Thorns and Stars of Rafael Arutyunyan

Ten years ago the destiny has graced me with one special encounter – with a remarkable person, a creator and “the prisoner of beauty” Rafael Surenovitch Arutyunyan.

The artist´s 68th birthday celebrated in 2005 was not yet a reason to reckon up the summa  summarum of his creative achievements, as everything created by him assumes continuation.

1. The Creation of the World

Rafael Arutyunyan has realised his knowledge and skills obtained in the Department of Plastic Arts of Tallinn Institute of Arts, in his graduation work “The Doomed” (1964) – a four-figured composition of 2.25 m height, dedicated to the theme of “The Jews of the Odessa Ghetto”. His thesis caused serious disputes on the examination board, the members of which were not concerned as much about the artistic values of this graduation work, as the probable negative estimation by votaries of the party. However, the thesis was defended with excellency.

The first and unique attempt of “creative naturalization” was his participation in a contest of a monument to V.I. Lenin to be erected in front of the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia.

However, the possibility to win even the encouragement prize was accompanied by such moral costs that he forswore never to work on custom-made images. Later, during the epoch of Perestroika, when Rafael Arutyunyan, a person not having “anything against Lenin” and brought up by school in the spirit of worshipping this “almost sacred person”, found out that by orders of “the leader of the world proletariat” the whole set of horrors had been accomplished, in an impulse of fair anger and amplified by the Caucasus temperament, he broke the plaster head of Ilyich “with a sledge hammer into small pieces”.

Having been afforded the luxury to follow his own non-conjunctural way in art, to be independent, to place freedom and love above all universal values, he has been compelled to pay too high for it. From 1966 to 1983 the qualified sculptor earned his (and family’s) living in a stone-cutting workshop at Rahumäe, near Tallinn, engraving and cutting gravestone monuments, in order to “immortalize someone’s name in the morning, and to immortalize himself in the evening”. Behind the fence of the graveyard there was no place for any authorial creative feat. The unique happy exception was “A Sitting Woman” (1975) – that appeared in his art heritage by mere chance. Conceived as a monument above a tomb of the son of a teacher, it has avoided the fate of a gravestone and has found the status of a self-valuable sculptural composition, worthy to any museum assembly, redolent of the achievements of the great French sculptor Maillol and tuned into the best achievements of the Baltic plastic arts of those years.

The voluntary and conceptual, ethical and aesthetic solitary life of Rafael Arutyunyan has led his art to obtain the structure of almost static genre.

For many years – from the sixties to the end of the 20th century – a portrait has played one of the leading roles in it – the portraits of close relations and the people familiar to the master.

For all that bright, well-distinguished originality of art shape of each work, be it “Tanya” (1968), “Viola” (1975), “Allotchka” (1979), “The Head of a Balt” (1990) or others, all of them have common features: spiritual warmth and chaste purity; classical neatness of plastic forms both in details and as a whole, alien to any arbitrary formal experiments; some supertemporal humanistic and aesthetic ideal, translucent through the similarity to a certain real person.

The above mentioned is also true to the portraits of members of the master’s family – he has referred to their images in the course of several years (“The Head of the Son” 1974; “The Head of a Boy” 1994; “The Granddaughter” 1994). In those portraits, afflation with presence of a genius of eternal beauty and uninvolvement in prosy fuss do not allow intimacy to be reduced to domestic tenderness or to be limited by the frames of smaller plastics.

This portrait gallery is adjoined (equally irreproachable by norms of the most chaste and demanding taste of art) by such works of art, as “A Mask” (1977), “The Head of a Woman” (1981, bronze), “Dreams” (1985) and “A Decorative Head” (1985), where the refinement of the formal decision is warmed by the breath of a real prototype, let it be merely in the form of a hint on a probability of its existence.

