Speaking with God

“The difference between me and many other artists is that art is my confession.”
Rafael Arutjunjan


It is not accidental that these words of Rafael Arutjunjan serve as the epigraph to this article, for they are the key to understanding his works. All his life the artist has carried on an inner dialogue with God and confessed to people. In the Christian perception of the world, being confessional is the central principle of a dialog between God and man and an ideal norm of worldly communication. The artist both lives and creates according to that norm.

Literature provides splendid examples of confession – works of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Jan-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Tolstoi… Great writers used the genre to give themselves a sincere account of their lives, reflections and workings of the heart. What makes Arutjunjan’s works unique is that he has embodied the laws of the literary genre and the contents of the philosophical-theological concept within the coordinates of sculpture, graphics, painting and poetry, in the realities of his whole life. The confessional character of the artist’s works, combined with the peculiarities of his creative method, allow on the one hand, classing Arutjunjan with the most important creative figures of today, and on the other hand, singling him out and sufficiently emphasizing his distinctive qualities.

Renowned art historian Boris Bernstein, who taught Arutjunjan as a student and with whom, in Bernstein’s own words, he would have a “long-standing and cordial relationship” for life, thus defined the artist’s distinctness: ‘I would call it ‘falling out of the context.” ‘This happens to prophets, holy men, Don Quixotes, artists; regardless of the scale, the principle remains unchanged: ‘I do not argue with the times, I just do not notice them.” This amazingly precise definition of the essence of Arutjunjan’s works and his place among other masters needs to be elucidated.

Confession is self-analysis, an attempt at seeing yourself from the outside. But this is only possible when the inner self is capable of separating into the agent and the observer – in other words, into the “inner” and the “outer” human being. By ceasing to identify him – or herself with the stream of life, the human being becomes, as it were, a timeless creature and communes with perpetual truths. Those who have not given a serious thought to the deepest meaning of the path remain on the surface of life, lacking the courage to dive into its depths.

What Bernstein calls “falling out of the context” is nothing but the essential aspect of the confessional nature of Arutjunjan’s works – his ability and courage to emerge from the stream of life and look at it (or himself) from the outside. Later we shall see how that look is reflected in the master artist’s works.

The other associative series contained in the above characterization is no less fair – prophets, holy men, Don Quixotes, artists. We, his contemporaries, are not to know how prophetic his works are. Only His Majesty Time can determine that. But we can easily imagine the sort of life that holy men lead, the values that Don Quixotes fight for and the feelings that artists arouse. Let us now familiarize ourselves with the life and works of Rafael Arutjunjan, attempt to understand his inner world and hear what his works whisper, talk and cry out about.



Rafael Arutjunjan was born in a cramped little rented loft in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1937 to Suren and Gokhar Arutjunov (Armenian surnames, and even first names, were often “Russianized” at the time). The Arutjunjan family had included some quite flamboyant and striking personalities in the past.

Rafael’s maternal great grandfather Grigor Melik-Shakhnazarian did so much for his country that he had the noble title of melik (meaning “prince”) appended to his family name. He lived in Nagorno-Karabakh and was King and God to both his village and his family. He was loved and respected because, first, he earned his fortune by fair means and second, he was renowned for his justice, cordiality and hospitality and always helped the poor. Rigor had an excellent estate – a house with fifteen rooms, large cellar with karas filled with mature wine and a vast orchard…

Rafael’s paternal great grandfather Galust Arutiunianz was the complete opposite of Grigor. Born and raised in a common peasant family in Armenia, he trained to be a shoemaker, an esteemed occupation at the time. But Galust was not born for a steady and monotonous life. His rebellious soul and desire for adventure took him to Baku. But he similarly failed to prosper there as he was idle and partial to food. However, he won fame for his courage and intrepidity.

