Chookaszian Revives Artist Fetvadjian

by Lucine Kasbarian
February 12, 2013

BELMONT, Mass. - He documented monumental, now-vanished Armenian
architecture. He painted representations of our women in folkloric
dress. His reproductions launched public awareness of Armenian
manuscript illumination. He illustrated the creativity of Armenian
ornamental inscription and sculpture. And he designed the currency and
postage stamps of the First Republic of Armenia in a way that
celebrated our artistry and traditions. The man was Arshag Fetvadjian
(1866-1947), and through the meticulous research of eminent Armenian
art historian Levon Chookaszian, the global Armenian community and art
lovers alike have been given the opportunity to rediscover a true son
of the Armenian nation whose love of homeland highlighted nearly all
of his accomplishments as a leading Armenian artist and art historian
of the 19th century.

Arshag Fetvadjian
Chookaszian, founder and director of the UNESCO Chair of Armenian Art
History at Yerevan State University, has embarked on a lecture tour to
celebrate Fetvadjian and the release of his book about the art legend
(`Arshag Fetvadjian,' in English, Armenian and Russian, $75, Yerevan,
Armenia: Printinfo, 2011.) In an intimate, engaging, and inspiring
multi-media lecture, Chookaszian did justice to the many facets of
Fetvadjian the man and the diversity of his artistic aptitudes.

This event was held on Nov. 7 at the National Association of Armenian
Studies and Research's (NAASR) in conjunction with an exhibition of
Fetvadjian's work at the Armenian Library and Museum of America
(ALMA), a co-sponsor of the event.

Born in the Black Sea region of Trebizond, Fetvadjian, at age 16,
enrolled at the Imperial School of Fine Arts in Constantinople.
Graduating with high honors, he was awarded the school's `Rome Prize,'
which would allow him to study in Italy with the proviso that he
return to Turkey and accept a state position. As Chookaszian
explained, Fetvadjian turned down this prize on the recommendation of
a trusted advisor, Voskan Bey Mardikian.

Under the veil of anonymity, Mardikian bequeathed a sum for Fetvadjian
to pursue his art studies in Rome but advised him to never return to
Turkey. Instead, he urged Fetvadjian to go forth into the world and
promote the unsung greatness of a beleaguered Armenia through his art.

While in Italy, Fetvadjian `became inspired by the heroic spirit of
the Italians who were freed from Austrian control,' wrote Chookaszian
in his book. `That inspiration was essential for the formation of
artistic and political views of Fetvadjian.'

As was evident from the body of work he left behind, Fetvadjian was an
ardent defender of `hayabahbanoum,' or preservation of the Armenian
identity. `It was as if a voice from within was telling him to mark
out our national treasures on the ground,' said Chookaszian. And this
was with good reason, he continued, `as many if not most treasures did
not withstand the depredations of the genocide, nor was the Western
world aware of them.'

Fetvadjian's many illustrious colleagues included the father of
Armenian architectural historiography, Toros Toramanian, with whom
Fetvadjian studied the remains of medieval Armenian architectural
monuments, particularly at Ani, the famed Armenian city of 1,001
churches. Among Fetvadjian's best-known paintings is `Woman of
Sassoun,' a rifle-clad matron defending the Armenian highlands from
the Turkish onslaughts while suckling a child said to metaphorically
represent Armenia. Many elder Armenian-Americans will recall when
Fetvadjian was commissioned to create his magnificent painting of a
very Armenian-looking `Madonna and Child' that still graces the altar
of St. Illuminator's Armenian Cathedral in New York City. All in all,
Chookaszian's presentation made abundantly clear that Fetvadjian is to
be venerated for documenting and popularizing many aspects of our
ancient culture and customs through his works.

Even though Fetvadjian has been honored with two large exhibitions in
Yerevan, in the 1950's he was all but forgotten by the Soviet Armenian
authorities, and by extension, the natives of the land. Fetvadjian was
undoubtedly neglected in the Soviet era because of the patriotic
nature of his work and his close association with the first Republic
of Armenia. Had Fetvadjian's works been made available during Soviet
times, asserted Chookaszian, his paintings, research, reviews, and
documentation would have been able to influence and inform generations
of multi-disciplinary scholars, artists, and others, not only in
Armenia but the world over.

After studying and creating art around the world, Fetvadjian came to
New York to pursue his profession while living under spartan
conditions. Weary, depressed, and longing for his native land, he was
urged by Manuel Der Manuelian, one of the four consuls of the first
Republic of Armenia, to immigrate to Boston, where he lived for the
last 25 years of his life. Manuel's offspring, Vigen, Haig, and Lucy
Der Manuelian, were all deeply affected by Fetvadjian's presence as an
adoptive member of their family. This is greatly evidenced by the
accomplishments of all three children: Vigen and Haig pledged to open
a museum as a tribute to all that they had come to love about Armenia
and its people, resulting in their establishment of ALMA. And Lucy
became a prominent historian of Armenian art and architecture in her
own right.

Just as the government of Soviet Armenia in 1947 extended an
invitation for Fetvadjian to return and live in Armenia, he passed
away in Massachusetts, but not before packing up his life's work to
bequeath to the National Gallery of Armenia for safeguarding and
exposition. It was Levon Chookaszian's grandfather's cousin, Barkev
Chookaszian, who led the drive to return Fetvadjian's art, archive,
and human remains to Armenia.

While master artists such as Vartkes Sureniants and Krikor Khanjian
are roundly celebrated for capturing the imagination and reverence of
the Armenian people, we have visionary art historians such as
Chookaszian to thank for reinstalling Fetvadjian into our collective
memory and into the very same pantheon of illustrious Armenian
national artists.

Among their many other accomplishments, Levon Chookaszian and his
brother Karekin are to be thanked for initiating the Virtual Museum of
Armenian Art, a multimedia software series created to safeguard and
promote the endangered world of our Armenian art heritage.

The lavishly illustrated `Arshag Fetvadjian' book is available at
NAASR Bookstore in Belmont; at Abril, Sardarabad, and Berge Bookstores
in Los Angeles; and at Artbridge, Noyan Tapan, and Matenadaran
Bookstores in Yerevan, among others.