The masculine image of our contemporary has been embodied by the master in his excellent work “A Surgeon” (1978), where everything amazes us: both a constrained, yet not an ostentatious heroic pathos and a severe monumentalism of this modest-sized work (height 45 cm) and finally the masterly and thematically justified (instead of being illusory effective) processing of the material that conceals a part of the face under a granite mask and leaves just the eyes visible – not as much half-closed as extremely focused.

The ability to reach convincing art results by working with various materials – it is one of the strongest virtues of the talent of Rafael Arutyunyan. Moreover, working both with natural “expensive” materials (marble, bronze, granite, wood) and with “cheap” artificial ones (from plaster to plastic), Rafael Arutyunyan has realized and employed the boundless, as it appeared, “metaphorical” abilities of substitute materials with excellency. What really amazes, is not, actually, his masterful imitation of the necessary material, but enchanting extraction of new qualities from any ersatz material, hitherto unknown visual effects, extrinsic to stone, wood or metal.

In the system of created art values the sculptor sweeps away barriers between the natural and the artificial. To verify this, we can mention “The Head of a Young Woman” (1969) and “The Self-portrait” (1993), which have been executed as if from unusual substance, according to forgotten recipes of ancient precious colour ceramics, as well as plastic “A Giraffe” (1973) and “An Old Gnu” (1976), the expressive tectonics of which is hard to relate to any natural material.

The real dramas of the century occurred far from the doorsteps of Rafael Arutyunyan’s studio and apartment. They gave rich pabulum for empathy which in turn has generated an extensive cycle of buskined compositions (“Victor Jara. The Last Song “, “The Tree of Grief. In Memory of V. Jara”, both 1975;

“Shadows of the Fallen Appeal. Santiago” 1976; “That Occurred Again in Chile ” 1977; “The Torture Chamber. To Fighters for Human Rights” 1985 and many others). Extremely sensitive to sufferings of the others, Rafael Arutyunyan has been compelled to recognize that the humanity has poorly learned the lessons of the past. The testimony of this understanding is revealed both by his masterpieces and their titles: “The Prevention” (1990), about the Chernobyl catastrophe and “Mad, Mad World” (1989) about the drama of the Afghan War.

Rafael Arutyunyan has not considered it necessary to create his own sculptural variant of Don Quixote, however the echoes of an anthem to “knights of the rueful countenance”, battling and dying alone, are clearly audible in such works as “Minas Avetisyan” (1976), “Komitas” (1987), “Light of a Distant Star. In Memory of Sakharov” (1989), “A Monk” (1992), “In Memory of an Artist ” (1995).

However, the strict classical manner of portrayal revealed by the artist mainly in female images is not an occasion to speak about uniform individual style of his art where the refined plastic of “A Spring Motive” (1974), “The Leaf Fall” (1980) and the dynamic drive of “To the Infinity” (1973) cohabit – and hardly in a peaceful way! – with the granite opacity and solidity of “A Vietnamese Pig ” (1976) and non-narrative expressiveness of “Shy Youth” (1970) with a fabulous allegorical meaning and the “silver tongue” of “An Elephant and a Monkey ” (1984).

The restless soul of the master is similar to the creative lava of some unpredictable volcano, out of which it is possible to compose both “A Torso” (1985) – a fine piece, almost corresponding to antique norms, and abstract works (“Hoola-Hoop” 1968; “A Spring Motive” 1974; “A Black Madonna” 1980) that use expressive lexicon of the 20th century. Its widely spreading stream can splash out – sometimes almost simultaneously – a monument “To My Doggie” (1986) and “The Telebridge” (1992), “A Grieving Mask” (1986) and “A Friendly Cartoon ” (1987), and some works not requiring titles like “Chunks” (1992) or “A Decorative Boulder” (1987).