Rafael’s paternal grandfather Kristofor Arutiunov was a rich merchant who sold imported lingerie from his own store. Rafael never got to see his maternal grandfather Ovagim. In the year when Rafael was born, the sixty-year old was labeled an “enemy of the people” and sent to work in a tree-felling labor camp in Siberia, where he soon died. The outspoken Ovagim naturally had no respect for the Communists or Stalin. He was branded an “enemy of the people” for saying, while sitting on the porch with his friends one time, that butter had been cheaper in the Tsar’s times.

Rafael’s father served in the army in Central Asia. He even looked death in the eye in Basmachi captivity.

In his book titled The Reminiscences of a Man (published in 2003), Rafael Arutjunjan wrote, “As a child, like all little boys, I was terribly proud of my dad, so strong and brave, whom other dads were afraid of, but as I grew older, I invariably felt greater pride for my MOTHER and I am still proud of her to this day and I want all my descendants to be proud of her.”

Her mother’s influence on Rafael’s personality and inner world was huge. It was that influence in which the sources of his peculiar Don Quixotism, his poetic creativity and his humanism are to be found. She taught her son to set the bar high without ever lowering it. She taught him to respect, appreciate and protect the woman and to go his own way through life, no matter what others might say, and taught him independence, kindness and generosity.

Her grateful son gave the closest description of that amazing woman: “Everyone loved my mom – you just couldn’t help loving the quiet, kind-hearted and very feminine Galochka.” “My mom had a natural striving for the beautiful, the sublime, she had an inexhaustible need for spiritual enrichment. Universally forgiving, ready to rush to your aid at the first call and always keeping her honor even when offended, she lives in my memory as the purest creature I have ever known in my life.”

A son born to and raised by a mother like that is clearly destined to search, long and often in vain, for the Only One who would bears at least a distant resemblance to his mother. But Rafael would draw his second lucky card. He would meet his Dulcinea who filled his life with meaning, light and power and whom he never tired to depict in his works and refer to as holy throughout the happiest years of their marriage.


But let us now return to the Soviet prewar and war years in Baku and try to recognize the mature artist Arutjunjan in that barefoot urchin. He has a reason who says that whatever happens to you in grown-up life begins when you are a child. Rafael grew a bully and a ruffian playing in the neighbourhood all day – sometimes with juvenile delinquents and sometimes with diligent Jewish boys. Unlike his sister Emma who could never seen be without a book, he never even opened a reference book or a dictionary. He confessed that it was easier to drop the icecap from Mount Ararat than to get him to read a book.

“God equipped Emma with an inquisitive analytical mind, but when he looked in my direction, he decided not to waste such valuable material and just put into my cranium whatever he had at hand – leftovers of some inferior-quality sensuous-contemplative jumble,” the self-deprecatingly humorous Rafael said about the difference between his sister’s and his own lifestyles and personalities. He forgot to mention, though, that in practice, that “inferior quality sensuous-contemplative jumble” proved to be not any worse than his sister’s fundamental erudition.

It must have been this “jumble” that led the fifteen-year-old Rafael to Anna Ivanovna Kazartseva’s sculpture group at Baku’s Central Pioneer Palace, making him change his life, his environment and his habits. Now instead of roaming the streets every day after classes, he would go to the Pioneer Palace to learn how to break the resistance of the solid materials of sculpture.

Life offered resistance, too, but Rafael overcame that. By the time he finished school, he had firmly set his mind on becoming a sculptor. However, getting enrolled in an art college proved not so easy – admission quotas were small and the number of contenders, large. As with many of those who were in love with their art, he applied three times, failing to get selected any of these times. Some were lost to drink, some broke and some dropped by the wayside. Arutjunjan only grew stronger with each failure. “A sun of hope was shining on me: someday things will work out, dreams will come true and I shall become a sculptor. And I shall have the love of my life, the most faithful and loving wife in the world. All I have to do is hold out.” Is that not a prophecy? In 1958, Rafael was admitted to the sculpture school of the Estonian State Art Institute. In 1964, he met Irina, the love of his life, proposed to her three days later and married her two months later.

