Interview of Stephan Bagradian by Kate Carew

The New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, November 6th, 1927. 


This Reporter Studies “Sublime Elementalism" in the Presence of No Less Lofty a Presence than Bagradian, Forerunner of “Heaven Alone Knows What” in the Field of "Advanced Art"

The Youthful, Attractive Armenian in Constantinople Who Proves Shy and Retiring, but Prolific of "Ahs" and Irritable Only When His Pictures Are Discussed 


Come a little nearer and look very intelligent and soulful, dear ones, for we are point to talk somewhat of "Sublime Elementalism." Rolls out rather well, doesn't it? By this time you are busy discussing “it” among yourselves, anyhow, I imagine, and you're having heated arguments as to whether “it” is really the "heart of painting" or an "insult to the intelligence" because, of course.

Still, in case you don't follow me I'll tell you what I mean by “it” as we are saturated with “it!”


“It” is the new art that some call Sublime Elementalism but no one can precisely define or really call by any name.

We lap it up everywhere. We talk of it in the salons, we laugh at it on the boulevards and we quarrel over it in the cafes.

Yes. It's everywhere; in everything. It's insidious. It's stealthy! It is influencing ideas, clothes, literature, and house decoration. If it continues we'll all be talking in words of one syllable, and goodness knows what we will look like. Now it is eager-eyed young men who have their favorite tables, and who hold forth for and against the New Movement in Art They are awfully emphatic, awfully in earnest and crazy to fling out words, words, words!

In fact, I don't see how they have time for anything else in the way of painting or writing, for they're so busy chatting and orating. I've studied these Sublime Elementalists- I've been as painstaking as an eager child in groping for points of view, but I'm still In the dark. I can't get into the spirit of it. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, behind the times and all that, but there it is. You know the worst and yet I am not quite so hopelessly vague about it all as I was, for I've met a Sublime Elementalist- one of the leading ones, and from a casual study of him I have advanced a step or two in knowledge.


Bagradian, who is the most it of all the Sublime Elementalists, is also the least seen and whose paintings are the least known. He used to paint pictures of normal men and women as normal men and women and then suddenly he took to a mysterious style of art that is only a rumor.

Bagradian is the forerunner of heaven only knows what in art. He could be seen, said those who knew him. But it was difficult as he was shy, retiring and mute, especially on the subject of his pictures. "Don't,” they added, "speak of his pictures, whatever else you say!" "Why, what will happen? Will he simply turn and tear me limb from limb, or will he flee my baleful presence?" I asked with a perfectly natural curiosity.

"Oh no," they said in chorus, "nothing like that; but it irritates him."

Now does that seem a natural trait? It doesn't irritate me a bit to have you talk to me or write me about my pictures. You can always say just what you like or don't like. But of course, I crossed my heart and swore three times that I would be on my best non-interviewing behavior. I would have a simple chat with the timid, nervous one and like the walrus. I would talk of many things, but never a Bagradian painting. I'd merely study the type of man who will not let anyone see his paintings until they are revealed en masse.

The old town of Constantinople is abuzz with news of Bagradian’s daring escape from the mysterious East, where he was rumored to have been in league with white slavers, opium runners, and communists. Three times today I heard of three different and contradictory adventures of Bagradian and Francis Picabia. At the zinc bar, I heard that Picabia is acting as Bagradian’s painting agent in Paris. On the Grand Avenue, they say that Picabia was so disheartened by Bagradian’s talent, that he has become a hermit, giving up painting forever. At the café, I hard that Picabia tried to murder Bagradian and this is why he does not dare to come back.

But mostly, they are constantly talking of Bagradian’s frenzied work, at all hours, in his atelier. His shadows can be seen at all hours in his window in Pera, hacking at canvases that he will permit no one to see. His friend has told me that he has managed to paint more than forty works in in this short time. Do the paintings look like Picasso’s odds and ends that put the world in blotches and cubes or whatever it pleases you to call them? Or are they something even less human? I'd only like to seek the soul of him and see whether he is spoofing us, or whether he really expects us to find something inspiring in his puzzles.


