Armenian fine art history, particularly easel painting of the past century marks a number of female artists. Before that, there were, as an exception, some female figures in the sphere of literature and theatre. Easel painting is a comparatively new branch in Armenian reality. It was most productive in Soviet times. A cluster of female artists appeared exactly that period (Gohar Fermanyan, Vehik Ter-Grigoryan, Heghine Abrahamyan, Tereza Mirzoyan, Hripsime Simonyan and others). They were distinguished not only with their talent, but also with their pedagogical and prolific social activity, exemplary and infectious for further generations. Arpenik Nalbandyan was one of those celebrated female painters.
Arpenik Nalbandyan was born in 1916 in Tiflis (currently Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). Roots of the Nalbandyans go deep into Javakheti; they have ties of relationship with Vahan Terian and Ashkhen Nalbandyan, mother of writer and composer Bulat Okudzhava. The gift of creativity in this family was an inherited talent, which successively passed on to the younger generation and got new development. Therefore, a newly established family, despite material, social and civic difficulties, gave birth to two talented children for Armenian art-Arpenik and Dmitry Nalbandyan. Father’s untimely death in the large family made the situation more difficult, thus leaving the care of five small children on mother’s shoulders. Arpenik mentioned in her “Autobiography” that in 1919 her family had to leave for Leninakan. Mother started to work in the local American Orphanage1. Four years later, the Nalbandyans returned to Tiflis. In 1932, Arpenik left for Moscow and entered the preparatory course of the local Architectural Institute. However, she had to return to Tiflis because of scanty means.
For further three years the future artist worked at the machine-tool factory as a draftswoman-copyist, simultaneously she studied at the preparatory department of Tiflis State Academy of Fine Arts. At last, in 1935 she entered the Painting department of the Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, many Armenian students continued their higher education in Tiflis.
Therefore, five promising young persons appeared in the same course, two of them; Arpenik Nalbandyan and Mkrtich Kamalyan were from Tiflis, and Eduard Issabekian, Edda Abrahamyan and Karapet Metsaturyan were from Yerevan.
Here, in the center of arts, in Tiflis, the aesthetic taste, spiritual and creative delicate inner world of the novice developed and never changed in all her life despite her settlement and environment changes. There is little and scrappy information about the student years of the future painter who was making her first steps in the world of art. In student years, her teachers Joseph Charlemagne, Ucha Japaridze and Sergey (Sergo) Kobuladze, indeed, had their role in the establishment of the artist. However, especially acquaintance with two talented individuals was fatal for Arpenik Nalbandyan. One of them was Alexander Bazhbeuk-Melikyan (1891-1996). This unique artist attracted many people with magic power of his talent, though he would get on with less people. Arpenik was one of those lucky exceptions. Besides, Alexander Bazhbeuk-Melikyan was a lecturer at the Academy from 1929 to 1938. Taking into account the role of the Academy, we may imagine that Arpenik got acquainted with the works of old masters while being in Moscow for a short time in 1932. Her earlier paintings are evidences of that. The synthesis of classic art and the Bazhbeuk principles has thoroughly influenced the development of the painter’s aesthetic taste and principles. The second important person was Eduard Issabekian who had radically changed the painter’s life. He became not only Arpenik’s colleague, but also her partner in life. The painter married him in 1941 and came to Yerevan.
A few rather unique and highly valuable paintings and graphic works preserved from early creative period are the vivid evidences of the painter’s substantial academic education. Arpenik created works of various genres, including portraits, landscapes, still lifes as well as thematic and everyday life works but most of all she created portraits. The evidence of the above mentioned make the four portraits (“The Nude Woman”, 1938, “Little Svetlana”, 1938, “Girl with a Basket”, 1942, ‘Girl in a Red Dress”, 1942). These portraits make the inseparable part of the NGA’s permanent exhibition. Interest towards the surrounding and cognition of environment is peculiar to every creative person. Penciled drawings of her student years stand out with their distinct strokes, precise anatomical structures of model figures and with stout graphs of the spatial perspective. Again, man is in the center of her interests. The graphic paper of her student years “Portrait of Eduard Issabekian” (1937, family collection) becomes more evaluated as compared with “Self-portrait” (1939, family collection) done by Issabekian two years later. Impressive is not so much the superficial resemblance and the romantic interpretation of the image, as the true perception and immediate capture of abrupt gestures, obvious and penetrating look full of interests, the inner temper of the young artist and true depiction of the image. Creation of portraits of the contemporaries and relatives led to develop own recognizable style. Especially images of female models (“The Nude Woman”, 1938, ‘Girl with a Basket”, 1942) with their attitude and structural form and colour principles, with tender colour variations tough strokes and precise forms and volumes make the composition look aristocratic and at the same time contribute to the revelation of own inner world.