“The years at the Art Institute were really productive,” – Arutjunjan reminisced. “We wasted no time. We stayed up late working in the studios. I hardly stood out from the rest of the group, except maybe through my compositional skills. The vibe was cordial and friendly, although the competitive spirit was there, it could not be any other way.

The Institute had a very strong teaching team: Jaan Vares, Olav Männi, Martin Saks, Enn Roos and Boris Bernstein. Six years of apprenticeship took the students, without them noticing it, to the mark where they had to show what they could do with their skills – the graduate project.

Since Arutjunjan was the first ever Armenian student in the Art Institute’s history, he was in a way expected and supposed to choose a theme that was close to his Armenian roots, say, the tragic fate of the Armenians caught in the Turkish genocide. But he chose his own way to enter the art – spectacular, big and through the front door. His seven-foot-something four-figure composition depicting the Jews of the Odessa Ghetto and named The Doomed caused nothing short of a commotion among the examination board. Even to utter the word “Jew” was unsafe at the time.

Arutjunjan thus explained his choice of theme: “The Holocaust was and remains an open sore.” “Nazis destroyed more than six million people in mass shootings and gas chambers. I still cannot get my head around it. On top of all that, it was not a hackneyed theme – few artists, at least in this country, had the courage to tackle it, which is a factor of no small importance in terms of creative inspiration.”

Boris Moiseyevich Bernstein, to whom Arutjunjan turned for advice at the time when the idea was only beginning to take tangible shape, thus described the project’s importance for the artist’s entire career in the foreword to a monograph titled, “Rafael Arutjunjan: “In that early choice I can discern traits that would later largely determine your behaviour in life and in art. It is hardly worth reminding that we are talking about times when any mention of systematic extermination of Jews caused vexation in the party and the government. Was your project a rebellious act later termed dissidence? I do not know. I believe it was something different and possibly more important – a manifestation of inner freedom.”

No one knows how the meeting of the examination board would end, had it been Moscow or Saint Petersburg. But Estonia was perhaps the most liberal and freethinking of all the Soviet Republics where the influence of Western art was the strongest, so Arutjunjan’s project received the top grade. This is how the artist’s Don Quixotic path began – a path of fighting with evil of every kind.

According to the rules at the time, every graduate of an art college was obliged to work for an arts establishment for a year, two or three before he or she could show up at the college on an appointed day to receive the graduation certificate in a solemn ceremony. Arutjunjan spent his obligatory year as the coach for that same sculpting club in the Central Pioneer Palace while teaching drawing in a local school two times a week in his free time. He got married, received his diploma and grew disenchanted with Baku’s creative community – all within a year. “I left the friendly civilized environment behind to return to a complicated place, where creative and non-creative strife raged, sometimes on the brink of gangster showdowns with knives and firearms, where every third sculptor had commission for a statue of Lenin, most times with an outstretched arm, and where the difference between “hired” and “creative” sculptors was only slight.”

With his coveted diploma in his pocket, at the threshold of a creative career, full of ideas, concepts and plans, Rafael unexpectedly faced a dilemma: to be a friend among strangers or a stranger among friends. Should he listen to his heart and return to Tallinn or succumb to tradition and remain in Baku? After some hesitation, he opted for the former and… felt fear lest the people who were the closest to him – his mother and his wife – should fail to understand.

He was staggered by his mother’s words, “I regret ever having brought you back to Baku (Mom came over for my project defence).” “You should have stayed there in Tallinn where you may have a future. You have none here and will hardly ever have one. I have lived a life and I know what I am talking about. You found friends and soul mates there and besides, Tallinn air has a wholesome effect on your work. And I know your life is all about your work.”

But Rafael had to begin what he called a “long and wearisome discussion threatening to turn into a quarrel” with his wife. Raised in a family not even remotely artistic, she could not understand what was making him leave behind all that he held dear and loved – his friends, his relatives and his home town – and urging him to that cold land where people are so reserved that they almost seem to be statues. But his wife’s parents were even stronger opposed to the idea. Rafael felt terribly miserable and hopeless, torn between the two and trying to find a compromise.

