Monday, March 28, 2016

Birth of Arthur Pinajian (March 28, 1914)

"He painted every day but no one saw his art. He received no reviews and not one of his paintings or works on paper ever was shown in a New York gallery or museum," has said art historian Peter Hastings Falk, who is the curator of his works.

The story of obscure Armenian-American artist Arthur Pinajian stands out as one of those many cases, like Vincent Van Gogh, who became posthumously (re)discovered. He was a secret artist who painted for himself for years, and no one seemed to have noticed it.

Ashod (Arthur) Pinajian was born on March 28, 1914 in Union City, New Jersey, in a family of workers. He was a precocious youngster who excelled in school and skipped grades. At the same time, he showed excellent skills in drawing. He graduated in 1930, during the Great Depression, and took a clerical job to support his family, since his father was out of a job. His mother passed away two years later, and he moved his father and sister to Long Island.

Pinajian started drawing comic strips, and he was hired as a freelance cartoonist by Lud Shabazian, a reporter-illustrator at the New York Daily News. He took some lessons at the Art Students League and became a pioneer in comic book creation, being active from the late 1930s throughout the 1950. He worked on many titles and features of Centaur Publications in the 1930s, including “Captain Juan,” “Egbert the Great,” and “Tim Roberts,” and subsequently joined Funnies, Inc. He also drew characters for Fiction House, Fox Comics, Lev Gleason Publications, and Timely Comics. Pinajian created the characters Madame Fatal and the Invisible Hood (also known as Hooded Justice and Invisible Justice) for Quality Comics, and worked on Western stories for Atlas/Marvel in the 1950s.

He served in the U.S. Army in World War II and earned the Bronze Star Medal for valor. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he was able to take lessons at the Art Students League and was drawn to the works of old and modern art masters, and endlessly roamed through the Manhattan museums and art galleries. 

For the last 26 years of his life, Pinajian devoted his life completely to art, living in a tiny room. No articles were written about him; one couple at the opening reception of his exhibition in March 2003 related how they had purchased a figurative painting many years ago from the artist for a mere $100, “so that Pinajian could have money to purchase paint for his work.” He struggled financially and relied on his secretary sister, Armen, for support. The siblings lived together most of their lives and neither married.

When Pinajian passed away on August 18, 1999, his art, which had been stored in his garage, was left to be destroyed at his request. His wishes were ignored, and they remained gathering dust and mold. Two years after the death of his sister (2005), his artistic works would see the light of day. Investors Thomas Schultz and Larry Joseph purchased the ramshackle bungalow in Bellport, New York in 2007, hoping to renovate it. The majority of Pinajian’s work was found stacked up in the one-car garage and attic of the property. Along with the art were found his journals, many letters, and sketch books that spanned the 50 years of his creative life.

The buyers paid an extra $2,500 for the art collection and set about restoring it. The pieces included abstract expressionist paintings, landscapes, sketches from the Second World War, illustrations for 1930s comic books, and images from the 1960 Woodstock artist colonies. In all, there were more than 3,000 paintings, drawings and illustrations. 

At the first gallery exhibit in March 2013, one painting sold for $100,000, the highest price paid for one of Pinajian's paintings so far. Schultz is the full-time registrar, while Falk, the director of exhibitions, has valued the collection at around 30 million dollars.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Inauguration of the Arpa-Sevan Tunnel (March 21, 1981)

Lake Sevan is one of the few high-mountain fresh water lakes in the world. It originally had a surface of 1,416 square kilometers at an elevation of 1,916 meters (the second highest lake in the world after Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivia-Peru border, in South America).

Only 1/12 of the more than 1,300,000 cubic meters annually entering the lake from rivers, streams, and precipitation flowed out through the Hrazdan River. The bulk of the entering water evaporated and vast areas of the Ararat plain remained unused due to the lack of moisture.

The tunnel during construction in 1973.

