Ruben Shaverdian, the doyen of Armenian artists, has a distinct style of his own, gifted and temperamental; he feels equally at home in painting and pottery.
Shaverdian was born in the Georgian town of Signakhi in 1900, but soon his family moved to Tiflis (now Tbilisi) where he lived until 1941. Almost magical fascination of this city where the artist spent half of his life left a significant imprint on the content and subject matter of his paintings and pottery. There was much to fire his imagination in the Tiflis at the turn of the century, full of care-free, merry-making kintos, with a long tradition of street festivals, with feasting, dancing and singing.
Shaverdian completed his education in 1924, and from 1926 on his works constantly appear at all Tiflis art exhibitions. His very first paintings proclaim his love for the decorative in art. In the spirited atmosphere of the city’s artistic life, he soon associated himself with Aiartun, a Tiflis society of Armenian poets, painters and writers. Shaverdian always remembered these first years of his independent work with particular warmth and enthusiasm. He was very musical and had a beautiful tenor voice. His love of music prompted him to become a professional singer, so that at one time he sang solo parts at the Tiflis Opera House. At first, his artistic talent found its outlet with equal ease both in music and in painting, but later he abandoned music for the art of form, colour, pattern, and rhythm. Yet ever since, the theatre and music had a place in his art, moreover, his talent may be summed up as essentially theatrical. That is why he employs theatrical devices fairly often in his works, while the rhythms compositionally uniting his objects and human figures are akin to musical rhythms. His pottery figurines make one think of personages in a play; they have a toyish element in them, but this toyishness is one of the theatre. The artist’s skill to adapt to the conventions of the theatre can be felt both in his dancing ceramic figurines and in his jugs and vases, in the candlesticks which, with a little imagination, will come to life in a silent dance.
The artist’s style is unmistakably Oriental, reminiscent of life and art of the Ancient Orient. Rhythmic movements of his ceramic figurines have a suggestion of the plastic art of India, Arabia and medieval Persian miniatures. The exotic in Shaverdian’s art is deeply rooted in the very nature of the ancient art of pottery.
The artist happily combines the boundless fantasy of folklore and the virtuoso technique of a professional. He displays his artistic freedom and taste, for instance in the matter of costume
— in his opinion, one of the most enduring form of folk art. Sometimes, Shaverdian consciously exaggerated the decorative elements of the costume, but even deliberately invented details do not contradict the imagery of his one-figure or multifigured compositions.
Some of his miniature sculptures are made to resemble similar articles of folk art. Such are his agamans, or salt-cellars, much used in Armenian homes; traditionally, these were shaped as female figures. Figurines of children holding birds are also characteristic of folk art. Turning to such fairy-tale characters as Kery-Toros and Brave Nazar, Shaverdian conjugates the folklore world of wisdom, slyness and tomfoolery with the imagery of the professional plastic art. His works show sound knowledge of the national style, this hardly definable element which cannot be reduced solety to manner or form.
Both in his pottery and paintings, Shaverdian frequently addresses himself to everyday life — we see women baking lavash bread, fetching water from the spring, spinning, weaving or hurrying to the market. Yet these customary scenes are shown by the artist in a way as to reveal the hidden beauty and triumphant joy of life.
His miniatures are not credible, rather, they are artistic generalizations, due to the artist’s masterful selection of details.
A series of Armenian landscapes appeared as a response to his impressions of Armenia, where he moved in 1941. None of these pictures is a simple reflection of Nature as it is. Shaverdian transmutes the plein air elements so that they become subordinated to the decorative principle. The brilliant light in his paintings does not allow for half-tints, his objects do not throw shadows, and every colour is at its brightest. The nature and life seem to be dazzled by light.
Shaverdian loves to dwell on his motifs, often transferring them from paintings into his ceramic works — individual figures and even groups of figures in his paintings have so much concentrated plasticity, that any part of his picturesque world if divorced from the painting may go on as a composition in ceramics.