His mother helped him out once again, but this time by dying suddenly. By passing away she gave him, as it were, that last missing impetus to keep his own life from breaking. “It was a blow that took many years to recover from. I was suppressed by a feeling of profound solitude. No one understood me as well as she did and as it seemed to me back then, no one loved me as much. (…) I said goodbye to her again in my thoughts and picked up whatever cash they still owed me at work and packed my stuff within a day and flew up to Tallinn,” Rafael reminisced.

As for his young wife Irina, as it turned out, she felt true love not only for her home, her friends and her home town, but for her husband. So immediately graduation, she moved to Tallinn to build a long and happy family life.

By that time, the young sculptor had settled down in the new town. Everyday problems worked out fairly quickly: Olav Männi helped with official registration, Boris Moiseyevich Bernstein saw that Rafael was allocated a studio and Matti Varik found a job for him. It was next to impossible to find a sculpting job at that time, so Arutjunjan signed on with a stone working shop, or to put it in plain language, he was hired as a tombstone carver. At first it seemed that this hard and mournful work, which was only meant to give bread to the family, would be just a stint, but it took 17 tears of the artist’s life, sapping his health. Neither could the meager wages buy very good provisions. The family hardly managed to made ends meet. But the job gave Arutjunjan what he desired the most – a possibility to work as he wanted, that is, freedom. Creative work as such was confined to evenings, weekends and vacations. There was no time to take a break.

In 1968 the couple, who were still living in a tine 100 square foot room adjacent to the studio, had a son. Father chose the unusual, masculine name of Areg. He took the ancient Armenian name from the tale of Aregnazane and Nunufar. According to that tale, when a young man named Aregnazane finds his chosen one, Nunufar, he will drop nazane from his name to leave the stem Areg. The word areg means “Sun” and in a figurative sense, “life.” Six months later, it was Arutjunjan’s turn to occupy a double-room cooperative apartment. He obtained the rights to the housing with a little help from his college mate, Endel Palmiste. Now Rafael’s life had been more or less settled and he could get down to his creative plans.

Portrait bust has a special place in his works during the initial years. He seemed to be able to express any idea in the solid material. Irochka, Tanya, The Head of a Young Woman, the later The Masque, The Head of a Woman, The Head of My Son, Viola, Minas Avetissian, Allochka… The author effortlessly conveys rhythm in motionless figures – the inner rhythm of the static. This is how Arutjunjan, with his peculiar humbleness, describes it: “I rarely dare call my work a portrait.” ‘Normally I write, ‘The Head of a Man,’ ‘The Head of a Woman.’ A portrait is the most complex thing that exists in art. You have to convey the spiritual word of the person you are portraying and their personality but at the same time, you have to express yourself.’

Aleksandr Sidorov, an assistant to the president of the Russian Academy of Arts and big admirer of Arutjunjan’s work, in his article titled, The Astra and Aspera of Rafael Arutjunjan, thus characterized the master’s portrait art: ‘We are certain that Rafael Arutjunjan would be a successful, widely in-demand and all-round well-off sculptor, had he yielded to the temptation of specializing in portrait busts of well-known people who were ‘essential’ to his career and the members of their families – especially the children and the fair sex.’ ‘For that was what ensured the unheard-of rise and enviable prosperity of such artists, albeit painters, as Ilya Glazunov, Aleksandr Shilov and Nikas Safronov. But by refusing to help enlarge the official gallery of renowned workers and collective farmers, statesmen and cultural figures, military officers and athletes, cosmonauts, Polar explorers and other ‘heroes of the day,’ molded according to the pattern approved by the Center for the self-titled ‘Our Contemporary’ shows, Arutjunjan turned away from the path of the pioneers of parlor art, born back in the pre-Perestroika period and patronized today by both the powers that be and post-Soviet nouveau-riches of all stripes.’

