challenge to uncover the motivations of a diasporic Armenian art collector, and he, the avid collector, desiring to comprehend why he was “addicted” (his own word) to collecting Armenian art.

Collector Razmik Grigorian is a successful architect, builder, and businessman residing in Glendale, California. Notably, he served as an Arts & Culture Commissioner for 13 years (a record for the city), with four of those as Commission Chair. In 2009, as part of the annual Genocide Commemoration Committee of the City of Glendale (a collaboration between local Armenian organizations and the City), Grigorian was in charge of the arts component of the commemoration events. To that end, with the author as the curator, he organized the exhibition “Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Journey Out of Darkness . . .” at the Brand Library Art Galleries (April 4 – May 8, 2009). The event attracted more than a thousand attendees on opening night.

Grigorian is also my uncle. We share a passion for art and have spent countless hours in museums engaging in animated conversations rich with both laughter and revelations about the art, such as our recent memorable experience at the Minas Avetisyan exhibition in Armenia last summer (“Minas: Old and Completely New,” June 27, 2018, National Gallery of Armenia).

While my previous work has examined visual production in light of a diasporic experience, this endeavor challenged me to move beyond my typical realm of study into the examination of the practice of collecting by a diasporic Armenian with the goal of uncovering the motivations implicit in amassing a rich collection of Armenian paintings. Collecting, a practice with a long history, has been historically driven by the desire to surround oneself with aesthetic objects as well as to showcase one’s status and wealth. In his article “Is Collecting an Art?” Sam Lewishon also suggests that “the main purpose in collecting is to satisfy one’s aesthetic needs. One should buy a picture because one needs it for aesthetic refreshment.” While I agree that Grigorian’s collection certainly brings him that refreshment as he surrounds himself with these aesthetic objects, in this article I ultimately suggest that the practice of collecting also enables him to negotiate his hybrid, global identity, reveals a diasporic impulse to preserve history and culture, and, finally, expresses a desire to expose it to others in order to claim its rightful spot in the global art landscape.

To understand the motivations to collect, it’s essential to know the background of the collector. Grigorian’s appreciation for and enjoyment of the arts was shaped early on and takes many forms, for he also has a love of music, film, and photography. He recalls that throughout his childhood, he was watching movies and reading many books about art. His academic studies further reinforced his love of the arts. Influenced and encouraged by his brother Zareh Grigorian (my father), he studied architecture and received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Manchester Polytechnic (today known as Manchester Metropolitan University). Ambitious and driven, he continued his studies and later earned a Master’s degree in the Art and Technique of Filmmaking, with a major in Cinematography, from the London International Film School, where, notably, his professors and peers observed that his films were like paintings in their use of light and attention to detail, both factors he often discusses when examining the paintings in his own collection.

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Like the story of most Armenians, his is also a diasporic experience of movement and change. Grigorian has made his home in several countries: he was born and raised in Iran, schooled in England, and has lived in the United States since 1985. He proudly declares, “I am loyal to all three countries that I am connected to” and “I gladly choose to be all three,” pointing to the diasporan’s embrace of his hybrid identity, an issue I have explored in earlier work. Further, Grigorian frequents Armenia about 3-4 times a year and recently purchased a home in Yerevan, stating, “I feel very comfortable, very much at home, in Armenia.” These are not only leisurely visits to the homeland, but they are filled with local interactions to discuss business opportunities that can contribute to the growth of Armenia. He states that this is a “tribute to my ancestral land and to my grandfather [Levon Papazian] who fought and got injured in the Resistance of Van.”

Grigorian also loves to travel and has been to at least 60 countries, having visited about 500 cities. In each city, he makes sure to visit its museums and galleries: “[T]hat enhances me and my knowledge and my taste hopefully.” But besides becoming a “better, richer person,” it appears that he is also using art as a means to assess the city and its growth and development. Moreover, in that assessment, he compares the site’s artistic production to that of Armenians. Therefore, art is the lens through which he experiences and evaluates the world.

Grigorian’s collecting practice began over 20 years ago, when he was visiting an exhibition in Los Angeles organized by the Mkrtchyan Art Gallery, the first privately-owned gallery after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its owners, the husband and wife team of Armen and Alla Mkrtchyan, went on to become Grigorian’s good friends and continued to aid in the growth of his collection.

I was, as the reader might be, curious as to how else a collector comes to own a work of art. The process varies. Sometimes gallery dealers (such as the Mkrtchyan pair), artists, or auction houses approach Grigorian with works they believe he might find interesting; in other instances, Grigorian himself visits gallery exhibitions to encounter new artists, or he simply seeks out works from specific artists he particularly enjoys. While practical factors, such as the quality, price, and condition of the work, are considered in the final decision, it is the visual encounter with the work of art that ultimately determines its fate. “When I look at the painting, if I feel it, if I breathe it, if I understand it, if I connect to it – emotionally and spiritually – then yes, I take it.”