Shaverdian’s favourite subject is the Armenian woman, a loving mother surrounded by children. With jocular exaggeration he renders her love for the children and her considerable housekeeping talents. The faces of large-eyed girls are more like masks, they regard the world with artless simplicity. The distortion of their plastic proportions lends them a peculiar harmony, bringing to mind the design of bowls from the ancient Armenian fortress of Ani, or miniatures from medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Shaverdian has a distinctive style of his own in painting porcelain dishes or lacquer miniatures.
For over half a century, Ruben Shaverdian has been associated with the development of art in Soviet Armenia. His inspiration came from old Tiflis, and later from Armenia rich in the national artistic tradition, which the artist interpreted in his own complicated manner. In his works, the styles and sources are an easy guess, and establish immediate associations with far- off periods of Armenian culture. The artist’s talent is full of gaiety and lyricism, showing a keen sense of humour and an amazing awareness of colour and form.
Among Shaverdian’s ceramics, plastic reliefs are rare. They might be mistaken for an intermediate phase between his ceramic sculptures and his canvases, and this, perhaps, is the reason why the artist uses this traditional type of ceramics sparingly. Nevertheless, each ceramic relief shows the understanding of specific aims and the mastery of techniques pertaining to this aspect of ceramics.
Two small ceramic figurines, Youth with a Jar and Rider, capture the intensive motion — a relatively infrequent occasion for Shaverdian. The movement is not spectacular: he chose the moment of easy, soft grace for the youth, and his supple-backed rider seems to merge into one with his horse. The form is moulded freely the smooth line is perfectly expressive of the stylized motif.
In old Tiflis, kintos were invariably found in the thick of every incident, scandal or a noisy scene in the street. In the daytime a kinto works like a beaver, fishing or selling fruit and other things from door to door, but in the evening he makes merry. The kintos are witty and artistic, simple and cunning, well-proportioned and smart. Their bright baggy trousers testify to their independent spirit and their stubborn loyalty to the folk tradition. The peculiar attire of the kinto does not hide the structure of his movement, his characteristic silhouette, his gait and his gestures full of inborn dignity.
The kintos drawn and modelled by Shaverdian are aglow with attractive humour. Each of them is a microcosm of the provincial life in Tiflis which has become only a memory now.
Sometimes Shaverdian encloses his compositions in a circle, underlining in this way their lyrical and musical qualities. This is particularly true of The Meal where the arrangement of the figures, even to the inclination of the head and the graceful curve of the arm, is entirely subordinated to the round shape of the ornamental wall-plate.
Partaking of this repast we see nearly every character, glorified or ridiculed in the once popular comedies of everyday life. It is the same authentic theatre of home life, save that it is painted or modelled in clay, yet it has the unmistakeable atmosphere and the outward expressiveness of the theatre.
Shaverdian’s balanced compositions reveal his extraordinary sensitivity to the decorative. This device is used to convey yet another feature of the Oriental temperament, and another aspect of the Oriental life, so dear to the artist’s heart — the longing for beauty and happiness embodied in artistic images.
For a long time Shaverdian worked equally hard at the fine arts and the music. Apart from the inborn talent for music, his musical studies were much encouraged by the whole tenor of life in Tiflis where dance and music were regarded as higher forms of art.
The favourite themes of dance and music run throughout Shaverdian’s art. The ashug (poet and singer in the Caucasus) is pouring out his poetic inspiration.
Shaverdian’s dancers and players do not smile, they are serious and thoughtful.
Puffing out their cheeks, the zurna-players pipe a shrill tune, the duduk sings out a plaintive melody, the drums and tambourines are rolling in rhythmic frenzy.
The artist captures the exact atmosphere in which these ceramic duets and trios exist, completely absorbed in music — the musicians and dancer froze, spell-bound, released from everyday cares by the slow, long-drawn out sounds. Each of these sculptured or painted miniatures asserts, in its own way, the steady rhythm of the Oriental life, work and leisure.
Tamasha is an original show, the wonder of Tiflis streets. Little groups of acrobats and tightrope walkers used to give performances right in the city square or in a courtyard, and the spectators would gather from all nearby houses.