The temptation referred to by Sidorov was truly a serious test for all artists at the time. Most times they had to choose between success, fame and awards on the one hand, and remaining true to themselves, sincerity and truth, on the other. Monumental sculpture was influenced by official ideology more than any other for of art. An overwhelming majority of monumental statues were ideological, and thus insincere, in nature. The young but creatively mature Arutjunjan had made his choice back when he went to carve signatures on tombstones. He would later put it this way: “Having realized from the start the humiliation of struggling to get government commission and executing it, when the Arts Board is weighing upon you, when they are making you forget who you are and serve certain ideas or certain persons vested with power, I firmly set my mind on not seeking or trying to secure commission but using some other craft to earn daily bread for myself and my family.”

However, Arutjunjan did undertake one attempt to combine the incompatible. In 1970, the nation was preparing for a pompous celebration of Vladimir Lenin’s 100th birthday. Authorities decided to update the monument to the leader of world proletariat in front of the building of the Estonian Communist party’s Central Committee. Arutjunjan enthusiastically joined the work. First, because he did not have to grovel to get that contract and all he had to do was to win a fair contest, and second, because he could finally create a brand new image of Lenin – fatigued, in doubt or triumphant – but without that outstretched hand at last.

According to a member of the jury, “none of the contenders was closer to the great leader’s image than Arutjunjan.” However, the results of selection left him with only an honourable mention and a bitter taste of what he had experienced during the competition. It was at that time that Arutjunjan swore never to do any commission of any kind. He would keep his oath, thus explaining his decision: “Ever-present competition, envy and unhealthy interest in how much others might have earned are detrimental to true art.” “A situation where the artist begins to eye and sniff his fellows trying to tell who is more talented and prosperous reminds me an intelligent version of a primate farm. Look, someone has won a contract and someone has made headlines but not this one! Only very few artists disregard social and material benefits to look deep down inside themselves. Very few artists can live, grow, mature and possibly even grow old to begin their dialog with God. No earlier can an artist cast aside all trivial things and begin his search in art.”

His next decade was tight and productive. In the 1970’s Arutjunjan worked a lot, took part in all city and national art shows and sometimes, in Union-wide shows. Lyrical and philosophical portraits were complemented by socially significant themes that aroused Arutjunjan’s concern. Most acutely he responded to pain, injustice and oppression and tried to use artistic media to stop these. In 1973, the world knew about the brutal murder of singer and songwriter Victor Jara on a stadium in Santiago. In 1975, the sculptor poured his grief into The Mourning Tree. In Memory of Victor Jara. Rafael Arutjunjan was so shaken by the Santiago tragedy that the theme would recur in his other works: The Shadows of the Fallen Calling Out. Santiago and It Happened Again in Chile. Other works in the same category include The Torture Chamber. In Memory of Fighters for Human Rights, The Grievous Years. 1937, A Page from My People’s History. Karabakh, The Warning (dedicated to the Chernobyl disaster), A Crazy, Crazy World (dedicated to the Afghan war) and many others.

Alexandr Sidorov thus described the sculptor’s ability to subtly detect and respond to the era’s tragic developments: “Extraordinarily empathetic to the suffering of others, Rafael Arutjunjan is forced to admit that mankind learned little from lessons of the past and it will be long time before the precepts of Christian virtue prevail.” “With years, the master increasingly came to acknowledge that resistance to the calamities and flaws of the times is not the lot only of literary characters (see his Danko) or historical heroes (see A Figure in Space. In Memory of Perished Astronauts), but every goodwill person and adherent of justice, that is, his own.”

The sculptor’s creative palette grew as the range of his themes expanded. He tried his hand at various materials and genres and searched and found new expressive media. Aluminum, copper, bronze, plaster of Paris, wood and granite attracted him with their unexplored possibilities and submissively expressed his ideas and feelings. “The secrets of knowledge of material take a very long time to reveal, and still longer if you use different materials,” the artist later confessed. “Some sculptors devote themselves to one material only, but I had interest in and curiosity for all of them. I may not have reached the levels of mastery in them that I would have achieved working with only one material, nevertheless, I have always had a striving to find out their secrets. His expressive language became ever terser and more precise and his works, increasingly expressive and emphatic.

