Early Life and Education
Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan were born in the village of Bash-Shirak in the Kars region near Alexandrapol (present-day Gyumri). Their parents, Arshak and Varduhi Aslamazyan had seven children – six daughters and a son. Mariam was their third child and was born in 1907, followed by Eranuhi in 1910.
The sisters’ paternal grandfather, Simon Aslamaz was Greek and had converted to the Armenian Apostolic Church to marry the Armenian girl he was deeply in love with. After the marriage, the “yan” suffix was added to Simon’s last name so it would sound Armenian and that is how their family name came to be Aslamazyan.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Aslamazyan family was one of the wealthiest in Bash-Shirak. Mariam’s and Eranuhi’s father, Arshak, was a well-known miller. Although he only had elementary education, he was the first in the area to build a mill with a turbine which he imported from Germany.
Mariam and Eranuhi grew up in an intellectual environment. From early childhood, they met architects, historians and academicians who would visit Bash-Shirak and nearby areas to take part in archeological excavations. Arshak Aslamazyan assisted in various excavations and was friends with well known architects Toros Toramanyan and Nikoghayos Buniatyan, orientalist and academician Hovsep Orbeli and Georgian historian and linguist Nikolai Marr. In her autobiography entitled, “The Book of My Life,” Mariam Aslamazyan briefly recalled those meetings:
“Architects Toramanyan, Buniatov, painter Taragros, and others would visit us with Professor Marr. We would always lay out a big table to treat them in the middle of a meadow. My father loved to host valuable people.”
Mariam’s and Eranuhi’s artistic talent appeared during their early school years. Both loved to design school posters and paint with watercolor. Their art teacher was the first to take notice and in 1924, upon the opening of an art studio in Alexandrapol, recommended they continue their education there. Alexandrapol, at the beginning of the 20th century, was one of the cultural and intellectual centers of the Armenian people. Traditional arts and crafts flourished and the city offered an active cultural environment for future painters.
In her autobiography, Mariam confesses that during their studies at the art studio, she secretly competed with Eranuhi:
“I was always worried by the idea that I’m older than Eranuhi but she knows math better than me. And then our teacher sent both of us to the studio. I wanted to understand if it is worth continuing that painful competition with my sister or if it is better to apply to medical school and become a surgeon.”
At the end of the school year, their art teachers, Yulia Varjbickaya and Yelizaveta Patkanyan encouraged both Mariam and Eranuhi to continue their education in the arts. Thus began a lifelong journey for the sisters, though it was not an easy one.
The first decades of the 20th century were turbulent for the Armenian people. After declaring independence in 1918, the Bolsheviks took control and the First Armenian Republic was Sovietized in 1920. Soon thereafter, Bolshevik authorities started the process of dekulakization which expropriated the land and property of wealthy farmers (kulaks) and redistributed them among the population. Thousands of kulaks and their family members were repressed, exiled, and imprisoned.
The girls’ father, Arshak Aslamazyan was recognized as a kulak and during the latter part of the 1920s, the Soviet authorities gradually confiscated all his property. Once well-known and wealthy, the Aslamazyan family was thrust into poverty.
The family’s misfortunes did not cause Mariam and Eranuhi to despair. After graduating from the art studio in Alexandrapol, the sisters moved to Yerevan to attend the Geghard Industrial Technical School of Fine Arts (currently Panos Terlemezyan Yerevan State College of Arts) where they studied under the guidance of painters Sedrak Arakelyan and Stepan Aghajanyan.
While at the college, Mariam and Eranuhi knew that they wanted to go abroad to continue their studies. Shortly after graduation, with the financial help of their elder sister Anahit, Mariam and Eranuhi moved to Moscow. Anahit bought their train tickets and promised to send each of the 30 Soviet rubles a month.
Upon their arrival, Mariam and Eranuhi applied to the Vkhutemas Higher Art and Technical Studios. According to Mariam, admission was competitive: there was only one spot for every 16 applicants and the institution would accept students according to their status in society. Applicants coming from the highest classes didn’t even have to write entrance exams.
As daughters of a kulak, Mariam and Eranuhi belonged to the lowest category of students, the “dregs of society.” However, despite the tight competition and Soviet “admission principles,” they successfully passed their exams. The admission committee, however, decided to accept only Mariam. Eranuhi did not give up, instead, she entered the studio of painters Vladimir Favorsky and Andrei Goncharov and continued her education there.
Life in Moscow was challenging for the Aslamazyan sisters. Mariam was deprived of a scholarship because of her societal class and the only money they had was the 60 rubles they received from their sister. Mariam and Eranuhi soon found it hard to make ends meet and a year later Eranuhi moved back to Yerevan.
