One of the hidden powers of art is to make us want to go to places evoked in the work of the loved painter, writer, composer, singer or film-maker.
This Place Lust has nothing to do with holidaying or touring. It thrives on a different kind of engagement.
Oh how I long to go to Yerevan! Thank you Sergei Paradjanov!
Yerevan is the capital city of Armenia. It is one of the oldest inhabited places on earth and has persisted through many shifts of history, during which the state of Armenia has existed independently, then been ruled by Turkey, Russia and Iran before re-emerging as recently as 1991.
In the not very distant future I hope to record here an attentive walk through the time strata of Yerevan to a large house dedicated to the memory of Sergei Paradjanov, the truly extraordinary film-maker and artist who delved deep into the rich imagery of his people.
Paradjanov created four of the most beautiful, resonant and original films in the history of cinema: Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1963) also known as Wild Horses of Fire; The Colour of Pomegranates (1966); The Legend of the Suram Fortress (1983); and Ashik Kerib (1988).
The gap in his film-making career was the result of persecution by the Soviet authorities, who took exception to his open bisexuality and his immersion in the culture of the Armenian people. He was imprisoned in labour camps and even when ‘free’ (usually as a result of campaigns by fellow artists such as Andrei Tarkovsky) he was not allowed to make films.
In some ways his life became a metaphor for the Armenian experience. The Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish government between 1894 and 1916, saw the death of some 1.5 million Armenians. The scale of the slaughter, combined with systematic rape, torture and property theft paved the way for the later horrors of the twentieth century.
Despite all this, the core of Armenian culture survived. Similarly, despite his persecution, Paradjanov continued to produce fascinating and profound work, mainly in the form of collage. He described collage as “densely compressed film”.
Some of Paradjanov’s artworks have been lost or destroyed but many survive, thanks to the efforts of his widow and a wide range of international writers and artists. To reproduce the odd one here doesn’t do his work justice, but there are now many images on-line. And the four major films are all available on dvd, though some censoring and external cutting has proved unrestorable.
Tarkovsky still represents the peak of ‘cinema as art’ and, during an interview with John Updike, he came up with some particularly apt words on the man he risked his own life to champion: “Paradjanov is making collages, drawings and sculptures in the form of dolls, hats, anything that works…but he is not just about design and beauty. No, it’s something else. It’s much more talented and noble. It’s real art. It’s secret is in its immediacy and directness. When an idea is born he’s not planning, constructing or contemplating a way to make it better. For him there is no gap between the concept and its realisation, so he doesn’t lose anything between the cracks. Emotion that was there at the outset reaches the final product in its pristine purity, without a single drop being spilled. That’s how it is in the best sequences of his films. I’m not even referring to his spirit of independence and his originality. For us all he’s completely unreachable. We’re not capable of what he does. We’re just labourers in comparison”.
After the prison years Paradjanov suffered from various illnesses, and his eccentric, defiant ways did not make him an ‘easy’ individual, but the work will stand tall forever. He’s a Mount Ararat, the highest point in the Armenian region and the spiritual home of that culture (though the mountain is still in Turkish hands). Mount Ararat is where the Ark was supposed to have landed: survival once again.
When starting to write this I checked on relevant dates and was amazed to see that the day I am posting this would have been his 93rd birthday…so Happy Birthday, Sergei, see you in Yerevan!