All these successes convinced Arutjunjan that he was now an accomplished artist and he decided to stage his first solo exhibition in 1971. One of the objectives was to get admitted to the Artists’ Union – a common rule for all at the time. The show was well received by fellows and connoisseurs, but imagine Arutjunjan’s surprise when his application returned the following comments: “to be rejected due to insufficient professionalism as displayed by the works.” However, Arutjunjan refrained from asking the logical question of why then his works had been purchased and sent to USSR-wide shows. Six years later, he organized another impressive solo exhibition and was admitted to the Artists’ Union immediately.

In 1977 Arutjunjan, unexpectedly for many, joined the Communist Party. What motives could the free-thinking and apolitical 40-year-old stonecutter, sculptor of nationwide fame and member of the Artists’ Union have for such a decision? Rafael’s own words might help us solve that riddle. “It seems to me that the most important distinguishing feature of our generation was our faith. (…) We did not believe because we were blind fools but because we were children of our times, flesh of the flesh. Our faith was not only faith in the historic preordainment of our state’s great mission as a nation with the world’s most progressive form of government, socialism, but faith in the man who created that formation.”

Days filled with labor, creative work and family cares turned into weeks, months and years. He toiled away in the stone-cutting shop by day, doing what his soul desired in his studio by night. The life of a holy man: “I work the way I live. The way I am organized, I praise, and have always praised, holy men and I am trying to be one. I do not know how much I have accomplished, but I have tried to keep away from sin all my life.”

But after working as a stonecutter for seventeen years, Arutjunjan felt that he was tired. His body, to which he had never given a thought before, now required attention more and more often. His had heartaches. In 1983, the sculptor decided to change jobs. He left the stonecutting shop to work as a pre-heater for the Punane electronics plant. His job was to pre-heat voltmeters between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m. every third day. He had less and less energy and time for his art and family. Seven more years passed. In 1990, the minimum required employment period of 25 years ended and Arutjunjan unhesitatingly quit his job. It did not stop him that he had two more years to reach the minimum retirement age. He decided to devote the time to what he loved – his art and his family.

During that period, the huge country broke and began crumbling. After Brezhnev’s death, which heralded the end of a dull and monotonous life, political developments followed one another so rapidly that there was no time left to comprehend their significance. Dismay, confusion and fear have settled in many minds… Arutjunjan, who by that time had a masterful command of the artistic media of expressing reality, now began thinking about the media of comprehension. In his search for the meaning of events, the artists moved from the concrete to the abstract, from the image to the symbol. Such works produced during that period as A Page in My People’s History. Karabakh, The Requiem. Dedicated to Earthquake Victims, Dedicated to the Victims of Stalinism, The Dragon. The Spawn of the System, The Dump, The Teleconference and Thrown into the Coffin are not so much classic sculpture as multi-element structures or installations that convey the dismay of human soul more accurately than others. Sidorov described the virtuoso sculptor’s works at the time as “spiritual self-torment, a sorrowful and lonely game for one, solving special puzzles with no meaning for anyone else, puzzles impenetrable for esthetic common sense, to which they seem but a dump filled with random objects (see The Dump).

Arutjunjan’s fourth solo exhibition opened in the Culture Center on Sakala St. in 1997. Dedicated to the sculptor’s 60th birthday, it featured more than 100 works. Critics, colleagues and admirers alike saw these works as an unambiguous sign of important change in his style. He had obviously departed from his usual canons and lost interest in natural materials. Experts called this a shift to conceptualism where material, concrete images were replaced by symbols and conventions and the artists searched for the truth not in the material but in its combinative capacity and the space that surrounds it. “I think I had squeezed all I could out of myself as far as sculpture was concerned,” Arutjunjan himself said. Aleksandr Sidorov expressed an almost identical idea: “He drew the last emphatic thick line under his sculpting career.” “It was not his ailing hand that drew it – for that would be an explanation too prosaic and un-fundamental – but his soul, pain-ridden, weary and torn by the tragedies of the twentieth century.”