Despite the hardships, Mariam continued to work hard and excelled as a student. However, she was never fully accepted as a member of society. As she recalls in her memoirs, Armenian students who had failed to be admitted to Vkhutemas and were envious of her sent numerous letters to Moscow asking that she be dismissed because of her societal class.
Vkhutemas dismissed her several times but Mariam always found a way to get back in and continue her education. After being dismissed for the 13th time, she managed to meet with Nadezhda Krupskaya, the widow of Vladimir Lenin, who was the Deputy Education Commissioner of the Soviet Union, and asked for help.
“I told her that I have just one question ‘Do I have a right to study if my father had a mill which he had built by himself and then gave to the government?’ After a short pause, she said, ‘Of course, darling, you have a right to study, and not only you but also many others like you. You should not pay for your parent’s sins. This issue is long overdue and I will try to help you.’ Then she took a paper from a box on her desk, wrote two telephone numbers and gave it to me. ‘Go to Vkhutemas tomorrow morning. If they do not let you in class, call me.’”
The following morning Mariam went to Vkhutemas and received a hero’s welcome. From that day on, Mariam was never bothered by that issue again. After this incident, Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote an article stating that children should not struggle because of their parent’s so-called sins. “She helped not only me but also many others,” wrote Mariam.
After moving back to Yerevan, Eranuhi started to work in a kindergarten and designed decorations for several city holidays. Two years later she moved to Kharkiv in Soviet Ukraine to study at the art institute and in the mid-1930s was transferred to the Leningrad Academy of Fine Arts. During this period Vkhutemas was transferred to Leningrad (present-day Saint Petersburg) and Mariam also moved there to continue her higher education.
By the end of the 1930s, Mariam and Eranuhi were already known in Soviet Russian cultural circles. They both were members of the Painter’s Union of Leningrad and Mariam even had her studio. As she writes in her autobiography, together with Eranuhi they were constantly invited to participate in exhibitions in Moscow, Leningrad, and Yerevan. It was a period when both sisters were receiving numerous prizes and acknowledgments across the Soviet Union. Fully engaged in the creative process, they would often travel to Armenia to get inspiration.
“Every summer we used to go to Armenia. Back then we were interested only in arts and we wanted to paint a reborn Armenia, a free and beautiful nation. We painted our colorful mountains, babbling rivers, slender trees, and splendid sunny fruits. It helped us to find our artistic language.”
In 1938, Mariam and Eranuhi were invited to design the Armenian pavilion at the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy [ВДНХА in Russian] and created a series of paintings that portrayed famous sites and life in Soviet Armenia. It was considered a great honor for young artists. During the Second World War, Mariam and Eranuhi moved between Russia and Armenia while actively continuing to create artworks. Eranuhi started to teach at a university in Leningrad while Mariam created artworks commissioned by Soviet authorities.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Mariam and Eranuhi were already renowned artists across the USSR. Soviet authorities started sending them to international exhibitions and sponsored their trips to various parts of the world. They had become beloved painters of the Soviet Union.
The Art of the Aslamazyan Sisters
Mariam and Eranuhi played an important role in the history of arts and culture of the Soviet Union. Coming from a patriarchal Armenian society, the sisters managed to break stereotypes and prove that female artists could be recognized as equals to male artists. During their life both were honored as National Artists of the USSR and their works were acknowledged internationally.
Painter, and artist Gohar Smoyan, who is also a guide at the Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters in Gyumri says that the sisters studied under the guidance of Armenian and Russian painters who greatly impacted the development of their artistic style and taste.
“They studied under the guidance of Yulia Varjbickaya at the Alexandrapol studio who was from Russia, a representative of the Russian school of art, later they gained their knowledge from impressionist painter Sedrak Arakelyan and realist painter Stepan Aghajanyan in Yerevan,” Smoyan says. “While studying in Leningrad, Mariam and Eranuhi were students of painters Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Mikhail Radionov, painter and sculptor Vera Mukhina and many other representatives of the Russian realism.”
Later in their careers, Eranuhi delved into realism while Mariam’s art developed in another direction. Gohar Smoyan says that over time Mariam began working in planar still life and decorative art: “She was greatly affected by the art of Martiros Saryan but also by Paul Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse.”
Mariam and Eranuhi were multi-genre artists: they painted landscapes, portraits, and still lives. Armenia’s natural landscapes, people, and culture are largely present in their art. Although they both mostly lived in Russia, Armenia and Armenians were their sources of inspiration.
Throughout their lives, the Aslamazyan sisters were ardent supporters of Soviet authorities During the Second World War, Mariam and Eranuhi created numerous war-themed paintings. Mariam also designed several propaganda posters in the socialist realism style, which glorified communist values and aimed to inspire people to go and fight for their country.
