The Way to the Truth

The way of Rafael Arutyunyan in art was the way to the truth. He moved together with his uneasy times: he reacted, sensitively and precisely, to what was going on, evaluating the events adequately. But the main feature of his personality consists in the fact that in his creative work he was guided not by such categories as “it is authorized”, “it is fashionable”, “it is lucrative”, but with his own humanistic and harmonious attitude that excluded violence and lies. Both his pilgrimage and creative development testify to that.

The maternal great-grandfather of Rafael Arutyunyan – Grigor Melik-Shakhnazaryan – lived in Nagorny Karabakh. Judicious and quiet, he achieved everything by his own wits and toil. He had a spacious house with fifteen rooms, a huge cellar with karasas containing vintage wines, an orchard with thousands of trees… In those days, nobility used to be granted to persons who acquired their wealth by decent ways and did something good for the country. So, Grigor Shakhnazaryan received from the Tsar a princely prefix to his surname – “Melik”. Cheerful, kind-hearted and hospitable, he always helped the poor. In the village and in his family Grigor was omnipotent. However, the most surprising thing was that he had never carried any weapon – not even a dagger on his belt. And among the mountaineers such things are rare.

Who knows, probably it was he from whom Rafael has inherited his deep aversion to violence? “There must not be any war. The violence is disgusting to me as such. One must learn to forgive, otherwise there will be no end to wars,” he would state much later in one of his interviews. The younger daughter of Grigor – Varsenik – was a beauty. She married a young beekeeper – Ovagim Stepanyan. Later he became a book-keeper. Rafael’s grandmother and grandfather have lived quietly and happily till 1937 when Ovagim was deported to Siberia as “an enemy of the people.” There he died. Varsenik and Ovagim brought up four wonderful children. It was the eldest – Gokhar – who became Rafael’s mother.

The paternal great-grandfather of Rafael Arutyunyan – Galust Arutyunyanz – was born in the Armenian region Zangezur. When the time came, the rustic country fellow mastered a craft of shoemaking (repairs of footwear) and moved to Baku in search of bigger earnings and better life. However, as he was lazy and a late riser, he never became rich. He was notable for his warlike character and was afraid of nothing. In 1915, when the Armenian-Turkish conflict was breaking out and a smell of blood was in the air, many Armenians picked up their belongings and moved to the Northern Caucasus. Galust’s family also started to pack things. Nevertheless, Galust himself refused to leave and stayed alone in the house. Then Azerbaijanians came and knocked heavily at the door. Galust came out and asked harshly what they wanted. As it turned out, they were looking for valuables. “Get out!” – Galust advised them fearlessly. Then someone plunged a knife in Galust’s stomach and he bled to death at the doorstep of his house.

Perhaps, the fearlessness of Galust Arutyunyanz has been transferred to Rafael Arutyunyan after two generations? “I have lived my life as a strong person and I have been afraid of only one thing – leaving of people close to me,” he admitted later in one conversation. One of Galust’s sons – Christopher – became Raphael’s grandfather. He married a girl from the place named Shushi with the familiar name – Varsenik. Christopher was illiterate, a bit mingy and a hard worker. Having had started as an errand-boy in a tiny corner shop, he saved up some money, the set up his own small shop, and, finally, a company named “A la Coquette”, trading in female lingerie of foreign tailoring. Only the October revolution prevented him from becoming a merchant of the first guild. A distinctive feature of Christopher was his categorical aversion to lies. He used to lose his temper easily when he suspected somebody of an attempt to deceive him. Once he said to his son and Rafael’s father: “You can not say a word without telling lies!”

Was it from the grandfather that Rafael has inherited his almost pathological integrity? “Both in the family and my own life I have always cultivated unreserved decency. For integrity is the fundamental principle of a person, his essence,” he said once. Son of Christopher and Varsenik – Suren – fell in love with his future wife – Gohar – already at school. While she was finishing her tenth year at school, Suren, who had dreamt about military career since childhood, enlisted to the army and was assigned to Central Asia to eliminate “basmatch gangs” (local Anti-Soviet guerilla fighters). A year later, during his leave, they get married, secretly from all their relatives. After the leave was over, the newly wedded couple went to a military camp in Uzbekistan. After some years Suren was dismissed from service, they returned to Baku and lodged first at Suren’s parents’ place, and then rented a tiny room under the roof. There their children were born – first Emma, and then, in 1937 – Rafael Arutyunyan.