Shaverdian makes this into a moving story in his composition, Tamasha, although many things are naturally left out, being beyond the plastic expression. The complex active silhouette, the reliable stability of the composition and all its plastic vibrancy tell us that the artist genuinely admires the skill and art of the merry clowns. Each little figure is funny, yet graceful, the tiny legs sticking up and the goggle-eyed faces reflect the indulgent smile of their creator at the coarse buffoonery of the popular taste.
Shaverdian’s plastic imagery determines the character of his ornamental ceramic pieces, and he has a distinctly recognizable style. Brought together, his figurines would make a unique ceramic theatre.
The decorative sculptures never blend into the interior, never get lost in it — they are “communicative” and “noisy”. Although each figure is sufficiently expressive by itself, they are especially interesting in groups, frankly theatrical and very original. Whether on view in a home or on public premises, they unfailingly attract viewers’ attention.
The picture of life in old Tiflis presented by Shaverdian would not be complete without a large series of sculptures and pictorial miniatures dealing with the family life. Here the characters personify the solidity and well-being of a way of life which sometimes is scornfully branded “provincial”. Shaverdian understands the limited scope of the provincial life, he knows that this solidity is illusory. Yet he has a liking for his characters, and everyday routine is brightened up with his friendly humour.
The artist gathers together a vast family clan, standing and sitting the people as if they were posing for a family photograph. In olden days, on such an occasion women used to put on their finest clothes and best ornaments — belts, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and rings. Young girls with downcast eyes did their best to look modest and bashful. Bright faces of the children somewhat relieved the general stiff immobility.
The peculiarity of Shaverdian’s many pitchers and other vessels is that they look rather like figurines. For him, nothing is more customary than to model a flower vase in the shape of a girl, or a phoenix bird. Yet despite their ornamental value, these vessels can always be used to hold flowers, or water, or whatever else they are designed to hold.
The plastic treatment of his candlesticks is determined by their motif, which is associated with a definite artistic image. The family and motherhood are among the oldest subjects of art. Such themes abound in the artist’s work. In the present instance, they have symbolic undertones: the united family is one world of simplicity, light and goodness which can dispel darkness, evil and anxiety.
Every little figure remains individual and inimitable, but their interaction brings out the regularity, symmetry and rhythmic pattern of the whole as required by its functional purpose.
Shaverdian’s paintings, like his sculpted work, reflect the author’s keen perception of the village life. The depicted episodes are slightly larger than life, but they have recognizable roots in the reality. The artist’s “stories” are vivid and picturesque, tinged with peasant humour, earthy and unpolished.
There is a hint of irony at the idyll of the village life. But under the film of irony we feel a joyous response to this way of life, with its customs and traditions, sometimes even an appeal to preserve this way of life in its natural beauty.
The sketches and paintings done during his trips across Armenia have a fresh immediacy of observation. Many of them treat of specific subject matter. But among the customary genre compositions we may see some “pure” landscapes.
Smart donkeys with tinkling bells on their necks walk, run or move forward in a mincing gait. They are followed by lively boys and village girls dressed up for the market day as if for some festival.
The thick, sticky brushstroke, the slowed-down pattern of the composition have something in common with the unhurried regularity and reliability of the village life.
In Shaverdian’s pictorial compositions the action takes place against a village landscape or a townscape. Here we have an opportunity to compare the treatment of different compositions. In the painting, the figures seem to be inseparable from the background. But when Shaverdian endows them with three-dimensional existence they become self-sufficient. Retaining the same generalized form, they acquire a new fluidity and compactness, becoming more thoroughly themselves.
Nearly all Shaverdian’s favourite themes and motifs can be easily grouped into series. And every series features the artist’s most popular subject, the girls. Girls are present everywhere, they spin, gather in the harvest, hurry to the market-place, sing and dance. They wander from composition to composition, yet no two girls are alike. Their faces, milky-white or dark- complexioned, with their eyes made up, look mysterious or impassive, relaxed, arch or bashful. The young beauties jingle their ornaments, show off their smart gowns, and we admire their colourful and elegant attire, their smooth and graceful movements, their slim and well- proportioned bodies.
