There is something almost chemical about Edman O'Aivazian's landscapes. The green of his hills has a phosphorescent glow to it, and the sky that hangs over his mountains is lit fluorescent blue.
The paintings border on the abstract, with a few hand-picked details grounding them as natural scenes – a couple of crisp blades of grass, a lone house on a hill and a particularly detailed mountain face.
You would be hard-pressed to find the original inspiration for these landscapes. They could be influenced by the mountains of Iran or the hills in Armenia’s countryside, both countries that O’Aivazian had roots in.
The painter – who died at the age of 89 last month from Covid-19-related causes – left few clues about where the real-life locations of his landscapes were. Some of his work clearly indicates the scenery that inspired him, such as Gilan, the painting named after the Iranian province, but most are cryptically named. Perhaps because O'Aivazian knew that, after years of travelling and living abroad, the landscapes of his homes could not be found anywhere other than in memory. But, this is merely conjecture.
One basis for my reasoning is that O’Aivazian’s marine paintings have titles that clearly indicate their location. There are paintings that show the moored boats of Maldon, an English town on the Blackwater Estuary, or beachgoers in the shadow of a pier in Santa Monica, California.
These paintings touch upon realism much more than his phosphorescent landscapes. The colours in them are nowhere near as fantastical. The scenes are presented in high detail, the figures in them, clear and crisp: the water shimmers with a photographic representation.
Maybe it is because O’Aivazian actually stood in front of these places as he painted, and had a scene to refer to. There are a few pictures of him online that show him by the beach, standing behind an easel, brush in hand. Maybe, for his landscapes rather than seascapes, he had to refer to memory, painting through the wistful lens of nostalgia.
O’Aivazian’s works can be found in museums around the world, including in Armenia, England, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. His Thuluth and Kufic calligraphy designs have decorated the interiors of several mosques in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He also designed the interiors of Armenian churches in Iran and Europe.
Little is known about the man himself, beyond a biographical broad stroke.
From Tehran to London via Rome
He was born in Tehran in 1931 into an Armenian family, and began painting at the age of 13. As a young artist, he participated in group exhibitions and solo shows that explored Iran’s vast country on canvas. He travelled to Europe and, in 1971, moved to London via Rome, where he studied at the Academy of Arts.
“In my formative years, I studied Persian art in Isfahan, a cradle of Islamic art and design,” O’Aivazian wrote on his website. “I designed a 250-metre calligraphy frieze, which was installed in Riyadh Airport in 1985. More recently, I was commissioned to design a 50-metre mural for the King Abdulaziz National Museum, Riyadh.”
In 2002, O’Aivazian joined the Wapping Group of Artists. The collective was founded in 1946 with the aim of recording the busy life of London’s arterial River Thames. They met every Wednesday between April and September to paint the river and the land on either side of it.
On his website, O’Aivazian wrote he felt very much at home with the group and in “the company of like-minded painters, who are dedicated to recording the essence of the Thames and the human activity that this great river supports on its banks”.
Not a fan of selling his work
O’Aivazian was not a fan of selling his artwork. He preferred his pieces to be hung in people’s homes as opposed to in the galleries of art collectors. During the 2016 opening of one of his last exhibitions, Colours of the Homeland, at the Niavaran Cultural Centre in Tehran, he said: “Selling an artwork is like selling one’s own child.”
He went on to clarify: “I am financially secure and, therefore, I prefer my works to be hung on the walls of houses. That way instead of having to dust my paintings, other people do the dusting.”
However, he believed art exhibitions could help forge connections between artists and their audience, saying they presented an opportunity for artists to learn from people in ways they could not if they were isolated.
“When you hold an exhibition, you can find your way to people’s hearts and there is no place where you can hide something there,” he said.
Besides his landscape and marine works, O’Aivazian was also a skilled portrait painter. He frequently painted members of the Saudi royal family.
One of his paintings of King Abdulaziz Al Saud shows the monarch sitting barefoot in his office with a child on his lap. The painting is perhaps the most intimate portrait of the founder of Saudi Arabia that I have seen, showing him more as a family man than a monarch.
Admittedly, I did not know much about O’Aivazian before his death. A few years ago, I saw his portrait of Aram Khachaturian – whom O’Aivazian met and painted in 1977 – while visiting the Armenian composer’s house-museum in Yerevan.
The portrait is stunning; it faithfully captures the Sabre Dance composer's feverish conducting style with minute scratch-like lines. It shows the conductor with his hands high up in the air, his snow-white hair slicked back and a subtle frown on his face that makes one think someone in the orchestra may have been slightly out of tune.
That portrait of Khachaturian is the only one of O’Aivazian’s works I have so far seen in person. Had the artist’s death not been announced by Iranian media on March 25, I probably would not have scoured the web to find more information on him.
As it stands, as stunning as O’Aivazian’s portrait work and marine paintings are, it is his brightly coloured landscapes that draw me to him most, and have me regretting that I had not stumbled on more of his works earlier.
Death is, perhaps, the greatest publicist.