Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Birth of Vardges Sureniants (February 27, 1860)

A multifaceted artist and intellectual, Vardges Sureniants is considered the founder of Armenian historical painting. He was born in Akhaltskha (Akhaltsikhe), in modern-day Georgia, on February 27, 1860. His father Hakop was a priest who taught religious history. After their family moved to Simferopol, in Crimea, in 1868, his father was appointed to the Armenian diocese in Moscow. This gave young Sureniants an opportunity to study at the prestigious Lazarian School from 1870-1875.
From early on, the future artist showed his interest and aptitude for the arts. He furthered his education at the department of Architecture of the Moscow Art School (1875-1878). He went to Munich (Germany), and after a year at the department of Architecture of the Academy of Fine Arts (1879), he made a crucial shift and studied at the department of Painting for the next five years until 1885.
Sureniants became interested in caricatures and sketches during his years at the Lazarian School. In Munich, some of his caricatures were published in the Fliegende Blätter magazine.
The painter traveled to Italy in 1881 and visited Venice, including the island of San Lazzaro. In the library of the Mekhitarist Congregation he studied Armenian fine arts and manuscripts. In 1883 he published his first article, about Armenian architecture, in the daily Meghu Hayastani of Tiflis.
After his return to Russia, in 1885–87 he traveled to Persia as a member of the scientific expedition led by Valentin Zhukovski, a professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Saint Petersburg. They visited the cities of Tabriz, Tehran, and Shiraz, and Sureniants spent several months in Ispahan. Afterwards, he translated William Shakespeare’s play Richard III and sent it to the celebrated Shakespearean actor Bedros Atamian (1849-1891), in Constantinople, to have it produced there. He would later translate Midsummer’s Night Dream and some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He taught painting and general art history at the Gevorgian Seminary of Holy Echmiadzin in 1890-1891.
After 1892 Sureniants participated actively in the artistic, theatrical, and social life of Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Tiflis, and Baku. He visited Ani and Lake Sevan, and became familiar with historical monuments and everyday customs of Armenian rural life. He also studied the Armenian illustrated manuscripts in the repository of the monastery of Holy Echmiadzin. He traveled to France and Spain in 1897-1898.
He has been categorized as a realist painter in his representations of landscapes and historical events, and played an important role in the revival of the Armenian past through art. His paintings would reflect the aesthetic knowledge acquired during his studies and his travels. In 1901 he held a solo exhibition of his works in Baku, which would be his only exhibition in his lifetime. Afterwards, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he worked as a stage decorator until 1915.

Sureniants was also known for his illustrations of famous literary works, such as Ferdowsi’s Shahname, Alexander Pushkin’s The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and works by Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach and Armenian poets Smbat Shahaziz and Alexander Tzaturian.
His famous painting “Salome”(above, left) was included in the exhibition dedicated to the 100 th anniversary of the Academy of Fine Arts of Munich (1912). In 1915 he returned to the Caucasus, and in 1916 he founded the Armenian Artists’ Society, together with Yeghishe Tateosian, Martiros Sarian, and Panos Terlemezian. He also made many paintings of survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
In 1917 Sureniants moved to Yalta, in Crimea, where he was commissioned to draw the decorations for the newly built Armenian cathedral. He decorated the altar (above, right), walls, and dome of the church. However, he suffered a grave illness during his task. He passed away on April 6, 1921, and was buried in the courtyard of the cathedral he had contributed to decorate.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Birth of Ervand Kogbetliantz (February 21, 1888)

His is not a household name, but Ervand Kogbetliantz was an accomplished mathematician and inventor who lived and taught in the United States from the 1940s-1960s.

Ervand George Kogbetliantz was born on February 21, 1888, in the old Armenian community of Nor Nakhichevan (Novo Nakhichevan), in the Northern Caucasus, now part of Rostov-on-the-Don (Russia). We do not know anything about his early years, but it appears that love for mathematics came to him naturally. He studied mathematics at the University of Paris (1907) and graduated from the School of Mathematics at Moscow University (1912), where he taught from 1912-1918. In 1918 he invented one of the oldest forms of three-dimensional chess. He returned to the Northern Caucasus, and taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Ekaterinodar (nowadays Krasnodar) from 1918-1920.