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His collection of nearly 450 paintings is dynamic and diverse. As an art historian, I was looking for patterns, trends, preferred subject matter, favorite genres or artists. However, the collection is not homogeneous and defies easy categorization, except that it contains only paintings dating between the late 19th and the 21st centuries. He explains that he only collects Armenian art. Besides recognizing that his “addiction” could get out of hand if it were to expand to other groups, he explains, “‘Armenian’ can be anywhere in the world; it doesn’t have to be from Armenia necessarily, and I think it is important to have the wide selection of great Armenian artists who have worked outside Armenia. It’s important for many reasons because, first of all, the Armenian reality is a huge diaspora. Another reality is that this huge diaspora, no matter how much they struggle to keep their identity and Armenian-ness, so to speak, are also influenced by their immediate surroundings and also influence the countries they are in.”

While the great majority (he estimates about 70 to 80 percent) of his collection includes the work of artists from Armenia proper, the remaining quarter includes artists who have lived and/or worked in places such as Iran, Egypt, France, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, Lebanon, Georgia, etc. Additionally, the eclectic collection’s diverse subject matter ranges from village scenes to abstractions with bold colors to whimsical paintings with a play on the title. Therefore, an extensive and diverse collection such as this that resists easy categorization parallels, I would suggest, the Armenian experience with its ever-changing encounters with historical circumstances and resultant shifting notions of identity. As such, I suggest that this valuable collection stands as the embodiment of a rich global Armenian experience.

Grigorian’s collection includes notable artists such as Alexander Bashbeuk-Melikian, Gayane Khachatryan, Hakop Hakopyan, Harutyun Kalents (Galentz), Hovannes Aivazovsky, Hovsep Pushman, Jean Carzou, John Altoon, Leon Tutundjian, Martiros Saryan, Maryam Aslamazian, Minas Avetisyan, Sergei Parajanov, Vahram Gaifedjian, Vartkes Surenyantz, Gevork Bashinjaghian, and Yervand Nahapetian. Many young, emerging, and local artists are also part of the collection.

However, I have selected only five paintings – admittedly, some of my favorites – to examine in this brief article in order to uncover the motivations that propel a diasporic Armenian to collect art. While I recognize that this small sample is, in many ways, a disservice to the breadth and depth of the collection, I believe that these works, diverse in time period, region, and subject matter, nonetheless give the reader a glimpse into the valuable collection and also allow me to ascertain the collector’s motivations.

The oldest work in Grigorian’s collection is a stunning image of a woman (dated c. 1860) by the well-known artist Hagop Hovnatanian (1806 – 1881) [FIGURE 1]. Considered the father of portrait painting in Armenian art, Hovnatanian lived in Tbilisi (Tiflis, Georgia), then moved to Iran in the 1860s; he painted the well-to-do. While most of his paintings bear the title of the sitter, this one is untitled. In this painting, the woman sits upright and directly engages the viewer with a confident, frontal gaze. (In perusing a short booklet about Hovnatanian by Shahen Khachatourian, I noted that most of the women sitters were portrayed in a ¾ view and this one is strongly, and probably intentionally, frontal.) She is adorned with elaborate jewelry and attire, comprised of diverse fabrics and designs, and these signify wealth and status. Her arm casually rests on the armchair as her left hand toys with the rosary beads gracefully falling into her lap. The background is dark except for the faint outline of the chair’s back; in this way, Hovnatanian ensured that the focus was on the sitter along with the signifying objects. Paintings appear to acquire a new life as they are enjoyed by their collectors, and Grigorian has a memorable encounter to share associated with this specific work. Two Hovnatanian sisters were his guests and were admiring the painting. Upon closer scrutiny, Grigorian noticed that his guests and the sitter of this portrait had a striking resemblance (in their eyes and facial features) to one another. The three concluded that the unknown woman in the painting was likely a relative of theirs – and probably Hovnatanian’s wife, daughter, or sister.