The local colour and heavy brushstrokes help to re-create the Armenian landscape in summer — the scorching earth floodlit with the hot brilliance of the sun which cannot affect the almost tangible, condensed coolness in the shade of tall branchy trees. The sun, the mountains, the sky, the shade alive with reflections, the gradual change of colours, the alternating levels of vision — all this combines to arouse Shaverdian’s interest in plein-air painting. For him, one little detail is enough to portray the quiet of the village street, shattered from time to time by loud braying of the donkeys, the burst of activity by the windmill, the afternoon rest in the shade.
The details are true to life, the objects have sharp outlines, but the painting is not descriptive, and therefore concrete motifs take on a generalized meaning. Here again, the composition is obviously deliberate, with the emphasis on its rhythmic and decorative pattern.
Juxtaposing the horizontal plane of terrace-like roofs and the verticals of poplars storming the sky, emphasizing the angles and angular masses, the artist achieved a well-defined structural arrangement. The colours, although born by a blinding sun, are not harsh. The synthesis of colour and form is subordinated to one aim, to render the painting both generalized and decorative.
The oil miniatures, In the Garden and Autumn display the dynamic balance very rare with Shaverdian. Here his artistic temperament triumphs over his usual restrained manner. In these two canvases, more than in others, the colour is frankly decorative, arranging the flat surface in accordance with a certain rhythmic principle. The figures are nearly flat, their gestures exultant and impetuous, with wave-like dynamic force. They are surrounded with a riot of wine-red, golden-yellow, lilac and green colours, blending into a highly exotic world which is as beautiful as an Oriental fairy-tale.
In the genre painting Shaverdian does not follow the classical canons. He departs from describing an individual incident, and creates the artistic image of a single motif.
His ‘tea-drinking” pieces are not quite everyday family affairs, they are rather ceremonial occasions in the urban life.
Decorative effects, colouristic nuances and a peculiar fusion of the lyrical, the humorous and the ironic are the qualities prominent in his imagery and style.
The contrast of the plane and spatial arrangement in Shaverdian’s compositions is particularly expressive. Objects fill the canvas like an applique work, yet somehow they manage to retain their spatial structure. The tiered grouping in his still life Tea-house is reminiscent of old-time signboards of Tiflis taverns and tea-shops. The Tea-house is vividly ornamental, there is nothing missing from the setting of its interior: the shining samovar, tea-trays and tea-pots are all there. The “tea-drinking” pieces, both pictorial and ceramic, radiate warm humour, benevolence and a feeling of happy comfort.
The artist’s interest in the interior of the house is natural, since the interior features importantly in his work. For the home and house are the life, the warmth and the body of time, the imprint of generations rooted in the depth of the centuries.
Shaverdian does more than just re-creates the provincial life, he brings out its artistic image. It is a pictorial description, or rather demonstration of rich and bright impressions. Therefore the everyday details do not feel like a rationalized filling-in of a composition, nor like customary attributes of the provincial life which have long gone out of use. Yes, these things are old-fashioned, but they are the visible elements which blend into the image of the time irretrievably lost.
The interiors portrayed by Shaverdian reflect real objects, but they are transformed by the artist’s imagination. The objects live in the interior. There is a naive solemnity in the static postures of those who inhabit these interiors, in the decorous orderliness, in the exaggerated respect and in the flattened perspective (so that everything could be visible).
We perceive the stability and orderliness of the Oriental life, its steady serenity. Shaverdian does not improve on the truth, and so we don’t find it a strain to enter the carefree world of the tea-table where the Tiflis gossips are indulged in a talk, or the remarkable rooms of Satar- zadeh’s house, or the picturesque interior of the Kazakh yurta (a nomad’s tent).
The dancing girls are graceful and dynamic. The artificial immobility simply emphasizes characteristic gestures and postures.
We feel the poetic brevity of these compositions. Yet here, like in almost every other work of the artist, another, ironical level becomes apparent. And the correlation between the lyrical and the ironic is so organic that it gives rise to a series of other qualities in the artist’s images. Their frank conventionality results in generalization. And in every little figure, still like a statue, one senses the vibrant precision of the characterization.