The sisters, Eranuhi (left) and Mariam (right), 1932 di The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan SistersYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan were two remarkable and beloved Armenian women artists of the Soviet era who broke conventions in the male-dominated Soviet visual art world. With their modernist approach, eclectic style, and vibrant international careers, the sisters challenged the patriarchal society of Soviet Armenia. Among the great women artists of the 20th century, the Aslamazyan sisters are in a league of their own.
The native home of the Aslamazyan family in the village of Bash-Shirak. di The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan SistersYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Mariam and Eranuhi were born in 1907 and 1910 respectively in Bash-Shirak, a village in the Armenian-populated Kars province of the Russian Empire. The province was handed over to Turkey in 1918 after World War I and the Aslamazyan family, like much of the population of the Kars province, migrated to the city of Alexandropol (modern-day Gyumri) and its nearby villages. The Aslamazyans formed a “fairy tale family,” as Mariam called it, with seven sisters and one brother. The children were raised by wealthy parents striving for modernity. Their father, Arshak, mastered the craft of building flour mills, importing new technologies from Germany to Armenia. Their mother, Varduhi, portrayed in an array of the sisters’ canvases, was a fervent supporter of their education and social emancipation.
The sisters were exposed to the humanities from an early age. They grew up in an intellectual environment as their father liked to host academics at home. Renowned architects, archaeologists, artists, historians and linguists regularly gathered around the family table.
Just two years into the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920), the Soviet Red Army conquered the nation and the sisters’ father, Arshak Aslamazyan, quickly embraced the socialist ideology. However, soon afterwards, he was persecuted by the Bolshevik authorities, who had started the process of dekulakization to guarantee collectivization. As a kulak (a term referring to property owning peasants with more than eight acres of land), Arshak Aslamazyan’s lands were taken from him. This plunged the family into poverty, but did not stop Arshak and Varduhi pushing for a formal education for their children.
Yerevan, 1950 di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
The sisters’ international careers started early with their art education beginning at the Alexandropol Painting School (the first art school in Transcaucasia, founded in 1905), which played an important role in securing their future artistic careers. Both sisters then moved to Yerevan to receive their academic education at the Artistic-Industrial College. Here, they studied under professors Stepan Aghadjanyan and Sedrak Arakleyan, two prominent figures of 20th-century Armenian fine arts. The sisters continued their artistic studies abroad in Moscow and Leningrad. Although they were both trained in the academic traditions of both Western and Russian visual art and influenced by the modernist movements, their palettes and compositions also drew on the rich traditions of painting from their native country, Armenia.
In the late 1930s, the sisters began to participate in many exhibitions within the USSR republics and abroad. One such was the Soviet Woman in the Arts exhibition organized in Paris in 1948.
Their prolific careers spanned more than 50 years, during which time they travelled to, and exhibited in, dozens of countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Caucasus and the Middle East. They were laureates of many awards and received medals for their art, for their work as public figures, and as cultural ambassadors actively contributing to better diplomatic relations between the USSR and other countries.
In addition to their painting work, the sisters collaborated with several Russian theatres on stage and costume designs, created graphic works and illustrations for literary publications, and worked as costume designers on an Armenian film production.
"Beauty is in the eyes of those who see it“ Indira Gandhi
“In 1973, I met Indira Gandhi. She impressed me a lot. She was a very elegant woman. When I approached her, she held my hand like a mistress. I could not hear, I was looking at her and painting her unique eyes – very smart, thoughtful, with a cry of sadness, but at the same time with a very strong will, brave. Surprisingly combining female charm and masculine will. I admired her. I asked, "How do you manage to keep such a feminine charm when doing such hard work?" After the translation, she smiled and replied very wisely: "Beauty is in the eyes of those who see it.””
THE SISTERS' MUSEUM IN GYUMRI'S HISTORIC DISTRICT
The sisters established their personal gallery in 1987 in their native Gyumri and donated more than 600 of their original paintings, ceramics and graphic works. The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters holds the largest collection of the sisters’ works of any museum in the world. It is the only museum named after female artists – and devoted to female artists – in Armenia.
