Dr. Eva Blénesi is a literary historian of Hungarian-Armenian origin from Transylvania, who is based in Budapest. She is the author of several books and articles in the field of literature, ethnicity, and arts. Besides lecturing as a Guest Professor in different academic settings, including the Corvinus University of Budapest, she is currently engaged in editing an anthology of contemporary Armenian poetry.
Productive Ways of Working of Preserving Armenian Diaspora Identity
By Éva Blénesi
What is Houshamadyan?
Houshamadyan is a complex word, made up of ‘housh’ (memory) and ‘madyan’ (book) – which can mean either ‘register’ or ‘parchment manuscript’ – putting the words together. Houshamadyan is also the name of a Berlin-based non-profit organisation that was founded in 2010 aiming at reconstructing and preserving the memory of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire through research.
According to Vahé Tachjan, one may often encounter the terms “Houshamadyan” (Book of Memories), “Hushakotogh” or “Hushartzan” (Memorial, Monument) in the titles or prefaces of these books. This is where the general term “houshamadyan” describing them comes from. But this memory-book is also tasked with preserving the life of the past, the memory of a lost town, with its history and traditions, heroes and glory, architecture, cuisine, song, and dance. In other words, the publication of a houshamadyan inevitably becomes what Marianne Hirsch has termed a post-memory, a legacy granted to coming generations. Houshamadyan is also aiming to be the means by which their Ottoman memory may be returned to the Armenians. Indeed, the catastrophe, re-written historiography and re-constructed memory have been the reasons why, for a long time, the memory link between the ordinary, everyday Armenian and his Ottoman ancestors’ world has been severed (Tachian, 2014)
Who is Arnold Gross?
The internationally acclaimed Hungarian painter and graphic artist Arnold Gross, recipient of Kossuth and Munkácsy Prize, was born in the Transylvanian town of Torda (Turda, Romania) in 1929, of Armenian descents from his mother’s side, called Ilona Kovrig. The family name of his mother, Kovrig, was one of the many typical Armenian names in Transylvania, meaning pretzel, a kind of ring biscuit.
Gross, the father of Arnold Gross, was a painter, so he was his first teacher. Arnold Gross fled to Hungary through the green border in 1947 at the age of 17 even without having finished his high-school studies but due to his exceptional drawing skills, he was subsequently admitted to the College of Applied Arts. After studying etchings by Rembrandt and Dürer, he began working continuously on reinventing the genre.
He became popular with his richly detailed etchings. Owing to his typical colouring technique, all of his prints are different from one another. His images are characterized by the wonderful children’s tale world, where the sun always shines, full with flower shops and toys. The people can be the part of the nature in his works. With his images he is providing beauty and joy, a fairy tale world, which is devoid of any creepy or gloomy element.
His works were exhibited on several occasions in Rome, Tokyo, Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, Hamburg and Vienna, also in Tbilisi (Georgia).
What is common to the world of houshamadyan and of Gross’s etchings?
Apparently, the two authors, Rev. Harutyun Sargisian (Alevor) (1864-1947) and Manoog B. Dzeron (1862-1938), the rudimentary image of Ottoman-Armenians and the daily lives depicted in their houshamadyans and the image of the garden from a Transylvanian small town, Torda, so vividly depicted in the works of art of the graphic artist Arnold Gross (1929-2015), are so distant in time and in genre that at first glance no one would imagine that they have anything in common at all. However, if we take a closer look and examine them – occasionally with a magnifying glass if needed – we are stunned by the multiplicity of interconnectedness and similarities between the two worlds. Key among them are:
- the authors’ loss of their ancestral houses, villages, towns or cities is, for them, permanent
- existential fear due to loss, expulsion and refuge as a major factor shaping post-genocide/migration life
- productive suffering: transmission of loss and pain into a benefit and a valuable outcome worth sharing with others, an ever-larger audience
- authors attempt to restore their own native land’s ‘Armenian’ /’Transylvanian’ past in all its authenticity
- a need is felt for the legacy of the past, to immortalise this village, town or city of another time
- the ancient Armenian rug and the Armenian book culture, the system of motifs in Armenian book printing, relying on medieval manuscripts with its colourful miniatures as an in-built heritage and a potential source of inspiration for detailed, meticulous description of the lost environment
- the Tree of Life and Christmas Tree in the graphic art of Arnold Gross and the Apple-Tree of Immortality in Armenian folk tales
- through documenting the past and depicting the memories in vivid sketches the authors of the houshamadyans and Arnold Gross managed to transform their losses into a gain, into a productive suffering which, at a deeper level, has a rich connotation with Messianic symbolism of the pearl and the grain of sand in Christianity.
The world of houshamadyans, or to remember and write, to write and draw: When restoring the past becomes the meaning of life
As Vahé Tachjian would put it, the two rare authors who, in their books, elevated sketching to a method for remembering and giving witness. This was a necessity, for when there are no photographs one must recreate the village, its various structures and rural implements, through memory, floor plan, we have before us a fantastic drawing that is more expressive and can more effectively convey the true picture of village daily life. With the same skill, Manoog Dzeron also drew the floor plans for the only bathhouse in Parchanj and the mill owned by Hobbala Tono. (Tachjian,2014)
Emblematic figures and elements, loaded value symbols in Arnold Gross’s world of memories
Artists have always been driven to create work in response to trauma and seek meaning, bear witness, and commemorate in their art. Seemingly to the houshamadyans, the production and framing of visual image as markers of trauma caused by the loss of one’s home, the garden of childhood, became one of the reoccurring motifs in Arnold Gross’s artwork, which is also emphasized by the titles of his etchings: The Garden of Memories I (1969) The Garden of Torda II. (1989, paper, etching, 150X19 mm) – just to mention a few of the many works of the artist with the related theme.