All these and many other facts from the history of his ancient family were carefully collected and ably set forth by Rafael Arutyunyan in his book “Memoirs of One Person.” In the introduction he wrote: “I have taken up my pen – something not very habitual to me – with only one purpose – to tell about people about whom no one else can tell, because I am the only survivor of those who had known them”.

The God has generously awarded Rafael Arutyunyan with various talents. In creative work these talents have developed in five ways: plastic art, graphic art, painting, prose, and poetry. In his life there have been even more of them. And who knows, whom Rafael would have become – an actor, a musician, a graphic artist, had not the figurines that he cut out from chalkstone caught the eye of the head of the plastic arts hobby group in the Baku Palace of Pioneers. He visited this hobby group and immediately got the decease called “sculpture”. The following 45 years of his life have been devoted to it.

In 1958 Rafael Arutyunyan became a student of the State Institute of Art of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Observant and receptive for information, Rafael absorbed knowledge as a sponge. He did not differ much from other students – apart from acuteness of his mind and originality of his compositions. Combined, these two properties produced an unexpected and amazing outcome: as the subject of his graduation work Rafael Arutyunyan chose not the time-proven, close to him and ideologically safe theme of the Armenian genocide, but the theme of the Holocaust, which still waited for proper elaboration and was painful for the authorities of the period. Arutyunyan believed it to be more urgent and important.

In 1964, after excellent defence of his diploma, Rafael Arutyunyan, in compliance with the rules of that time, came back to Baku to work one year under so-called “state assignment.” He started working as a head of a plastic art’s hobby group and taught drawing at school twice a week on a part-time basis. There he met his future wife Irina, to whom he proposed marriage already on the third day thereafter. After two months they got married. Upon completion of one year of compulsory assignment, Rafael together with his wife went back to Tallinn and, in due course, accompanied by students’ wild applause and the admiring glances of his wife, received the longed-for diploma. Nevertheless, he did not want to work in Baku – he could not survive as a sculptor in the atmosphere of nationalism.

Nobody wished to accept the idea of moving to Tallinn save for his adored mother. As always, she understood her son and said: “In Tallinn you can have a future. Its atmosphere benefits your creative work and I know that it is this work of creation that is the essence of your life. Here you do not have any future and will hardly ever have one. I have lived a long life and I know what I am saying.” Tiresome negotiations and quarrels with his wife followed; the relations with her parents were severed totally. Empty days lingered tediously and dolefully. After one year of such existence Rafael could not stand it any more: it took him one day to quit job, pack his things and pick up a flight. Towards Tallinn, future, uncertainty.

The fate favours strong and rebellious persons and, therefore, helps them. All matters of everyday life were arranged quite quickly: Olav Männi helped with registration in Tallinn, Boris Moisejevitch Bernstein solicited for a workshop, Matti Varik found a job. In some months the loving wife also arrived. Then the time came to settle down both his family life and creative life.

Rafael Arutyunyan chose the closest to his speciality job – in a workshop of artistic stone dressing, simply speaking, he became an engraver: he made engravings on granite and marble gravestones. This job, rather heavy both morally and physically, would feed his family for almost seventeen years until 1983, and would enable him to create in the way he wanted; that is, it gave him freedom. Each of us pays his own price for freedom. And Arutyunyan has never hesitated to pay this price, whatever it was.

Life of Rafael Arutyunyan was settled down and went its own way in a steady rhythm. During five working days he was a stonecutter, and in his days off and in the evening he was a sculptor, working productively and freely, an affectionate and attentive husband. In 1968 his son came into world and illuminated Rafael’s life with bright, joyful colours.