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Yeghishe Tatevosyan (1870 – 1936) was born in Vagharshapat (now Echmiadzin) and was the founder of the “Union of Armenian Artists” in 1916. In 1931, he painted this scene [FIGURE 2] of a lone man sitting on a park bench on a cold evening and looking across the water to the city skyline of Constantinople on the far horizon. With impressionistic brushstrokes and a subdued palette of pinks, blues, and browns, Tatevosyan has captured what scholars have deemed the condition of the modern era during the early part of the 20th century: though surrounded by metropolitan growth, man nonetheless finds himself alone. Calling it a “masterpiece,” Grigorian passionately points to the bare tree on the right that balances the composition both visually as well as symbolically, as it reaffirms the lonely and rather lifeless feeling experienced by the man on the bench. Might the man’s gently-tilted head possibly suggest a longing to belong, but his body facing in the opposite direction points to the impossibility of that desire? Reading the painting through a diasporic lens, one might ask if the solitary protagonist doesn’t represent the diasporic Armenian of the first half of the 20th century who found himself immersed in, yet not part of, his new home(s).

Panos Terlemezyan (1865 – 1941) was from the city of Van in historic Armenia and served as its mayor too. He was also one of the leaders of the Resistance of Van in 1915 and, following the Genocide, lived in a number of countries but eventually settled in Armenia in 1928. In 1941, to acknowledge his contributions to Armenian art, the art school that had been founded a couple of decades earlier was renamed in his honor: Terlemezyan State College of Fine Arts. This painting [FIGURE 3], dated 1936, depicts the dilapidated balcony of a contemporary house in Yerevan, a glum signifier of the dire conditions in Armenia at the time. Grigorian rightly notes, “There is no human figure there, but there is a human presence,” and points to the coat hanging over the banister, the glass bottles lined up beneath the window, the big bucket hanging on the wall, the haphazard electrical wiring, and even what appears to be a rope connecting the stairs to the banister. For collectors, paintings – with such evocative and realistic details such as these – transport them to different worlds. “When you stand in front of this picture, you feel you are in that yard, you are right there . . . the way he has done it is so original, as if it’s so alive, as if you are standing there and being present in that scene.” As the city of Yerevan currently undergoes structural reconstructions and renovations, it is paintings like Terlemezyan’s that preserve the historic old structures, as well as the people’s way of life and daily reality. The collector’s delight in his collection is amplified: not only is he able to be transported to a different time and place, but through his collection, he also becomes a vehicle in the preservation of his people’s history.

Jean Jansem (1920 – 2013), born Hovhannes “Jean” Semerdjian, was born in Bursa, Turkey. His family fled to Greece when he was two years old and moved to France when he was 11. He became an influential painter of the 20th century, exhibiting and receiving recognition in many different countries, including France, Italy, Switzerland, the United States, England, Japan, Russia, and Armenia. As a descendant of Genocide survivors, it appears that he may have carried the pain of the historical trauma brought about on his people, similar to many other Armenian artists of the 20th century. The emotionally-charged painting “The Woman Sleeping” (c. 1960s) [FIGURE 4] pulls the viewer in to become an unwilling intruder in the barren room and to stand over the “detached [and] vulnerable” young girl curled up on the bare and cold floor. Grigorian suggests that “[Jansem’s] characters are hiding themselves from reality” and that they “are always people who are carrying a huge burden on their shoulders.” In other words, Jansem’s painting – and the fact that Grigorian is drawn to its subject – might suggest that the horror of the Genocide continued to impact the ensuing generations of Armenians in the diaspora. The aftershock of this moment in history unrelentingly impacted the lives, experiences, and identities of Armenians everywhere and bound them to one another by the thread of this historical memory, an ever-present burden on their diasporic identities. My prior research has revealed that artists used their art to visually confront and articulate this calamity endured by their people. Here I propose that art collecting is an equally effective process through which the diasporan, like Grigorian, negotiates his identity and composes the narrative of the Genocide. In this process of reconstructing a visual testimony of genocide and survival – and collecting it – I suggest that artists and collectors adopt the role of witnesses, becoming the historians, chroniclers, and storytellers who preserve the memory of this colossal crime and prevent its erasure.

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FIGURE 5

The final piece entitled “Hope” (1989) [FIGURE 5] is painted by Valentin Podpomogov (1924 – 1998), born in Yerevan, Armenia, to a Ukrainian father and Armenian mother. Podpomogov was a visual artist and worked in films as well. This painting is the artist’s reaction to the 1988 earthquake in Gyumri and Spitak that claimed over 25,000 lives and whose tragic impact reverberated through the hearts of Armenians worldwide. Podpomogov ingeniously creates a bleak landscape of greys that initially communicates the dismal and hopeless aftermath of the earthquake. To convey the extent of the damage, he portrays the concrete structural remains, replete with ineffective reinforcement bars that begin from the right corner foreground of the composition and effectively arch all the way to the far horizon line. At that point, the mountain chain acts as a visual bridge that continues to take the viewer’s eyes to the left far horizon of the composition where they encounter more debris and destruction. Cracks in the ground converge in the center of the composition at a gaping rectangular opening. Adjacent to this hole, atop a pile of concrete debris, sits a tilted open box with two red carnations, relatively small in size but conspicuous due to their bright color amidst the grey hues. It is a possibility, as Grigorian noted, that the box might represent a coffin since sadly the high loss of life necessitated quick burials in boxes. I would argue that the rectangular hole beside the box, the pile of debris mimicking the dirt removed in preparation for burials, and the flowers all together signify a typical funeral scene at a cemetery and therefore do indeed confirm the box to be a coffin. Yet, the scene of death is interrupted by a powerful radiance from the heavens, one that illuminates the red flowers, thereby breathing life and renewal onto a scene of seeming finality. Grigorian proudly declares that this means that “Armenia will always survive because there is a divine light and divine hope on our nation.”

