Art and IDENTITY, part 1

Creating a visual identity of the country

Young Martiros Sarian, 1909, Sarian Family CollectionYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

"We are living in an interesting century of fusion

between European and Asian, Western and Eastern cultures. We should contribute to widening and developing this process. I truly believe that this is the most important condition for fueling the progress of art." Martiros Sarian

Martiros Sarian, one of the key figures in Armenian culture, grew up in Nakhichevan-on-Don, a town of Armenian settlers in Russia. At sixteen, he was already attending the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, slowly immersing himself in Russian cultural movements. He was very impressed and affected by the contemporary art scene such as the one of symbolism, while also getting interested in European painters, gaining direct contact with French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists including Matisse.

After visiting Armenia, his historical homeland, in 1901, which at that moment was a part of the Russian Empire, Sarian developed an artistic interest in the particular zone in-between the Middle East, East, and the Caucasus.

By the Sea. Sphinx, 1908 by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Many critics see the root of Sarian`s “oriental” series in the “Fairy Tales and Dreams”, inspired by his first visits to his historic Motherland, a place he has only heard of from oral tradition. 

He was almost facing a ghost, which was slowly regaining its flesh. Some details on the history of his nation were found only 40 years before his birth. The unknown Urartian civilization was one of those cases, rediscovered in Van by Friedrich Eduard Schultz, a German philosopher, and orientalist, who was commissioned by the French government.

Sarian`s generation was introduced to the missing gap in their history, which was mainly composed of myths and legends before those excavations.

Comet, 1907 by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

This vivid and dreamy series merged illusion and reality, slowly directing Sarian towards the East, which was an organic part of his Armenian identity.

Though his artistic search was very personal, it synched with the flow of 20th-century culture, aligning him with such artists as Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. These artists were inspired by the East, searching for new forms and aesthetics that could contribute to the development of their artistic individuality.

Sarian`s wanderings were driven by the desire to fully embrace the identity of his homeland. He was finding similar narratives in other countries, where he could see the ruins of ancient civilizations just like within his own culture, which he was trying to understand and rebuild within himself.

His introduction to the East started with Constantinople, which officially adopted the name Istanbul in 1930. It was a truly unique dimension situated right between the East and the West.

Mules, laden with hay, 1910, National Gallery of Armenia by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Constantinople, 1910


“We went from port straight to Galata. The crowds of people were moving through the streets. A horse-drawn carriage was dragging towards us, in front of which ran a trumpeter, paving our way.” M.Sarian



By the time Sarian visited Constantinople for the first time, it had already gone through many transformations. In the 1900s, the port of Istanbul was opened, which affected tourism on many levels and made Constantinople even more lively.

Street. Constantinople (1910)Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation


The city was actively being reshaped under the Young Turks, the first Ottoman reformers to promote industrialization. A major development in national journalism took place. At the same time, many new Armenian magazines came up; one of them was “Jamanag” - the longest continuously running Armenian-language daily newspaper in the world to this day.

The improvement of women's rights was also an important change of this historical period.

By the 1910th, the city was filled with new structures, custom houses, post offices, medical services, stores, multi-story warehouses, and banks.

“We were walking along a street which I think was called Yüksek Kaldırım, towards the hotel Izmit. Deafened by the honk from ferries sailing nearby and the street noise, we were hardly moving through the narrow streets, filled with crowds of men in red fezzes and women in burkas. Finally, we managed to get out of the noisy street and turn to a narrow and quiet side street, where we walked to the hotel “Izmit”. The entrance, for some reason, was laid through a cafe…” M.Sarian

Constantinople, Martiros Sarian, 1910, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Yuksek Kaldirim, which means "High Pavement," was originally a street of 118 stone steps, connecting what is now Galipdede Caddesi. This area had always been cosmopolitan and lively, filled with numerous cafes and shops.

Merchants of the East. Sketch,1910, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Merchants of the East, 1910, National Gallery of Armenia, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Dogs. Constantinople (1910)Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Sarian was often spending hours outside, navigating through the narrow streets and huge crowds, getting introduced to the city rhythm and culture. He also often mentions the huge amount of dogs wandering through Constantinople.

