When Armenian painter Martiros Saryan was told to paint a portrait of Stalin, he replied that he had a principle to paint from live models only.
In 1937, 12 portraits of Saryan were burned in the courtyard of the art gallery. They depicted Armenian statesmen and representatives of the Armenian intelligentsia who were condemned as “enemies of the people.” Of these portraits, only one managed to survive, saved by the museum staff. It was a portrait of Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents.
Here is what Saryan said about Charents:
“Charents was a legend. And what could you say about a legend? Maybe for him, it was predestined to burn as a symbol of suffering, struggle, and faith… Who knows? So I now think about Charents and wonder how a miracle such as him lived with us in the same city.
I repeatedly painted Charents just like that, in most cases, in the presence of others, making sketches. Two of these drawings, in my opinion, turned out well. But I drew Charents in a “mask”, in “official” conditions at his home. I painted quickly, in two one-hour sessions. When I finished and started cleaning the palette, Charents jumped up and approached the portrait.
“How do you work? Is it possible to work so fast?” exclaimed the poet.
Fortunately, I remember how this particular creation began. Once, I was walking along Astafyan Street (now Abovyan Street) when I saw Charents walking towards me with books under his arm. He came up to me and said:
“Our street is really nice, isn’t it? To be fair, it is very provincial, but it is also colorful. What do you say?”
“Yes, it is,” I replied, “And when do we begin to work?”
“Tomorrow. Sunday, by the way. Come at 12.
On the next day, I visited him. There was nobody at home except him. I felt that he has prepared, tuned in to drawing. I sat down. I deliberately slowly installed the easel and laid out the palette along with the brushes. At the same time, I was talking to him about little things. I tried to change his mood, but nothing happened. I looked at his face and had a feeling that he was not in front of me. Lazily drawing a few lines on the canvas, I said that I am not in the mood to hold the brush today.
“Why?” he asked in a surprise.
“I do not know, I will come tomorrow,” I replied.
I came the next day, wondering whether it worked out. He opened the door. Everything was fine now, his family members were home. Charents was like himself. We exchanged regular phrases and began the work. It seemed that he did not notice either the easel or me. From yesterday’s artificiality, there was nothing left on his face. The head movement was natural, the facial expression was free. It was typical Charents.
He was of a common Armenian type. Hair was black and slightly wavy, thickly covering the forehead. The nose was large and the lower lip thick. He had a small body but the facial expression of a person with an internal fire, which was especially visible in the eagle’s look of his large, sharp eyes. All this left the impression of a man of the rock.
His face did not shine with beauty. You could even say that it was ugly, albeit full of charm and pretty. It was in this face that his rebellious, strict, active, and flashing nature was reflected. This person carried the greatness and dramatic talent of a great Armenian. It was these personality traits of Charents which had to be emphasized on the canvas.
Both of us liked the portrait.
“In 20 years, you will again draw me thoroughly,” he said, “I wonder what I will become…”
Often, in connection with the portrait of Charents, people ask what the masks mean in my works. To be honest, I do not like to answer such questions. But maybe I should say a few words about this. But with only one condition: I will say about the “concept” of the mask in general terms. And then, guess yourself what the mask in the portrait of Charents actually means.
My interest in masks was born when I became acquainted with the art of Egypt. A mask has some mysterious power. The most difficult to express feature can be depicted through one. Every nation perceives masks differently. I perceive it as a fascinating symbol of a man’s desire for eternity. I think this rough comparison may give a hint to the understanding of the mask’s meaning in the portrait of Charents.
V. Matevosyan “Aesthetic Views of Martiros Saryan”