The idea of increasing the outflow of the lake had been put forth since the beginning of the twentieth century. The free flow from the lake would increase more than six times if more than 80 per cent of the lake surface was drained. This would suffice to irrigate almost 250,000 acres of surface of the Ararat plain. The 1,000 meter drop between the lake and the plain would be used for the generation of electricity through the construction of a cascade of hydroelectric stations on the Hrazdan River.

The work on the Sevan-Hrazdan irrigation-power complex, with six stations, started in 1933, in the period of rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union headed by Joseph Stalin. The first power station was opened in 1936. The complex was the only real source of power supply in Armenia, and until 1962 its hydroelectric stations generated almost 90 per cent of all electrical power in the country.

However, the ecological condition of the lake underwent tangible changes and vast degradation due to reduced water level and detrimental impact of human activity on the biological diversity of the lake. Due to the water level decrease, the quality of the water deteriorated and natural habitats were destroyed. In the 1950s it had become evident that the ecological and economic consequences of extensive exploitation of the lake were too undesirable to continue in the same way.

The interconnection of the power grids of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in the 1960s helped reduce the demand of energy from Armenia, and the construction of thermal powers started, due to the arrival of gas from Azerbaijan.

The level of Lake Sevan had been reduced by 18 meters due to the loss of water and the surface had become 1,242 square kilometers (the Sevan island has become a peninsula due to this severe reduction), and a plan to solve the issue was put in place. As a result, the release of water was reduced to 500 million cubic meters per year, of which 380 million was intended for irrigation and the rest for reserve of the power system. Two steps of the Vorotan River cascade of hydroelectric stations were put into operation in 1978, and the generation of power from the lake was totally stopped. The Sevan-Hrazdan cascade was reconverted into an irrigation operation.

This was not enough to stop the drainage of the lake water. For this reason, one priority was to divert to the lake an annual amount of 250 million cubic meters of water from the Arpa River, which would be enough, together with the lake’s own hydro resources, to stabilize its level.

The construction of the Arpa-Sevan tunnel, which would ensure the flow of the river to the waters, was no small engineering feat. It would cross 49 kilometers (30 miles), drilling through the mountains that surrounded the lake. The tunnel was inaugurated on March 21, 1981. In 2010 the tunnel received the name of “Arpa-Sevan tunnel named after Hakob Zarobian,” in memory of the Armenian republican leader from 1960-1966 who had been instrumental in the construction of the tunnel.

The tunnel during its reconstruction in 2004.
However, it is important to note that, since the water level in the lake did not rise as fast and as much, a month later the Council of Ministers of the former Soviet Union passed a resolution to build the Vorotan-Arpa tunnel to complement the work already done. This second tunnel is 21.6 kilometers (almost 14 miles). The Karabagh conflict and the earthquake of 1988 halted the construction, which was later resumed. The tunnel was finally inaugurated on April 26, 2004, bringing an additional 165 million cubic meters to the lake annually.

The water level of Lake Sevan began rising significantly after the second tunnel was completed. It was reported in 2007 that the water level had risen by 2.44 meters in the previous six years and reached 1900.04 meters in October 2010. The government committee on Sevan has predicted that it will reach 1903.5 by 2029.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Birth of Yeghishe Charents (March 13, 1897)

The most famous names of Armenian poetry in the twentieth century were victims either of genocide (Taniel Varoujan and Siamanto), political repression (Yeghishe Charents), or car accident (Paruyr Sevak). Among them, Charents was probably the brightest star in the Armenian literary sky.

Portrait of Yeghishe Charents by Martiros Saryan.
A memorial sculpture of Charents in central Yerevan.

Yeghishe Soghomonian, the future poet, was born in Kars, on March 13, 1897. His parents had moved there from Maku, in Iran, and had seven children. After his elementary studies at the Russian or Armenian parochial school, he studied in the royal school of the city from 1908-1912, but he did not graduate. The young Yeghishe published his first poem in 1912 and his first book, Three Songs to the Sad Girl, dedicated to his girlfriend Astghik Kondakjian, in 1914. Here he adopted the pseudonym of Charents (Armenian char “bad”), for which there are various contradictory explanations.

