In Memoriam Vardges Sureniants, father of Armenian narrative art

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Ferdowsi Reading "Shahnameh" Poem to Shah Mahmud of Ghazni (1913), oil on canvas, 152 x 132.6 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

One hundred years ago today, on 6 April 1921, Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921) died in the Crimean resort of Yalta. Little-known in western Europe and North America, he was the father of Armenian narrative art, and his paintings were much admired by Ilya Repin among others. He was not only a painter, but sculpted, illustrated literary works, and wrote.

Sureniants was born in south-west Georgia when it was still part of the Russian Empire. His father was an Armenian priest, and moved his family to Simferopol in the Crimea, then to Moscow, Russia. This gave the young Sureniants opportunity to study at a prestigious Armenian school, and from there to progress to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He graduated from that in 1879, and moved to Munich, Germany, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1881, Sureniants visited Italy, where he studied Armenian fine art and manuscripts. He finished his formal training in Munich in 1885, then travelling with a two-year Russian expedition to Persia. During the last decade of the nineteenth century he lived in Armenia, where he translated some of Shakespeare’s plays into Armenian and taught at a seminary. He was a friend of the great Armenian marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky (Hovhannes Aivazian), and sculpted his bust following his death in 1900.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), After the Massacre (1899), canvas, 174 x 93 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

From about 1876 onwards, the Kurds started to massacre large numbers of Armenians, in which they were assisted by the creation of Kurdish regiments by the Ottoman Empire. Unlike the later genocide of 1915-16, their primary aim was to terrify and subjugate Armenian Christians so they accepted Muslim rule or were driven to migrate. After the Massacre (1899) is one of many moving images which Sureniants painted of this period.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Semiramis at the Corpse of Ara the Handsome (1899), oil on canvas, 214.5 x 98 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Semiramis at the Corpse of Ara the Handsome (1899) shows an Armenian variant of the legendary Lydian-Babylonian woman who first became the wife of the founder of Nineveh, and succeeded him to rule in her own right. Semiramis fell in love with the Armenian king Ara the Handsome, but he refused to marry her. In her passion, she led her Assyrian armies against him and, contrary to her orders, he was slain in battle.

She was thought to be a sorceress, and prayed to the gods to revive him. In one tradition, she was successful, although a different telling has her dressing a double in the dead king’s clothes as a deception.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Woman. Sadness (c 1900), oil on canvas, 89 x 33 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Woman. Sadness from around 1900 gives deeper insight into Sureniants’ unusual style and facture. Although not a Divisionist as such, his paintings consist of dense areas of fine brushstrokes which build textures and patterns. He painted several near-full-length portraits of women lost in thought, here showing sadness.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Salome (1907), oil on canvas, 155 x 155 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Sureniants’ painting of Salome from 1907 is an even better example of his distinctive style, and for its time was an unusually restrained depiction of Salome, who by this time was generally shown nearly nude and charged with raw eroticism. Here she is more sultry, more clothed than exposed, but wearing nipple jewellery. To the left of her is a prominent and lighter void.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Woman Knight (1909), oil on canvas, 153 x 151 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Woman Knight (1909) is probably taken from one of many literary accounts of legendary or fictional women who established a reputation in combat. His fine brushstrokes produce a wide range of different surface textures, from the soft fabric of her patterned dress to the metalwork of her helmet and shield.

Vardges Sureniants (1860–1921), Ferdowsi Reading “Shahnameh” Poem to Shah Mahmud of Ghazni (1913), oil on canvas, 152 x 132.6 cm, National Gallery of Armenia Հայաստանի Ազգային Պատկերասրահ, Yerevan, Armenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Sureniants illustrated several major literary works, including the Persian epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings), written by Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi (c 935-1019/26) (Ferdowsi). His painting of Ferdowsi Reading “Shahnameh” Poem to Shah Mahmud of Ghazni from 1913 shows the poet reading from his work to the first Sultan of the Ghaznavid Empire in what is now Afghanistan. In contrast to the previous works, Sureniants uses higher chroma in conjunction with rich and varied surface textures.

In 1916, possibly as a result of the Armenian Massacre, Sureniants moved to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where he co-founded the Armenian Artistic Society. In 1917, he was commissioned to create decorative works for the recently completed Armenian Cathedral. During that work, he became ill and died there on 6 April 1921.

Wikipedia’s account of his life and work is one of very few references available in English.