Stephan Bagradian (1901-1989)

Stephan Bagradian was born in Paris, France on June. 7, 1901.  His father, Gabriel, represented his family's business interests in Europe. His mother, Juliette (nee’ Duval) was the youngest daughter of a French textile manufacturing family.  In 1913, Gabriel Bagradian moved his family to the Ottoman Empire to settle the affairs of his recently deceased brother and to raise his son in the families’ ancestral home in Yoghonoluk. Feeling alienated by his provincial surroundings in what became the westernmost city of the Armenian Democratic Republic on the Mediterranean Sea, young Bagradian threw himself into art. He first studied with Sam Avakian, a classically trained painter, and exhibited his pen and ink drawings in the local postal office when he was 15.

Stephan Bagradian was shattered when his father, a lieutenant in Ottoman army, disappeared at the Battle of Gallipoli. According to legend, Gabriel Bagradian was killed in the same fusillade in 1915 that felled the hero of the Ottomans, Mustafa Kemal.

Bagradian then moved to Constantinople while the Great War was still raging to study at the Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi or Fine Arts Academy. Quickly tiring of the Academy’s rigid rules, he dropped out to join “The One” a group of artists also known as the "Elementalist school." In the famous 1922 Bazaar Show, Bagradian exhibited five watercolors. His works of this period are close to the outré style of "The One," but Bagradian soon began moving towards the more lively, Fauvist style.

horses 1923Horses 1923

Bagradian's brief interest in cubism is partly explained by his statement, "Everything else seemed boring to me." He experimented with the visual language of the Russian Futurist David Burliuk and tried synthetic devices in his more mannered ordered works of the early 1920s.

Bagradian's parlor, under his famous "Seekers Lamp"
From left to right: Orovida Camille Pissarro, Alice B. Toklas, Martiros Saryan, Stephan Bagradian, Zabelle C. Boyajian, and Gertrude Stein

Always propelled forward by grief, Bagradian's mother’s death, due to a botched surgery, in 1923 manifested itself in more fluid works as he to tried to absolve his grief  though art. The resolution of these earlier works can be found in the Guggenheim Constantinople wing devoted to Bagradian. The last works in this series show more concrete approaches and an increased clarity of form and color.

In 1924 Bagradian traveled to Ani, the new capital of the Armenian Democratic Republic, which was still under construction.  In general, the work that followed showed a complete change in subject matter, away from his former Modern style to one that heroized the new republic through a traditional academy approach.

Ani Blvd. 1927
Ani Boulevard, 1927

Upon returning to Constantinople in late 1927, Bagradian became obsessed with what he deemed “the Flat” or “Truth” in painting. He created controversial works that did not rely on tone, shade, representation or eventually, even pigment.

The depression and the Second World War brought an end to this period of his works as these experiments fell out of favor.

Bagradian studying his painting titled No. 2297, in his Pera Studio (where the Bagradian Museum is located)
Photo by Shane Robinson, 1934

For a short time after the war, he experimented with his friend Vostanig Manuk Adoian, known in the west as Arshile Gorky, (1904- 1986) with an Abstract Expressionist style that he hoped would sell better.

Symbolism, 1947
Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Constantinople

Like many painters of the post-war period, he executed public murals. “Missing Dogs” (1946) at the Toklatian Hotel; “Bop Beat Bow!” (1946), at the Imperial University of Constantinople; an untitled mural (1947) for POLIS RADYOSU radio station; and the now-destroyed “Tirant lo Blanc” (1947) for the Constantinople Exposition Internationale. But unlike many artists, Bagradian altered his esthetic outlook considerably to accommodate public taste. His murals diverge wildly in style and subject matter.

Bagradian's works during the rest of his life show a continued pendulum swing between his desire, to "tell the truth" with his works by making the flattest paintings possible and with a need to earn money and gain public recognition. He would take commissions by wealthy patrons, famously painting scenes from the Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball for example, and then take this money to make new experiments in flatness.

In the early 1960s, Bagradian burned what canvases remained in his possession in an ultimate tribute to flatness and truth. He mixed his canvasses ashes with Chlordiazepoxide (marketed as Librium, a sedative) and put them in pill form. He then had attendees of his opening take the pills to experience "real flatness". For this, he gained widespread fame and was arrested by the authorities of the usually libertine Constantinople Mandate, who had had enough. A populist government authorized Bagradian’s works in public collections to be given away or destroyed. For his "drug pushing" Bagradian was sent into exile.

Real Flat
Real Flat, 1964
This box contains two pills made from the ashes of Bagradian's burned paintings and Chlordiazepoxide

For the first time since 1927, Bagradian returned to the Armenian Democratic Republic. His exile and the destruction of his works in Constantinople had made him a minor celebrity. Bagradian used his popularity to establish a collective called “P.U.T.E. 95” with young art students who acted as his production studio. At the beginning of his time in Van, it seemed as if Bagradian was reborn. He was visited by the leading lights of Modernism: Ahmed Yacoubi, Parviz Tanavoli, John Cage, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Marcos Grigorian, John Updike, Siah Armajani, Blanche Lohéac Ammoun, and Robert Irwin. Most of whom collaborated on small projects with him in or around the city of Van.

For the last major project of his life, Bagradian had started to make works based on paintings he had seen in movies- reasoning a real version of a fake painting would be more authentic than "fake version of so called real art."

Horse's Mouth 1958
Painting after G. Jimson-The Horse's Mouth, 1973

The complete realization of this project was never to come to pass. In 1974 the country was shaken by a religious rebellion by the followers of the Catholicoi Thadeus II. All of the works Bagradian had brought to the Republic or created there were destroyed. The paintings that he had made in the 1920s, which were part of the museum collection of the Republic were publicly burned as the new government of the Autocephalous Patriarchy adopted an iconoclast stance.

The paintings that remain from his enormous body of work are ones that escaped the deluge brought on by his hands and the hands of the two governments he offended.  Those works that survived the deluge were in private hands or had been gifted to foreign governments. Recently a few paintings have been found plugging roof leaks in Van, and others have been found as far as Birobidzhan.

In his lifetime, Bagradian published a number of writings and taught sporadically at institutions, typically leaving his posts as he alienated students and colleagues.

Stephan Bagradian’s legacy is mixed. While some attribute his wild experimentation to a febrile mind, others see inconsistency and egoism. He died in 1989 in relative obscurity after returning to Constantinople.

Further Reading:

The liveliest explanation of Bagradian’s paintings can be found in Arturo Peetly’s, Stephan Bagradian (1966), which has a helpful appendix and abundant illustrations. Hobart Finn's Autobiography, Stephan Bagradian (1971), and the catalog to the Guggenheim Constantinople showcase an excellent summary of his times and collaborators. A modern summary of Bagradian's work is by J.J. Japson in the History of Modern Art (1983) is considered essential.

Bagradian’s Autobiography will be released this summer by Arc Publishing.

Click here to read a 1927 interview with Stephan Bagradian by Kate Carew in the New York Herald Tribune.

Click Here to read an excerpt about Bagradian from Lives of the Artists Expanded Edition 2009, Cambridge Press, by Calvin Tompkins.