War, religion informed artist’s works | PostIndependent.com

War, religion informed artist’s works

Ryan Graff
Post Independent Staff

“20th Century” came before its time.

A painting by noted Armenian artist Ariel Agemian, “20th Century” depicts a world in chaos, with a statue of shadowy figures giving the Nazi salute on the left-hand side, and the Statue of Liberty with her torch held high on the right. Between the two statues is a muddle of human figures who fight and grovel alongside enormous guns.

The imagery is striking, but the painting becomes shocking when you learn that it was painted in 1938, three years before the United States entered World War II in the fight against German aggression.

“20th Century” is one of about 90 paintings by Agemian that hang in the Glenwood Springs home of his daughter, Annig Raley.

It seems that Agemian had to have tremendous foresight to be able to paint “20th Century” before the United States entered the war, and Raley thinks her father’s life gave him that insight.

Born in Armenia in 1904, Agemian witnessed the murder of his father and at least 600,000 other Armenians at the age of 10 at the hands of the Turkish army during World War I.

After the massacre he spent nine years studying among monks at the Mehkatariste Monastery in Venice, Italy.

When the monks told the 19-year-old Agemian that he “cannot love God and art,” he left to study philosophy and pursue an art career in Paris.

All of these events gave Agemian insight into the nature of humankind, said Raley.

“He accepted that man was good and bad,” she said. “He had an understanding of violence and what man can do for power.”

Most of the works Agemian painted while in Paris were portraits, historical scenes and everyday events, with very few religious overtones. That’s a result, said Raley, of her father’s reaction to the monks’ directive that God and art not mix.

In 1938 Agemian was invited by Armenians living in New York to do an exhibition in America.

“His appetite was whetted by the American people,” said Raley.

Though Agemian didn’t speak English, his French, Italian and Armenian made him feel very comfortable in New York.

He received rave reviews for the exhibition, married, started a family, and never returned to Europe.

Agemian’s new start in America also marked a change in his art. He again began to paint church scenes, Jesus, and other sacred pieces.

“When he came to America,” said Raley, “it gave him the creativity to love God through his art.”

Secular to Sacred

Agemian’s transition from secular to religious art is the theme behind the art show Secular to Sacred, a benefit to be held in Raley’s home by the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts.

Though Raley’s home looks like a typical Glenwood Springs home from the outside, on the inside its uniqueness is apparent.

Absent from the walls are pictures of sailboats or polar bears lounging on ice. Instead, the walls are decorated with oil and pastel paintings from the early 1900s.

All have been expertly restored, framed, and lit by subtle track lighting hanging from the ceiling.

“We feel like we’ve made a gallery out of our home,” said Raley.

Though Raley lives in an impressive home gallery today, it wasn’t always so.

Three years ago she and her husband, Howard, began restoring many of her father’s pieces that Raley had been lugging around since her father’s death in 1963.

“At one time in my life they were a burden,” said Raley of the paintings, noting that her father died while she was still in college.

Now, said Raley, having her father’s paintings is a privilege, and she looks forward to sharing them in Secular to Sacred.

A well-known artist

Agemian’s paintings are well-known in Europe and on the East Coast, where they hang in churches, schools and monasteries, said Raley.

The Louvre in Paris has requested Agemian’s “Turkish Massacre,” a painting Raley gave to her French uncle in the 1970s.

As Raley guides visitors through her home, she can tell at least part of the story behind various paintings. “Love in an Oyster Shell,” a painting of a man and woman floating together in a blue oyster shell, was painted after her father and mother met. “Artificial Paradise” was her father’s favorite and used to hang in her childhood, 1,400-square-foot Brooklyn apartment. She also tells the story of how he painted impressionistic human forms over the top of scribbles she made on a piece of paper.

Raley will open her home on June 12 to visitors to celebrate her father’s work. The event, which was postponed from May 1, will feature fine wine and food, and will benefit the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts.

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