Our meeting, so pregnant with possibilities, was in a Sublime Elementalist salon, owned by a Persian who supports Sublime Elementalist paintings for the sheer love of them. It was a great long, low room, with windows high up toward the celling, delightful bits of shabby, old-fashioned furniture, carved chests with handmade locks, odd little tables and quaint high backed chairs.

"Tell me," I said to his friend who had brought me here. "Do you understand what Bagradian means to do with his pictures?"

"Oh, yes” was the reply from his Post-Impressionist colleague who answered and then started to pick lint from his lapel.


"Then do give me the key," I pleaded.

"I've got an open mind. I like new movements. I believe they all make for progress. I may become a disciple of the school if only I can get an Idea what It all means."

But this painter friend of Bagradian just simply smiled sweetly.

"But don't you sometimes have to ask him for the first inkling as to what he is striving after in his work?" I pursued, feeling so ignorant and uncouth. "No," he replied, "dear me, no! I always understand, and never ask of course."

Methought: "My dear girl, one can't get a straight answer about these things. You must simply find them for yourself."

I was out in the cold. That was all there was to it, and me- with such an eager inquiring, young mind, too!


Bagradian entered and stood in the doorway blinking at us in the glare of the electric light. He has a short stocky, boyish figure and paused with one hand in his pocket and a discernable lean. He came further into the room, nodded amiably and was presented to me.

He looks very young. He is approaching thirty, really, but does not seem anywhere near that. He is built like an athlete, with his unusually broad shoulders and masculine frame, and his hands and legs are a contradiction, as they are very small and spindly. His hands look older than his face, for they are scarred, veined and knotted like the hands of the aged; yet they are artistic, with long, pointed fingers, and sensitive, delicate finger tips. He limps when he walks but not in the way that one would peg him as a cripple. His gait is that of the slightly drunk or a victim of seasickness. There is an authority to his walk.

His face is another contradiction; it is the face of a troubadour.

He has a smooth skin, guiltless of hair on cheek or chin or mouth. His features are perfect, a Roman nose, beautifully formed mouth, eyes set rather wide apart under well arched brows, and thick, black hair cut short except for one lock which will come straggling down over his forehead. Only his coloring is strange. His hue is yellow green as if he was lit by a gas lamp. This isn't the face of a fanatic or a dreamer. It isn't the face of a practical businessman who sees possible sales in sensationalism. It isn’t the face of a humorist who would enjoy spoofing a guileless public.

No, it is s the very handsome face of a simple, sincere artist, without much sense of humor, perhaps, but with conviction and strength. How he can ever paint such incomprehensible blotches as he does, when he has only to look in a mirror, copy what he sees, and turn out something worth the trouble, I can't understand.

His clothes were still another contradiction. They were well built and quite American. In cut that is, they were sort of loose and baggy and square in the shoulders.

He wore a sack coat suit of a warm brown, that golden brown tint the leaves take on in autumn, a black cravat most carefully tied, and a quite irreproachable collar.

Not a touch of the radical here. Those clothes might have just come from an evening at the theatre or an afternoon at the country club. I gazed from this nice, neat, little man to those conceptions of his brain and works of his hands which hung all around me, and I couldn't make things fit at all.


I consider that Sublime Elementalists ought to live up to their pictures. It is not fair that they should go around looking quite normal and natural when they are trying to make us see things in abnormal fashion.

Oh, how I wanted to tell him all this and here was I on my word of honor and my best behavior!

I didn't find Bagradian an easy man to engage in conversation possibly because I was so limited in what I was to be allowed to say to him. I suppose I stared rather hard at him for a few seconds, but he didn't seem to mind a bit, he just returned the look with a direct glance from his bright, brown eyes.

A heavy pause fell between us, and I furtively gazed at him.