In August 1915, at the age of eighteen, Charents enrolled himself in the Armenian volunteer corps of the Russian army, and fought in the Caucasian battlefront against the Ottoman army until the end of the year. His war experiences gave birth to his first relevant work, the poem Dante-esque legend, published in 1916.

In 1916-1917 Charents was in Moscow, where he studied at the Shaniavski Popular University. After the October Revolution, he returned to the Caucasus and first participated in the civil fights in the Northern Caucasus. His experiences were the basis for one of his most important poems, The Frenzied Masses, published in 1918. After the liberation of Kars from Turkish occupation, he became a teacher in one of the villages of the Kars district in 1919.

Nikol Aghbalian, Minister of Education of the first Republic of Armenia and a well-known literary critic, lectured in October 1919 on Charents with a very positive outlook. In January 1920 he became an official at the ministry until June, when he left after participating in the Bolshevik demonstrations of May 1. After the establishment of the Soviet regime, he entered the Communist Party and was designated head of the Art section of the Commissariat of Education. During the February 1921 rebellion, he fought as a soldier in the Red Army.

In June 1921 he married Arpenik Ter Astvatzatrian and they departed together for Moscow, where they studied at the University for Workers of the Orient. In 1922 he published his collected works in two volumes and returned to Yerevan, where he would become a leading name in the efforts to modernize Armenian poetry and in the different literary movements, while publishing poems and collections of poetry. From 1921-1924 he also wrote his novel Land of Nayiri, first published serially and then as a book (1926). In 1924-1925 he traveled abroad and visited Istanbul, Rome, Venice, Paris, and Berlin.

In September 1926 Charents was involved in a criminal incident when he shot and slightly wounded a young girl whom he had fallen in love with. In November he was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment, later reduced to three, in the House of Correction (prison) of Yerevan, and previously he was expelled from the Communist Party. This situation coincided with the death of his wife Arpenik on January 2, 1927, at the age of twenty-eight, due to an extra-uterine pregnancy. Charents was freed on humanitarian grounds, given his extremely fragile psychological condition, and sent to mandatory treatment at a sanatorium.

From 1928-1935 the poet worked at the Armenian State Publishing House and developed a prolific editorial program, including the publication of new writers and Armenian classics, as well as translations. After a kidney surgery in Moscow (1929), he developed the use of morphine, which he would continue until the end of his life.

In 1931 he married Isabela Niazova, and they would have two daughters, Arpenik and Anahit. Literary and political pressure over him, as well as on the best representatives of the Armenian intelligentsia was mounting. In 1933 Charents’ most important collection of poetry, The Book of the Road, was forbidden before publication. It was released in 1934 only after the poet excluded several works that had been questioned. In this year, he participated in the First Congress of Soviet Writers, held in Moscow.

His downfall started in 1935, when he was fired from his job, expelled from the Writers Union of Armenia, and interrogated several times at the Ministry of Internal Affairs on trumped-up charges of being a terrorist. The assassination of Aghasi Khanjian, First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party and his friend and protector, on July 9, 1936, covered up by Joseph Stalin’s henchman Laurenti Beria, First Secretary of the Party in Transcaucasia, as a “suicide,” unleashed the political persecution against Armenian intellectuals. Many writers and intellectuals were arrested on July and August 1936, and they would be shot, exiled to Siberia, or sentenced to years in a wave of terror that continued until 1938-1939. Charents was subjected to house arrest in September 1936, his books were retired from libraries and bookstores, and the publication of his works was stopped.

The poet was finally imprisoned on July 1937. His wife would follow the same fate (she was deported to Kazakhstan for five years in 1938), and their children would be placed in an orphanage as “enemies of the people.” Charents, gravely ill, passed away in the hospital of the Yerevan prison on November 27, 1937. His body was buried in an unmarked grave and the exact place of his tomb remains unknown.