The two-storey house was built in 1880 by wealthy merchants, the famous Keshishov family from Gyumri, as their private house. It is a striking example of 19th-century urban architecture, with its typical tuff structure, a luxurious inner courtyard and wooden balcony. Due to its iconic architecture, the building was included in the Kumayri Museum-Reserve in 1980 on the list of state-owned historical and cultural heritage sites.
ODE TO WOMEN'S EMPOWERMENT
As two liberated female artists, the Aslamazyan sisters continually depicted women in their oeuvre in their own distinctive styles, raising issues related to female identity, status and the moral codes of a traditional patriarchal society. At the core of their visual narratives was a thrust to represent the diversity of female subjects. They constantly challenged the stereotypes of women as passive members of society, endowing their female figures with agency and determination.
The Aslamazyan sisters settled in Moscow in 1943 but paid regular visits back home to their native Armenia. As the first generation of Soviet-Armenian artists, their career covers the entire history of the USSR (1922-1991).
The sisters’ art evolved within and beyond the officially-sanctioned socialist-realist style. Socialist realism aimed at propagandizing communist ideology and the Soviet state through highly optimistic and idealized representations of Soviet life, its political leaders and the proletariat.
Following the Five-Year Plan launched in 1928 by Joseph Stalin, the Soviet republics saw the development of heavy industry, the collectivization of agriculture into cooperative state farms called kolkhoz, and the elimination of all ‘bourgeois’ elements of society.
To the Defense Front, 1946 di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Eranuhi’s large-scale painting To the Defense Front brilliantly reflects this doctrine, depicting as it does the beautiful Armenian mountainous landscape and showcasing abundance through the harvested food. Vivid colours lend the scene a sense of frivolity, though it shows nothing more than goods being gathered during World War II.
Mariam and Eranuhi produced a number of oil on canvas and graphic works depicting female tobacco workers in Armenia. Mariam’s The Tobacco Workers of Armenia (1940) colour lithograph speaks to the glorification of collective human labour that had become a prominent theme of Soviet Realism. With her play of gentle red and greens, the artist invites us into this collective scene, where women from three generations with their bustling teamwork are strategically arranged around the pile of tobacco. This arrangement creates a circular dance-like movement in the painting, leading our eye directly into the heart of manual collective labour and production.
The sisters also created propagandist images of political leaders, such as Mariam’s 1940 colour lithograph The Carpet Makers from Armenia. Here, the artist portrays Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as a glorified hero through a dedicated traditional carpet woven by a group of Armenian carpet weavers. Although the work serves as propaganda for the dictatorship of the communist leader, Mariam interwove detailed ethnographic elements of the craft of carpet weaving and its women workers: the traditional loom, yarn spinning, the carpet map and the bright traditional clothing of the women.
THE MEDIUM OF EDUCATION
As both sisters had received and completed an advanced education, they were especially aware of the importance of showcasing women in pursuit of higher education. The sisters created a series of portraits of students in Armenia as well as those in countries they had visited on their many international trips, such as India. These portraits of students – always accompanied with one or a series of textbooks – are significant as they are both empowering and beautiful. The portraits also highlight the increasing importance of higher education in the world and its impact on modern societies.
Portrait of a Student, 1971 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Student from Delhi, 1970 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Two Generations, 1983 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
CULTURAL AMBASSADORS OF THE SOVIET UNION
Mariam and Eranuhi spent most of their lives in Russia and Armenia and were among those privileged artists sent on diplomatic missions abroad to promote the Soviet Union. Through their overseas journeys, the sisters exhibited their art and created travel series depicting an array of thematic subjects, from landscapes of foreign lands to striking portraits of contemporary life. Each of them detail the folk and ethnographic aspects of national culture and the diversity of women's social status and professional pursuits.
