The word gave Armenians an identity. When Mesrob Mashtots developed an alphabet for the Armenian people so that they could read scripture in their own tongue, he game them the powerful combination of a written language and a new religion. That religion, liberated from the catholic influence of a shared language and lettering system – Latin or Greek – became a means to express individual cultural elements. It became an open tapestry on which an expansive iconography, shared metaphors and symbols could be deposited. Ten centuries of development made them a cultural treasure trove of Armenian mythology and art. Despite conquests, deportations and wars, some 31,000 have survived. Their rich bounty of culturally specific metaphors and allusions has served as inspiration for Armenian artists, writers, and musicians.
MODERN ICON: Contemporary Artists and the Legacy of the Illuminated Manuscripts grew out of a desire to explore how this rich legacy, as one element of many, influenced artists of Armenian descent working in the contemporary Los Angeles art scene, a cosmopolitan, largely inclusive scene where disparate elements often find themselves juxtaposed. The manuscripts themselves illustrate this difference. Where Armenian lettering and religion differentiate, the Roman alphabet invites new words and ideas. It is the intersection of these two vastly different approaches that fascinates us. This exhibition attempts to go beyond explaining images produced by an ancient culture. It delves far more specifically in how artists working in contemporary, cosmopolitan environment negotiate their own cultural heritage with the broader art scene. In effect, are the manuscripts artifacts, or do they continue to exert an influence on contemporary artists like Vahe Berberian, Emil Kazaz, Saag Pogossian, Vachag Ter-Sarkissian, Seeroon Yeretzian and Aram Vartanov?
Vahe Berberian’s fascinating large scale, poetic, as well as iconographic works embrace the essence of the illuminated manuscripts. His spontaneous and gestural works bring the decorative borders and arches, the frame ruling-mis-en-page—used in the canon tables, to contemporary light. Our minds are invited to a journey through time and through a personal quest.
Emil Kazaz’s works are full of symbolism and allegory. He borrows characters from the illuminated manuscript iconography such as the houshbarigs, half man half bird figures, such as the ones illuminator Sargis Pitsak used in his colophones. Kazaz’s pallet echoes that of the illuminators. His use of the bull’s head – a symbol of the Evangelists – is commonly used in the illuminations, at the head and foot of the outer columns in Toros Toronatsi’s canon table, for example.
Saag Pogossian’s works consolidate the written word and the illumination in one composition hence defining a culture, a people and an aesthetic identity. Decorated initials, column pictures, saints, passages from the scriptures, all seem to pass by us as scenes recollected, fragmented and ethereal. His works transcend time and take us to a world long gone by, and celebrates part of his rich heritage.
Ter-Sarkissian’s works elicit a Byzantine style and iconography. His use of muted colors, gold leaf, architectural structures and seemingly religious iconography are evidence of the manuscripts. The theatrical and stage-like framework of his compositions parallel certain illuminated manuscript’s placement of isolated figures within architectural frameworks and arched windows, capturing the static timelessness that the illuminators sought. Ter-Sarkissian’s writings or messages seem to incorporate remnants of these messages. His works contains a level of ambiguity and mystery, alluding to the pages of Armenian history and his own personal memory. They are theatrical and elusive, like the manuscripts.
Seeroon Yeretzian’s works is the truest to the actual manuscripts in terms of the forms she borrows. In fact, she creates her own compositions from fragments directly derived from the illuminations. Her Alphabet has become an icon of Armenian illuminated manuscripts for the Armenian community. She has studied and created manuscript recreations for over a decade. She is well known within the community and beyond. Her images come from the title page and canon tables from illuminations created in the 12th to 14th centuries, specifically those of the famous illuminator Toros Roslin, who worked at the scriptorium in Hromklay. Her pallet comes as a close to the original Cilician manuscripts as possible.
Aram Vartanov is a contemporary illuminator. His images are a direct reflection of his readings from scripture however presented in a contemporary light. In other words, he may present settings, moments or perspectives which allow our minds to witness scenes not often portrayed. Highly influenced by Renaissance and Medieval art, his beautifully detailed boarders frame his meticulously rendered settings and figures.
Echoes of the illuminated manuscripts are loud and vibrant in the works of these highly regarded artists. All of the artists successfully negotiate contemporary popular culture and medieval illuminated manuscripts in their aesthetic identity, thus illustrating the relevance of these historic documents to contemporary Armenian culture. Their works transcend time, allowing us to drift for a moment to a different vernacular, the world of long ago. For a moment they allow our minds to take a journey into their memory, their illusion, their illumination.
Caroline Lais-Tufenkian, Curator
Mike Harutunian, Associate Professor,
College of the Canyons