Marcos Grigorian (Persian: مارکو گريگوريان, Armenian: Մարկոս Գրիգորեան; December 5, 1925 – August 27, 2007) was a notable Iranian-Armenian artist and a pioneer of Iranian modern art.
Grigorian was born in Kropotkin, Russia, to an Armenian family from Kars who had fled that city to escape massacres when it was captured by Turkey in 1920. In 1930 the family moved from Kropotkin to Iran, living first in Tabriz, and then in Tehran. After finishing pre-university education in Iran, in 1950 he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. Graduating from there in 1954, he returned to Iran, opened the Galerie Esthétique, an important commercial gallery in Tehran. In 1958, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, he organized the first Tehran Biennial. Grigorian was also an influential teacher at the Fine Arts Academy, where he disseminated his enthusiasm for local popular culture, including coffee-house paintings, a type of folk art named after the locations in which they were often displayed.
Marcos Grigorian in his studio, circa 1963.
In 1975 Grigorian helped organize the group of free painters and sculptors in Tehran and was one of its founder members. Artists Gholamhossein Nami, Massoud Arabshahi,Morteza Momayez and Faramarz Pilaram were amongst the other members of the group. As a modernist pop artist Marcos Grigorian turned to ordinary objects and popular ethnic forms and approaches. He used ethnic food such as “Nan Sangak” and “Abghousht” to evoke authenticity in his work. Grigorian was a trend setter in experimenting with Earth Art, in Iran.
Grigorian left Iran in 1977 at the age of 52. He lived for a short time in the United States before moving to Yerevan, Armenia, then still a republic of the Soviet Union. In 1989, he traveled to Russia at the invitation of the Union of Russian Artists, visiting Moscow and Leningrad.
He exhibited his clay and straw works in Yerevan in 1991. He later donated 5,000 of his artworks to the government of Armenia. In 1993 he founded the “Museum of the Middle East” in Yerevan: 2,600 exhibits are on display, with most of them coming from his own collection.
Some of his works are now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kerman, and the National Gallery of Armenia.
On 4 August 2007 Grigorian was assaulted and beaten about the head by two masked robbers who had broken into his Yerevan home. It was speculated that the robbers believed, erroneously, that there was a large sum of money in the house, proceeds from the sale of Grigorian’s summer residence in Garni. After an anonymous phone call to police, Grigorian was discovered injured and taken to hospital. He died of a suspected heart attack on 27 August 2007, a day after leaving the hospital.
Saxophone player, Oil on Canvas 1953 | Laura, Oil on Canvas 1986
Marco’s Inner World and Inner Reflection
Dr Yvette Tajarian
(Academic and Art expert, Yerevan)
As a representative of modern art Marco has a special place in the history of Art. After a short encounter with Marco, anyone could tell that he was a true artist. His artistry could be observed not only in his creative genres – paintings, Earth works, Land art and carpet making, but also in himself as an outstanding artist. Marco displayed his brilliant individuality in each genre, but in my opinion, it was the Land art that became his “business card”. The painter turned simple earth into artistic value. Placing earth in a square frame, turning it into an object of reflection, he stopped it from being just a piece of earth and helped it to acquired artistic value. The geometrical square reflects the environment, shelter, while the content of the frame encompasses the eternity and timeless preservation. Man was created from the earth, lives on earth and creates works about earth. Having physical and spiritual significance, the first parallel that is related to the earth is the homeland, where each individual stands firm on the land. It can be assumed that Marco is trying to bring forward a sense of security in an individual, attempting to convey life and fate to the earth. One can see the inner strength that has led Marco towards creation of land art. It is conditioned by his homeland being under the rule of foreigners, as well as the author himself living and creating on a foreign land.
Marco who was aiming for innovation found a new sphere for the expression of his interests – the carpet: carpet-weaving and carpet painting. These are different fields which synthesize art and craft, interweaving and becoming a very important phenomenon of art, the art of carpet-making.