In the meantime, the year of 1970 – the centennial anniversary of V.I. Lenin – was approaching. Soviet authorities decided to renew a monument to the leader of the world proletariat in front of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia and announced a contest among sculptors. Immediately and enthusiastically, Rafael Arutyunyan started working on this project. According to one of the jury’s members, “no one produced a monument so close to the image of the leader as Arutyunyan.” However, after the announcement of the contest results, he was left with just an encouragement prize and heavy after-pains from the experience of participation in this contest. Then Rafael Arutyunyan has promised to himself that he would never work, under any circumstances, on ordered images. And he has kept his word.

In the seventies the sculptor worked strenuously, participated in every city- and republican-level exhibition, and, when opportunity arose, in all-Union ones. This period was marked by intensive creative growth in all directions. The master tested himself with different materials, in different genres, in different themes, looked for new expressive means. Aluminium, copper, bronze, plaster, wood, granite attracted him with an overwhelming force by their unexplored properties and were equally subject to him.

In 1971 Rafael Arutyunyan decided that he became a full-fledged sculptor and arranged his first personal exhibition. Though his sculptures were not exhibited in a prestigious hall, the exhibition was a success among colleagues and connoisseurs. The second personal exhibition took place in six years, in 1977. One of its results was his acceptance into the Union of Artists.

Gravity of Rafael Arutyunyan’s interests has always laid in the sphere of inner and personal life. The public phenomena interested him insofar as they affected an individual. Living a steady and somehow secluded life (in the triangle workshop – studio – home), he found all the stimuli necessary for his work and happiness within this space. And if the workshop was the forced necessity for him, the studio was his creative need, and his home was a safe base for him.

The fate has made to Rafael Arutyunyan a rare gift – a happy family life. It has presented him not only with a loyal, loving and sensitive life companion, but also with an ability to value these qualities. An image of the wife has been the continuous motive both in the sculpture and graphic, as well as in the paintings of the artist, his own “Iraiada”. The book “100 verses” was also devoted to the wife.

The eighties brought new tests to the artist. After seventeen-year-old struggle of the man against granite the last one turned out to be stronger. The heart ached. Life needed to be changed. In 1983 Rafael Arutyunyan said farewell to the stonecutting workshop and gets a job at the “Punane RET” factory as a heating machine operator.

One of the most expressive works of the sculptor – “Danko” – is dated with the same year. Is it possible to consider it a casual coincidence? To what extent is this thematic sculpture autobiographical? Whose heart is pierced with sharp needles-beams? How to define what kind of pain it is suffering – either from the hard work of a stonecutter or from an excessive burden of Weldschmerz? Only the author knows answers to these questions.

The habitual, sleepy, stagnant life was coming to an end. Brezhnev’s death in 1982 ignited a Bickford fuse of destruction and the huge, strong country started rolling to its end through the leapfrog of senile General Secretaries, the policy of Perestroyka and the parade of sovereignties. The society was shaken due to the lasting war in Afghanistan, total deficit, broadcasts of the Congress of People’s Deputies, statements by Sakharov, a flow of the revelatory-denunciatory information… Alone, every Soviet citizen must have passed through all these tests of an epoch of changes: a wreck of ideology, a change of socioeconomic structure and reassessment of values.

Works of this period shock with their diversity, versatility and polysemantic nature. It seems, that all materials revealed their secrets to the sculptor, all genres are equally subjective to him, and his graphic language does not know any limits. It is not so clear, where he will move further. However, his celebrated phrase – “It seems that in a sculpture I have squeezed out from myself everything I could” – would be said only in 1997 and during preceding ten years he would still stay at the peak of fame. Meanwhile, Rafael Arutyunyan celebrated his 50th anniversary with the third personal exhibition in a foyer of the library of the Academy of Sciences.

The fourth personal exhibition was timed to the 60th anniversary of the sculptor and took place in 1997 in the cultural centre at Sakala Street, in premises designed for the President’s receptions. More than 100 works were exhibited. Even the superficial glance at them indicates withdrawal of the sculptor from his habitual canons, relative loss of interest in natural materials, and escape to conceptualism. Instead of integral, material, concrete images came a symbol, a sign, notation. The framework of classical sculpture became unduly narrow for the master and with all the force of his talent he tried to broaden it, to release himself from the tangible dependence on traditional pictorial means. The search for the truth shifted from the material to its combinatory features and to surrounding space. Rafael Arutyunyan still thought with the categories of sculpture, but changed their vector.