It appears that the newly-opened University of Yerevan, in the fledgling Republic of Armenia, attracted him, and he taught there for a few months. A couple of weeks after Armenia became a Soviet republic, on December 17, 1920, Commissar of Education Ashot Hovhannisian issued a decree about the restructuring of the university, and established an advisory committee presided by Kogbetliantz, which was entrusted with the task.

In 1921 Kogbetliantz left Armenia for France. He obtained a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Paris in 1923. He taught at the Russian High School of Paris in the 1920s and was president of the Union of Geophysicists from 1927-1933.

Kogbetliantz received an invitation from Reza Shah to organize the chairs of mathematics and celestial mechanics at the University of Tehran in 1933, which he also directed until 1938. His efforts were rewarded with the Elmi Order, the highest of Iran.

In 1939 he returned to Paris as a researcher for the National Center of Scientific Research and kept that position until 1942. As many other scholars, he left occupied France and crossed the Atlantic. He taught mathematics at Lehigh University (1942-1944) and then at the New School of Social Research (1944-1954) and Columbia University (1946-1953). Meanwhile, he was a consultant for Standard Oil (1945-1946) and then for IBM (1953-1964). He became a member of the Rockefeller Institute in 1956. 
His mathematical work was mainly on integral equations, the theory of orthogonal polynomials, numerical analysis, gravity and magnetic theories, etcetera. He formulated an algorithm for singular value decomposition which bears his name. He authored close to one hundred scholarly articles and books, some of them in translation ( Fundamentals of Mathematics from an Advanced Viewpoint, 4 volumes, 1968; Handbook of First Complex Prime Numbers, 1971, with Alice Krikorian). He also invented precision devices to measure Earth magnetism, and various analogical and gyroscopic devices. Kogbetliantz was one of the co-creators of the IBM 7030, also known as Stretch, the first transistorized supercomputer created by IBM, which was on sale from 1961-1964.

In 1952 Kogbetliantz’s three-dimensional chess received much media attention, and was described in several articles in Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, and Life, including pictures of his chess set. At his death, he was working with world champion Bobby Fischer on a game of chess for three people. 
He retired in 1964 and moved back to Paris, where he passed away on November 5, 1974.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Death of Rafael Ishkhanyan (February 6, 1995)

Rafael Ishkhanyan was a prominent expert of Armenian language and book history, and also an engaged intellectual in Soviet times and the first years of the second independence.

He was born on March 9, 1922, in Yerevan. His parents, Avetis Kirakosian and Haykanush Ishkhanyan, who had become Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1919, then divorced. Rafael lost his mother at the age of eight, and grew up with his maternal uncle and grandmother, adopting their last name. In 1937 he lost his father, who was shot during the Stalin purges. (He would later marry Burakn Cheraz-Andreasyan, whose parents, Vahan Cheraz, a founder of the Armenian scout movement, and Vartanush were also shot by the Soviet regime in 1928 and 1937.)
In 1939 Rafael Ishkhanyan entered the Faculty of Philology in Yerevan State University. However, he interrupted his studies in 1940 when he was drafted by the Soviet army. He was wounded in World War II, fell prisoner to the German army, and after being released, he returned to the battle front. After the end of the war, he was discharged and returned to his studies. After finishing university in 1949, he left for Moscow, where he also graduated from the Institute of Library Studies in 1954.

From 1955-1963, Ishkhanyan worked in the field of library studies. He entered the Public (now National) Library where he worked as a senior librarian, head of subdivision, and head of division, and also worked at the Matenadaran as director of the scientific library. He also taught at the distance course of the Pedagogical Institute of Armenia. In 1962 he defended his first Ph.D. dissertation about Axel Bakunts (1899-1937), one of the prominent writers killed during the purges. The following year, he entered his alma mater, where he would spend the next thirty years (1963-1992) teaching at the chairs of Armenian language and history of the Armenian language. His main subjects were Armenian contemporary language, dialectology, and history of the language of Armenian literature. He would defend his second Ph.D., “History of the language of modern Armenian literature,” in 1973, and earn the title of professor in 1978. In the late 1970s, Ishkhanyan published some of his major works, Bakunts’ Life and Art (1974), History of the Armenian book (vol. 1) (1977), History of the language of Eastern Armenian poetry (1978), and The New Literary Armenian in the Seventeenth-Eighteenth Centuries (1979).

