Day 9 – Yerevan

‘Jesus’s Swollen Armpits’, or ‘Stop Your Horsing Around’ –
a Dominatrix Guide to Manuscript History.

If one is to review an ancient, distant history, one cannot help but do so through the lens of the current, through a kind of parallel contemporary – the result of an evolution, or a lack there-of.

This blog entry is focussed on a visit to The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, or the ‘Matenadaran’. It is a repository of ancient manuscripts, a research institute and museum in Yerevan, Armenia. As is to be expected, it is a museum with its own turbulent history, and with it a whirlpool of confusing subjectmatter. Here are but a few, extracted and paired in an associative mess, in order to explore how objects live, and indeed how they come to represent their time.

First off, I am reprimanded by our guide for making a video. This is in fact not espionage on my part, but a peripheral hobby developed in order to document the behaviour of our captivating  “curator, critic and consultant” Toke Lykkeberg. As sad as it is, I sort of comply to media restrictions- willingly confronted by the attributes of what becomes clear as a dominatrix museum figure. Commanding with a pointer-stick, worn flat through years of use, she taps a kind of morse upon the museum glass of each display case. Wonderfully enlightened and commanding, she navigates a path through history, keeping us all glued to the artefacts at hand. Did I mention she clasps this stick kind of how one would a horse-whip?

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Our wonderful guide, Matenadaran, Armenia

First item of interest, a gouache-like painting by Grigor Khlatetsi 1417 (complete with shoes, belt, hat and blush rendered in cochineal, a pigment made of crushed insects).

The image shows a child and his friend, ready to receive a form of corporal punishment, administered by a man with a curiously bent stick. Our guide elaborates (from what I recall) “If a child will not learn through their ears, they shall then learn through their neck and back”. Nice job. Setting an appropriate tone for both the day and our trip as a whole, the flow is a consistent line through a series of violences experienced by Armenia. From elaborate tortures administered by the Turks (see “Turkish Cruelties upon the Armenian Christians” from the genocide museum) to the interventions of Russia, the Armenians clearly come to light as a victim nation, one with inconveniently ambitious and ensuing neighbours, somehow only saved by their geographic boundaries, consisting of large fortressing mountains.

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Teaching in Armenian Medieval School, Grigor Khlatetsi, Ms. of 1417 

Enter the next manuscript painting, marked: “Gospel, Ms. of 1453, scribe Stepanos”.
This is Jesus on the cross, complete with bloated arm-pits, a kind of equivalent upside down set of water-wing arm bands, ready for a swim. I cannot help but couple this with ol’ Vladimir, from the nature exploration series cir. 2006. From this image, you can see an elevated Vladimir Putin – in attack mode, a powerful butterfly stance. Jesus be like, what-ev’a. This is somehow how Armenia postures, it shrugs and gets on with life in general. Caucasus for sure, yet ever so Balkan. I’m still learning.

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Jesus, on the cross: “Gospel, Ms. of 1453, scribe Stepanos”
Vladimir, in the pond.

On our first day in Armenia, we were greeted by a group of artists, one of whom gave me a short history lesson on Armenian war-times whilst puffing away a chain-series of fags. He was basically laying out the double-standards of Russian weapons sales to both Armenia and Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh War (late 1980s to May 1994), an action which fanned the flames of war, creating simultaneous wealth (for the Russians) and poverty (for both Armenia and Azerbaijan) from the resulting conflict. One is reminded of former possessiveness of the Soviet Union, and indeed the continued volatility of the region as a whole.

At the outbreak of World War I, the majority of manuscripts from Armenia were sent to Moscow for safekeeping and were kept there for the duration of the war. This make me wonder just what happened during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Were they moved again, or were the vaults secure? Just how does one layout a chronology as an imperial weapons supplier and subsequent manuscript safe-keeper?

1) flame escalation
2) remove manuscripts
3) arm both sides to the teeth.

or:

1) remove manuscripts
2) flame escalation
3) arm both sides to the teeth.

or probably the most risky of versions:

1) arm both sides to the teeth.
2) flame escalation
3) remove manuscripts

Stop your horsing around schmucks. A healthy horse has a healthy brain, not to mention a sense of decency – read about it here, in the book of horse physiology, our next fine example from the halls of manuscript excellence:

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Faraj (13th c.) Horses medical book, Sis, Ms. of 1296-1298.

If it is animal health you are interested in, I can but only mention the Homilies of Mush. But of course, the Homilies of Mush. This is a manuscript consisting of 605 lambs skins, supposedly a preference of the time, over papyrus or the like, for austerity measures – you understand? Homilies of Mush. Much Mush Mush. Mush Mush Mush Mush. Much more Mush than one would expect of Mush.

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Central spine of the Homilies of Mush.
Ms. of 1200-1202, Yerzynka, scribe Vardan, painter Hovhannes.

It is around this time that attentive (and very handsome) curator Samuel Leuenberger draws our attention to a typical drinking glass, hidden away in the back of a display case. It is clear it was once holding water, as it shows incremental mineral deposits, clearly seen as rings along its length. Our dominatrix guide describes this as the humidity control system, and swivel pivots, raising her stick towards a thermometer panel on the wall behind her. This panel has no apparent historical reading, it is merely a common outdoor thermometer, the kind you would buy in a Chinese store. Due to the primitive nature of this climate control, it at once becomes evident, we are in fact viewing a very elaborate series of copies of manuscripts whilst the originals are remotely under lock and key! Way to go!