In the Soviet Union, particularly in the Soviet Armenian art of the 1930’s, one could rarely see portraits of African-Americans. Paintings “The Black Woman’, 1938 by Arpenik Nalbandyan and “Portrait of the Black Singer Celestina Cool”, 1939 by Mkrtich Kamalyan are works of the same kind. Both of them depicted the same person, American jazz singer Celestina Cool. In canvases of both painters, the Bazhbeuk style is notable. In contrast to the impression of structural incompleteness of her fellow course member’s painting, Nalbandyan’s chamber portrait of the black model stressed up with peculiar anthropological traits appears to the viewers with rich color syntheses and complete composition.
Friendly and sociable by nature, the artist with her future husband Eduard Issabekian was a welcomed guest everywhere, including the house of Alexander Bazhbeuk-Melikyan. Arpenik had got acquainted with the artist’s daughter Lavinia Bazhbeuk-Melikyan in Tiflis. Later they became close friends while living in Yerevan. Arpenik’s undated work “ Portrait of Lavinia Bazhbeuk-Melikyan” (Tiflis period, NGA), which is close to the Bazhbeuk spirit with its performance technique, constructional solutions, small-scale and colour-and-shading volumes is the witness of it. The depicted image has natural and momently recognizable internal and external features peculiar to Lavinia.
The work “Girl with a Red Hat on” dated to 1942 (Yerevan period, NGA) already has essential differences in technique and style as compared with the first one. Portrait of the almond-shaped eyed beauty from the pale chestnut-coloured and brown background looking at the viewer with her wise glance has a firm colour and linear structure. A close-up of depicted artist’s original individuality is highlighted with her expression, sincere gesture of her hand and the juxtaposition of dark cherry colour and red on the neutral background. Formerly gliding oil strokes have now become steady colour layers. This artwork makes the beginning of her preferred realistic portrait series thus leaving behind the small-scale compositions of the Bazhbeuk structural thinking.
Arpenik graduated from the Academy in 1941 with her diploma work “Gathering Tea Leaves”, which was highly appreciated. The Yerevan activity of the painter can be divided into two phases: transitional, from Tiflis to Yerevan, and mature, though unfortunately short and incomplete. She appeared from one plate to a completely other field. If the Tiflis painting environment was significant with the Bazhbeuk school, then that of Yerevan stood out by the Sarian painting principles. Many painters imitated and bore the influence of Sarian’s art. But to consider the artist as a follower of Sarian would be wrong. The contemporaries viewed the Master’s influence almost in all artists’ art. However, it is not related to Nalbandyan. The young artist’s Yerevan canvases did not have the previous density of the painting layer, though in some cases relief and surface solutions had been preserved, “Old Yerevan. Study” (1942, family collection). Little by little, her palette obtained light colours and cleaned from former dark colours. However, these changings, colour solutions as well as genre preferences-portraits, landscapes and still lifes were not connected with the Sarian tendencies, but they were natural components of the painter’s art development.
Both Issabekian and Arpenik buckled down to the general full swing in Yerevan. The artist participated in republican and union exhibitions and cultural events as well as in social life. When in 1945 the first professional higher educational establishment in art in Armenia opened –Yerevan State Institute of Fine Arts, Nalbandyan was the first female artist in the newly established institute who was a lecturer there until the end of her life.
The conventional transitive phase was also a unique trial period for A. Nalbandyan. The period from 1941 to 1955 was that of unhealthy atmosphere, patriotic war, privation and victory. Social realism was in all social spheres, including art. Few people could avoid of “new life’s” real depiction. Due to this, the painter’s art is no exception. However, Nalbandyan’s social realistic series of works was originally done; her compositions were free from rhetorical implication. There were no solemn depictions of leaders or party meetings in them. As she herself noted naively: “Now I work on new artworks and my subjects depict the soviet woman’s image and socialist construction … and happy soviet childhood”3. The positive note existed in her each canvas of the same kind expressed with views full of positive tendencies of the present and with desired expectations of the future (“Excellent Pupils”) 1950 (NGA), “The Interesting Book”, 1952 (NGA), Grandma’s Tale”, 1953 (NGA) and “Children’s Railway” 1958). The transitional national value system-family, mother and children was in the basis of each composition. The artist deeply acknowledged and bore its importance. Each artwork appeared with carefully worked out painting surface, colour, and structural certain solutions.