Born into a family of seven children in the Armenian village of Bash-Shirak, Mariam and Eranuhi’s childhood images were imprinted on their memories. They portrayed a series of thematic portraits, landscapes and still life from Armenia which were dedicated to the traditional lifestyle and the importance of oral traditions and collective memory, often effected by women in the family. These works record both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the past and highlight the multifaceted role of women in contemporary society.
Interior of an Old Armenian Home, 1942 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Reminiscenes about Life, 1960 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
“What if a person did not have a dream? The dream is the beginning of creation. The dream is the future.”
Mariam Aslamazyan, 2001
Dreams di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
A TRIBUTE TO MOTHERHOOD
Varduhi Aslamazyan fervently supported her daughters in their careers and artistic endeavours, and she was an important and strong figure to both Mariam and Eranuhi. Both of the sisters portrayed their beloved mother in their artworks several times throughout their lives. In the 1965 Mother’s Portrait, Mariam depicted her mother in a serene and meditative position. On the wall behind her, Mariam has included one of her own paintings of women in a harvesting scene signifying her mother’s support of her daughters’ work. Letters received from the children are seen next to her, suggesting frequent communication between them, and an enduring closeness.
Mariam portrayed Armenian writer Aksel Bakunts and his mother Boghtchagyul, as a gift of thanks to the writer after her visit to Goris. The mesmerizing rock cave dwellings of Old Goris fill the background, tying both figures to their home in the Syunik region of southern Armenia.
The Aslamazyan sisters were also accomplished ceramicists. Starting in the 1950s, the sisters began working more regularly with glazed ceramics and produced a number of decorative pottery pieces which were often depicted in their paintings. The decorative forms on Mariam's ceramics tended to be images of harvested fruits, almost like three dimensional still lifes. She also painted portraits of fellow Armenians and the diverse individuals she met during her international trips. Eranuhi's style was more intimate and sensual.
Mother of Many Children, 1971 di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Eranuhi's vase depicting motherhood from 1971 entitled “Mother of Many Children” embodies the feeling of love. The vase represents the mother, and the small cups are her children. If water is poured into the vase, it will start to pour evenly into the smaller cups from the vase, similar to the love a mother has for all of her children.
Mariam created a series of plates illustrated with pomegranates. The symbolism and iconography of pomegranates dates back to ancient times and they are still the most recognizable symbol of Armenia today. Representing fertility, abundance, and prosperity, pomegranates were worshiped as the fruit of the tree of life. During the medieval period, pomegranates were widey used in Armenian architectural ornamentation, illuminated manuscripts, and on stone carvings. Mariam's pomegranate plates are an embodiment of womanhood, conveying both the mythological qualities and the formal aspects of the fruits through their shape and colour.
An Egyptian Woman, 1971 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
An Armenian Woman, 1960 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
An Armenian Girl from Aparan, 1971 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Liquor Set di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Coffee Pots di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Sugar bowl, plates and 5 cups, 1961 di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
MUSINGS ON TIME
The focus on women as subjects and creators is undoubtedly one of the most significant characteristics of the rich body of work the sisters produced. They shed light on the maternal and caring aspects of women, but also on their intellectual and creative endeavours, their contributions to social change and to the modernization of societies. The sisters also chose subjects and depicted details that highlight women's femininity and sensuality through the pose of the sitters, rich adornments and costumes, and the striking gaze.
Throughout their careers, both sisters produced numerous self-portraits, sometimes alone, sometimes with the other, or through different ages. These remarkable works celebrate their independence and differences whilst documenting the passage of time, the process of empowerment, the challenges they encountered and their achievements – over almost a century of outstanding artistic achievements.
Self-Portrait։ Three Ages, 1974 di Eranuhi AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
Portrait of Different Years, 1976 di Mariam AslamazyanYerevan Biennial Art Foundation
The exhibition presents collections from The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters (Gyumri, Armenia); Vanadzor Fine Arts Museum (Vanadzor, Armenia); Dilijan Local Lore Museum and Art Gallery (Dilijan, Armenia); Aksel Bakunts House Museum (Goris, Armenia).
Photo credits: Areg Balayan for My Armenia Program
Exhibition curated by Nairi Khatchadourian