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Hovhannes Aivazovsky Armenian Painters:   Hovhannes Aivazovsky

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Aivazovsky's Art is the art of Man and Humanity; it is the denunciation of oppression and despotism. He is the artist of the first for freedom, and the true advocate of Mother Nature.

Martiros Saryan


  Biography: Hovhannes (Ivan) Aivazovsky is the most interesting phenomenon of 19th century art. He gained international fame at the age of 25, was elected a member to five European Academies and was awarded the medal of the French Legion of Honor. Delacroix referred to him in reverence and Turner called him a genius.
Aivazovsky's name is intricately bound with the sea. "Perhaps no one in Europe has painted the extraordinary beauty of the sea with so much feeling and expressiveness as Aivazovsky has", writes V. Adasov.

In his best seascapes (and in a legacy of about 6000, there are some works which condescend to his artistic ability and others which merit singular artistic attention) he has revealed his inner self through the spirit of the times, his ideals of humanism, and the love of freedom. The Artist lived by those ideals; the love that he had towards the oppressed, the help he offered and the work that he did for the public good make him an exceptional individual and a true son of his times.

Aivazovsky was born to an Armenian family in the city of Theodosia in the Crimea {The Artist's ancestors were called Aivazian. His father called himself Haivazosky. The Artist and his brother decided to call themselves Aivazian or Aivazovsky. Some of the Artist's work bears the signature Hovhannes Aivazian, in Armenian}. At the age of twenty he graduates from the Art Academy of St. Petersburg with a gold medal. He goes to Italy to continue his studies and returns as an internationally acclaimed seascape painter. Neither financial security nor life in Palace interests him. He returns to his native land, builds a workplace/home on the seashore and, until the last days of his life, dedicates himself to the work that he loves. He participates in exhibitions all over the world. He gets recognition and glory as a representative of Russian art greatly helps in familiarizing it.

In Aivazovsky's creative work one finds such aspects of Armenian culture and national temperament that it becomes impossible to separate his art from his native people. It is this characteristic that gives Aivazovsky's creativity its unique quality.


A sonnet by Hovh. Toumanian, 1893
(translation by Zohrab Heghinian)

Huge ripples of the unbated ocean,
Heavy spirals striking upward,
Forming as mountains, with an awesome roar,  
The tempest breathing with fearful might
Unending in a vastness
With no edge.

"Rise up an stand"! Ordered brush in hand
That ancient wizard, angry at nature,
Hushed and obedient to the genius' voice,
The dark waves, at a time of storm,
On the canvas
Rise up now and stay forever.
  (translation by Rouben Rostamian)

Immense waves of unbated ocean
heavy spirals striking upward
rising sky high, and a roar awesome.
Dominion of the bellowing storm
unbounded and vast
with no end

Avast! thunders that ancient wizard
calling to the elements, brush in hand.
Hushed and obedient to the genius' voice
now the dark waves, in mid-storm
remain suspended
on the canvas



After the Russo-Persian war, in the beginning of he second quarter of the century, Eastern Armenia came under Russian rule. Western Armenia was still under Turkish rule. The Liberation movement in Greece and the Balkans became an incentive for the Armenia people. The surge of spiritual life found its reflection in art and literature.

Armenian artists received their education in European and Russian schools (Aivazovsky was one of the firsts) and thus were able to introduce new concepts into our national art. This process would later on culminate in the clarification and purification of our national artistic language.

Even in the early years, Aivazovsky had a vivid and emotional understanding of reality. He always remained a romantic at heart even through his art could never separate itself from his academic background. The Artist's expressive language was in complete harmony with the techniques that he used. As a young boy Aivazovsky had known the sea, had loved it passionately and had known the secrets of its movements. It was this memory, together with his imagination, that was responsible for his best works. Rather than merely "reproduce" the sea, Aivazovsky tells us its fables and thus makes a symbolic statement.

Aivazovsky made his mark in contemporary art through his own rules and his own world view; he was true both to his academic background and his romantic inclinations.

The magical aspect of light helps make the contact with the dreamlike quality of the Master's art. In the calm seascapes, man is either seen walking alone or sitting down with a thoughtful expression on his face, looking at the distance - towards the light. In the canvas entitled "The Mkhitarist Brothers on the Island of St. Lazare", for example, the island gives the impression of a ship in the sunset and the people seem to be travelers of hope and dreams.

The concept of light is all important to Aivazovsky. The perceptive viewer will observe that while painting the waves, clouds or sky space, the Artist's emphasis is on the light. In Aivazovsky's art light is the eternal symbol for life, hope and faith. This is light the Creator, the concept of which has its roots deep down in Armenian culture and its continuity in the next generation of Armenian artists. The Artist had heard the songs of the medieval poets glorifying light in the Armenian churches. In his last works ("Amidst the Waves") the light descends from an unseen source as mighty ray that pierces the darkness and establishes hope.

In the canvases depicting storms (which constitute more that half of Aivazovsky's legacy) man's solidarity to man is apparent in the struggle against the elements. Man does not give up; he triumphs. This is the expression of the popular trait of extreme optimism and resistance. The irony in Aivazovsky's romanticism is the faith that man (this tiny creature of the Universe) has in life and Nature. In the politically turbulent 19th century, it is this same unshakable faith that the Armenian people had in their struggle for self-determination.

The freedom loving spirit of the Artist was as much as expression of the times as it was a reflection of the destiny of his people. Inspired by Greek movement of liberation, he produced paintings depicting that struggle and wishes for a similar fate for the Armenians. He saw the salvation of his people in the nation whose adopted son he had become. The victory of the Russian fleet over Turks gave him hope that such a salvation was possible.

To eliminate "The Armenian Question", Sultan Abdul Hamid, in 1895, ordered a series of massacres which claimed the life of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. Numerous Armenian cultural monuments ware burned or destroyed. This tragic reality shocked the Artist: "My heart is full of grief for our ill-fated people; for this tragic and unprecedented massacre", he wrote to the Armenian Catholicos Khrimian. He threw into the sea the medal that the Sultan had given him years before. He painted and exhibited canvases depicting the massacre. It was with pain and grief that he painted his last canvas "The Explosion of the Turkish Ship", which he could not finish. The date was May 2nd, 1900.

Aivazovsky's house in Theodosia became a place for artistic pilgrimage. Armenian artists were invited there and actors and musicians performed there. It was there that artists like Bashinjagyan, Sureniants, Makhokhian and Shabanian started their creative life. Aivazovsky's dream was to create a union of Armenian artists from all over the world.

During his long period of creative life, and especially after 1868, Aivazovsky executed tens of canvases with Armenian themes. His landscapes depicting life in Tbilisi, Lake Sevan and Mount Ararat popularized the genre in Armenian art. He also had a series of works with themes from he bible and from ancient Armenian history. Two of his works, which were exhibited in the Church in Theodosia and have inspired patriotism ever since, are reproduced here for the first time.

It is impossible to appreciate 19th century Armenian art without Aivazovsky. It is equally impossible to ignore his Armenian roots and consider him a Russian artist. Today, the art of the great artist of the sea is seen as the most beautiful example of the close link between the Russian and Armenian cultures.

According to his wishes, Aivazovsky was buried in the Armenian Church of St. Sarkis in Theodosia. His tombstone has a quotation from historian Khorenatsi's "History of Armenians" - "Born a mortal, he left immortal memories". The "memories" condense in them the spirit of the times and the most precious spirit of all time - that of Humanism.


Shahen Khachatrian
Director of National Art Gallery
and Martiros Saryan Museum
 




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