“Besides landscapes, naturemortes, and portraits, I also created (about 50) large thematic paintings at the request of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, the Ministry of Culture of Soviet Armenia, the Art Fund of the USSR, and other organizations. Those represented the bright future of Armenia, the heroism of our nation during the Great Patriotic War, and the blockade. I also painted portraits of leaders Lenin and Stalin.”
Throughout their career, the Aslamazyan sisters traveled extensively throughout Africa and Asia and were greatly inspired by the intense colors and extraordinary life of the nations living there. This oriental inspiration can be seen in their body of work.
Working together for over 50 years, Mariam and Eranuhi had distinct painting styles. Mariam used expressive colors and sharp contrasts in her paintings while Eranuhi’s paintings use gentle colors, which are subtle and multi-layered. Gohar Smoyan says that although Eranuhi was constantly under Mariam’s shadow, she was an independent artist and her art is more self-sufficient.
“Eranuhi used to paint everything that interested her. She preserved her style over the years and was a very self-established artist,” Smoyan says. “This was reflected in her art; working closely with Mariam for so many years, she did not copy her work. Unlike Eranuhi, Mariam wanted to prove something with her art and she intended to show that a woman could be an artist.”
When looking at Mariam’s paintings, one can feel the power and strength of her characters. Women, who were one of Mariam’s favorite subjects, are often portrayed in a strong and very masculine way. Smoyan says that back then, women painters were not taken seriously and that was the reason many female artists wanted to paint like men.
Mariam once even confessed that during her student years she badly wanted to paint like a man and loved to spend time with her male colleagues. However, she succeeded to juxtapose the concepts of strength and power with female beauty and aesthetics thus strengthening her importance as an artist in the patriarchal circles of Soviet painters.
In 1961, the Aslamazyan sisters had their exhibitions in Yerevan and Leninakan (present-day Gyumri).
Besides fine arts, Mariam and Yearnuhi were also engaged in pottery and ceramics. Today, several plates, cups, vases, and many other items decorate the halls and walls of the Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters. “Mariam’s pottery is full of free brush strokes and has an active artistic expression. Eranuhi gave more importance to concept and shape,” explains Smoyan.
The Aslamazyan Sisters and the Soviet Union
Unlike many other Soviet artists, Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan always had the backing and financial support of the Soviet Union. The opportunity to travel to the other side of the Iron Curtain was not granted to every artist. It was thanks to their delicate diplomacy and attitude toward the Soviet authorities, that the sisters managed to travel extensively, explore different countries of the world and reflect it in their art. However, it was a game that was beneficial both for the sisters and Moscow.
“By the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union showcased the Aslamazyan sisters internationally as role models. It was state politics – to cherish female artists and show the world the importance given to them,” Smoyan says. “In addition to this, the Aslamazyans came from a country with traditional views and values and the state wanted to emphasize how they were providing a platform for various nations to express themselves. The Soviet Union was sending female artists to Asian and European countries not only to present their art but also to promote the Socialist regime.”
During the 1960s, the Soviet citizen was considered to be part of a new historical community of diverse nationalities, where cultural traditions and national identities were not considered important. However, Mariam’s and Yernauhi’s paintings featured numerous traditional symbols and even depictions of Armenian churches. Smoyan thinks that although the Soviet Union used to praise female artists internationally, in reality, they did not take them seriously and that is why they allowed the Aslamazyans to portray national elements in their art.
Although having the support of Soviet authorities, the Aslamazyan sisters were very cautious and as Mariam confesses in her autobiography there was a fear of the government. Unlike Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents or writer Aksel Bakunts, and many others who were killed because of their views about Joseph Stalin or the Soviet government, Mariam and Earnuhi were thoughtful in their actions. Mariam was more engaged in cultural exchanges and meetings than Eranuhi and there are several incidents described in her autobiography that reflect her fears and worries towards the Soviet authorities.
In the 1930s, while spending their summer holidays in Armenia’s Syunik region, Mariam and Eranuhi became close friends with writer Aksel Bakunts. On a trip to the Tatev Monastery together, Mariam suggested taking a photo of the three of them. However, Bakunts refused. Mariam was very upset but Bakunts explained that it was for their good. “There are many black clouds upon my head, and I do not want even a small shadow to be cast over you. My darlings, you are so far from all of this, be as carefree as you are,” he said.
At the time, Aksel Bakunts was already on the black list of Soviet authorities and he wanted to protect the sisters. In 1936, by Stalin’s order, Bakunts was arrested and after a short trial was immediately shot.