The canvas “The 1901 May Demonstration in Tiflis” (130x200cm, History Museum of Armenia) stands out with dynamic structure of multi figured composition, pathetic soul and vibrating colour strokes, which reminds of Eduard Issabekian’s style. Her husband’s influence was at times noticeable in some works of the artist. It was conditioned not only by their life together, but also by heated creative discussions and their work. Certainly, the artist could overcome the “temptation” especially when she passed on to her preferred genres and subjects. It was especially noticed in landscapes, where Nalbandyan got rid of the influence of Issabekian, she revealed the peculiarities of her own style. From 1950 to 1960’s in her mature creative period mountain landscapes and depictions of their proud inhabitants prevailed. Those landscapes were created in the result of her cognitive tours: Khndzoresk, Bjni, Goris and Sevan… The geography of her works gradually widened. The artist worked in plein air, she moved from her studio to the open-air atmosphere. Canvases following each other (“At the Water Spring”), 1957, ‘Khndzoresk”, 1962, “Old Goris. At the Water Spring”, 1962) were filled with sunlight and colour diversity, the brushstrokes were abrupt; the composition was firm, without odd details and lines were generalized. Synthesis of warm and cold colours came to replace the previous dark brown background. Such colour solutions the depiction more expressive and the landscape -monumental and authentic.
Very often group of children’s portraits accompanied those landscapes.
She had started to paint children’s portraits already in her student years, which had its further development after her children’s birth: (“Little Svetlana”, 1938, “Svetik”, 1943, “Children of Khndzoresk”, 1962 (NGA collection), “Aramik”, 1958, “My Children”, 1959 (family collection), “Smiling Girl”, 1960). Native mountain scenes were revived and obtained freshness in simple peasant clothing and in children’s pure images (“The Curious”, sketch, 1955 (NGA)). Most important is here the artist’s true attitude towards both the depicted person and the landscape, which passes on to the viewers. Portraits of old women with honourable posture depicted in the background of mighty mountain landscapes excite special respect: (“Mother”, 1958, “Woman from Goris”, 1962, “Peasant Woman, 1957 (NGA collection)). Often a small detail, carelessly thrown pattern, kerchief, weak and tired pose of hands and concerned eyes of maternal wrinkled face got an expression of silent sorrow of a whole nation. There are not historic and thematic compositions in Arpenik’s art in contrast to Eduard Issabekian, who continued and developed best traditions of historical genre. Though works of the same kind (“Old Woman from Voskevaz”, 1958, “Yezidi Girl”, 1959, “Woman from Goris”, 1962) with a simplest pattern of national costume and harmonious colour juxtaposition without odd details not only revealed the delicate colourist, Arpenik Nalbandyan, though they also expressed historical implication.
Regardless of woman’s nationality, profession and occupation, she always made the core of the artist’s interests: (“Portrait of Hasmik”, 1957, “Portrait of a Romanian Woman”, 1948, ‘Portrait of Artist Aida Boyajian”, 1957, ‘Portrait of a Student”, 1962 (NGA collection), “Woman from Laos. Gurzuf”, 1961). These portraits give a clear view of the image of Armenian woman contemporary to the artist. They are depicted cheerful and energetic with tender and certain determined features. Portraits of men, mostly intelligences are fewer: sculptor Ara Harutiunyan, poet Hrachya Hovhannisyan, director Vardan Ajemyan, artist Khachik Yesayan, actor Mher Mkrtchyan…. Especially portrait of artist Khachik Yesayan stands out with interesting art solutions. The atmosphere saturated with light and air, depicted in light variations of impressionistic shade and colour and the landscape, hung in the background of Yesayan, make us be aware of the artist’s inner world, thus stressing up Nalbandyan’s professional skills.
Arpenik Nalbandyan also created many self-portraits (1938, 1946), “Self-portrait before the Mirror”, 1960 (family collection), 1946 (uncompleted, NGA) as well as the portrait of 1957 (family collection). These canvases are distinguished by clear and objective interpretation, by true depiction of own personality, free of idealization and fake. The portrait created in 1938 is one of the beginner-artist’s first self-portraits with light colour solutions and far serious look of the young age. The following works: the uncompleted canvas of the 1946, especially the portrait of 1957, depict a mature and established woman, an artist. The canvas of 1957 developed in bold strokes of active colours has a deep psychological sonority. The woman’s look is full of determination and certain resolute features. This is one of Nalbandyan’s portraits, which are more impressive. If the artist’s life did not sadly break off, the psychological series of these portraits might have its logical continuation. This is not the end of the artist’s creative life. During the 25 years of her creativity, she made about 300 paintings in own interpretation of realistic portraiture and landscape with new presentation of colour solutions and had her well-deserved place in Armenian art. The range of those picturesque compositions make the representation of Arpenik Nalbandyan’s interests and private life. Her life was a great devotion to the family, to her work, close relatives and friends. Such was Arpenik Nalbandyan in memories of the people who knew her. Such is she today in memories of her relatives, students and friends.
“Man lives and reaches a certain age and looks back to his passed life; therefore he evaluates and estimates and compiles what he has created, the heritage to be left after him… Unfortunately, Arpenik Nalbandyan did not have such an opportunity; she passed away at a very early age…”