‘You must torment people with your artistic delight, scaring mother and grandmother in the middle of the night…’
When navigating your way through that often frightful and always personal pursuit towards creative expression, be sure to pack a keen sense of humour for the journey. For filmmaker and artist Sergei Parajanov, humour and wit was something that he kept close to his heart… even in the most tragic scenarios.
Born in modern day Tbilisi, Georgia, of Armenian descent (his Armenian name was Sarkis Parajanyants), his artistic proficiency earned him fond admiration throughout the Caucasus region and within creative circles around the globe.
As filmmaker, Parajanov was an auteur in every sense of the word. As well as a director, screenwriter, art director and production designer, he would also cast actors, frame his compositions and sketch his own storyboards. His cinematic fingerprint is so unique that it is inherently problematic for film critics to place him in any basket but his own.
‘Artistically, there are few people in the entire world who could replace Parajanov…’ (Andrei Tarkovsky)
After the runaway success of his first major film ‘Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors’ in 1965, Parajanov simultaneously became acclaimed star and denigrated target overnight. Soviet censors managed to block almost every film project for the next 8 years; leading to his arrest in 1973 and subsequent imprisonment in 1977. After almost 20 long years of house arrests, labour camps and imprisonment, the artistic constraints began to loosen around Sergei Parajanov, as the Soviet yoke slowly dissipated.
By the mid-late 80’s the cinema of Parajanov was being screened at international film festivals; and indeed the master filmmaker had plans to breathe new life into his old scripts, like ‘The Demon’ and ‘Confession’. Sadly, by this time his health was failing him, and in 1990 he passed away from lung cancer.
‘Everyone knows that I have three motherlands. I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine and I’m going to die in Armenia…’
A fearless creative that challenged any conventional artistic methods and bureaucratic rigmarole, such films as ‘Color Of Pomegranates’ (1968), ‘The Legend Of Suram Fortress’ (1985) and ‘Ashik Kerib’ (1988) are unparalleled for their stunning visuals alone.
Founded in 1988 when the director moved to Armenia, The Museum of Sergei Parajanov in Yerevan houses approximately a thousand works from collages, drawings, mosaics, dolls and various assemblages created by this prolific artist and filmmaker. The museum also houses personal belongings, film paraphernalia, letters and family photos that shine light on one of the most important artists of his generation.
Privilege of Legends were lucky enough to pay a visit to this wonderful museum and chat to one of the curators about such an inspirational figure…
1. Why do you think the work of Sergei Parajanov is still valid today with audiences?
The creative diversity and depth of Parajanov’s work means he continues to reach new audiences from a variety of backgrounds and subcultures. The messages within his art are as relevant today as the period in which they were produced.
The world of Parajanov is one that allows us to dream without rules, borders or restrictions.
2. Much of Parajanov’s work is steeped in local tradition and folklore from the Caucasus region. How important do you think it was for him to preserve and retell these stories, and why did this subject matter conflict so much with Soviet ideology?
Firstly, there is a biographical and ultimately personal element behind all of Parajanov’s work. From family to folklore, local history and politics, his work reflects the social environment of that period.
Being under the Soviet regime at the time, tales of national identity in the Caucasus region conflicted with the ideology of the Soviet state, rendering the subject matter a strict taboo. Ultimately, this proved to vilify and marginalize Parajanov.
However, being that his other mediums of art still flourished during this period of censorship and incarceration shows how important it was for him to tell these stories.
3. One particular thing that resonated with me the first time I watched ‘Color Of Pomegranates’ was how visually and aesthetically different the film was to anything I had ever seen before. From the perspective of an Armenian, did the film strike a similar chord with you or was the imagery and content more familiar?
Allow me to explain a little of the backstory to ‘Color Of Pomegranates’, or ‘Sayat Nova’ as it was simply known in Armenia. Following the success of ‘Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors’ in 1965, Parajanov was invited to Armenia to make another feature film. His intentions were to produce an innovative and abstract piece, loosely based on the poetry of Armenia’s cultural king of song, the poet Sayat Nova.
Although the film is interspersed with elements of traditional medieval Armenian culture, ‘Color Of Pomegranates’ is primarily an artist’s visual interpretation of the great poet’s life in images. Therefore, this highly imaginative film is equally astounding to watch for a local Armenian.
4. Of all the various forms of art housed in the museum, which would you say are the particular standout pieces? In your opinion what do you think his art tells you about the character of Sergei Parajanov?
In my opinion all of the extensive art pieces housed in the museum hold equal significance. Collectively, it’s the diverse artistic mediums (film, collage, mosaic, photography, sculpture) that tell us more about the character of Sergei Parajanov. Within them all are elements of nostalgia, tragedy, irony and wit. This to me is the complex character of Parajanov.
5. Whether it is in the form of film, sketches, mosaic or collage, Parajanov’s work seems to be rich in symbolism and hidden meaning. From the point of view of someone who works closely with his art, do you find yourself extracting new meaning and definition from Parajanov’s work the more you see it?
Working at the S. Parajanov Museum here in Yerevan for almost 6 years I have been lucky enough to see the works in a new and evolving light. The constant stream of visitors and frequent discussions have reshaped my understanding of this enigmatic character.
Anahit Mikayelyan (Assistant Museum Curator)
Sergei Parajanov Museum
Buildings 15 & 16, Dzoragyugh St.
Yerevan, Armenia 375015