Perhaps, the most problematic and in many respects, dramatic part of the creative heritage of Rafael Arutyunyan, belongs to his monumental arrangements. Already “The Sun Above a Ghetto ” poses a question to us: what is it: a finished easel product or a project for some future large-scale monument? This question also concerns his other works similar to the same dramatic sort: (“The Dead Road Salekhard – Igarka”, 1990; “The Requiem. To Victims of an Earthquake”, 1991; “The Burial of a Coffin”, “Devoted to Victims of Stalinism”, both – 1992; “Partridges”, “The Battle Traces”, both – 1993; “In an Ominous Circle “, 1996).

He managed to become the author of a harsh and heroic monument dedicated to the friendship between the dwellers of the Estonian town of Kohtla-Järve and the Finnish town of Оuttokumpu, implemented and erected in Kohtla-Järve in 1982. It is made of local granite and is definitely far from the stereotype of the Soviet monuments set up in honour of “fraternization” of twin cities. Both “The Shadows of the Fallen Are Appealing. Santiago” and “That Occurred Again in Chile” least of all represent the mere table-type or floor-mounted works of art, intended to serve as an ornament for private or public interior. Their high-grade vibration is unthinkable without substantial enlargement and implementation in some eternal material, and erection in a specially intended memorial environment, outside the city walls and widely visible from all sides.

The alternative group of artist’s masterpieces, outnumbering the measure of the first one, is opened up with “The Life Has Forced Its Way” (1986) and  “The Torture Chamber. To Fighters for Human Rights ” (1985). The fact of them regarding as monuments (the first one – allegorical and the second one – memorial) – is doubtless. They are self-sufficient easel pieces of art – it is obvious, too. It is difficult to imagine their “wooden essence” to be altered to some monumental material; it is difficult to imagine the presence of barbed wire of a torture chamber in a memorial ensemble or a plastic twig with leaves, symbolizing vitality of life-giving forces – the main hero of the sculpture “The Life Has Forced Its Way”.

Similar works like “The Page in History of my People” (1990), “Devoted to Victims of Stalinism” (1992), “In an Ominous Circle ” (1996) and many others do not apply for a monumental embodiment. Refusing the academic criteria of the beauty, proceeding against the traditional perceptions about plastic arts, Rafael Arutyunyan finds in these works that absolute freedom, which he has dreamed about even before attending the Institute, is the freedom found “in ideas, in his own workshop, in a sculpture”.

It is the absolute freedom that allowed him to integrate components that are disparate according to classical standards, within the frames of a certain work of art: natural and artificial materials, original subjects created by the author himself, and ready-made objects (toys in “A Merry-Go-Round” 1992; photos cut out from a magazine in “A Dragon” 1990; glasses and a helmet in “Osman Pasha” 1995; a table clock in “Time is the Supreme Judge” 1995, etc.).

Having set sails to a rough solitary voyage and not wishing to moor at the quiet shores tempting with the light of aesthetic beacons alien to him, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he loses, one by one, all the social stimuli significant to his creative work and yearns for “everything that was integral earlier and now can collapse”. His dialogue with the time more and more reminds spontaneous gliding over the rough waters of the surrounding life.

Not only for an average spectator, but also for a professional critic it is sometimes difficult to understand where the author strains for “Through Chaos and Gloom” (1996), in the name of what “The Sacred Flame” (1995) kindles or who is threatened by “The Dragon. Emanation of the System ” (1990) and “Idol” (1996).

The creative work of the master during this period is similar to spiritual cannibalism, a solitary sad game with himself, a composition of spatial puzzles which are significant only for him, whose solution is inaccessible to the common aesthetic sense that sees nothing but a “dump” of casual objects in them (“A Dump” 1992), needless to anybody and amusing no one, except for the author himself, and moralizing solitaires (“A Cat” 1995; “To Take or Not to Take? ” 1995; “One More Egg Overlooked” 1995; “The Instrument of All Times” 1996).

