“VESTI – NEDELJA PLUS” (newspaper supplement), August 9th, 2002
Written by Boris Tukh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the “Old Town Studio” theatre building on Sakala Street an exhibition of paintings and drawings created by Rafael Arutyunyan is taking place. This exhibition is unique: there are more than 230 works, mostly created during the last five years. Tallinn has never before seen such a large personal exhibition. It is unusual in another way too: it signifies a completely new stage in the life of this artist. For over thirty years Rafael Arutyunyan had been working as a sculptor; the drawings that he had occasionally made had not been meant for public display. In 1997, the sculptor turned 60. The extensive exhibition of his sculptures on the same premises on Sakala Street summed up his long work as a sculptor. The public did not yet know at that time about the border-line nature of that exhibition, separating Arutyunyan the sculptor from Arutyunyan the creator of painting and drawings…
Then, five years ago, Rafael told me that a drawing or painting artist can only be a half-way fanatic, but a sculptor must be a hundred percent fanatic. A sculptor’s work is physically hard (obviously) and leaves less room for manoeuvring. If you do not like a watercolour or an engraving, you can throw it away and start afresh. But if you change your mind while making a sculpture? Break it and take another slab of material?..
Was the artist joking or did he really mean it? There is some truth in every joke, but a serious utterance can contain hidden irony.
The fact that Rafael Arutyunyan switched genres must have another meaning. A deeper one.
Southern temperament and northern firmness
These words, pronounced a long time ago by Olav Männi, a lecturer at the Institute of Fine Arts, concerning Rafael Arutyunyan, now serve as the motto of his exhibition and are quite likely to accompany all future publications about the artist. Indeed – whose artist is he? Armenian (judging from his nationality)? Yes, of course. But he was born in the Azerbaijan city of Baku and his family mostly spoke Russian, and his parents only used the Karabakh dialect of the Armenian language when they did not want their children to understand their conversation. Estonian? In 1958, he entered the Estonian State Institute of Fine Arts, graduated from it in 1964, and all his creative biography is tied to Estonia.
Should we clarify this issue at all? Why squeeze into a narrow ethnic framework something that is addressed to all people, irrespective of their national origins? Art – like everything real – is wider than national limitations. Naturally, there exist traditions, schools; an artist is shaped by his environment, but to a larger extent he shapes himself. He celebrates life and resists that murky and, sadly, powerful flow of lies.
Rafael Arutyunyan has always possessed enough courage to swim against the current. The theme of his thesis work was commemoration of the victims of the Jewish ghetto in the city of Odessa. A noble theme which at that time lead one into a blind alley. Some time before that the poet Yevgeney Yevtushenko wrote his verses entitled “Babyi Yar” (“Women’s Ravine”) – and encountered violent criticism both from the writers that were close to the earth (like Alexey Markov and others) and from the guardians of the official ideology. “Yevtushenko got his comeuppances – do you want the same?” – he received a friendly warning from those in the know…
Arutyunyan remained an inconvenient person. It was not because of his difficult personality (he willingly admits that his personality is far from being sweet, but after all, one can hardly meet an artistic personality with whom it is easy to socialise: creation of beauty demands that an artist should live like there is no tomorrow, spill his soul, fall into despair because perfection can only exist in one’s imagination; this has its adverse effect on everyday life…). It was because of his feeling of independence. Of dignity. He did not seek shameful compromises – and thus, having a university degree, ended up as a simple stonemason at the Rahumäe cemetery. Nevertheless, a real creator can use even unfavourable conditions of his life to serve the Eternal. Who knows if Rafael Arutyunyan could have developed his mighty and tragic talent had it not been for the severe reality…
Rafael Arutyunyan the painter – is he another Rafael Arutyunyan?
Partly – yes. If we were to dissect that binomial formula which characterises his creative nature, then it would seem that the North remained in his sculptures, and the canvases reveal the bright colours of the South.
Actually, it is not exactly this way. It is more difficult and simpler at the same time.
Because the works at this exhibition can be interpreted in just this way – austere drawings and emotionally rich paintings.
I will endeavour to suppose that the artist himself is occupied with something else: he creates his Universe. Naturally, he founds it on the real Universe, but still transforms it through his vision. And his Universe is relatively independent of the real world.