The garden of Torda, approximately in 1932. (Family photo archive)
The working language of the artist is visual, dreamlike, unconscious, as well as consciously constructed thoughtful and aware; we look, explore, explain and understand through symbols and metaphors, which help us to order the unknown in reference to the known, the part in reference to the whole.
The Studio of Torda, 1965.
At the beginning of his artistic career Arnold Gross used water colours and painted landscapes but he has gradually switched to coloured etching and his landscapes became inhabited by reoccurring fairy-tale like creatures and objects constituting a permanent presence as emblematic elements and loaded value symbols in his artwork such as the frame of a swing, tiny steam-engine toys, anthropomorphic figures of flora and fauna, and zoomorphic human figures, Christmas Tree or Tree of Life, zeppelin etc,.
All these fairy-tale elements had distinguished significance with great symbolic value in his artefacts. The swing-frame is an iconic image and has a connotation with the cradle, tranquillity and childhood. The forwards and backwards motion of swinging indicates the cradle and the movements of swings when we were children. At a deeper level – through oscillation – the swing is transcending the borders between time and space, reality and fantasy, real and imagined, present and past, childhood and adulthood. Dreaming associated with swinging indicates a desire to return to the light-hearted feelings we had as children when swinging permitted us to be lively and calm. “Going with all the swing” and “getting with the swing of things” are sayings that emphasize the need to forget about grownup restrictions. It can also reflect opulence and extravagance and unconditional playfulness, a reminder perhaps that longing to escape from reality is so universal and timeless.
The Garden of Memories II. 1970.
According to the artist, ever since his young age, and especially after having fled Transylvania, he felt attracted by steam engines. Since he crossed clandestinely the greenborder and came illegally to Hungary, he was not allowed to visit his family. Therefore, engines represented for the artist the symbol of freedom, but also homesickness
and longing for travelling back to his homeland.
The fairy-tale like gardens in Arnold Gross’s etchings are also inhabited by various anthropomorphic elements of flora and fauna and zoomorphic humans: flowers with human faces and bird- and goat-like figures with human heads. These latter appeared in form of playful and ironic self-portraits, representing the artist himself.
Angels were also recurring elements of Arnold Gross’ etchings, sometimes these winged- creatures would appear in dual character: angelic bodies portraying the mother of the artist (The Garden of Torda). According to Elemér Hankiss, the main reason behind the preoccupation with these spiritual beings may be that people’s need for protection in an empty and fearful universe has always been insatiable.
The Tree of Life or the Christmas tree has its multiple symbols: Connectedness with Ancestry, Family, and Fertility, Growth and Strength, Individuality, Peace and Harmony. Trees are one of the main motifs of Arnold Gross’s compositions (See the Garden of Memories, Little Christmas). The pine tree in the gardens of Arnold Gross’s etchings can be also interpreted as a late successor of the mythic Trees of Life, the cosmic trees, symbols of regeneration and immortality, Icarian symbols of transcendence and spirituality, joining earth and heaven. In other composition of Arnold Gross, the Tree of Life is replaced by his atelier representing the axis mundi for him. (See the Garden of Memories II.).
Sunny Garden, 1967.
Arnold Gross consciously strived for the realization of beauty and harmony in his artwork claiming that life is so cruel that there must be a place – and that is the world of art – where ugliness and cruelty should not penetrate. The colours and forms of his etchings suggest that there is a strong order and harmony in this universe, and that this universe is spiritual rather than material in its essence.
The playground-like gardens depicted in Arnold Gross’ colourful etchings with their fairy-tale atmosphere have an inherent polysemic meaning: at their primary level they can be interpreted as a kind of escapism from expectations of the official social realistic style that dominated the period before the change of the regime, but at a deeper level it can also serve as a unique sphere, an autonomous private universe of the artist, more precisely the Paradise Lost of his childhood.
Finally, the gardens of Arnold Gross, like the traditional mythical garden, is the symbol of the cosmos and of the primeval earthly paradise. It has deep emotional and archetypal significance. It is the replica of the Garden of Eden, with its trees, flowers, and fountain, and even more with its peace, innocence, and eternal harmony.
Thanks to his unique colouring technique all of his impressions differ from one another. Every square millimetre of his colourful, dynamic but nevertheless peaceful and harmonious etchings are populated by the cities, flowers, trees, magical plants and people in his unique world.
His graphics have special childlike, innocent atmosphere where the Sun always shines and it is full of flowers and toys. In his art people are part of the nature. Arnold Gross transmits beauty, joy, and fairyland with his works. In order to mitigate fear and anxiety the artist surrounded himself with protective spheres of symbols, with a brilliant construct of unique artistic universe.
Through the meticulous descriptions offered by houshamadyans and by Arnold Gross’s colourful etchings we are offered an unusual wide range of examples showing that the struggle for safety and freedom, for a meaningful life and human dignity, elements of a past once so intimately part of our everyday life are present not only in the great symbolic systems of humankind but also in the most trivial everyday activities and aspects of human existence: in tragedies like human loss, or loss of a homeland as well as jokes, and toys, in the sacred as well in the profane, in the symbolism of medieval architecture as well as in contemporary cityscapes, in the great drama of Sin and Salvation as well in the trivial symbolism of toys. The world of houshamadyans and that of Arnold Gross’s artistic universe offer us a long and multi-layered, extensive journey, a genuine human adventure, where we might surprisingly discover that ultimately, our trivialities, neither the recurring motif of the frame of the swing in The Garden of Memories or in The Garden of Torda in Arnold Gross’s etchings nor the khorbologh (or khulinchak) described by Alevor that would hang from the ceilings of village homes throughout Metz Pahk (Great Lent) are trivial at all.