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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

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

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

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.

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