Actually, he does not play thoughtlessly with himself, he struggles in a cage of his contradictions, locked by himself, and he reaches almost humiliating self-irony and bitter self-flagellation. The master expresses this impasse in a three-piece wooden composition freely settling down in space, and which includes the following significant text: “From year to year it is more difficult to use the brains, let alone the hands”. This composition, in certain details like a self-portrait, can be considered as a farewell to the sculptor`s labour that has been giving him happiness and troubles for long years.

2. Graphics. The Purgatory

In 1997 after his fourth personal exhibition dedicated to the artist`s 60th birthday, he unexpectedly disappears from the arena of the art life the capital city, in order to, after five years at the beginning of the third millennium, at the personal exposition in 2002, to fire two creative salvoes at once – graphics and painting.

The closest connection with plastic arts is revealed in portraits, images of animals and compositions that resemble projects of sculptural monuments (“In Memory of Eternal Fire”, “Light from Within”, “The Trap”, “In a Cemetery”, “The Heap of Metal and a Spider-web”, “The Monument”). Such graphical works as “The Man’s Face”, “Daughter-in-Law”, “Diana”, “Granddaughter”, “Nastienka”, “Irina”, are not still burdened by any additional narrative-ideological loading either enter a zone of formal experimentalism and join the most classical works of the master by their pictorial stylistics.

In the same way, the animalistic graphic art of Rafael Arutyunyan has some common features with plastic art, including “pure” animalism (“A Rhinoceros”,

“An Elephant Tortoise”, “A Crowned Stork”, “A Camel”, “A Lynx” and many others) and allegorical ones reminding fables. Here we do not see any individual species of terrestrial fauna, but characters of the certain exhortative parables, which apply for the roles alien and extrinsic to them: a lion with a crown (“Megalomania”), his regal double (“An Orang-utan”, 1988), “A Cogitative Gorilla” or, painted with black humour, “A Monument to Piggishness”. Some portraits and animalistic images are related to plastic art by almost sculptural study of volumes and corporal weightiness of forms (“Maya”, “The King of Beasts”).

Re-interpretation of the habitual narrative, thematic and genre senses is peculiar to Arutyunyan in graphic art, too. For “The Tight Defence” and “Karate” are as far from the world of sports as the composition “Sadist”, and the image of “A Handsome Man” with exaggerated features of “a person of Transcaucasian origin” hardly associates with the standards of masculine beauty.

Again and again he is occupied with the damned questions of the epoch (“Can The Beauty Rescue The World?”), he is amazed by surprising ability of humans “to be caught twice by the same bait”, to repeat the mistakes and to forget the lessons of the past (“A Century In, A Century Out – It’s All Just the Same”).

He is puzzled by thoughtless overthrow of former idols (“Tipping-over and a split-up”), responds fiercely to senseless civil strife and massacres of the present (“Eclipse”, “War”, “Cut-Off Heads”), touches upon norms of moral behaviour

(“When Everything That Could Be Spent Is Sent Down The Throat”), commemorates his spiritual counsellors (“Don Quixote”, “Memories of Komitas”, “Grigory Narekazi”).

“A Hope Dies Last”, “Scratching on Strings “, “Stones”, “Flying Shells ” and many others – all these are self-portraits of the disturbing, ambiguous, promptly changeable moods of Rafael Arutyunyan, who cannot afford to rest and to give a respite to himself in the struggle with his own doubts, gloomy thoughts and intense expectation of new misfortunes. The names of his works themselves persuade us of this (“My Soul Is a Caterpillar”, “Categories of Soul”, “The Spiritual Visions of an Old Armenian”), the tragic pinnacle of which is represented by “Self-portrait” with desperate and shrilly outcry like last words on a public scaffold: “Gaze at me, here I am in front of you on top of a death-fire and my face is in soot “. The face presented as a mask, spoiled with the stigma of hard years, crying and crippled by bloody tears. The mask is horrendously naked but is not posthumous yet.

