The Rich Hues of Armenia’s Heart
By Daniel McKinney
Special to the Moscow Times

After a trek up to the seventh floor, Yuri Grigoryan’s visitors find themselves in a spartan room looking down on a surprisingly serene central Moscow, which, from that height, looks more like a village than a metropolis.

The impression of standing atop a craggy peak is all the more resonant when Grigoryan starts talking about thi tiny ethnic Armenian village which has been the primary inspiration for his work – work that has made him one of the best-known living Armenian artists.

“I love Russia”, said Grigoryan, “but there are other places that are still closer to my heart.”

The artist’s childhood spent in rural Azerbaijan and his people’s struggle with war infuse a new exhibit at the Ostozhenka 16 gallery devoted solely to his work – the first of its kind in over eight years. The exhibit is a homecoming of sorts for grigoryan, 49, who has lived in Moscow since 1970, but traveled extensively with his work, even during Soviet times.

Grigoryan was born in the small town of Tsovatekh in the predominantly Armenian region of Nagorny Karabakh, and his paintings offer a glimpse into the village’s life. Swathed in long scarves and robes, a group of women peer out of a painting with sad cool eyes. Villagers and animals populate canvases which often also include cottages, churches and mountains. Grigoryan’s vision shows a deep sensitivity to the harmony of landscape, livestock, and people. His technique is slightly abstract and gives the paintings a dreamy quality, like a distant memory. Still, the style is vivid and the spirit of that rural community and its inhabitants shines through each of Grigoryan’s paintings.

Alive in Grigoryan’s work are not only the sweet colors and rhythm of village life, but also a sense of grief.

“After the war began, I went through a dark period.” said Grigoryan, referring to the continuing fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan for his native Nagorny Karabakh. “For a few years, I only mixed dark colors on my palette. I had to look hard inside myself for a while before I found bright colors again.”

In response to the war, the painter created a whole series of works that retell the story of pain and human loss with simplicity and poignancy. One such work is entitled “Requiem.” By comparison with his recent brighter work – which is found at the current exhibit – this painting’s colors are somber. “Requiem” depicts a group of scene of chaos and loss, an apparition of a candle hovers over dark mountains behind a ruined village. The painting is a tribute to hope as well as the folly of war.

“Some people write poems or lead demonstrations to fight evil,” said Grigoryan. “My way is to paint.”

At the new exhibit’s recent opening, three rooms of paintings were filled beyond capacity with friends and fans. It’s a festive occasion, yet there is a pathos woven into the bright colors of Grigoryan’s pictures that causes visitors to linger. Paraphrasing a piece of classic Communist rhetoric, Nona Zaitseva, the gallery’s curator, offered a toast to the artist who is “national in form, and spiritual in content.”

Grigoryan’s paintings are not only a portrayal of the artist’s home and its history; they also record his search for cultural and spiritual roots, roots which are deeply grounded in Armenia, but spread across borders into Russia and beyond.

“To me, the purpose of art is found in its ability to awaken a sence of spiritual awareness in people,” said Grigoryan. “By seeing pictures infused with beauty and harmony, the soul is delighted, one’s spirit is raised.”