“The Dragon. Emanation of the system” (1990), “Dump” (1992), “TeleBridge” (1992), “Turnover into a coffin” (1992) – are not as much sculptures as they are polysynthetic designs in which the author is trying not to express reality, but to apprehend it. They are intended to express a confused state of mind and an intensive search for new art means. In the enormous country that suddenly ceased to exist, the majority of people experienced a similar period of disorder and vacillation. Painful disintegration of the mighty empire, tragic conflicts between its once unified parts, stunning publications of mass media have overthrown all habitual reference points, have mixed the concepts of good and evil. Figuratively speaking, Arutyunyan’s “Dragon” lived and breathed in everyone and everyone felt like being in a “Dump” of history. “To win over time means to express it and by that you can win over death,” Rafael Arutyunyan said once. If it is true, he will not die.

In 1997, right after the fourth personal exhibition, Rafael Arutyunyan left plastic art and started to work in a new genre, the name of which was still unknown to anybody. The lonely years filled with work, inspiration and creativity have drawn him close to the truth. During thirty years he expressed time – now the time has come to comprehend it. Taken separately, neither sculpture, nor painting, nor graphic art were able to cope with this problem. He needed something different. The new task demanded new tools – a sensible unity of volume and colour.

The essence of Rafael Arutyunyan’s quest is clarified in his statement: “The form of a piece of art itself has never meant to me its essence, but was only the tool, the support, helping to bring to the people my understanding of the intention at the present moment of life.” The form, capable to bring to the people the idea of life of the 60-year-old artist, was found: at the junction of easel painting, sculpture and pop art. It united beauty, concreteness and volume and gave unlimited opportunities in terms of broadness of generalization and allegorical expression.

The overwhelming majority of Rafael Arutyunyan’s pictures assumes presence of a wide descriptive context conditioned both by the unusual form and special style of the artist’s thinking. These are pictures-labyrinths created by the queer imagination of the author-guide. It should be noted that strict limitations of fine arts has been too narrow for him for a long time already. Having a gift of words – both in prose and poetry – already in the beginning of the nineties he started to write verses explaining and revealing the meaning of some of his sculptures. Such multigenre – parallel – apprehension of reality allows to speak about the synthetic character of Rafael Arutyunyan’s creative work.

After five years of silence, in 2002, in the same Centre at Sakala Street, the fifth personal exhibition of Rafael Arutyunyan was opened. 230 picturesque and graphic works were exhibited – the result of intensive five years’ work. “With a great fear in my heart I waited for the reaction of the public and could not find enough courage to come to the hall at the moment of opening,” Rafael Arutyunyan said later. We shall disagree with him. An excitement, common at such significant events, has nothing to do with courage. Courage is understood as an inner firmness and bold spirit, that is, as an ability of a person to follow his way in life and take responsibility for it.

And this cannot remain unnoticed. The fifth personal exhibition was the most successful of all. Every day after the opening Rafael Arutyunyan came to the hall, sat down at a grand piano and started to play something. And people were coming and coming to look at his art.

On January 26, 2003 the happy life of Rafael Arutyunyan ceased – with the death of his wife Irina. And remained just life filled with sorrow, pain and loneliness. The chisel, the painting brush, the pencil continue have been in oblivion ever since. Nobody knows what is waiting for him in the future. And on the past Rafael Arutyunyan himself is best to comment: “Looking back on the way I passed in art, I come to the conclusion that I am more or less satisfied. Not satisfied with my sculptures, I mean, how good they are, and not with the multiplicity of my creations – there could be much more of them if I were a free artist – but satisfied with the fact that I have not turned off the way in art that I had chosen once – the way to the truth that demands dedication and self-neglect, and, despite all humiliations suffered from my fellow craftsmen, I have remained myself.”

Emma Darvis