Charents was rehabilitated after the death of Stalin, and his name became extremely popular among youngsters and adults. His works have been published many times, and statues, streets and a museum perpetuate his name in Armenia.

Charents is featured on the 1000 dram bill of the Republic of Armenia's currency.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Opening of the “Djemaran” of Hamazkayin (March 3, 1930)

The Hamazkayin Cultural and Educational Union was founded in 1928 in Egypt. One of its main goals was to promote education among Armenians in the Diaspora.

Less than two years after the creation of Hamazkayin, the Armenian College (Hay Djemaran) was opened in a rented building in Beirut, on Kantari Street, with fifteen students. It was March 3, 1930. In the fall of the same year, when the academic year 1930-1931 started, the number of student had quadrupled, becoming 63.

The first school building.

Levon Shant
The goal of the Djemaran (an institution of secondary education) was to offer general education to the new generation, with an emphasis on Armenian education, language, and culture, and prepare the next generation of Armenian intellectuals. The first principal of the school was the noted writer, educator, and public figure Levon Shant (1869-1951), with the collaboration of another noted literary critic, educator, and public figure, Nikol Aghbalian (1873-1947).
Nikol Aghbalian
The Djemaran soon moved to a more ample and comfortable building on the street Wadi Abu Gemil, until the donation of the Palandjian sisters and the fundraisers in the United States allowed the purchase of a property in the area of Zokak el Blat, which was inaugurated in May 1950. The Djemaran took the name of Nshan Palandjian, a founding member of Hamazkayin in Syria and the late brother of the donors.

After the death of Levon Shant in 1951, the position of principal was taken by Simon Vratzian (1882-1969), writer, editor, and last prime minister of the first Republic of Armenia. He was assisted by the writer Mushegh Ishkhan (1913-1990) and educator Karnig Panian (1910-1989) as vice principals. The second and third buildings of the Djemaran were built in 1953 and 1957.

Vratzian fell ill and Hratch Dasnabedian replaced him as principal in fall of 1968. New floors were added to the three buildings to accommodate the growing number of students.

The student body passed 1,000 in the academic year 1974-1975, and the space of the school was insufficient, despite constructions and additions. The Central Board of Hamazkayin decided to build a new school complex and a large piece of property was purchased in the area of Mezher. However, the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 initially slowed down all projects, and forced important changes. The internal movement of the Armenian population in Beirut was followed by the division of the student body in two buildings. Together with the headquarters, part of the student body was relocated for two years in Dubbaya and afterwards, for eight years, at the Shaghzoyan Center in Bourj Hammoud (the current headquarters of the Aztag Daily), which became a six-floor building.

The war, however, did not stop the project. Construction of the Mezher complex started in 1986. Thanks to the huge donation of Melankton Arslanian, followed after his death by his brother Haig Arslanian, as well as donations flowing from Lebanon and other countries (especially Kuwait and the Gulf States), the first two buildings of the complex were built, the same as the Norsigian Kindergarten thanks to the homonymous will.

The campus today.

The Djemaran moved to its new building in 1987 and the grand opening was held in the fall of 1988. The small kindergarten and elementary school remaining at the historical building of the Nshan Palandjian Djemaran were also moved in 2001, and the entire school was reunified in the Melankton and Haig Arslanian Djemaran. Currently, the school has three sections: pre-nursery and nursery, for 1-3 year old children; the Norsigian Kindergarten (three years), and the school proper, with elementary, primary, junior high, and high school sections.

After the death of Hratch Dasnabedian in April 2001 and a short tenure by a three-member Executive Council, the position of principal was entrusted to Dikran Jinbashian, with a current student population of 700 children.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Death of Toros Toramanian (March 1, 1934)

A portrait of Toramanian by Martiros Sarian.
The scientific study of Armenian architecture has reached important milestones since the early twentieth century. One name is to be remembered as its pioneer: Toros Toramanian.

