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The idea behind this essay was hatched during an extended period of research in the archives of the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris, and in response to encounters with a text and a photograph during the course of a single week.
The text, an uncharacteristically long piece of art criticism1 by Ottoman Armenian Realist vanguard Levon Pashalian (1868-1943)2, writing under the pseudonym Taparig (.6 The detailed rendering and description provided in Taparig’s article was instrumental in helping instantly identify the painting in the photograph beyond doubt.
As Peter Brooks has explained, realism, as a term is resolutely attached to the visual, initially appearing as a critical and polemical term in the early 1850s, to characterize the French artist Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) painting and only then, by extension, taken to describe a literary style.20 This discussion, therefore, breaks with dominant canonical texts on Ottoman Armenian Realism by delving into the hitherto untested waters of visual art production and art criticism.
represented the physical embodiment of Ottoman Armenia on the streets of the imperial capital.
The essay proposes that artist’s brush was often able to evade the censor’s scalpel more effectively than the pen, to convey meaning and project allegorical content under the guise of an ethnographic cloak.
– is akin to writing the history of Vienna without its Jewish actors.30 Yet this is the prevalent approach of still dominant reductive nation-centric art histories, whose tenets are only recently being eroded and dismantled.31 The material presented here, provides a counterpoint to these artificial histories, whether Turkish, Armenian, or other, through firstly, extensive and privileged use of a wealth of Ottoman Armenian and other Armenian language sources, a hitherto untapped resource by art historiography; secondly, through the appropriation of an approach from an anthropological toolkit32, in an attempt to get closer to that which is being studied.
Our knowledge of Nichanian, a once important but now forgotten artist, is at best fragmentary.
Yet, his renown in 1890 Constantinople becomes instantly apparent in the opening paragraph of Pashalian’s ) [B]rothers in the Oriental Bazaar in Bolis36.
Constantinople , Chicago , Tiflis , Venice , Paris ), and its reception by audiences, both intended and unintended, and conduits of interpretation encompassing art critics, government censors, collectors and a wider audience within and outside the Ottoman Empire.24 Determining meanings, where every description is in effect ineluctably interpretive, are intrinsically connected to these shifting contexts.25 This essay scrutinizes an image (and its mediations and translations) hitherto deemed insignificant by historiography, in the hope of reintroducing traces and reflections of men and women who are absent from and ignored by the grand narratives of art history.26 In my mind, Nichanian’s constitutes a landmark in nineteenth century Ottoman art, if only in terms of sheer ambition, scope, content and scale.
This is a monumental painting, unusually produced outside usual channels of patronage of Palace or other elites, the fruit of a native professional artist’s own initiative and ideas, and, as far as known, never exhibited in public.27 At the moment of Pashalian’s viewing, it was already an actor in complex intellectual, ideological and commercial networks of exchange.