The commonness of the real world and the world emerging from Arutyunyan’s imagination is in the fact that both these worlds are driven by the same (or at least by similar) mechanisms. The difference is in the artist’s aspiration towards revealing these mechanisms and expressing his attitude towards them.
Genres are merely different approaches to that grand task he has set before himself.
Maybe (this is just my assumption!) Arutyunyan gave up sculpture because its characteristic traits of monumentalism and difficulty of creation did not allow him to keep pace with the rapidly changing world of the new millennium.
Still, on his canvases Rafael Arutyunyan has to some extent remained a sculptor. That is, a creator, working not with a flat surface, but with three-dimensional objects.
Canvases and paints – the traditional means of artistic expression – are supplemented by objects glued to the canvases. This example of collage work in a way (merely in the technological sense) reiterates the manner of work of pop-art artists. But the meaning and the goal of this technique are quite different here!
A natural object, having entered an artificially organised environment of a painting, unlocks its world, reminds us of that intense condition that we exist in.
In “Abraham’s sacrifice” a real – and most likely very sharp – knife is attached to the surface of the canvas. This makes the content of the biblical story more vivid, it troubles our conscience. One thing is to hear or read abstract words, words, words… Quite another – the shining blade; the spectator in front of this painting turns on his imagination – and feels the cold metal touching his skin…
Another painting with a religious theme – “The carpenter of the Universe.” Next to the image of Christ – a real metre ruler and a plane; they are not new – the wood of the plane already well polished by the hands of the apprentice. The emerging metaphor is very capacious, multi-layered; here is an example from this chain of intertwined meanings: the realChrist is first of all a worker, he worked with the tight and unyielding human material in order to produce from rough logs delicate and sensitive movements of the human soul. To turn a piece of wood, a faceless half-finished product into a human being who of his own free will and sincerely believes that God is love.
In this meaning the artist’s works are filled with a religious sentiment. Not a church feeling, but a true religious sentiment, religion (a connection, the feeling of people being connected to one another, and people together being connected to God who, after all, is our conscience – this aspectof which there is less and less left in the contemporary petty and greedy world).
On Rafael Arutyunyan’s canvases there is much global, universal. Many intense thoughts on the fate of the world, on the probability of a worldwide disaster: because lies have already managed to eat into the human soul, the first (and the most fundamental) step towards the end of the world has already been made. But despite the frequent presence of the tragic on his canvases, they lack that feeling of hopelessness. Pain is followed not by indifference, inaction, but by protest. More so because Arutyunyan by nature is too cheerful, emotionally perceiving the fullness of existence, to allow the thought of our world falling apart one day. To warn of impending dangers is one thing; to believe that there is no way out – quite another. Art must give hope, not take it away.
Of this speaks his drawing “Hope dies last.” A wave lifts a boat on its crest, about to send the tiny vessel tumbling down and beyond the borders of the canvas, but the people sitting in the boat still believe that they will hold on, cope in this struggle with the elements… Maybe they really will?..
Rafael Arutyunyan’s Universe is festive in spite of everything. And somewhat (the brightness of the colours, the nakedness of its creator’s personality) naïve. But perhaps naïvety contains supreme wisdom.
Arutyunyan is an excellent portrait painter. Both in sculpture, in paintings and in drawings too. If a portrait is tragic, one can read the depicted person’s fate in it. If it is calm, then it is full of harmony and love.
Even animals on his canvases look spiritual. Humane. The series of drawings with animals is one of the most memorable works at this exhibition.
With amazing love he depicts his family. His wife, son, son’s wife, granddaughter… Family for Arutyunyan is the highest value and foundation.
I believe that he is happy in his family.
Everything connected with organisation of the exhibition has been done by the artist’s son, entrepreneur Areg Arutyunyan. Not a single one of the 230 exhibited works is for sale. At the opening of the exhibition Areg said that he hopes to build a gallery to house all of his father’s works. In all genres.
I think that he will make this wish come true…
…Rafael Arutyunyan is also a poet. His verses serve as an addition and an explanation of what he creates with his hands. Poetry – another means of self-expression, another material from which the artist builds his Universe.