THE MASK AND THE SOUL IN SARE'S WORK
By Ellen GaïfedjianArt critic.
"I propose to judge men and circumstances of life not as a politician or sociologist but as an actor, from an actor's point of view. As an actor, I am primarily interested in human types, in their soul, their make-up, their gestures. This sometimes forces me to describe episodes that seem insignificant. For me, details and ornaments sometimes contain more colour, character and life than the façade of a building."
Fedor Shalyapin "The mask and the soul"
"Genius feeds on what it finds". This saying applies particularly well to the artistic thought of Saré (Evgénia Sarkisian's pseudonym), which is rich in reminiscences of European culture from various periods and countries. We find the real-fantasy couple present in the work of the German romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, in whom, according to the Russian poet and philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, the fantastic characters, in spite of all their strangeness, do not present themselves as apparitions from another world but as different incarnations of reality. "
There are also the phantasmagorias of Nicholas Gogol's Petersburg short stories. We remember that in The Nose, Major Kovalev's nasal appendage abandons his face as he prances in a carriage, as naturally as possible, along Nevsky Prospect every day at three o'clock in the afternoon to pay visits, dressed in a state councilor's uniform. By resorting to fantasy, the writer has succeeded in giving a particularly pungent colouring to his picture of bureaucratic society and also of human pettiness.
There is also the nightmarish fantasy of Francisco Goya's "Caprichos" and "Disparates", which had to some extent preceded in Dutch painting the "demonology" of Hieronimus Bosch and the grotesque realism of the early period of Pieter Breughel the Elder. There is the 'masquerade of our life here below' of the grotesque engravings of the French painter of the first third of the seventeenth century, Jacques Callot (a formula due to Hoffmann, to whom he inspired several short stories), and the engravings of François Chauveau depicting the great festival of the 'Carrousel' of 1662 organised by Louis XIV, and the 'disrespectful', grating criticism of the mores of the Second Empire contained in the lithographs of Honoré Daumier.
There are also Leonardo da Vinci's famous 'caricatures' which dissect with implacable artistic truth all the imaginable monstrosities of human physiology. What created these works? Is he merely demonstrating a scrupulous spirit of research, or is the source of Leonardo's hyperboles, crystallised in an ultimate manifestation, that "grotesque conception of the body" dating back to the mists of time and often inaccessible today, as formulated by the great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin? Of the body in its comic perception, both tomb and womb, which, still in the Renaissance period, with a slight time lag, found in literature, again according to Bakhtin, in François Rabelais' novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, "its most complete and brilliant realization.
Rabelaisian thought, with its ambivalence and playfulness, has had a decisive influence on Saré's formation as an artist. It is no coincidence that her first steps in art led her to the theatre, with which, depending on the vagaries of contracts, she has been linked for almost a quarter of a century. Indeed, it is the common roots of the popular culture of laughter that nourish both the work of Rabelais and the theatrical forms born of rituals outside art or on its margins ("the Feast of the Innocents", the Georgian "Donkey Feast" (Keinoba), the tradition of "Easter laughter" in Bohemia, charivaris, farces, Roman saturnalia, carnivals, etc.).
The negation of trivial truths, the rejection of "sacred cows" of all kinds, the break with social conventions, the naturalness of expression, the freedom of invention, the right to mystification, the possibility of breaking aesthetic canons, the combination of the most extravagant invention with reality, the hybrid character of the characters, the playfulness, the farce, the buffoonery, the humour, the eccentricity, all these are the constructive elements, the means of action on the conscience of the spectators which attract Saré in the carnivalesque mechanics of laughter. At the same time - and this is evident both in the graphic work of the artist, in her monotypes, her engravings on organic glass, in her painting and in her sculpture, a form which she has tackled very recently - her conception of the world itself is very far from optimism, from the festive mood and from joy without sharing.
The grotesque characters created by Saré's creative imagination are the fruits of a nostalgic thought born of the crisis of contemporary civilisation, of a metaphysical rejection of the "absurdity" of the world and of the human condition. The 19th century had already thoroughly rethought the particularities and possibilities of the culture of laughter; the force of negation, nihilism, the edifying and scathing laughter engendered by satire came to replace its positive and regenerative force, and the games of reason also became capable of generating monsters. Saré's laughter is irrational and feeds on the existential.
Although the principal and even unique centre of the artist's works is inevitably human beings, men and women, these are mostly presented to us in the light of sarcasm, tragic farce, bitter or sad irony. The "human comedy" is the framework of Saré's entire work. Whatever the fantastic, monstrous character of his characters (who evoke those kings and queens chosen "for laughs" at the Flemish festival of the "King of the Bean"), each of them, thanks to an acute observation of reality, is represented with a sure sense of psychology, with his own personality. These are portraits, double portraits, group portraits. The situations and relationships are convincing, the gestures and mimics accurate. The grotesque, by going beyond appearance, unexpectedly brings out the typical characters. But of course, we all know these people, here is a close relative, a colleague, a neighbour, a friend, an acquaintance, a passer-by, or perhaps even you, as seen through the eyes of Saré.
Each of the artist's works, whether a print or an oil painting, is relatively independent, self-sufficient. But once aligned - it is not by chance that Saré groups them into cycles - they constitute a sort of montage of interludes linked together by a common project, a unity of aesthetic choices and artistic construction.
