Art Historian Focuses on Ottoman-Era Painter ‘Monsieur Pierre’ Srabian

BOSTON — Noted writer, editor and political activist Arpiar Arpiarian wrote in his 1898 obituary of the artist Bedros Srabian, whose works had already begun to be lost, that “…what survives only is the memory in the hearts of friends who loved him, a memory inscribed in a newspaper article, until the day when these friends and these old newspapers too shall go and vanish into the abyss of the great oblivion.”

Dr. Vazken Khatchig Davidian has rendered valuable service to the Armenian community and to the art world by rescuing the story of this once-prominent painter from that “oblivion.”

Davidian’s lecture on Bedros Srabian, known by his students as “Monsieur Pierre,” was not only valuable for understanding Srabian but also as a reminder of the invaluable work of Teotig, from whom most of our information on “Monsieur Pierre” comes. The tireless early-20th-century writer and researcher Teotig (Teotoros Labjinjian) was the compiler, along with his wife Arshagouhi Teotig, of the Armenian almanac series known as Amenoun Daretsouytse (Everybody’s Almanac). The series was published in Constantinople and later Europe from 1907 to 1929 with a gap of several years due to the Armenian Genocide.

Davidian, who is a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford and has his PhD in Art History, was joined by art history Professor Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh of UC-Davis as discussant in a lecture sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and introduced by Marc Mamigonian. The lecture focused on the figure of Bedros Srabian (Monsieur Pierre) as seen through a single 1928 article written by Teotig and published in Amenoun Daretsouytse.

Who Was Monsieur Pierre?

Davidian introduced the topic by taking us along with him on the journey Teotig describes in his article “Monsieur Pierre.” When Teotig started his quest for information about the artist in 1922, Bedros Srabian was a forgotten man. In fact, Teotig had really only known the man as “Monsieur Pierre,” as he was called when he was the teacher of fine arts and drawing at Constantinople’s Berberian School during Teotig’s student days in the 1880s. A chance encounter of the name “Bedros Srabian” in an old student magazine from the Uskudar Jemaran leads Teotig to realize that this was “Monsieur Pierre’s” real name. Teotig’s quest leads him to the basic biography of Srabian, culled from Arpiarian’s obituary and some information received from Srabian’s surviving family. The quest also, of course leads toward Srabian’s artwork, of which precious little has survived that either Teotig or current scholars know of.

Arpiarian described Srabian as an artist who brought Western technique and style (he studied in Rome) to the Armenian community in Constantinople as well as eventually depicting the realities of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire through his works. Davidian notes that just as Arpiarian was attempting to portray Ottoman Armenian life through realist literature, a movement of which he was the founder in the Western Armenian world, Srabian was doing the same thing through art.

Srabian, who painted in a Realist style of academic art typical for the 19th century, has perhaps been ignored by later artists and art historians as not having contributed anything new or different to the realm of painting. However, as Davidian explained in the talk, his contribution in historical and socio-political terms was extremely important. His paintings of “Armenian Girl From Paghesh” and “Manoug Aghpar” were singled out by Arpiarian as earning him the title of “painter of the Armenian heart,” showing for the perhaps the first time in Western fine arts a depiction of everyday Armenians by an Armenian artist. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether either of these works exist today, or their whereabouts; Davidian’s image of the “Armenian Girl From Paghesh” painting is taken from Teotig’s article, and no image was shown of “Manoug Aghpar” which is apparently lost. Due to the Armenian Genocide, lack of interest in Srabian, and various other factors, less than two dozen of Srabian’s paintings are known today.

One of the best which has survived is Srabian’s “Armenian Beggar from Van” which is held by the National Gallery of Armenia. This painting which dates to 1882, shows a man in traditional garb whose eyes move the viewer to pity. The painting was executed a year after a massive famine in the Van region. Davidian contended that this and similar paintings, highly appreciated by Arpiarian and other activist contemporaries, served as a way to highlight the suffering of Armenians in the provinces while evading the censorship of the Abdul Hamid era by virtue of the fact that such images were apolitical ethnographic-realist subjects typical in the art of the time. In a time when candid documentary photography barely existed, let alone in Eastern Anatolia, it is easy to see why Srabian’s art struck such a chord with Armenian intellectuals.

A Forgotten Man

As Davidian related, Srabian’s legacy suffers today from a double dose of neglect: Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora does not seem to know or care about him; and historians of Ottoman art, almost all Turks, have erased all memory of Armenian contributions to the Empire’s artistic life.

Yet Srabian was once highly respected in both communities. In the Ottoman world, he enjoyed the patronage of Sultan Abdulaziz and painted the interiors of palaces, as well as being chosen to represent the Ottoman Empire with his paintings at the Paris World’s Fair of 1867. In the Armenian community, he was not only a teacher at various Armenian schools in Istanbul but was called to Echmiadzin by none other than Catholicos Mgrdich I (Khrimian Hayrig) to decorate the interior of the catholicosal residence. He also painted a masterful portrait of Khrimian as well as apparently restoring some of the historic paintings in Echmiadzin.

Davidian expressed frustration that the nationalist narrative of Turkish historiography and art history is still being promulgated by Ankara, excluding Armenian artists who were clearly influential in the Ottoman Empire (for example, sculptor Yervant Oskan, the vice-director of the Ottoman Academy of Fine Arts according to Armenian sources, and merely an assistant to the director Hamdi Bey according to Turkish sources). However, he also strongly expressed optimism that the new generation of Turkish scholars are turning to acknowledge the Armenian presence and contribution. On the other hand, Davidian showed his disappointment with the lack of interest in Armenia about Srabian or any Armenian artists outside the sphere of the Russian Empire/modern Armenia, as well as the lack of support or knowledge of Srabian and similar figures in the Diaspora.

The lecture was followed by a discussion between the speaker and Dr. Heghnar Watenpaugh. A lively question-and-answer period was moderated by Mamigonian.

It is hoped that this lecture and others like it will increase awareness of Srabian’s historical importance. The loss of Srabian’s work and the loss even of memory about him was already predicted by Arpiarian at the time of the artist’s death; by the time Teotig researched the artist for his almanac nearly 100 years ago, he had already been forgotten. Arpiarian’s comments about Srabian as well as his own work being lost to “the abyss of the great oblivion” were frighteningly prophetic. He could not have possibly known just how much of an oblivion all Armenian life in Anatolia would fall into after 1915.

Teotig, himself almost forgotten by today’s Armenians, preserved vastly important documentation on Armenian life before 1915. This was his legacy as a Genocide survivor and that of so many others that wrote countless books documenting that life, now mostly out of print. As we have seen an increased interest in that era over the last ten years or so, the work of Teotig and his contemporaries has given us the ability to understand life for the Armenians before the Genocide. Bedros Srabian, an important figure of the era’s fine arts, has finally come full circle and is being appreciated by scholars. The progress of the Armenian community can only happen by understanding the past, and the past consists not only of suffering and political demands, or of ancient history, but also of accomplishments and the record of life as it was in recent centuries. This alone makes the study of Srabian and others like him not only worthwhile, but indispensable.

by Harry Kezelian mirrorspectator.com




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