“VESTI – NEDELJA PLUS” (newspaper supplement), July 25th, 1997
So believes sculptor Rafael Arutyunyan, who celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday. Rafael Arutyunyan’s jubilee exhibition takes place in the old wing of the Sakala Centre. His works of the last 30 years occupy the foyer and two halls on the second floor; they are arranged neither in chronological nor in thematic order, but in a complicated associative connection of motifs and the author’s thoughts.
Written by Boris Tukh
– Was it difficult to organise such an exhibition – more than a hundred sculptures?
– It was. Money was not as much an issue as organisational problems were. Pedestals for the sculptures were collected all over the city. Sometimes we were told: “We will gladly give you some pedestals, but you must collect them before June 15th. Because then we all go on holiday.” But our exhibition was opened only on July 7th. Still, we coped.
From the conversation with the sculptor’s son, entrepreneur Areg Arutyunyan, who dedicated much effort, energy and resources to organise his father’s exhibition.
Work like that of the Creator. Hellish labour. Not now, but many years ago, having visited Rafael Arutyunyan’s studio for the first time, I physically felt this when I saw the slabs – not of marble but of granite – and the almost finished sculptures, studded with points marked for working: hammering them with a chisel, chopping off superfluous bits. Here probably more than anywhere else one needs patience and strength of spirit.
– A drawing or painting artist can still be only a half-way fanatic, – says Rafael Arutyunyan. – A sculptor must be a hundred percent fanatic.
Truly so. If one does not like a drawing, one can throw the crumpled sheet of paper into the waste paper basket, take a new sheet and start all over. But starting a sculpture all over again. Even not made from marble or granite, but from wood… Still…
So, chop everything superfluous off. Leave only what is necessary.
On the first page Arutyunyan drew his family tree – double page size. The first photo – a man in an old mountain-dweller’s suite, proud eyes, hand on the dagger. A prince. (Lived all his life without leaving the Karabakh region, but still a prince, – explains the owner of the album. – Provided education for his sons.) Costumes and epochs change. On the photo taken in the 1920’s – a man in a good civil suit, squinting with an important and disparaging air. (Impertinent stare, isn’t it? He worked in state security organs! – explains Rafael Arutyunyan.) History of the family and Big History intertwine; global upheavals of an epoch pass through a separate family.
A school photo. (Do you recognise me there? Here I am!; Rafael Arutyunyan names his classmates and comments: Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian… A Russian school in Baku; different nationalities, few Azerbaijanis as a matter of fact – it was a predominantly Armenian neighbourhood. In the Arutyunyan family the most spoken language was Russian. Parents talked in the Karabakh dialect of the Armenian language when they did not want the children to understand the topic of their conversation…)
In 1958, when he turned 21, Rafael Arutyunyan came to Tallinn to study at the Estonian State Institute of Fine Arts.
– What is your attitude towards Estonian art?
– Why don’t you ask about my attitude to Armenian art? I do not judge based on the principle of nationality. I am an Estonian artist with Armenian roots. I and my Estonian colleagues have many arguments, but these are friendly arguments. There is no enmity between us.
From a conversation.
Arutyunyan’s thesis work was a project for a monument dedicated to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in the city of Odessa. At that time (1964) the topic lead to a blind alley. But for Arutyunyan it was inevitable.
Pain, tragedy of a time period, victims of social injustice – these are the themes of his works. Five years later he created a plaster-plastic composition “The sun above the ghetto” – a jaded human figure in the sun-circle with prickly – like barbed wire – black rays. In the seventies – “Victor Hara,” a cry of pain in the form of a sculpture… Then “Requiem” in memory of those who perished in the Armenian earthquake, frozen chime of a bell over a shapeless wooden remnant of a house, hiding inside of it those who were buried by the crumbled mountains. “A page of my people’s history. Karabakh..” “Overturning into the coffin” – a small work from wood, in which a death machine (a stylised guillotine can be guessed here; a trough by means of which the severed head would slide down) is connected to a gravestone crowned with a star. “Dedicated to the victims of Stalinism.” From the latest works – “Our veterans”; a complicated composition, bursting into the spectator’s consciousness with the feeling of being forgotten, intimidated and lost, of people pushed to the edge of the highway of life and still further away…
Sculpture perpetuates the spirit of an epoch. Along with its mistakes and contradictions. Sculpture is meant to last, it can remind people of the past that some would prefer not to remember. But that which was – was. Irrespective of our wishes. Because the past itself cannot be eliminated, some try to eliminate memories of the past. Remove monuments. Re-write history, crossing out uncomfortable names and events. Common fetishism. (Greetings from George Orwell and his “ministry of truth”!)
