Tuesday, 20 August

Artist Tigran Asatryan: “You must endure the best you can and not get up and leave”

The tea kettle is boiling. Above the stove, there’s a photo of an old woman selling gata.

Welcome to the art studio of Tigran Asatryan in Yerevan.

Kindness and sadness, everyday concerns, combine as one in the old woman’s gaze. It’s hard to understand what she is thinking. There’s a photo of a woman from Tatev selling pears affixed to the fridge.

Asatryan’s paintings run the gamut – early renaissance, baroque, Russian avant-garde, etc. The latter has had a great influence on his works. Asatryan has no idols, but, he confesses that he adores Botticelli. Asatryan says, “When you see Michelangelo’s David, you’ll understand how great the man is.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Asatryan takes the guitar from the chair and places it on the couch. He says he plays it well. When I ask what line of work he would have gotten into other than painting, the artist says he would have become a guitarist.

“Now, I can’t say I should give up painting and start playing the guitar. It would be treasonous. You must dedicate yourself to something. Painting relaxes me. I’ll probably die with a paint brush in my hand. It’s a blissful thing, like a soldier on the battlefield,” he says with a smile.

Is your art studio a place where you escape from reality?

It’s perhaps a desire to be alone. It’s something we loved as kids, right? To be alone, to do something on the sly, so that mom or grandma don’t see.

What did you like to do as a child?

I liked to paint when I was alone. I would try to come up with excuses not to go to school in the first and second grades. I wanted to stay home and paint. Sure, coming to the studio is a bit of an escape when you’re with your paintings. In addition, it’s where I work. Every day, on the way back home, I must know what I did during the day; that the day just didn’t pass eventless. I’m not even talking about the healthy times…I had no time to sit. When I did, I’d smoke and say – wow, this is great. When I left the hospital, they told me not to work, to climb so many stairs. But I came to the studio after the third or fourth day and painted a large canvas. You create in the studio; like it or not. You are with your thoughts and you talk to your god. It’s convenient. We’re on a high floor,” Asatryan jokes and we laugh. 

You said you started painting as a child. Why did you decide to express yourself via color?

First, color is an attitude. See how agreeable the colors ofautumn are. I love to walk the streets of Yerevan. I love our city.

In my childhood, I tried to paint things as they were. For example, children paint with their fingers – houses, the sun, etc. That’s not how I painted. As a kid, I loved to paint horses. I pleaded with my mother to help. She was from Tiflis, a Russian language teacher.

Was there a time when you thought that you wouldn’t make it as a painter? Did you meet difficulties along the way?

There was no such period. Speaking about my childhood, I would jump out of bed in the mornings, without getting dressed, to see what I painted the evening before. My aunt would call me to breakfast, but I’d say, no. Then, I went to the Shahumyan Pioneer Palace. My first teacher was Sergei Stepanyan. They called him ‘circus Serozh’ because he’d paint the large posters for the circus during the Soviet era. Many painters had nicknames.

Did you have a nickname?

I could I not have one? When I studied at the Yerevan Panos Terlemezyan Art School, they’d call me ‘tchuto’ because I was kind of short. (Tchutik in Armenian means pinky).

Even though I’m about to turn fifty, there might be some still around who remember. By the way, I was studying sculpture at the Pioneer Palace. 

But you didn’t chose sculpture…

No, painting was more attractive.

You’ve done many portraits. Is reading a person easy?

You can read a person from the first glance. For me, I don’t have to sit down and break bread with somebody to understand them. A human is a powerful thing. Just look at the statue of David and you’ll be convinced.

There is sadness and grief in almost all your portraits. Are humans generally sad?

That’s how I am. For isn’t it true that a painter transfers certain personal qualities to the canvas? An artist can’t see this world, not particularly happy or rose-colored, as something superficial. Sometimes, there is something beautiful even in longing.

Why is it sad? Why does it grieve?

It probably grieves for many things. Look at this painting, the conversation between a man and a chicken. One hears doleful music. It’s a semi-sorrowful place, no? So is nature, and the colors have an effect. Longing, for example, is a character for me and not a color than can appear before me. It intensifies when living in foreign lands. Imagine that Bach’s music is heard at that moment. It all melds and becomes a painting. This is what makes life beautiful; the happiness and the sorrow. For doesn’t spring follow winter?

An artist must come out onto the street and struggle. How do you explain this approach of yours?

An artist is also a citizen, and very sincere. The grandma selling pears in Tatev or the old woman selling gata in Geghard. This is my vision. There is a very vulnerable social class in the country. I can’t remain indifferent. Via my art, I try to raise certain issues with the higher-ups. I’m preparing a such a series when I finish my work. Sadly, I don’t work as fast as I used to. But I’ll get the series read; slowly but surely. 

How do you know when your art has gotten those issues heard at the top?

The series I will be working on must be more extensive. Then, I’ll know the extent to which it has reached where it must. Nevertheless, I believe it will speak to someone. I’m talking about the officials. The satiated person cannot understand the hungry person. I want to show the underdog. I can’t stand it when a person who has everything looks down on others.

Don’t you think people don’t see all this?

Of course they see it. They are just indifferent. It’s human nature. People with a warm home and food to eat aren’t interested in those that go without. Their advice is that they should work and make a living. We all know the problems facing this country.

I go to work twice a week and receive a monthly salary of 24,000 AMD ($50 – MM). That isn’t important. It’s kind of like my good deed. I pay to take students for art sketches since the government doesn’t.

What do you say when someone starts complaining about life in Armenia, advising you to leave the country?

Where should I go? This is my homeland.

I was in Qatar for six weeks, working on a large canvas for the local museum. I got homesick for Armenia. I can’t stay away for long. Anywhere you go, you’re a stranger. Isn’t it better to live at home? I know it’s difficult for all of us, but we must overcome the difficulties and not flee. You must endure the best you can and not get up and leave.

Photos: Narek Aleksanyan


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