After his fourth solo exhibition, Arutjunjan suddenly disappeared from Tallinn’s art scene, only to emerge in two totally new dimensions – as a graphic artist and painter – during his fifth in 2002. The show, which featured 230 works, took place in the same hall in August 2002. This is how Rafael Arutjunjan remembered that period: “My name as a sculptor was fairly well known among professionals and the Estonian public, but no one knew me as a graphic artist and painter.” ‘Hence, an intense interest with a shade of dismay: ‘What Arutjunjan? Rafael? But he’s a sculptor! Two hundred and thirty works? I’ve got to see that…”

People came and looked, marveled and amazed – and with good reason. A brilliant draftsman, Arutjunjan conveyed not only the details of his images but thoughts, feelings and doubt with surprising precision and depth. In his portraits – family and collective portraits, an animalistic series and multi-aspect allegories – as in sculpture before, he still searched for and found answers to questions that worried him.

The paintings came as a bombshell. So distinctive yet so recognizable, paradoxical in their shape and harmonious in their concept, unexpected, vivid and rich in contrast, the canvases kept visitors in place for a long time making them think, remember, analyze and compare. They stirred imagination, brought memories to life, bred analogies and put questions… The form Arutjunjan discovered can be termed, by way of convention, as “reinvented objectivity,” as an analogy of “new objectivity” asserted by Cubists in the early twentieth century. The essence of this new form can be described as customary objects stripped of their normal links with the environment and represented in random, paradoxical combinations. According to Alexandr Sidorov, the artist had discovered a new genre – festive gift portrait and amulet, which invariably featured “colored stones as fireworks in honor of goodness and beauty” (Granddaughter Diana), the words “from me to you” laid with seashells (A Gift to My Wife), “an amber necklace and a white flower with a pearl in the middle as a symbol of the sun and kindness as an eternal value” (Vika) or the Zodiac signs and “little stones to ward off an evil eye” (Tatyana Shteinle, Nastenka, The Girl and the Hamster, Rimma Kazakova, Lada and The Portrait of Gurova).

In his paintings the artist continued his conversation with God, which he had begun many years before, but this time louder than ever. This is how it was expressed in the titles of the paintings: God Is Love, The Universal Carpenter, God Moves in Mysterious Ways, The Candle of God, Icons in Space, A Visit to Heaven, A Visit to Hell, The Revelation, Do Not Give What Is Holy to the Dogs, Nor Cast Your Pearls before Swine… The cross is the most complete expression of Arutjunjan’s theological views: the unification, equality and sublimity of all major world religions. “The Biblical truths are unquestionable to me. They have been tested by millennia. But life is too diverse for you to rely on these truths alone. Life asks you new questions all the time baffling you. You should start from there but then follow your own course to find your truth, your summit.”

Arutjunjan’s life now seemed to be complete and following a normal course. His Son Areg had grown up, finished school, served in the military, graduated, married his great love Svetlana and fathered a daughter named Diana and later a son named Gabriel. Having inherited his great-great-granddad Grigor Melik-Shakhnazarian’s business savvy, he was starting his own business from scratch like his ancestor. His wife Irina, who had worked as a supervisor of the gilding and silver area at the Kalinin Plant, retired at last. She supportive of Rafael’s painting passion, happy to see his husband all day long and doing her best to help him, even shopping around for little stones and seashells for his compositions. Acquaintances dropped by, with Rafael drawing and painting their portraits. They had interesting conversations and the traditional tea in between the sittings. Rafael and Irina finally had all that they had wished for since they were young: fame, recognition, a successful son and grandchildren… But they were not to stand on the summit of their life and dream for long. Irina died on January 26, 2003.