Toramanian was born on March 18, 1864 in the city of Shabin-Karahisar, in Western Armenia. (One year later, another famous Armenian would be born there: General Antranig.) He attended the local Armenian schools, and at the age of fourteen, he lost his parents. In 1884 he left for Constantinople to pursue higher education. After working for two years as a mason and stone worker, he approved the entrance exam of the School of Fine Arts and studied architecture from 1886 to 1893.

He graduated in 1893, but he had not begun his career yet, when he was forced to leave the city due to the massacres ordained by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. After going to Belgium, he then moved to Sofia and Varna, in Bulgaria, where he built several public and residential buildings. He went to Romania in 1900, and then visited Egypt, Italy, and Greece.

Toramanian settled in Paris in 1902, where he deepened his knowledge on history of architecture at the Sorbonne. There he met Garabed Basmajian, director of the journal Banaser, whom he already knew from Constantinople. They put together the project of a mission to Ani in order to study the monuments of the capital of the Bagratuni Kingdom. They traveled in 1903, and discovered that the task was immense, and their means were very limited. Basmadjian returned to Paris to collect the necessary funds, and Toramanian remained alone in Ani, but he never obtained any financial assistance.
The ruins of a church in Ani.
He wintered in Ani, in extremely difficult conditions. In an article on the church of Zvartnots published in 1905, he wrote: “I decided to stay and work in Ani to save from oblivion the remnants of the glorious past of our great people in order to be able to show them to the whole world.”

Toramanian had meanwhile participated in the excavations of Zvartnots, near Etchmiadzin, in the spring of 1904. He made a detailed study of the remaining pieces of the church, destroyed by an earthquake in the ninth century, and examined one by one all of them. This archaeological approach, quite unusual for the time, allowed him to propose the model of reconstruction of the circular church of Zvartnots that we know today.

The remains of Zvartnots Cathedral near the airport named after it in Armenia.
In 1904 Professor Nicolas Marr, from the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg, made his second campaign of excavations in Ani. Toramanian joined his team, and had the opportunity to study many monuments of the former Armenian capital, as well as of the surroundings, including the monasteries of Horomos, Tekor, and Bagnayr. In 1905-1906 the team of Marr discovered the remnants of the church of Gagikashen in Ani. Moreover, the finding of the statue of its builder, King Gagik I of Ani, holding the model of the church, confirmed Toramanian’s reconstruction of the circular church of Zvartnotz with three floors.

The architect continued his association with Marr at Ani and made various publications in Armenian journals, and became well-known in scholarly circles. In 1913 he was invited to Vienna by the famous Austrian art historian Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941) to give lectures on Armenian art, particularly about Ani. They had projected a joint work on the subject, based on the documents and materials that Toramanian had gathered. Afterwards, Toramanian accompanied Strzygowski on a brief trip in Armenia, and promised to complete the documentation for the joint publication.

The beginning of World War I made it impossible for Toramanian to travel back to Austria to continue work on the publication. In 1918, however, the cover of the two-volume Die Baukunst die Armenier und Europa (The Art of the Armenians and Europe), which would engage specialists of European medieval art in heated debates, only had Strzygowski’s name on it, with Toramanian reduced to the role of an informant. Besides, he had lost most of his archives and unpublished works during the Ottoman invasion of Armenia in 1918, followed by the flee of his family from Alexandropol to Tiflis, including a dictionary of Armenian architecture, a comparative study of Byzantine and Armenian architecture, and a study on the history of Armenian funerary monuments.

After the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, Toramanian became one of the founding members of the Committee for the Maintenance of Monuments. He created the Department of Architecture of the State Museum of Armenia, which he directed for two years. He passed away on March 1,1934, and his archives provided the material for the two-volume Materials for the History of Armenian Architecture, posthumously published in 1942 and 1948.