Dared I ask what he was working on at all hours, whose secret was driving the good folk of Constantinople mad?

My dears, he has the soul of a wizard, that man. He read my thoughts like an open book and he straightened up and frowned coldly upon me as, he tossed, back the errant lock of hair.

"Ah!" said Bagradian, and the conviction reached me that he doesn't really care a bit what we say.

Bagradian smiled with evident enjoyment of my discomfort, and he showed two rows of teeth, which were missing a few members.

I changed the subject.

"Did you ever have any ambition when you were a small boy?" I continued as animatedly as possible, considering the little encouragement I received.

He raised his eyebrows as If he wondered what possible interest, this could have for me, but he answered in his serious way and in his Armenian-French, which is very sibilant and therefore a little difficult for me to follow.

"Ah, no. I always wanted to be a painter."

He never expands on any subject, as the reader may notice.

He put one of those prematurely aged little hands into the pocket of his coat and procured a long, slender pipe with a small, round bowl.

"May I?" he 'said, giving it a graceful wave.

"Of course."

He proceeded to fill it and light it with great deliberation.

"Did you begin to paint when you were very young?" I pursued, ruthlessly.

"Oh, yes. "

I don't know how Bagradian was seeing me, but he was certainly placing me as a type.

"What part of America is your home?" he asked suddenly.

"New York."

"Have you ever been to the United States`?" I asked him.


"Would you like to go?"

"I don't know; there is everything in Constantinople."

Note the simplicity of that statement.

Why go anywhere if you have everything at home?

It is so direct and easy, and that is just the way with Bagradian himself. I shall never believe that he is anything but sincere. He has an idea. He works toward it He cannot help it if people do not follow him, he says he must pursue his course, and he does.


There is an inquiring note in his voice and sympathy in his glance, which make you want to tell him much. Then back of all the childlike directness and frankness there is a tantalizing shade of something you do not reach, a hint of ideas he cannot or will not express, a desire to go on alone, to keep the door of the inner most chamber closed. All that piques your curiosity to excess, and you long to search deeper, but, of course, if you are on your honor you can't.

Bagradian is a thinker and an inquirer. Life is of interest to him. There is nothing jaded in his point of view, and the only thing which it rather bores him to discuss is art.

Possibly he pretends it bores him to protect himself. I am not sure about that, but I should think he is not subtle enough to keep up the subterfuge.


“Your friend says that you have made forty three paintings in a month since you returned from your sojourn in the wilderness. What are they about?” I said, boldly breaking my promise and shaming my family’s honor. Bagradian looked startled and then looked very tired. His answer was cryptic and only lost me further.
“My work will end millennia of the oppression caused by painting.” I was lost! Simply put, I have never been oppressed by a painting!  I did need to see what he had been working on more than ever now though.


I am inclined to suppose that it enthralls him to paint his weird imaginings and tires him to discuss them.

It was getting late in the evening and the room was thick with smoke. Bagradian shook back the lock of hair, knocked the ashes out of his pipe on the hearthstone in a nice, neat fashion and murmured, "It Is now time I went home to bed.”

Bagradian wrapped a scarf around his throat, put on a heavy coat and was ready to face the elements.

His friend asked him to watch after his health, as he had been sick.

"Ah, yes," agreed Bagradian. "That is true but now I am to be much better. Good night.”

And the little painter vanished into the night.


When the last idealist had vanished and we were alone in the big room and nestling in front of the gleaming salamander, I asked his friend to explain what Bagradian meant. "You have simply have spoiled the evening, for Bagradian has become morose and now will not have talk at all to anybody for a week"

"Perhaps you're right," I agreed humbly. But I wish to say here that when I see these forty-three paintings by Bagradian, I am not going to be put off my usual bent. I am going to question him like a mother and find out a thing or two as to where he is going and whither he is taking us. I will find out what “it” is all about.

C. 1927 New York Herald Tribune