In 1948, as a delegate for the “Anti-fascist Congress of Women” Mariam traveled to Paris to participate in an exhibition entitled “Woman, Her Life and Her Aspirations.” Before her travels, Mariam called her cousin Rafik and asked for advice on how to behave abroad. Rafik was a state employee and knew how the state treated people traveling abroad. He told Mariam not to accept invitations for dinners and meetings and to always have an escort.
While in Paris, many Diaspora Armenians wanted to see Mariam and give her presents but she refused them all. One day, Arshag Chopanian, a French-Armenian writer and journalist visited Mariam during the exhibition and asked her to visit him. However, Mariam rejected him as well.
“He asked me to visit him since he wanted to give me the issue of the magazine which had an article about my graduation project. I refused. Then he came again and asked me to at least go with him to a cafe or a restaurant and have a nice talk, but I refused again. Then he asked me to take something back with me to Armenia for Avetik Isahakyan. I was so scared that I refused to do anything. I was very frightened to meet Armenians who had left their homeland.”
Another incident highlighting Mariam’s caution and fear happened between her and the future Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazgen I. In 1949, Mariam had to travel from Moscow to Yerevan. Upon her arrival at the train station in Moscow, she saw Romanian-Armenian priest Levon Garabed Baljian. A few days earlier, the sisters had grudgingly agreed to interview him and Mariam was worried to see him again. However, Baljian was very excited to travel with her and hoped that they could converse during their journey.
As Mariam confesses those were the “times of Stalin” and she was frightened to interact with him. Throughout the long journey to Yerevan, Mariam decided to stay in her compartment to avoid any communication with Baljian. She even pretended to be sick so the priest would not want to interact with her. Her plan worked.
As the years passed, Mariam’s fears gradually faded. In 1955, Levon Garabed Baljian was elected as the Catholicos of All Armenians. Mariam and Eranuhi sent a congratulatory telegram and eventually, they became close friends with the Catholicos.
Throughout the pages of her autobiography, Mariam constantly talks about her fears and writes about the actions state authorities took against artists and people of culture. Even in her memoirs, she is very cautious with her words. However, upon closer reading, one can feel her anger at the injustices and absurd decisions of the state.
The Aslamazyans: Cultural Ambassadors of Soviet Armenia
The importance of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan lies not only in their art but also in their devotion to their homeland. Throughout their career, the sisters represented Armenian culture in numerous cities around the world, and never stopped praising Armenia as their first and foremost inspiration in art.
In 1976, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India visited Soviet Russia and Soviet Armenia. Out of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, Gandhi had chosen to visit Armenia partially thanks to Mariam Aslamazyan.
Both Mariam and Eranuhi had visited India on several occasions. Before Gandhi’s trip to Armenia, Mariam had received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award from the Indian government for a series of paintings devoted to India and had met with Gandhi.
It was during that meeting that Gandhi decided to visit Armenia as well. After a reception organized for Nehru prize laureates, Gandhi approached Mariam and started to examine her traditional Armenian silver belt with curiosity.
“‘What is this?’ she asked. I explained that it’s a traditional garment that Armenian women pass down from generation to generation. I suggested giving it to her as a present but she refused to state that the portrait [Mariam had painted a portrait of Gandhi’s father, and previous leader of India Jawaharlal Nehru] is a great present and I should keep my belt as a memory from my ancestors. Then she also told me that she is planning a trip to the Soviet Union, and wants to be in Moscow and our homeland, Armenia, about which she had heard many good things.”
When Gandhi arrived in Armenia with her family, Mariam was not able to be there. However, she had contacted Soviet Armenia’s Minister of Culture Ruben Parsamyan and asked that he buy silver belts for Gandhi and her daughters-in-law.
The trip of the Indian leader to Armenia was very memorable. Mariam was later told that Gandhi was amazed by the hospitality of the Armenians and along with her daughters-in-law was extremely excited to have received traditional Armenian garments.
In 1987, Mariam and Eranuhi gave nearly 620 original paintings to the city of Gyumri and the first gallery of female artists in Soviet Armenia – the Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters – was opened.
Mariam and Eranuhi continued working and producing art until the end of their lives. Eranuhi married and had a daughter. Mariam confessed that she did not want to have a family and children so she would not be deprived of her art. She did go on to marry twice but never had children.
Eranuhi died in 1998 at the age of 88. Mariam lived almost a century and died at the age of 99 in 2006.
Today, the Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters is one of the most popular cultural sites of Gyumri. Housed in a beautiful 19th century black stone two-storey building, the paintings, graphic works, ceramics and pottery of Mariam and Eranuhi are on display for visitors from all over the world.
Photographs were provided by Gohar Smoyan and were taken from the Facebook page of the Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters.
Paintings used in the article.
Mariam Aslamazyan, “The Book of My Life,” 2016, Gyumri.