It is possible to assume that the image of life in black-and-white tones, initially inherent in graphic art, has aggravated the tendency, already peculiar to the artist, to represent a willow as sad (“A Weeping Willow”), clouds – as threatening (“Thunderclouds”), trees – as wizened stumps (“Groaning of the Earth”), and loss – as irreplaceable (“Bereavement”). At the same time, graphic art has brought him the second breath and new creative wings which have been fastened not only by unreliable wax (“Icaros”).

In the composition “A Call for Help”, causing associations with “The Scream” – the well-known picture by the Norwegian painter E.Munch, graphic art exclaims loudly and reproduces precisely the freakish emanations of his suffering and partly sick imagination (“Disintegration”, “Unfamiliar Plants “, “Secrets of the Ocean”, “An Abstract motive”, “Poltergeist”, “Phantom”).

Graphic art again opens the master the view on the surrounding world, unknown to plastic art (“I Look Through a Wire of Carcass”), attracts his attention to insignificant, but vital tokens (“Fungus on a Tree”, “Drops”, “Sections of trees”) and to quiet pleasures of daily routine (“Fishermen”, “The Mushroom Season”), adds a drop of healthy self-irony to the attitude towards the age follies and delusions (“A Vision”, “A Senile Mirage”, where the artist plays with the iconography of “The Court of Paris” and “Three Graces”).

It is precisely the graphic art where the master definitively parts with an illusion to achieve the universal procommunist paradise on Earth and turns his thoughts towards the Divine forces.

3. Painting. Ascension

The art of painting having replaced the graphics in 2000 has not apparently brought any cardinal changes to thematic repertoire of Rafael Arutyunyan’s creative work. Judging by the names of pictures and by author’s comments, as before he is attracted literally by everything: antihuman symbols of “our restless time” (“A Shot”), “good and evil ” (“An Old Fresco”), the life itself with its “black-and-white zebra pattern” (“The Circle of Life”), a state of a “restless soul” (“Elements”), “pastimes of the lost youth” (“Repose in Nature”); purely abstract and decorative compositions that “can be treated in many ways” (“A Fantasy on the Theme of Underwater Life”, “Phantasmagoria” and others), national Estonian holidays (“A Festive Mask”), the barbarous attitude of “human consciousness to the animal world” (“A Reversed Creature”), the intrusion into a private life by special services (“Demonic Wiles”), “friendship of three races: Yellow, White and Black”(“Three Graces”) and, in spite of how strange it seems, the plots which “should cause patriotic feelings” (“Arms Parade”). To put it briefly, it covers everything – from the bible sources (“Adam and Eve”, “Abraham’s Sacrifice”) to the latest news of the day (“Disaster”).

However, changes (and essential ones) are present. Their symptoms are shown by the decrease in satirical, castigating intensity of emotions in the works on a theme of the “vices of modern times”, for example, similar to “A Fallen Angel” with “dollars instead of hands”. The passionate, angry publicist approach gives up its place to a bitter, sarcastic smile and disappointment with the results of a personal accusatory self-sacrifice, partly reflected in compositions “An Averted Guitar”, whose strings are like the hands of a tired and despaired person and as if they have been dropped with grief.

Still not recognizing any authorities or art specifications, positioning his practice within children’s and amateur creativeness where a postulate “I want so ” outcomes any highest imperative, he finds out a basic function of a free and wanton game in art whose social and material value is extremely circumstantial and bespoken by a mass of circumstances impossible to count by strict and objective measurements. Already in 1992 in his wooden “mobile phone” installation of “A Merry-go-Round”, created exclusively for the sake of his own pleasure, he dares to recover and decorate the serious work of art adult in material validity and professional implementation, with toys, expressing the radical sense of the art of the game with the most adequate embodiments.