“Victor Hara” – its topic is currently unfashionable. Now it is customary to view Pinochet as a wise and firm leader who delivered Chile from chaos. We try not to remember the National Stadium that was turned into a concentration camp and those people that were shot or went missing. (Side issues? You are all such Bolsheviks once we dig deeper! How right was that Chicago policeman who took part in dispersal of a communist demonstration at the time of the Great Depression and then also hit with his truncheon a person standing on the pavement and holding an anti-communist slogan. “How dare you? I am an anti-communist!” – shouted the offended citizen. “Sir, I do not care what kind of a communist you are,” – replied the cop.)
Rafael Arutyunyan also included in his exhibition such works that now seem to be redundant.
Today he can do this. Thirty years ago his independence of character, obstinacy (I have a terrible personality, – he says. – People I live with can only stand me for short periods of time. They cannot wait for me to go to my studio.) lead to the situation when he could only find one job – stonemason in the Rahumae cemetery workshop. Hewing gravestones. Even in that he remained an artist.
– My work was recognisable. Gradually I accumulated many orders. That was then. Now, when a thin gravestone costs a thousand kroons, few people can afford gravestones…
Sculpture relies on orders. Some large orders were called social orders. Although they were not actually requested by society. Such orders were placed by those who spoke in the name of society. Arutyunyan did not have such orders.
– Had Rembrandt only thought of selling his paintings, we would not have remembered Rembrandt today, – says the artist.
But he does not belittle social orders that were undertaken by other artists.
He is sickened by the fact that nowadays the negative attitude towards the collapsed communist regime is transferred onto the sculptors who created monuments for that regime.
– What do we care about ideology? It is the artistic quest that is important. The quest for the truth and for the beauty of the truth…
His latest sculptures have become more populistic. Keener and harsher in an attempt to make the spectator understand them. Wood, metal, plastic. Collages, sometimes grotesque and sometimes permeated with kind irony.
As a matter of fact, sculptures are meant to be viewed for a long time, without hurry. Co-creativity of the spectator and the artist. (A work of art cannot be considered finished until it finds a spectator who is able to adequately comprehend the author’s idea behind it.) But today people have less and less time. Including artists, sculptors. And the pain threshold of the contemporary human being, used to getting the daily delivery of a portion of the usual and already boring horrors via the TV at home, has become lamentably high.
Do not be lazy, visit this exhibition if you have not done so already. Maybe it will cause you to think about some issues.
Arutyunyan would not exhibit his drawings, although they may provide some assistance in achieving a better understanding of the artist, of his world view. Like this one – “We did all we could for you”: Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary floating above the world with the 12 saints unfolded like an accordion.
Rafael Arutyunyan writes poetry. Sometimes his poetry intertwines with his sculpture, appending and commenting the latter. (In the latest works the word often enters into the image – in the compositions “In memory of an artist,” “I erected an archi-laughable ensemble for myself,” “Everyone in his own place” and others.)
In one of his poetic works, written in free verse that is near to prose, it says:
The executioner cut my heart in two, and the two parts shall be one no more. He who left his homeland for a long spell will hardly find his house untouched when he returns, but even in a new sanctuary his heart will feel cramped…
All riches exchange owners and only treasures of the soul can be yours and everybody else’s at the same time. So preserve values inside you to share them with the needy. The chariot of the heathen god brought a great gift to my people – talent. And if you are so lucky as to have at least a grain of it, grow it in your garden and give back to the people without asking anything in return.
– Are you a happy man?
– In general – yes. It depends on circumstances.