From ancient times, Armenians have cherished their artistic traditions, which reflect a unique culture and landscape. Aspects of everyday life are expressed in the most artistic fashion, in needlework, embellishments, carvings and design.
Architecture is one of the most interesting art forms in Armenia, as, for example, churches bear artistic illustrations in frescoes and reliefs. Sculpting is everywhere – in nearly every city, town, and village in Armenia.
Armenians love music, and they have been creating exquisite compositions for centuries. Sharakans are traditional Armenian liturgical songs, which are experiencing a revival today. Distinctive musical instruments are used to play Armenian folk songs. Sayat Nova, Komitas, and Aram Khachaturian are among Armenia’s best-known musicians and composers. Contemporary music comes in the forms of jazz and pop. The Sayat Nova Conservatory helps polish future generations of Armenian musicians. Frequent concerts make for delightful evenings at the Philharmonic, Chamber Music Hall, Opera and Ballet House in Yerevan.
Literature has always played a vital role in Armenia’s cultural and national identity. Before the Armenian alphabet was developed in the 5th century, Armenian tales were passed down by oral tradition and written in foreign languages. Armenian manuscripts, beautifully illuminated with miniatures, combine Armenia’s literary and illustrative traditions. Christian culture and the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots, so thoroughly expressive of the language that it has withstood the centuries without any essential changes, gave new stimuli to the development of unique cultural traditions. There is no better place to view this literary and artistic history than Yerevan’s unique Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Manuscripts), which houses an extraordinary collection of 14,000 complete manuscripts, fragments and miniatures. The oldest parchments date back to the fifth and sixth centuries. The majority of manuscripts are research works of ancient scholars on theology, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, geography, history, medicine, poetry and music.
Armenian painting blossomed in the 19th century. Artists from that period, such as the portrait painter Hakob Hovnatanian and the seascape artist Ivan Aivazovsky, continue to enjoy internationalreputation. In the 20th century, Martiros Saryan captured nature’s essence in a new light, and Arshile Gorky greatly influenced a generation of young American artists in New York, while Carzou and Jansem found fame and fortune painting in France. A visit to Saryan Park will bring you in touch with today’s Armenian artists.
The Caucasus region and Armenia in particular have been cited by scholars as the place where rug and carpet weaving originated. Armenians continue this tradition, and one can find many shops specializing in fine new and old rugs and carpets. At the weekend flea market, rug sellers lay out their eye-catching merchandise filled with appealing colors and designs. At the same market, you will come across loads of charming handicrafts that will be hard to resist purchase. Visitors to Armenia find handmade crafts, Armenian gold, precious and semi-precious stones which inspire jewelers in many regions. Obsidian stone is used for jewelry, desk accessories, and decorative items. Carpet making is not only a fine art, but Kilim weaving, for example, is applied to clothing items, bags, and home furnishings. Wood carvings replicate the ancient stone crosses (khachkars) found throughout the country, and no two are exactly alike. Armenian crafts couple elegant utility and delightful whimsy in textiles, ceramics, metal and woodworking.
Armenia is often referred to as an open air museum. Tourists find over 4,000 historical monuments throughout Armenia, covering various periods of the country’s history from prehistoric to Hellenistic times, and from the early to medieval Christian era. The Armenians created their masterpieces during rare periods of peace and relative prosperity over the centuries. Within Yerevan alone there are more than 40 fine arts museums and galleries.
Support for the Arts. In the republic of Armenia, following the policies put forth during the pre-Soviet and Soviet eras, the state has been supporting the arts and humanities. In recent years, because of economic difficulties, there has been a privatization trend. State support is diminishing. In the Diaspora, the arts and humanities rely on local fund-raising efforts, Armenian organizations, and the initiative of individuals. In the republic of Armenia, artists are engaged full time in their respective arts. In the Diaspora, however, artists are rarely self-supporting and rarely make a living through their art.
Literature. Armenians have a rich history of oral and written literature. Parts of the early oral literature was recorded by M. Khorenatsi, a fourth-century historian. During the nineteenth century, under the influence of a European interest in folklore and oral literature, a new movement started that led to the collection of oral epic poems, songs, myths, and stories.
The written literature has been divided into five main epochs: the fifth century golden age, or vosgetar following the adoption of the alphabet; the Middle Ages; the Armenian Renaissance (in the nineteenth century); modern literature of Armenia and Constantinople (Istanbul) at the turn of the twentieth century; and contemporary literature of Armenia and the Diaspora. The fifth century has been recognized internationally as a highly productive epoch. It was also known for its translations of various works, including the Bible. In fact, the clergy have been the main producers of Armenian literary works. One of the most well-known early works is Gregory Narekatzi’s Lamentations . During medieval times, a tradition of popular literature and poetry gradually emerged. By the nineteenth century, the vernacular of eastern (Russian and Iranian) Armenia became the literary language of the east, and the vernacular of Istanbul and western (Ottoman Turkish) Armenia became the basis of the literary rebirth for Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.
Armenian literature has been influenced by European literary styles and movements. It also reflects the tragic history of its people. The 1915 genocide led to the death of the great majority of the Armenian writers of the time. The period immediately after the genocide was marked by a silence. Eventually there emerged a Diaspora literature with centers in Paris, Aleppo, and Beirut. In Soviet Armenia, the literary tradition followed the trends in Russia with a recognizable Armenian voice. Literature received the support of the Soviet state. A writers union was established. At the time of glasnost and perestroika, the emerging leaders belonged to the writers union.
Graphic Arts. Historically, Armenian art has been associated with architecture, bas-reliefs, stone engravings, steles, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestry. Since the Armenian Renaissance during the nineteenth century, interest in drawing, painting, sculpture, textiles, pottery, needlework, and lace has intensified. During the Soviet period, graphic arts were particularly encouraged. A new Armenian style of bright colors emerged in painting. An interest in landscape painting, rustic images, a focus on rural life, and ethnographic genre paintings were noticeable in Soviet Armenia. A national art gallery houses the works of Sarian, M. Avedissian, Hagopian, Soureniantz, and other artists of the Soviet epoch. In the current republic, there are outdoor exhibits of newly emerging painters, and new private initiatives are being made.