From the 1960s, two controversial subjects attracted Ishkhanyan’s attention, who published his views whenever possible: the origin of the Armenian people, which he considered autochthonous to the Armenian Plateau, and the restoration of traditional orthography (in replacement of the “reformed” orthography imposed in 1922 and 1940). He would ardently defend his views until the end of his life. Not by chance, his first books published on the subject appeared in the Diaspora, because the views expressed did not make it possible to publish in Soviet Armenia: Our Fundamental Orthographic Question (1983) and The Origin and Earliest History of the Armenians (1984).

When the Karabagh movement started in 1988, Ishkhanyan was also at the forefront of the national issues that were attached to the claims for Karabagh, and particularly the status of the Armenian language in Armenia. He also wrote extensively about political issues, including Armenian-Turkish relations ( The Law of Excluding the Third Force, 1991). He became the editor of “Lousavorich,” a newspaper entirely published in traditional orthography. Two books on his views on Armenian origins were finally published in 1988 ( Questions on the Origin and Earliest History of the Armenian People ) and 1989 ( Armenian Native Words and Earliest Loanwords ). In the 1980s he had serialized a history of the Armenian people for children and teenagers, Armenian Illustrated History, of which the first volume appeared in 1990 (two more volumes would be posthumously published in 1997 and 2004). He published a total of forty books in his life and countless articles.

In 1991 Ishkhanyan was elected a deputy to the Supreme Council (the forerunner to the National Assembly) of Armenia and designated director of the National Library of Armenia. He passed away on February 6, 1995, in Yerevan. The school No. 153 of the Armenian capital now bears his name.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Death of Zabelle Boyajian (January 26, 1957)

Alice Stone Blackwell in the United States and Zabelle Boyajian in England played a central role in the promotion in Armenian literature at the turn of the twentieth century.

Boyajian was born in 1873 in Diarbekir. Her father Thomas was a former Evangelical pastor who had become the British vice-consul in the city. After the death of his first wife, he had remarried to Catherine Rogers, an Englishwoman who was a descendant of poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855). Her parents homeschooled her and taught her history, geography, and several languages (Armenian, English, French, Turkish, German, and Russian). They also instilled in her the love for Armenian and English literature.

During the Hamidian massacres of 1895, Thomas Boyajian was killed by the Turkish mob in Kharpert, where he was spending the summer with his family. His wife, together with their children Zabelle and Henry, relocated to London. Zabelle would spend the rest of her life in the British capital. She enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in University Central London (UCL). In 1901 she published her first work of fiction, the novel Yestere: The Romance of a Life, under the pen name Varteni, to avoid endangering the life of her relatives still living in Constantinople. It was based on the events following the massacres of Sasoun in 1894. The novel was very successful and it was immediately published in German. An Armenian translation remained unpublished, however.

Zabelle would actively devote herself to writing and painting. She wrote important essays on figures of world literature like William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Euripides, but also published essays and many translations of Armenian literature.

She was close to Anna Raffi, widow of the famous Armenian novelist, and her sons Aram (1876-1919) and Arshak. In 1916 she compiled and translated the anthology Armenian Legends and Poems, which had an introduction by Viscount James Bryce and an essay on Armenian literature by Aram Raffi. The anthology was illustrated by her works inspired by Armenian legends.

In the same year, she participated in one of the many commemorative festivals taking place on April 23, 1916, on the occasion of the 300 th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. She recited her personal ode to the Bard, entitled “Armenia’s Love to Shakespeare.” Her poetic tribute was selected, along with 165 others, to be published in A Book of Homage to Shakespeare.

As a painter, Boyajian had individual exhibitions in London in 1910 and 1912, in Germany in 1920, in Egypt in 1928, in France, in Italy, and in Belgium between 1940 and 1950. In 1921 a revised edition of the Armenian translation of Hamlet, by Hovhannes Masehian, was printed in Vienna, illustrated by her.

She published her most important work, Gilgamesh: A Dream of the Eternal Quest, a dramatic rendering in poetic form of the tale of the mythical Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, in 1924. She traveled widely and in 1938 published her travel notes and illustrations of Greece, In Greece with Pen and Palette . This was followed by a play, Etchmiadzin, in 1943, which was performed in New York in 1946. Two years later, she published her translation of Avetik Isahakian’s epic poem Abu Lala Mahari.