Falling down into a bottomless abyss of loneliness, grief and sorrow, Rafael stopped working. He spent all his energy trying to realize the loss. All other things lost their meaning. Slowly, with the help of his compassionate relatives, Rafael began to recover from the crisis. The shock was followed by wrath, which passed, with difficulty, into the phase of reconciliation/denial. Then came the true grief – a time when heartache reaches its peak and one feels true suffering. Grief that has not been spent retards living because it is grief that one resists the most. Rafael’s resistance stretched out to two years. He might be fighting his grief still, had it not been for Areg and his family with their care, patience and love. The two years saw the creation of the Artist’s website, a trip to the Mecca of Arts, Italy, and the publication of a colourful 600 page monograph that featured splendid slides of each of his works.

In 2005 Rafael finally reached the final phase of his crisis, reconciliation, and learned to live with his grief in some way or another. “The hardest thing is this feeling of despair I am living with now. Am I living at all? That is something I really do not want. Even my son, grandchildren and the compassionate and tender daughter-in-law cannot fill the immeasurable void left by the death of my dear companion, with whom I spent just short of forty years.”

He picked up his forgotten brushes and started painting again. The exhibition of 2007, dedicated to the artist’s seventieth birthday, brought together the 50 works created during this period. If it were customary to give names to solo exhibitions, this one would be named “Suffering.” In this sense, the centerpiece of the show is the painting titled “The Passer-By,” a frozen, bent shape of an old man on the edge of splotch of light surrounded by blind walls. The colours chose by the author plunge the viewer into a state of grief. The meager media of expression arouse empathy and the compositional precision forces the eye to search for at least some sort of opening in the flat vertical surfaces. But there is none. Aware now that there is no hope, the eye returns to the lonesome frozen shape and almost unwittingly rises. To the exit. To heaven. To God.

The admirers and connoisseurs of Arutjunjan’s works will note his loyalty to his ideals, themes and humanism. He is still speaking with God: Blessed Are the Pure in Heart: For They Shall See God, Walking on Waves, …And the Holy Ghost Descended in a Bodily Shape Like a Dove upon Him, …And, Behold, the Veil of the Temple Was Rent in Twain from the Top to the Bottom, At the Holy Sepulchre, The Raising of Lazarus, the triptych On Golgotha: Jesus. The Mocking. The Repentant, Hear Us, Oh Lord… His wife still has an important place in his works (The World above You Is Beautiful, but You Are Not Here, Hallowed Be Thy Name, The Tale of Life Is Over, My Angel Has Flown, High Is My Angel Flying – beyond My Reach or My Embrace), as well as the members of his family (Little Grandson Gabriel, My Dianochka). And the artist is still searching for his truth: Eternity, Message Number 1, Message Number 2…


The confessional nature with which we began this story about the life and works of Rafael Arutjunjan, an Estonian artist of Armenian descent, is in some way characteristic of every art form in which he works – sculpture, drawing and painting. But it is his poetry where his confessions can be heard the loudest and the most piercing. His book titled 100 Verses and published in 2004 is a collection of poems that the author wrote during his life. “My poems are what I have not finished telling through sculpture,” said the author. “Or maybe it’s something that shouldn’t be told in sculpture at all. It’s enough to tell it in verses but as sincerely as in sculpture. It must be a confession with sculpture. So… So I’m a little ashamed of them.”

At times naïve and unsophisticated, at times lofty and solemn, they speak about the life of Soul – dashing about violently, paradoxical and unexplored. Let one of these remarkable poems close our incomplete story.


I’m turning the pages of the years gone by

And reading all about my life,

The flights of my tireless soul

Are here for you to judge.


Look at these little pieces,

Read of a life in hell,

Here are my courage and weakness,

I’m not lying, it’s all for real.


Take your time and don’t judge too soon,

For I have opened a depth for you.

You cannot fit it in a phrase,

Or an exquisite stanza.


About instants and all eternity,

And about a love bequeathed,

About my sinful nature and yours

I have written this work of words.


Love me please for my weakness,

Not for my imminent death,

But love me for all my courage,

To open to you like I would before God.


Emma Darvis