Shadows of forgotten ancestors

Yerevan’s unparalleled Parajanov Museum is home to the sumptuous, kaleidoscopic collages of film director and mythic artist Sergei Parajanov

Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, sits on the Hrazdan River, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, visible across the closed border with Turkey. Its history dates back to the foundation of the citadel of Erebuni by King Argishti I in 782 BC. 

Country: Armenia
Area: 223 km2 (86 sq mi) Population: 1,060,138
Time zone: GMT +4

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Above, Variation with Shell on the Theme of Pinturicchio and Rafael (1988).

In 1974, the great Soviet-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov was arrested, expelled from the Union of Cinematographers of the USSR and sentenced to five years in a gulag. Released early, in 1977, thanks to the mediation of Louis Aragon and Lili Brik, he was precluded from living in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev or Yerevan and forbidden from making films. Parajanov returned to Tbilisi, where he had been born, in the city’s large Armenian community, and began work on a series of collages.

“I was not allowed to make films and so I started to make collages,” he later said. “A collage is a compressed film.” The works, made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, comprise an important body of work and today are held by the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan. The series of bricolages has been seen by many as offering a fresh window onto his films, the juxtaposition of images that brings his historical vision startlingly into the frame.

“He makes collages, dolls, hats, drawings, or something that you may call ‘design’,” his friend and mentor Andrei Tarkovsky said. “There is much more to it, though: it is infinitely more talented and noble; it is real art. What is the secret of its beauty? The spontaneity. When an idea strikes him, he does not engage in planning, arranging or estimating how to do it in the best possible way. There is no difference between an idea and its implementation; there is no time to lose anything between the cracks. The emotion that triggered creation turns into something finite without a single drop spilled. It gets through in its original pureness, spontaneity, and naivety.”

Perhaps no director has better addressed the connection between myth and film, between legend and the cinematic. In his collages and films, Parajanov is concerned precisely with this form of arranging history, mythology and symbology with each other to create a powerfully moving whole. The collages can sometimes seem like frustrated attempts at films, suppressed energies exploding into a new type of frame. Behind them lie the shadows of the gulag. As Parajanov told Tarkovsky, “There might be something lacking in your art, and it’s that you haven’t spent at least a year in Soviet prison. Being in total darkness, hungry and full of lice, man begins to think differently about the universe, to experience differently the sunlight, life.” §

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Sergei Parajanov Museum.

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Clockwise, stills from The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985); Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965); Ashik Kerib (1988); Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme (1985).

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Left, Fortune Teller, sketch for The Demon film (1987). Right, Repentance, dedicated to Vasili Katanyan (1989); My Father’s Portrait Torn Apart Out of Jealousy (1983-84). Parajanov would say that after his father’s death, his mother found letters from his mistresses and tore up his portrait in a bout of jealousy. The image of Parajanov’s mother has a special place in his art. (Visitors to his exhibitions were said to have commented that there were too many of her photos.) Parajanov even used her clothes to make the collage My Mother’s Robe.

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Above, top, Prayer for Hovnatanyan (early 1980s). In 1967, while working on The Color of Pomegranates in Yerevan, Parajanov made an eight-minute documentary about Hakob Hovnatanyan (1806-81), an Armenian portraitist who lived and worked in Tbilisi. The collage is a recollection of the documentary. Below, I Sold the Dacha (1985). The collage is laid over the typographer Yuri Kurbatov’s photograph. In 1981, Parajanov bought part of a house (dacha) in Dzalisi, 50 kilometres from Tbilisi. He used it to receive guests in unique style. Locals would attend these receptions, which were much like theatrical performances, some sitting in one corner to watch Parajanov’s one-man shows. He later sold the dacha. Right, Weeping Gioconda (1977). The frames were added at a later stage. “If I die in confinement, Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] will mourn over me,” Parajanov said when he sent the collage to friends. Special thanks to Rowena Loverance.