Time is absent from Saré's compositions: yesterday, today, tomorrow? What is the point of specifying, when it has always existed, exists and will always exist. The space is also conventional and theatrical. The artist presents the absurd, strange and burlesque world of his inexhaustible imagination before us on a proscenium. Where does the action take place? Anywhere, it can be in France, Russia, Armenia, anywhere. Indeed, the "contemplations of the cat Murr" (one of Saré's favourite characters, revised and corrected in his own way), the petty-bourgeois spirit, social conventions, common sense, vulgarity, deceit of all kinds, tartufery, hypocrisy, whose indestructible character the artist reveals, have no national affiliation or geographical delimitation. There are many common points to the characters who appear before us in Saré's buffoonish round, they are all equal and their number is incalculable. And this jester's uniform which, like an armour, dresses (encloses, corsets) all the characters of the works of Saré revêt all the possible forms, making echo with the serigraphy initiated by the pop-art, well far from hiding the similarity, the moral and psychological unit of their nature, their lively and universal character does nothing but amplify it and to put it with naked.
The obstinacy with which the artist turns and turns over in the suffocating space of the strictly delimited circle and of a pitiless grotesque of his engravings or his paintings testifies to a certain extent, even in a form veiled by irony and scepticism, of the conflict which opposes Saré to his environment, to his time. However, unlike the satanic bacchanal of post-modern anti-art in all its manifestations, Saré's close attention to the hidden side of man (in which there is perhaps a dose of coquetry, a "glass bead game" à la Hermann Hesse) does not in any way manifest a total rejection of the world. Such a mentality is absolutely absent from the nation to which Saré belongs, it is alien to the worldview that governs Armenian culture. It is also incompatible, in the words of the Russian writer Mikhail Prishvin, with the 'ethical nuclei' of the great Russian literature of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, which, along with Armenian literature, played an important role from childhood onwards in shaping Saré's inner development, and later exerted a significant and perhaps even decisive influence on the formation of her artistic passions. And in this respect, a crucial role is played by the writers of the second generation of the Russian avant-garde belonging to the Society of Real Art (Obériou), and in the first place by that "original" Daniil Harms, "authentic writer of the absurd".
Sarés' personality was formed in the hardest period of the "Brezhnevian stagnation" that preceded the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian state. It was in this society that she studied (at the Yerevan Institute of Theatre Arts) and lived until she left for France in 1991. This is why it seems to us that for her, the most important thing in the work of the "Oberuts" and writers close to them such as Mikhail Zoshchenko and Mikhail Bulgakov was their courageous condemnation of a society where all freedom was absent, where social relations were only a pretense, where everyday life was absurd, their denunciation of the rise of ignorance, coarseness, and the absence of spirituality.
The main thing is that they had opened a window to non-conformity, allowing one to breathe the pure air of freedom of thought and expression in spite of all the obstacles. It was the passionate reading of Harms's children's works, brimming with invention, mystifications and humour, that had already prepared Saré for the practice of allegory in which the "Obérioutes" had become masters and which proved intrinsic to his style, being the only one capable of fully embodying his philosophical reflection.
However caustic the irony, sometimes bordering on sarcasm, that the artist shows towards the human race, it is nevertheless incapable of annihilating that deeply hidden feeling of sympathy towards the "little people" with which she has been endowed by nature and which has been developed by education and instruction. In the strange, illogical occupations, sometimes going as far as total absurdity, in which the heroes of Saré's works engage, a benevolent smile sometimes slips in here and there in a paradoxical way, we perceive touching, melancholic notes, satire becomes compassion for man, attention to the twilight depths of his psyche, and suddenly we catch a glimpse of sentimentality or even tenderness.
Whether one is dealing with an engraving, a monotype or an oil painting, the ambivalence of Saré's position appears above all in the plastic itself, which is extremely characteristic. At the same time, in this play of meanings, particular importance is attached to the artist's mastery of detail and to the extravagant, "mythologised" fusion of the character with inanimate objects and plant elements. The construction of the world of colours also plays a great role, which appears particularly in the monotypes; the refinement of the pastel range, the transparency of the nuances erase in a way the original grotesque, parodic character of such or such character, humanise it. Saré obtains the same semantic "result" in the engravings on organic glass thanks to a softness and a particular velvetiness of the pencil, a research of the smoothness of the feature.
Her gifts and the dedication to her work, without which any artistic achievement is unthinkable, have prevented her from getting lost in the kaleidoscope of phenomena and forms that abound in contemporary art, and, moreover, she has been able to manifest herself as a brilliant and original artist. There is no doubt that she was helped in this by a fortunate circumstance: since childhood, the artist has lived alternately in Armenia, Russia and France. She was thus nourished "from the cradle" by the multifaceted experience of European culture which, remarkably, did not destroy her creative vein and even led her, from her very first steps, to clearly trace the contours of her now easily recognisable and inimitable artistic personality.
The recent solo exhibition in Yerevan of Saré's graphic works, which seems to have taken the torch of artistic culture and professional mastery from the great Armenian graphic artist Vladimir Aïvazian, was a real milestone for her. Saré is on the threshold of maturity and it would be futile to speculate on its future development. Obviously, this will depend on the artist's decision to maintain her mutually corrosive dialogue with the surrounding world on the same semantic plane or to break the vicious circle of sterile opposition.
Nora Armani, in her remarkable cycle of prose poems dedicated to Saré, which penetrates the very heart of the artist's world, suggests that, like the Phoenix, she will rise from her ashes in a new incarnation.
As for us, it remains for us to hope that alongside the glorious names of Edgar Chain, Akop Gurdjian, Carzou, Jansem, Levon Toutoundjian and many other French painters of Armenian origin, Saré's name will succeed in rising to its full stature.