European travellers (?) feeding the street dogs, Anonymous, Early 20th century, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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A European traveler with street dogs, Anonymus, Early 20th century, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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“There was a lot of material for the study of animals in Constantinople. Dogs lived here in whole family packs, each pack was in a certain area. There was not a corner in the whole city, where there would be no dogs. Men in wide trousers and red fezzes walked slowly past them, swaying in a peculiar rhythm with their sandals, accompanied Turkish women in veils and running children, but no one touched the dogs, they were considered almost sacred animals.” M. Sarian

Dogs in Constantinople, 1910, Sarian House-Museum, Yerevan by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Sarian was among the last ones to witness such a huge number of dogs before the infamous historical event of the Hayirsiz Ada (Sivriada) island.

Cage of execution by gas asphyxiation, Jacques Boyer, 20 June 1923, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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Caging the captures street dogs., Early 20th century, From the collection of: İstanbul Research Institute
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The banishment of dogs began in the 19th century but reached its peak in 1910, in an effort to "westernize" the city just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The caught strays were exiled to the island Sivriada, many of them dying on the boat ride over there.

Dogs. Constantinople, 1910, National Gallery of Armenia, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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“The most interesting part of the city was Istanbul. Here were the central market and the cathedral of Agia Sophia, the favourite place of tourists. Perhaps I was the only tourist who was mostly interested in the streets of Constantinople, narrow and crowded.” M. Sarian

Fruit Store. Constantinople. Sketch, 1910, Sarian Family collection by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

He wandered around the city for a long time, making sketches for future paintings or, upon returning home, painting what remained of the memory of his day's impressions.

Fruit Store. Constantinople,1910, State Tretyakov Gallery collection, Moscow by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

“I chose and depicted the most important and necessary elements, most typical ones without trifles” Sarian notes.

The multi-layered textures of Constantinople as well as its unique structure built from accidental architectural layerings challenged Sarian to create a compositional system, where all these elements and dimensions can exist without creating visual noise. This will be later expressed in Sarian`s unique compositional approach expressed in his artistic style.

Street at Midday. Constantinople, 1910, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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“It's a place where synthetic art is born, layered on the best traditions of both East and West” M.Sarian

Egypt, 1911

“At that time, Cairo was divided into two different parts: European and African. The European part was built with great, wide, beautiful streets, huge buildings, and big palms on the sidewalks, the palms we are used to seeing at our homes in small pots. The African side remained poor…” M. Sarian

Sarian visited Egypt in the Khedivate period, which started in 1867 and lasted till 1914. Cairo was already playing a major role in Armenian cultural life since the 19th century. Many important cultural hubs for Armenians were established in Cairo, including the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), which was opened in 1906 by Boghos Nubar, the son of the first Prime Minister of modern Egypt, Nubar Nubarian, also known as Nubar Pasha. In this way, Cairo hosted many Armenian intellectuals and artists.

Sarian, with his passion for history and archaeology, always dreamed of seeing Egypt, only to later see Egypt as a slowly eroding culture. With British troops occupying the nation, the people of Egypt were being pushed to adopt the Western culture. In a way, Egyptian culture was also entering a new stage, controlled by Western powers.

The arrival of the Europeans in Egypt changed Cairo. The modern quarters of the city were taken over by European newcomers who built European shops, hotels, and exclusive clubs. The new quarters of the city grew into vast blocks of apartment buildings.

Cairo, Sketches,, Martiros Sarian, 1911, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Cairo, Sketches, 1911, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Two new sections were added to Cairo: Maadi, to the south, was built as an exclusive European enclave shortly after the turn of the century, and Heliopolis, to the northeast, was built in the 1910s. These areas were built with the latest modern conveniences: running water, electricity, and a tramway that connected Heliopolis to central Cairo.

Street in Cairo (1911)Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation

In contrast, the older sections of the city were not yet modernized.

Sarian with the interpriter Furman in Egypt, 1911, Martiros Sarian House Museum, Yerevan by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Most of the hotels were built in the European part of the city, but Sarian happened to stay in one of the rare hotels hidden in an alley deep in Islamic Cairo. In his memories, he mentioned the “Hotel du Nil”, which was mostly hosting the intellectual elite such as  Flinders Petrie, and writer Gustav Flaubert.