Zabel Boyajian passed away on January 26, 1957. Her Armenian Legends and Poems, which had been out of print since its first publication, was reprinted in 1958 in London and New York. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Birth of Lord Byron (January 22, 1788)

For two centuries, Lord Byron’s Armenian connection has become the stuff of legend, and the fact that one of the greatest British poets took an interest in the Armenian culture to the point of learning the language has been widely discussed.
Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky

George Gordon Byron was born on January 22, 1788 in London. He spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire. His father, a womanizer mired in debts, died when he was three years old, and he remained under the care of his mother. After his elementary education in Aberdeen Grammar School and a private school in Dulwich, from 1801-1805 he studied in Harrow School, a boarding school in London. In 1805 he went up to Trinity College, in Cambridge, where he spent three years, engaging in sexual escapades, boxing, horse riding, and gambling.

Byron had written poetry since his teenage years, and after he recalled and burned a book called Fugitive Pieces, he published his actual first book, Hours of Idleness, in 1807. It was savagely reviewed in Edinburgh, and Byron responded in 1809 with his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

As it was customary for young noblemen, Byron undertook a grand tour of Europe from 1809-1811. He avoided most of continental Europe due to the Napoleonic wars, and instead he traveled through the Mediterranean. He went over Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece, and he reached the Ottoman Empire, visiting Smyrna and Constantinople. He returned to England from Malta in July 1811.

The next year, Byron became a celebrity with the publication of the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which established him as a leading romantic poet. His last period in England included the production of many works. However, his rising star was darkened by scandal. Various love affairs, including rumors of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and the pressure of debt led him to seek marriage with Annabella Millbanke in 1815. They had a daughter in the same year, but the marriage did not end Byron’s escapades, but ended in disaster. His wife left him in January 1816 and divorced him. Rumors and debts did not end, and Byron left England three months later for good.

After a few months in Switzerland, Byron wintered in Venice, where he resumed his love adventures with two married women. It was natural, then, that he visited for the first time the monastery of San Lazzaro in November 1816. However, he was not just a random visitor of the Mekharist Congregation. He made his goal to get acquainted with Armenian culture and, more importantly, to study the Armenian language with Rev. Harutiun Avkerian (Pascal Aucher). In a letter of December 1816 to his publisher Thomas Moore, he wrote: “By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on; — but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.”

He collaborated with his teacher in two books: Grammar English and Armenian (1817), an English textbook for Armenians, and A Grammar Armenian and English (1819), a grammar of Classical Armenian for the use of English speakers. Byron also translated from Armenian the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians , two chapters of Movses Khorenatsi’s History of Armenia, and section of Nerses Lambronatsi’s Orations. The poet’s lyricism would become an inspiration for many Armenian poets of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In Venice, Byron also wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold, and around the same time, he published other poems. He wrote the first five cantos of Don Juan between 1818 and 1820, and continued his work in Ravenna from 1819-1821. He fell in love with eighteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli, a married aristocrat who abandoned her husband and followed him to Ravenna, Pisa, and Genoa. Living in this city, in July 1823 accepted an offer from representatives of the Greek independence movement and left Genoa for Greece. He first settled in the Ionian Islands and then traveled to the mainland in January 1824.
Byron settled in Missolonghi, in southern Greece, and was entangled in the internal fights of different Greek factions. However, his presence in Greece would draw the increasing active participation of European nations. He sold his estate in Scotland to help raise money for the revolution. When planning an attack on Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, Byron fell ill in February 1824. He made a partial recovery, but caught a strong cold in April, and then developed a violent fever, which caused his death in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. His remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but this was rejected for reason of “questionable morality.” He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

A statue remembers Byron in Athens, and April 19, the anniversary of his death, is honored in Greece as “Byron Day.” A street also bears his name in Yerevan.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Birth of Mateos Zarifian (January 16, 1894)

Armenian literature in the nineteenth and twentieth century had a host of names who were victims of a disease that was considered incurable until a vaccine was introduced in the 1920s: tuberculosis.

Poetry and tuberculosis had a link of sorts. Four talented Armenian poets, among others, died from the disease without reaching the age of forty: Bedros Tourian (1851-1872), Vahan Terian (1885-1920), Misak Medzarentz (1886-1908), and Mateos Zarifian (1894-1924).

