Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Armenian artist Galentz at Beirut Souks

Armenian artist Haroutin Galentz (Հարություն Կալենց
I am not much into art, unfortunately, despite a brother-in-law who was a painter and my avant-garde sister, Asma. But I tagged along with Asma and my friends Zepure and Yorki on Sunday (November 18) to a retrospective of the works of Armenian painter Haroutin Galentz at Beirut Souks.

Zepure grew up with the family in Tripoli, Lebanon, and was eager to see the exhibit and was also rewarded by a meeting with the painter’s son, Armen, who is in charge of the exhibit while it is in Beirut.

The retrospective is part of a travelling exhibition starting in Beirut before setting off to France and the U.S. next year.

It is being held at The Venue in Beirut Souks under the patronage of the Ministries of Culture of Armenia and Lebanon. It is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of Armenia and organized by the Galentz Museum and Solidere in association with the Armenian Embassy in Beirut.

The retrospective, titled Two Lives, is the first by the Armenian painter. It offers a rare view of Galentz’ earliest drawings and covers the Lebanon 1930s and 1940s chapter, the Armenian period of the late 1960s and the connection between them.

Seashore Beirut - 1925 (oil on cardboard)
Armenia’s Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosyan writes in a foreword of the exhibit’s catalogue: “…Haroutiun Galentz was one of those great and authentic artists against whom neither Turkish persecutors nor the Soviet authoritarian and tyrannical regime could fight. Moreover, those awful human and creative conditions gave birth to the incomparable art of Galentz, which had its great influence on the esthetical taste of the forthcoming generations…”

Wedding -- 1938 (gouache on paper, Galentz Museum)
Much of the details on the artist are from a chat with Armen Galentz and Alice Nersisyan of the Institute of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Sciences in Armenia and from the catalogue on sale at the exhibit.

The works on display include:
  • the early works of the artist dated 1926-1946 – the Lebanon period. There are bas-reliefs, sketches, caricatures, water colors, prints and oil paintings;
  • the bas-reliefs hall features those presented at the Lebanon pavilion at the World Expo in New York in 1933, among them the impressive and timeless seven-meter “Crafts of Lebanon.” Galentz was then awarded the Honorary Diploma of the High Commissioner of the Republic of Lebanon and the board of directors of the New York World Expo;
  • the 1942-1945 caricatures and posters showed for the first time. They were created for the French newspaper “En Route,” published during World War II; and
  • oil paintings from the Galentz Museum collection and some canvas from private collections in Beirut and Moscow.
Armen with 1959 oil on canvas of botanist Nora Gabrielian 
Galentz was born on Easter night -- March 27, 1910 -- in the small town of Gurun, in Sebastia vilayet of the Ottoman Empire, present day Turkey.

His father, Tiratur, owned a wool-dying factory, which left a profound impression on young Galentz with its vats of bright colors. The family was rather well off and the first five years of his life were those of a happy childhood.

In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, Galentz’ father was arrested by Turkish soldiers. He was never seen again. Galentz, his three brothers and mother joined the March and escaped to Aleppo. A few days after their arduous trek into the Syrian city, Galentz’ mother died of starvation and fatigue. Galentz would later describe it as “the death march through the desert, with sore and bloody feet, in tattered clothes, famished, miserable and barely alive…”
Garbage collectors -- 1926 (pencil on paper, Galentz Museum)
Galentz and his three brothers were sent to an orphanage for Armenian children. After the first three years, he left the orphanage and settled with his paternal uncle and became an apprentice at a calligrapher’s shop. He cultivated his passion for art and was encouraged by one of the orphanage sisters. He often escaped the orphanage to roam around the Aleppo markets and paint.
Galentz says Onnig Avedissian, an Armenian artist who for a couple of months taught the 13-year-old boy the basics of painting, was his only teacher.
In 1927, the artist moved to Tripoli, Lebanon, where his two older brothers then lived. There he met French artist Claude Michulet, his teacher at the Beirut Academy of Fine Arts, where he taught painting until 1939. They were devoted friends until Michulet’s death in 1942.
Kurdish women -- oil on canvas, Galentz Museum
In 1930, Galentz settled in Beirut. He contributed to Beirut’s artistic life, held solo exhibitions and received commissions from companies and individuals, which culminated in the bas-reliefs for the 1933 World Expo.
In 1938, he took into apprenticeship Armine Paronyan. They married in 1943. Armine became a prominent Armenian painter alongside her husband. They had a son, Armen, who I met at the exhibit.
But in 1946, despite his growing success in Beirut, Galentz decided to return to Armenia as soon as Diaspora Armenians were able to repatriate.
The first 10 years in his motherland were difficult and challenging. After being feted and recognized in Lebanon, the family received a plot of land on a rocky hill outside the city and Galentz had to build his own house. He found himself among hostile locals for whom the repatriates were strangers. He also had no clue about the Soviet reality. He was lonesome and poor.
Self-portrait with pipe -- 1942, Galentz Museum)
For many years, he had to make a modest living from occasional commissions and working for himself in his studio. He had no solo exhibition. Between 1946 and 1949 his works were exhibited only twice. The Union of Artists deemed his paintings formalistic and cosmopolitan and they called him a Western artist – labels which were akin to a death sentence under Stalin. He was expelled from the Union of Artists but readmitted in 1951.
His life changed in 1956 when famous physicist Artem Alikhanian, a prominent and influential founder of Armenia’s schools of physics, became a devoted friend, patron, admirer and relentless promoter of his art.
His only solo exhibition during his lifetime took place in 1962 at the Union of Artists in Armenia. Solitude and oblivion gave way to vivid interest in the unique artist. His paintings, studio and home became the center of gravity for creative people. Among his closest friends were Eleonora Gabrielian, a biologist; Levon Mkrtchian, a philologist; and Hayk Vardanian, a scriptwriter. Scientists, authors, actors, art critics from all over the Soviet Union and other parts of the world visited him.
In May 1967, at his artistic peak, Galentz died of a heart attack on a bright sunny day. He was posthumously awarded Armenia’s State Prize in 1967.

Galentz’ house in Yerevan is now a museum. His paintings are also in the collections of National Museum of Armenia (Yerevan), Republic of Armenia’s Cultural Ministry as well as private collections in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, New York, Paris, Vienna, Beirut, Aleppo, Cambridge, San Francisco, Los Angeles to list a few.
In 2010, Galentz’ renovated museum opened its doors in Yerevan to celebrate his centennial and I heard much about it from my cousin Lillian who had recently visited Armenia.
If you are in Beirut, I strongly recommend you spare an hour to go down to Beirut Souks and visit the exhibition. It is touching, compelling but soothing, vibrant and extremely impressive. You won’t regret it.
You can view more of the artists pictures at the exhibition here.