Unfortunately, the hotel was closed by 1906. In his letter written in Cairo, Sarian mentions another name, “Bristot du Nil”, which had opened on Khazinder Square in 1894, marketing itself as “Hotel Bristol et du Nil” to absorb the name of a recently defunct old hotel and inherit its clientele. This was a common practice for hotels at that time.

Night Landscape. Egypt, 1911, Martiros Sarian House Museum, Yerevan by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

“As usual, I was walking from dusk till dawn in the city and its suburbs…” writes Sarian in his notes.

Though he was inspired by the city textures and rhythms, the museums and temples became his obsession, giving him a deeper understanding of the cultural roots of Egypt and the ability to see how those roots transformed into this new cultural identity he was witnessing.

“The Cairo streets resembled the streets of Constantinople but were less noisy. The Arabs walked sedately and were not very talkative. Over their national clothes, they wore European ones, and instead of hats they wore caps wrapped in turban…” M. Sarian

Cairo, Sketches, 1911, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Cairo, Sketches, 1911, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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The trips to Cairo, Giza, Memphis, and Luxor enriched Sarian's art with new influences directing his search for the original style.

Man Before a False Door, Tomb of Nebamun (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.) by Charles K. WilkinsonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Egypt, the artist was most of all struck by the inseparable connection of the ancient and the modern, which he could see even in gestures and postures.

“The same expression and gestures, the same manner of walking with slightly raised shoulders... As if they had been wandering through the millennium, and arrived together with the monuments created by their ancestors at the dawn of civilization” M. Sarian

The Walking Woman, Sketch, Martiros Sarian, 1911, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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The Walking Woman, 1911, Martiros Sarian House Museum, Yerevan, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Sarian's notes show how amazed he was by this uninterrupted connection. These notes also show his interest in understanding how the ancient masters were transforming their environment into cultural codes, remaining relatable while still preserving a sense of the time.

He wrote, that “The Egyptian art, like the art of any nation, has its own unique conditionalities, and those conditionalities represent Egypt”

Date Palm. Egypt, 1911, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Sarian was very affected by the idea of immortality found in the very basis of Egyptian art.

Egyptian Masks,1911, Martiros Sarian House Museum, Yerevan by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Later, he would often use signs and symbols of immortality in his compositions.

Sarian in his studio, 1940Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Sarian purchased 5 masks in Egypt, four of which he later donated to the Yerevan Museum of Art, while the fifth remained forever on his studio`s wall.

Exhibition in Rome

Sarian's works from the Egyptian series earned very positive reviews from his contemporaries and were exhibited in Rome in the autumn of 1911.

The exhibited material aroused a big interest in artistic circles.

The works exhibited at this exhibition, “Egyptian masks”, “Walking Woman” and “Night Landscape. Egypt”, are currently kept at the Sarian House-Museum, which still holds his original exposition created by the artist himself.

Cover of the catalog for the Second Post-Impressionism Exhibition in London, Sarian Family Collection by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Second Exhibition of Post Impressionism

At the end of the same year, Sarian was honoured to participate in the Second Exhibition of Post-Impressionism in the Grafton Gallery in London.

Moscow Painters Association
Sarian also took part in the Exhibition of the “Moscow Painters Association”. During this exhibition, several works from his Constantinople series were commissioned by Ilya Semyonovich Ostroukhov, a Russian painter and art collector, and the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Horsemen, Sketch, Persia, 1913, Sarian Family collection by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

PERSIA, 1913

"Salar`s riders roamed the city for days on, giving orders and making predatory demands. I must confess that despite my disgust towards them, I was captivated by the picturesqueness of these horsemen as if they descended from Persian miniatures…” M. Sarian


Sarian visited Persia in 1913, cities Barfrush, Tehran, and Rasht. It was not the best time for Persia, which had just undergone the Constitutional Revolution between 1905 and 1911. The revolution resulted in the establishment of a parliament in Persia (Iran) during the Qajar dynasty.


In his notes, Sarian often mentions the name of Salar-al-Daulah, brother of the former shah, who revolted against the government of the Sublime State of Persia in the 1910s and was defeated in 1913.

Persia,Sketches,1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Persia,Sketches,1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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From Sarian`s notes, one can understand that during his visit to Barfrush, Salar and his gang were keeping the locals in fear, locked at home. For this reason, Sarian wasn't able to take his usual walks to observe the city, but instead, he was observing everything he could from the windows.