In Marco’s words, the idea of carpet painting and carpet-weaving was conceived in 1957, when he was drawing a small goat for his daughter Sabrina with colorful pencils. The little goats that he painted for his daughter led to a series. From these drawings of the goats he created a number of compositions that were inspired by cave art. Marco studied both Persian and Armenian histories of carpet, but as a result he created an ‘independent’ series of carpets characteristic only to him. The names of the carpets are Armenian, however the interpretation of lines are free, unconfined as if floating on the carpet. The sketches of carpets enrich the understanding of the art of Armenian national carpet-making and enlarge the circles.
As a result, the carpets of the artist are considered to be “Modern Armenian carpets”. And this characterizes Marco Grigoryan as an individual. No Armenian had ever dared to put aside the Armenian traditional carpets with ethnic elements and create a new one. It requires courage and responsibility.
Marco was able to also synthesize the old with the new one. He gave modern solutions to historical subjects. Each of them undergoes his own interpretation. After all, Marco does not impose his thoughts. He gives an option, which does not have an end.
In painting, Marco presents himself with powerful brush strokes. In his early works one notices the elements of cubism. The sources of inspiration in the works of that period are different – landscape, portrait and sometimes imagination. The colours are comparatively more vivid, dense and polychromatic. Sometimes dark colours come into scene. In the earlier period we come across sketches more frequently.
A great example of Marco’s creative life is his work “The Gates of Oświęcim” (Auschwitz), one of the most horrendous Jewish slaughterhouses of Nazi Germany. Marco forces the viewers to get away from the present and revisit the tragedy. It seems to be a way of sobering oneself, which is brought forward in the painting by Marco. He tries in every way to keep the humanity away from the possible tragedies. This can be noted not only through strong and firm lines, but also the big sizes and the quantity. Thirteen canvases with their tragic march have a beginning and an end. In the last 13th canvas the ashes turn into earth, heralding the continuation of life.
For painting portraits Marco had a very interesting approach in choosing the model. Not everyone could earn the honour to become one. These were mainly people that surrounded him, but in his own words “people that had something to say”. He was interested in the inner beauty rather than the outer. The colors in the portraits that he painted during the last 20 years are softer and more natural. The background is often devoid of any colors. In my opinion, he has tried to draw attention to the portrait only. These are more expressionistic works. He expressed people on canvas the way he saw them. I remember how he told me laughingly that he used to have quarrels with beautiful women after he would paint them. He used to tell me they did not understand art. Women wanted to see themselves more beautiful and since during the process of painting he did not allow them to see the canvas, seeing their curvy and crooked characters in the end made them feel offended. It was very difficult for Marco to let go his canvases and his works in general. He wasn’t very lavish either, and rarely gave the paintings to the models; however in my case I was lucky. During the last 3 years of his life he had not painted any works and every time he saw me he used to say “I have to paint you…”. One month before his death, when he was at home in the evening he asked me to come the next morning so that he could paint me. I had certainly waited for that day for a long time. He painted me for 1 hour and 40 minutes during that hot summer. I was very happy that day, but was surprised once I had seen the painting. He said that this was the Yvette that he knew – serious, demanding, struggling and achieving her aims. He added in the end, “I will name this painting Saint Mary”. I laughed and asked who has seen St. Mary with red hair? He answered saying, “My Saint Mary has red hair.” This was Marco “the crazy artist”. No one took offence from his craziness, because he was loved just the way he was. He was 82 years old, but he was not ageing. He was always in the centre of attention, especially women’s, and he liked it. He knew his worth; he knew he was handsome and attractive. He did not believe that he was mortal and that he would also have his ‘end’. But that ‘end’ came to his physical existence not his works of art. His work is alive and can speak. It lives and will live on, and through them – Marco.
Vardush (Arshile Gorky’s sister), Oil on Canvas, 1984 | Yvette Tajarian’s portrait, Oil on Canvas, 2007