His collage pictures are being supplemented by the words that have been laid out in a children’s designer set (“Dedication”), mobile phones and calculators (“The Son`s Portrait “), gloves (“Inaccessible”), frames of bracelets (“The Lost Values “), toy figures of insects and turtles (“A Short Circuit”) and playing over with other household utensils, Rafael Arutyunyan is not engaged in some idle thoughtless pastime, but is composing in a free, serious and creative manner which is hardly similar to playing in a children’s sandbox or compiling “my little secrets” – the game known to everybody since early years.

Being engaged in his original “needlework”, he obviously feels moral satisfaction, unusual aesthetic pleasure and feeling of sincere comfort, even when he creates grievous works, by their names at least (“The Fine Commencement and Sad Obscurity”, “Despair”, “The Palette of Mourning”).

The master reaches the level of such liberated creative soaring, the zone of such impetuous flight of imagination where time does not govern and spatial coordinates are not set, where empyrean elements dominate and space melodies sound (“The Parade of Stars”), where geniuses of the last centuries (“Paganini”, “To Music of Beethoven”, “A Vivified Mask”) come to life and everything is lit up by divine light (“The Lord’s Candle”), facilitating mournful languor of the author’s soul.

He does not arrange his feast of soul for idle passers-by or uninvited guests, but for scrupulously chosen people, close to him, easily recognizable in the gallery of family portraits. These people are elevated to a certain pedestal, inaccessible to the forces of the evil and protecting them from all conceivable dangers, are surrounded with a brightened and joyfully coloured aura and even if they are tangent to a terrestrial surface, it is represented in a form of a “peaceful and green globe” (“Diana Arutyunyan”).

The artist involuntarily opens a new genre – a genre of a celebratory portrait-gift and periapt, invariably including now “coloured pebbles – as a salute in honour of goodness and beauty” (“Granddaughter Diana”), then the words “From me to you”, laid out with seashells: (“Donation to the Wife”), then “amber beads and a white flower with pearls in the middle – a symbol of the sun and kindness as an eternal value” (“Vika”), then the signs of the Zodiac and “pebbles against a malefic eye” (“Tatyana Steinle”, “Nastienka”, “Girl and Hamster”, “Rimma Kazakova”, “Lada”, “Portrait of Gurova”).

In the pantheon of gods and deities of all kinds there is no other such person to occupy a higher place in the inmost recesses of the artist’s heart like his wife Irina.

The most eloquent certificate to that is the artistic heritage of the master – the sculpture “Irotchka”(1965).

References to the image of the wife have been deepening – from occasional (in plastics) up to the staging (in graphics and painting). And, in this incessantly replenished gallery, the portrait images get iconic (“Portrait of the Wife in a Rainbow”, accompanied with an explanatory note: “I think she is sacred and consequently I have placed her among brilliant stars”) and symbolical forms, including the sculptures “Twain”, “Family”, “Night”, “Unification”, graphic works “Nameless” (with the text: “Do you need my black flowers?”), “I’ll Come Back”, ” The Approach”, “My Princess”, pictures “Donation to the Wife”, “The Aesthetics of a Family” (the family as the highest preciousness).

Most likely, such picturesque compositions as “Palette of Love”, “Adam and Eve”, “The God is Love”, ” I Would Like to Offer You the Universe” (without any hint on Irina’s image), are also devoted to her, to all years of their happy union which, as it seemed in young years, is unable to be darkened by any day-to-day hardships.

In fact, they were not able to tilt Rafael Arutyunyan out from the saddle, until that black day of 2003 when he was left nothing to do but to recollect the lines of oriental poetry: “The cripple, I am sitting in a desert of yearn craving for you, around me a silver ocean filled with my tears”.

The idea to establish his own art gallery, conceived by Rafael Arutyunyan together with his son Areg, perhaps provides the dedication of one of its halls to his main goddess – Irina. It would mean the settlement of the last of the personal duties that still attach the master to the mundane life much stronger than abstract universal moral anchors.

Alexander Sidorov,

Art Critic,

Assistant to the President of the Russian Academy of Arts


* Abridged