Paradjanov’s Home of the Imagination
~~James Steffen, friend and colleague, informs us on his FB page that today is Paradjanov’s ninetieth birthday. Steffen is the author of the recently published The Cinema of Sergei Paradjanov. So, this is an opportune moment to re-post one of my articles on Paradjanov who still delights and mystifies his viewers, long after the demise of the USSR, which was his adversary but also the enabler of his extraordinary body of work. His imagination has also found a home in the Paradjanov Museum, one of Yerevan’s jewels, whose conception and contents continue to attract large numbers of visitors, both local and foreign.
Over the years, I have penned some half a dozen pieces of writing about Paradjanov, the film-maker, collage artist, and political trouble-maker and renegade. Below is a review I wrote for artsMedia, a Boston news magazine which has since ceased publication, about a Paradjanov exhibition that took place at the Armenian Library and Museum in Watertown, MA. , November-December 1999.~~
Between November 7 and December 14, the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown will exhibit “Works by the Master: The Art of Sergei Paradjanov.” Fifty-six pieces of art work and collages by the Soviet film-maker, on loan from the Paradjanov Home-Museum in Yerevan, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Armenia, will be displayed. This is the first time that anything from that extraordinary museum half way around the world has come to our shores, although small exhibits have traveled to Europe and Japan.
U.S. viewers familiar with Paradjanov know him as one of the two (Andrei Tarkovsky was the other) truly great Soviet film-makers of post-World War II cinema. In Soviet Armenian cinema, Paradjanov and Ardavazd Peleshian are towering figures, whose work is as original as it is hard to fix to a particular style or school.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Paradjanov made some of the most innovative films of Soviet cinema. When he died in 1990, he had completed a mere handful of great works — Shadows of Fogotten Ancestors, Hagop Hovnatanian, The Color of Pomegranate, Ashik Kerib, The Fortress of Suram — which, over the years, have lost none of their luxuriant beauty, formal complexity, and intricate cultural references.
But the Museum reveals the messy home of Paradjanov’s imagination, his kitchen and backyard, where method and material, biographical minuteia and grand design inhabit a shared space. The more than 400 pieces the Museum houses are an unruly assortment of dolls and puppet-like figures, mixed media assemblages, engravings, hats, pencil and ball-point sketches, flower arrangements, visual re-creations of Caucasian folk-tales, illustrations of Biblical and film scenes, homoerotic drawings — all arranged in a two-story building of arched rooms and discrete corners which try to re-create the atmosphere of Paradjanov’s ancestral home in Tbilis, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The materials employed in these often whimsical works include a wild array of quotidian objects — everything from silk fabric, to postcards, to felt, to peacock feathers, to fruit seeds, to beads, to shoe laces, to bottle tops, to scraps of metal, to magazine clippings and more.
Although the traditional museum environment is no match to the luminous interiors of the home-museum in Yerevan, and the ALMA exhibition is a mere shadow of the real thing, still it is an arresting display of the film-maker’s other life. The show is curated by Zaven Sargsian, the director of the Paradjanov Museum, himself an ethnographer and accomplished landscape photographer. Sargsian has chosen carefully and intelligently with an eye to presenting as broad a spectrum of the master’s work as possible.
Given the limitations under which Sargsian and ALMA have labored, the present show is quite an achievement. Over the past 25 years the enthusiasm surrounding Paradjanov’s work has been primarily a European, particularly French and Italian, phenomenon. Paradjanov is not that well-known among North Americans, at least not as a visual artist. Sargsian has emphasized the continuity between the films and the visual art by including sketches of scenes from Ashik Kerib and The Color of Pomegranates, as well as Confession which Paradjanov began shooting when he knew he was dying, and the unfilmed Hamlet and H. C. Anderson’s Tales. He has also chosen some works whose sub-text will be familiar to viewers here, such as pieces from the wonderful and irreverent Giaconda series, as well as Variations with Shell on Themes of Pinturiccio and Raphael, and others.
Then there’s the problem of the works themselves — endangered in more ways than one. Many of the collages are very fragile. The harsh Armenian winters of 1992-95 when the country had no electricity, heat, or water have taken their toll on the museum itself as well as these playful, capricious creations. Paradjanov’s method of handicraft was also risk-ridden: The components — peacock feathers and lace and tinfoil and fruit seeds dried flowers and wire — are often attached to each other with cheap, unreliable glue and held precariously at odd angles. For this reason, the curator has tried to maitain a balance between the art work and the collages, although the collages are clearly what will attract the attention of viewers here.
Still, the collection at ALMA is coherent and faithful to the master’s method and sensibility. We are in the presence of Paradjanov as improvisor rather than architect, as choreographer of life’s debris rather than craftsman of art-films, as street-smart artisan rather than noble artist. In this much smaller universe as in the Yerevan museum, Paradjanov is presented as the creator of a hybrid genre which hovers playfully between a curious kind of Caucasian camp and a more autobiographical meditation. The Watertown exhibit does not include the autobiographical cluster of familial collages — My Father’s Amusing and Unusual Life, The Walnut Marmalade of My Grandmother or My Mother in Fur — , but one of its major components is devoted to the works which came out of Paradjanov’s experiences in the Soviet penal system. During his imprisonment in Ukrainian jails, in the 1970s, Paradjanov was a floor sweeper. His broom brought him in contact with all sorts of trash, some of which made its way into the collages, such as Daler made from milk bottle lids which he engraved with his fingernails and Stamps. There’s also a series of quick sketches dedicated to his prison friends and experiences, including the sorrowful Shroud for a Dead Thief and My Prison Friend.
Paradjanov’s improvisational method may not be as striking here at it would be in these works’ original home, but even in the ALMA exhibit the transformative impulse which fuels the works can be seen in more modest ways. This method has deep roots in Paradjanov’s personality, the lore of the region, and the limitations which his life-experiences placed on him. In life as in art, Paradjanov was a great performer, a pauseur who turned everything he touched into something else. He loved exchange and befriended not only pawnshop owners but thieves and gravediggers. His imagination, in a work such as The Night Bird of Tarkovsky or in the Gioconda variations is alchemical, his touch velour-like, and his intent often subvervise.
But Paradjanov was also a man of deep loyalties, and his art and films are imbued with generosity not only toward outcasts and marginal people but his friends and influences as well. In life, he was not afraid to pay homage to them, though he too was afflicted with that corrosive malady of the truly talented among Soviet artists: an extremely inflated sense of self and achievement. Still, his friends Tarkovsky and Fellini, and one of his artistic mentor, Hagop Hovnatanian, the nineteenth century portraitist of Tbilisi, are present here, although his transformative method turns homage into something much more inocuous.
If the completed films are the grand terminus of Paradjanov’s labors, then the visual art shows the workings and reworkings of the artist’s hands as they paste, patch, sew, sketch, bind, paint, engrave, and draw. In some ways, the latter may turn out to leave a more lasting effect on the viewer: Because we are physically nearer to it, the visual art radiates a strange intimacy which the films often lack or stylize; because it is so imperfect, weathered and corrupt, so beaten and pounded by life, it speaks in a boisterous but tender voice.