Ara Sarkissian is considered the founder of Soviet Armenian sculpture.
He was born in the suburb of Makrikeuy, near Constantinople, on April 7, 1902. He studied at the local Dadian School, and after 1914, when his family moved to the neighborhood of Pera, in the city, he attended the Essayan School. After working menial jobs during the war to make some money, he studied at the local Art School from 1919-1921 and then he moved to Rome to continue studies there, but after half year he entered the Vienna School of Masters (1921-1924). In both schools he already showed progress in sculpture, and the impact of World War I and the Armenian Genocide leaned him towards tragic subjects.
Still a student, in 1921-1922 he collaborated in Rome, Vienna, and Berlin in the logistics of the Operation Nemesis, at a time when the liquidations of former Ottoman Prime Minister Said Halim pasha and genocidaires Behaeddin Shakir and Jemal Azmi were being planned. Sarkissian appears as A.S. in the Armenian original of Arshavir Shiragian’s memoirs (1965), although his mention has been eliminated in the English translation.
In 1924 Sarkissian was granted Soviet citizenship in Vienna and the next year he settled in Yerevan, where he would live the rest of his life. In 1926 he organized the Soviet Armenian chapter of the Association of Painters of Revolutionary Russia and was elected its president. Six years later he became the founding president of the Painters Union of Armenia until 1937. In 1945 he became the founding director of the Institute of Art of Yerevan (now the Art Academy of Yerevan) until 1959, and later he was head of chair and director of the atelier until his death.
In the 1920s and 1930s Sarkissian’s busts of Armenian writers and intellectuals were characterized by their expressiveness. During World War II, he sculpted busts of Armenian soldiers and various patriotic compositions. One of his best works, the statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Sergei Kirov, was installed in Kirovakan (formerly Gharakilise) in 1942, but after the fall of the Soviet regime and the renaming of Kirovakan into Vanadzor, it was retired in 1992. During his life he participated in many exhibitions in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Moscow.
In 1949 he was elected corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Arts and became a full member in 1958. In 1963 he earned the title of People’s Artist of the USSR.
Sarkissian’s most recognizable works are the statues of Hovhannes Tumanian and Alexander Spendiarian in front of the Yerevan Opera House (1957), which he co-authored with Ghugas Chubarian, and the statues of Mesrob Mashdots and Sahak Bartev in the courtyard of the main building of Yerevan State University.
Ara Sarkissian's participation in the Operation Nemesis and his involvement with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation had remained unknown in Soviet Armenia for obvious political reasons. However, in the last years it has been disclosed that his dismissal from the post of director of the Institute of Art in 1959 was due to the fact that he had a brother in Greece who was an A.R.F. leader and whom he met that year in Brussels. It is suspected that his sudden death on June 13, 1969, two days after being discharged from the hospital after a surgery for a broken foot, was linked to the previous discovery that the sculptor had been involved in the Operation Nemesis four decades before.
Ara Sarkissian was posthumously awarded the USSR State Prize (1971). The two-floor house that he shared with painter Hakob Kojoyan became a house-museum dedicated to both artists in 1973.