While in no way representative, this group of paintings has allowed us a glimpse into the collection (noting the variety of artists, the many countries in which they worked, the different periods of Armenian history, and the diverse painting techniques) and, as such, has also pointed to possible motivations of its collector. Firstly, Grigorian himself acknowledges that his collection provides a space into which he retreats when needing rejuvenation and “refreshment,” as Lewisohn noted. However, I believe that the collection is also a means through which he can negotiate, explore, and understand his hybrid and global diasporic Armenian identity, much like diasporic Armenian artists do in the process of artistic production. “I try to discover myself. I really don’t know what pushes me to [collect], except the fact that every time a new artist comes into my life, into my collection, I feel enriched. I feel fulfilled. I feel satisfied, [and] I want to expand my horizons.”

Additionally, Grigorian’s extensive knowledge about Armenian history, his impassioned discussions about it, his pride when conveying Armenians’ contributions to their host countries, and the diversity of representation in his collection all point to his desire to connect with and preserve the global history and experience of Armenians. His future plans for the collection merge a couple of diasporic impulses: first, to preserve one’s own history and, second, to introduce the Armenian story – through its rich visual production – to a global audience. His goal is to establish a home for the collection (a museum or gallery) where it can be displayed, alongside some educational information, and made accessible to the general public. “What I really would like to do is to make it more accessible to the general public . . . I think Armenian art is incredibly underappreciated and underestimated and under-known in the world. It does not have its rightful place in the history of the art world and in the art market . . . so I think it’s very important that Armenian art is exposed to the rest of the world.” [While the recent “Armenia!” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 22, 2018 to January 13) provided some exposure of Armenian’s rich past from the 4th to the 17th centuries, the art of later periods has indeed been rarely exhibited.] Los Angeles and Yerevan are potential sites, and Grigorian has begun conversations with some board members of the Armenian American Museum and Cultural Center of California, is contacting other local museums, is discussing possibilities with people in Armenia, and is hopeful about a fruitful outcome.

Ultimately, I must ask, are we not all collectors? Each Armenian, irrespective of place of birth and home(s), is a collector of our people’s history – whether that’s through a collection of paintings (Grigorian), photographs (Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc.), objects (Ararat-Eskijian Museum in Mission Hills, CA, or Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, MA), ancient documents (as in the Matenadaran, addressed in my last article), or oral histories (every Armenian). Each of us, in our own way, through the practice of collecting seeks to not only understand our diasporic identities but also to preserve the testimonies – visual, textual, or oral – of a rich cultural past and present.

Just as I aimed to do in and with this article.

Ramela Grigorian Abbamontian is a Professor of Art History at Pierce College. She received her PhD in Art History from UCLA. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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8 Comments

  1. Satenik said:

    Beautiful. More Armenians should follow suit . If you can afford to buy Armenian art, why not. We have fantastic painters past and present and ideally we should own most of their work.

  2. Ramela Abbamontian said:

    Hi Satenik,
    I’m glad you agree – it is certainly an important endeavor :)

  3. Sebouh Tashjian said:

    I have been collecting Classical Armenian paintings for nearly 30 years. The joy and emotion I get looking at Armenian paintings transcends that of any non Armenian painter.

  4. P. Gillibert said:

    Excellent and motivating article! I totally subscribe to its analysis and philosophy as a modest collector of Armenian books, paintings, lithography and sculptures. This is also part of what I call a positive and open-minded Armenity.

  5. Armen Der Kiureghian said:

    I very much enjoyed reading this article. It is informative both about the artwork and its collector and the analysis is sincere and insightful. Having seen a part of Razmik’s collection, I must attest that it is superb: a fantastic representation of Armenian art over two centuries. Rather than keeping the collection for only private viewing, Razmik wants to make it available to the general public. This will be a huge service to advancing Armenian culture. Bravo Razmik for such a valuable investment and thanks to Ramela for writing so nicely about it.

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