Zarifian, the less known of the four, was born on January 16, 1894, in the neighborhood of Gedik Pasha (Constantinople). He spent his childhood and youth in Scutari. He studied at the school of Ijadieh, the Robert College, and the Berberian School, which he finished in 1913. He was an active sportsman and earned prizes in the Armenian Olympic games organized in Constantinople (1912-1913)

He went to Adana to work as a teacher of English and physical education at the local Armenian school. The first symptoms of tuberculosis, a strong chest pain, appeared at that time. In 1914 he interrupted his work and went to Lebanon, hoping that the mountainous air would help cure him. At the beginning of World War I, he was drafted into the Ottoman army. While studying at the school of non-commissioned officers, his unruly behavior landed him before a military tribunal, which sentenced him to exile. However, some influential interventions helped commute this sentence to long-term prison. Some months later, he was freed and started serving at the military hospital as a male nurse.

After the armistice of Mudros (1918), Zarifian went to the interior as translator for the British army to participate in the task of gathering Armenian survivors. Between 1919 and 1921 he worked at his alma mater, the Berberian School, as teacher of English and physical education. His illness prompted him to pour his life experience into literature. In 1919 he started publishing poems in the daily Jagadamard. His poetry reflected a hopeful approach to life and death, and his love poems disclosed the melancholic overtones of his soul, “Ah! The superb poem of my soul,/ Of my ruined, destroyed soul…”

He published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Grief and Peace (1921) and Songs of Life and Death (1922), which were critically acclaimed. His long battle with tuberculosis came to a critical point after 1922. Zarifian, the last representative of Western Armenian poetry, passed away on April 9, 1924, at the age of thirty.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Death of Henri Verneuil (January 11, 2002)

Prolific filmmaker Henri Verneuil was one of the well-known names in French cinema for forty years, and closed his cinematographic career with two autobiographic films that narrated the Armenian experience.

He was born Ashod Malakian on October 15, 1920, in Rodosto, Turkey. The Malakians emigrated from their hometown in 1924 as a result of Turkish anti-Armenian persecution in the years after the genocide and settled in Marseilles (France).

Young Ashod graduated from the French lyceum in Aix-en-Haute and entered the École Nationale d’Arts et Metiers in Aix-en-Provence (1942). Upon graduation in 1944, he put aside his technical diploma and started working as a journalist. In 1945 he wrote an article about the Armenian genocide and the editor suggested he adopt a French name to make it look more objective. Thus, Henri Verneuil was born.

In the postwar, Verneuil entered the world of cinema. He directed his first short film in 1946 and moved to Paris in 1949, where he became an assistant director. In 1951 he directed his first feature, the black comedy The Hunting Ground. His second film, the drama Forbidden Fruit (1952), won him international acclaim. Both films featured the great French comic actor Fernandel in the main role. The same actor played the six main roles (a father and his five sons) in The Sheep Has Five Legs (1954), which earned the first prize at the Locarno International Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best script to Verneuil in 1955. Verneuil’s biggest hit, before the New Wave of the 1960s, was The Cow and I (1959), once again with Fernandel.

Later he also directed other movie stars including Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Jean Paul Belmondo, Yves Montand, and Michele Morgan. In the 1970s he directed a few films in English with Anthony Quinn, Yul Brynner, and Henry Fonda. His last commercial film was in 1984.

Afterwards, the veteran filmmaker would focus on his Armenian heritage. In 1985 he published an autobiographical work, Mayrig, which recounted his childhood and the Armenian experience in Marseilles. It would become the basis for his two last films, Mayrig (1991) and 588, rue Paradis (1992), featuring Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale. In 1988 he had directed the video clip of “Pour toi, Arménie” (For You, Armenia), the song composed by Charles Aznavour and Georges Garvarentz to the benefit of the victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. 

In 1996 Verneuil, who had earned the French Legion of Honor in 1955, was awarded an honorary César, France's equivalent of the Oscar, for lifetime achievement in film. He was elected a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in 2000. He died in Bagnolet, a suburb of Paris, on January 11, 2002. Two of his children, Patrick Malakian (a TV director) and Gaya Verneuil (an actress), followed in his steps. Several streets and squares in France and Armenia bear his name.