Persia,Sketches,1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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“I locked myself in my caravansary and observed what was happening from the window. Detail by detail, I studied the wide courtyard, the roofs of the houses, and the minaret of the mosque towering behind them”

This specific occasion brought an interesting twist to his usual outlook, dividing his depicted scenes into “witnessed” and “voyeured”. While the first group seems to reflect a sense of belonging to the depicted scenes and the environment, the other gives a distant sense of disconnection from it.

In Barfrush, Sketch, 1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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As Sarian notes, the market was the most interesting place in this city, offering a diversity of human expressions and emotions.

Persia, Sketches, 1913, Sarian Family Collection by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

“...nearby, in a quadrangular pavilion, smokers of hashish

settled down. The blacksmith was in the same row. An interesting contrast: voluntary death and vital work coexisted side by side. Dervishes scurried around the market, often organizing competitions attracting a lot of  people…” M. Sarian 

Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam devoted to communion with God through deep introspection, was the first Muslim group to embrace the usage of hashish. Simultaneously it was a group whose specific form of meditation, the whirling, has been popularized and used as a “tourist attraction”. Unlike alcohol, which was forbidden by the Koran as khmar (intoxicant), cannabis was originally considered medicinal and therefore not prohibited, until the government took steps towards Westernizing.

Persia, 1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Sarian`s notes reveal a judgemental outlook on hashish smokers, reflecting the discourse of that time. The usage of cannabis, opium, and other narcotic elements, also popularized by the same wave of orientalism in European countries, started turning into a point of discussions and prohibitions.


At the same time, the fact that those elements sneaked into Western societies from the East was downgrading the image of the East. So the East, often trying to show itself off as “modern”, was taking steps towards prohibition and illegalization of those elements.
Sarian`s visit to Persia was split into different cities; in between his journeys from one city to another, he was spending time making sketches of nature.


Tehran surprised Sarian with its dustiness and lack of museums, which he noted was shocking to see in a capital of a country with such a rich and influential cultural history. The people were all dressed in black as if the “other colors were expelled from the city,” as he poetically notes. He saw the crowd as less diverse than the people of Constantinopolis or Cairo and found the Tehran of 1913 “an uncalm city which increases the sense of loneliness”.


Though being shocked by the lack of museums in Tehran at that time, his visit to Persia was still generally satisfying since he had time to observe the beautiful architectural sites, the gardens, the urban architecture, and the people.

In a Persian Village, 1913, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Women especially caught his attention, as he saw them “prisoned” in their dresses and harems, bearing the heaviness of the norms of society.

In Persia, Sketch 1913, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Muslim women. Sketch,1934, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Constantinople,Sketch, 1910, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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Portrait of a Persian Woman, 1910, National Gallery of Armenia by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

Sarian created numerous images of Persian and Eastern women

in general, trying to avoid the specific orientalist approach, which was often poeticizing them or turning them into a sexualized or exotic element.

Egyptian Woman, Sketch,1911, Sarian Family collection by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

These women’s gaze is often thoughtful or exhausted but deprived of a sense of drama or romanticized struggle of the Eastern woman.

Though being against the rules of these societies, Sarian represented these women as an organic part of the cultural environment they inhabit, and not as its victims.

Egyptian Women, 1911, Sarian Family collection, Martiros Sarian, From the collection of: Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation
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A Turkish and an Egiptian woman, 1910 National Gallery of Armenia by Martiros SarianYerevan Biennial Art Foundation

His interest was in portraying women monumentalized in their patience and strength, which gave them enough power to continue bearing the life that, from Sarian`s viewpoint, was suppressing them.

Credits: Story

The exhibition presents works of M. Sarian from the collections of the Sarian Family,  The Sarian House Museum (Yerevan, Armenia)The National Gallery of Armenia,  and The State Tretyakov Gallery, also featuring visual materials from The Istanbul Research Institute (Turkey) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY, USA).

Curated by Ella Kanegarian in cooperation with Rouzan and Sophie Sarians.

Special gratitude to the team of editors: Yeva Kurghinyan (Israel), Karim Mahmoud Nabil (Egypt), Anastasiia Lebedenko (Ukraine) for their work. 

Special acknowledgment to Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation for supporting the idea and the project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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