The cup, the horse. The cup the horse. Oh yes, the sculpture on the public square in Yerevan. But of course!! The cup and horse sculpture. Quick interjection here: the museum we visited just after the Matenadaran is the private biographical museum of Yervand Kochar, the artist who realised a large horse sculpture, complete with a symbolic cup originally intended to be holding a body of water. This cup is however tilted, and the water continually spilling, hence illustrating the upset of the nation and a call to arms. The horse is alert, ready to carry the soldier forward to strike. Then there is the dried up cup in the museum, not-at-all balancing the humidity of a copy of an ancient manuscript. It’s all quite mysterious. Its all a copy and a farce, but with real gravity, like the real water which has created a kind of rust stain down the pedestal of Kochar’s horse sculpture.

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Sasuntsi Davit Statue, Yervand Kochar, 1959

Being able to video in the Kochar Museum, I was lucky enough to capture the engaging conversation between curator, critic and consultant Toke Lykkeberg and the museum staff, together with the grandchild of the artist himself. Lykkeberg draws comparisons to the work of Picasso, and of course the war-scene of Geurnica. Is Kochar perhaps a plagiarist of Picasso, is Geurnica doomed to be repeated in the Armenian context? Which ever way you turn, the role of the horse in warfare is pertinent, a recurring vehicle throughout history, as is the copy. This rounds up my report, all events which basically took place before lunch. Granted Lykkeberg permission, the video extract can be seen here.

Toke Lykkeberg in conversation with museum staff and grandchild of artist Yervand Kochar.

By James Beckett


Kochar Museum
On our third day in Yerevan and after just visiting the city’s main jewel, the museum of manuscript we made ourselves over to the Kochar Museum, a private collection of painter and sculptor Yervand Kochar, one of the country’s most export hit. As a young artist he was in Paris in the early 20th century and together with Picasso, Leger and co mingled in the Paris avant-garde where often he was also shown in good company.

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Today we are seeing his legacy which is overseen by his grand-daughter, in a building with classical marble columns and gallery rooms, there is a team of 5-6 women art historians welcoming us to get to know the work better. First we were sat before a TV to watch a documentary on the artist’s early part of his life, his years spent in France before looking at his individual works which had the air of an impressionist, postimpressionist, post-cubic Era. A painter with a visible knowledge of his medium, his most impressive works where his paintings in space. Metal bend sculptures, painted on all sides he liked to portray the two sides of the coin or what he observed in-between. Androgynous figures, between man and woman, between David and Goliath, or other symbolic characters he took quite a classical stance at historical figures.

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Despite the city’s support of Kochar and his art, we also saw a huge public art sculpture by him nearby, the foundation realised that history has been re-written without him in it, so the first mission statement of the museum was to show the breath and talent he brought to Paris and the legacy he was part of. Again we were saturated by sweets and coffee and shown around the gift shop, which in part was a re-construction of the artist’s studio at home. There was a clear sense that an international collaboration with the curators in the group was wished for, to reconnect to an international reading of the oeuvre.

One of most crucial figure of Armenian Modern art, Kochar is sculptor and painter who has been a member of International Paris School at 20-30, signed or wrote some manifests with surrealists.

By Samuel Leuenberger


Cafesjian center of Arts / Crystal Palace Heaven
We meet at the impressive entrance of The Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The museum opened in November 2009 and has since had 1 million visitors – everybody that enters the premises are counted – and 90% of the institution’s spaces are free to the public.

The very kind Mr. Astghik Marabyan (chef curator) welcomes us all. The building looks promising, it is built into the hill and has a slight resemblance to pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It looks promising.

The kind Mr. Astghik Marabyan starts his guided tour of The Cafesjian Center for the Arts in the gift shop. We are told it is not just a gift shop, not just a museum store, but also an exhibition space. We experience their unique teapot exhibition! The teapots are not for sale we are informed. The shopkeeper explains how they sell objects and merchandise from all over the world, including the most known Armenian glass artist. Through collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum they sell Van Gogh silk scarfs. They also have umbrellas with images by Monet and Klimt.

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The museum is inspired by the vision of its founder, Gerard L. Cafesjian, the Center offers a wide variety of exhibitions, including a selection of important work from the Gerard L. Cafesjian Collection of contemporary art.
The following images present the collection, institution and exhibitions like Yerevan Collectors’ Choice series 3, In the Mind of the Collector and Cafesjian Sculpture Garden.

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The last part of the tour is the Swarovski Crystal Palace Exhibition, where hundreds of Swarovski crystals are displayed as sculpture-like objects and installations.

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The official statement on the museum website states: “The Cafesjian Center for the Arts is dedicated to bringing the best of contemporary art to Armenia and presenting the best of Armenian culture to the world.” Some might say.

Outside the museum:

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Jacob Fabricius


KultuurDialog Armanien presentation and diner
Later that evening we had a meeting with KultuurDialog Armanien and had diner with the team of KultuurDialog Armanien.
KulturDialog Armenien is a non-governmental and non-profit foundation with cultural orientation. It was founded and registered by the art historian Sona Harutyunyan in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, on June 15th, 2012.

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The objective of Foundation KulturDialog Armenien is to support cultural exchange and to establish a dialogue between Armenian and non-Armenian artists. Our aim is to strengthen this exchange and make it accessible to a national and international audience. Our highest priority is to make Armenian artists and their art better known – in Armenia but also abroad. Ideally, this is the beginning of a constant and constructive dialogue all participants will benefit from and which will open new perspectives for all aspects of the art business. For more information have a look at there website.

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We ended with a great diner.

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