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Why we should read... 'The Art of Manuscript Painting in Vaspourakan' by Hravart Hakobian 'Knowledge Publishers, Yerevan, 1997, 160pp, 38 B/W illustrations Armenian News Network / Groong February 18, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian Hravart Hakobian is animated by a single aim. With stylistic features distinguishing them radically from manuscript paintings and art in the rest of Armenia, Vaspourakan's 10-14th century heritage is often regarded as essentially derivative of Arabic influences and particularly that of the Baghdad school. Hakobian labours to refute this argument that in his view diminishes the intrinsic value of Vaspourakan's Armenian art. The reality of Arabic influence is not denied. Dominant regional political and social trends generated common artistic and aesthetic perceptions and styles that were shared across nationalities. Hakopian even argues that local-national artistic traditions could not attain full development without absorbing and utilising this regional backdrop. In this context however his main concern is to identify in Vasbourakan's art those historically and socially conditioned features that pre-date the Baghdad school and define it as particularly Armenian. Elements of Vasbourakan's 10-14th century artistic style can be seen not only in manuscript paintings, but also in the sculpture, architecture and other decorative arts that precede the 10th century. The dominance of expanse against depth, of lines and outlines projected right and left as expressions of movement, the preponderance of neutral colours and the abstract, almost bare, sketch-like images feature well before the emergence of the Baghdad school. Grasping this is a pre-condition to understand the manner in which foreign influences were absorbed to develop further an essentially native, Armenian, art form. Hakopian's argument, sometimes faulty and not always persuasive, is however intelligent, stimulating and consistently exciting. Vasbourakan's social and political history deviated significantly from that of central and northern Armenia. Having lost its independence, its feudal elite fled westward to Sebastia. Demographically, while Armenians remained a majority, the area was heavily populated by new non-Armenians settlers. Through time intermingling between the upper echelons of Armenians and the new settlers encouraged openness to new cultural and aesthetic sensibilities. This cultural process Hakobian reiterates was one of absorption and integration, not subjugation or refashioning. Pressing the point home he remarks on the fact that while Persian painting shows significant Chinese influence no one speaks of it as a mere derivative. So also is the case with the Armenian art of Vaspourakan. Sharing much in common with the Baghdad school, Armenian painting is still in certain fundamentals radically different. Arabic painting is lush and luxurious both in detail and colour, more sensual and secular. Armenian painting in contrast is marked by a sparseness of detail, its protagonists display greater tension and preoccupation. These paintings appear intent on communicating a message rather than exciting the senses. In Vaspourakan, with no Armenian political or secular elite, the survival of the Armenian Church, the community it served and its language was called into question by the dominance of the Seljuk Turks and their culture. In these circumstances the 'Book' became a decisive instrument for self-preservation. It served both an ideological and political as well as a religious and a social function. In a community strained to its limits, denuded of its wealth, divested of its elite, living always on the edge of disintegration the Book became a vital means of social communication. Thus Hakobian explains the large volume of manuscripts in Vasbourakan and their relatively plain, ascetic style. This ascetic style - the use of plain materials, the preponderance of neutral colours, lines, drawings and sketches, almost silhouettes, Hakobian argues, derives from both socio-economic and political- religious considerations. Vasbourakan Armenians did not have the wealth to emulate the luxurious extravagance of Cilician Armenian painting. In Vasbourakan art did not have the means to go beyond communication of a specific message. It did not have the luxury to produce objects that would delight the senses and become expressions of temporal, worldly being. It is difficult to tell how far Church leaders and artists in Vasbourakan were conscious of the sense of defensive mission attributed to them. Yet the numerous marginal inscriptions in the manuscripts reveal an awareness of the harsh, hard and troubled times in which artists worked. Considering the artistic technique of Vaspourakan manuscripts Hakobian notes the characteristic use of line, time, space, motion, colour and decorative design as well as the use of words and the relation between technique and canonical requirement. Detail becomes secondary lending the paintings a remoteness from real life, a certain timeless, static character. In contrast to wealthy Cilicia, colours used in Vasbourakan are simple, neutral ones, rarely mixed. Effect is often achieved by rhythmic alteration and repetition of colour with outlines defined in different ones. Decorative features act not just as a means of attracting the eye but are integral to the message, as is the use of text that, besides filling in narrative gaps in the images, enhances artistic effect. Vasbourakan's manuscripts also reveal a deviation from canonical forms, albeit not frequent, with figures, angels, and reiterations that express specific, local, national and even pre-Christian characteristics, as well as the artist's own individual perceptions. Some even suggest here the presence of elements of pagan art in this essentially Christian painting. But this tradition was marked primarily by a conservatism that expressed however not reaction but an effort to preserve ancient forms and styles. Hyperbole and humour also flourished. Frequently the protagonist is placed in the centre of the picture and enhanced while the secondary characters are diminished. Virtuous individuals appear to be ever so, whilst the evil assume grotesque and outlandish forms. Going beyond the traditional polarities - Byzantine versus Assyrian influence, or aristocratic versus popular art - by which Armenian painting has been traditionally classified, Hakobian tries to root differing trends and traditions within a single national experience. While accepting the utility of traditional classifications he suggests an additional one: a high professional art born of an era of relative political independence and economic prosperity and a more plebeian art, in Vaspourakan for example, produced in conditions where both the materials and the skills necessary for professional art were absent. In Cilicia political stability, trade and wealth enabled contact with foreign cultures. They also made available rich paper, gold and other colours that together created conditions of relative ease for artists. Both commissioners and artists were able to partake of international 'renaissance' sensibilities. This process produced work that was marked by a greater realism, by sumptuous colours and vivid and sensual scenic settings. Here we note more frequent breaches of canonical form and, despite ostensible religious content, an increasing secularisation that expresses temporal concerns. Objects of art become collectors' items to display wealth. This was a far cry from Vaspourakan, isolated, impoverished and denuded of its native elite. Here the canonical and the ideological predominate. Men of lesser means commission and less well-off artists create in harsher conditions that are described movingly in a number of colophons quoted by Hakobian. This harshness and this isolation from the outside world and from international artistic trends narrowed the vision both of commissioner and artist. The result was an art more rough and ready in character. This did not of course preclude great art, but it acted as a significant obstacle. Erudite art critics will no doubt point to problems in Hakobian's argument. A possible flaw immediately springs to mind. Hakobian suggests that outside Vasbourakan, Armenian painting was largely unaffected by that regional artistic identity that stretched from the Caucuses to Armenia, from the Arab world across to Persia and Central Asia. But how does such a powerful influence fail to leave any defining mark on the art of central and northern Armenia? For novices, much further study, scrutiny and discussion will be necessary. But for sure this immensely enjoyable book is an excellent starting point on an adventure into Armenian art and painting. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.