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Taniel Varouzhan Annual Lecture 2019

A balmy May weekend saw members of Armenian communities from across Europe and various people interested in Armenian heritage and literature gather at the Ghent University for the Programme of Armenian Studies’ inaugural Taniel Varouzhan Annual Lecture. The University’s grand Aula lecture theatre was the venue for this two-day event. Varouzhan was a student at Ghent University in the first decade of the 20th century, and this was the main motivation for Dr Krikor Moskofian, director and founder of the Programme of Armenian Studies and architect of the Taniel Varouzhan Annual Lecture, to collaborate with the University to establish this lecture series. The lecture would not have been possible without the most generous help of our donors Raffi and Anelga Arslanian and André Gumuchdjian, as well as our long-standing supporters, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Likewise, the Programme is indebted to Ghent University for their moral and practical support and hospitality. The participation of Land and Culture (Brussels chapter) and the Ghent-based Hayasa student organisation was also of vital importance, as was the support of Shogher Margossian and Movses Der Kevorkian, long-term friends of the Programme.

Friday 3 May was the date for the screening of Taniel, a film by Garo Berberian of Rebel Republic Films. Tatevik Ayvazyan originally came onto the scene to help Berberian with the linguistic aspects of making a film about a Western Armenian poet, but the part she played in the production process quickly grew, and the title “poetry producer” was decided to be a better description of her role. ‘I want people to see the sensual and beautiful aspect of the poet – Taniel Varouzhan the rock star.’

In this short film, Turkish-Armenian actor Yegya Akgun voices Varouzhan in a film noir-esque dramatisation of the poet’s arrest. ‘Tigran Gaboyan, who plays Taniel in the film, is one of Armenia’s leading theatre actors, but the voice of Varouzhan had to be a Western Armenian one,’ said Ayvazyan, ‘and there are few actors who can even speak the lines in Western Armenian, let alone feel the sense behind them, but Yegya did more than that – in his voiceover, he became Varouzhan.’ Akgun came especially from Istanbul to attend the screening in Ghent, and that evening he treated the audience to some more of Varouzhan’s work.

The film had toured international circuits for a year, but to Ayvazyan, it meant an incredible amount to screen it in Ghent, a place which had been so important to Varouzhan. ‘Would he have imagined,’ she said, ‘that one hundred years on from the time he spent there so many people would come to Ghent to celebrate his memory?’ Indeed, it was no ordinary film screening – the audience comprised academics and artists of the highest calibre from various countries, making this homage to the great poet all the more significant.

The film contains some of Varouzhan’s poetry as read by Akgun and sees Sean Bean recite Indelible, a poem by Ben Hodgson which narrates the events of the film. Hodgson is a poet and the director of photography on Taniel, and his moving poem draws parallels between the Genocide and the Holocaust. ‘He is a non-Armenian who was able to feel the pain just as deeply as any of us – a rare ability,’ said Ayvazyan. The evening concluded with a selection of poems read in English and Western Armenian as well as a live reading of Indelible from its author. ‘To screen the film in the Aula lecture theatre the next day, where Varouzhan would have had his graduation ceremony, was an honour unlike any other,’ said Ayvazyan, adding that after all the guests had left the building she and Berberian sat down alone and listened to Akgun read some more of Varouzhan’s poems, and were transported more than a century into the past as the Western Armenian words washed over their ears.

The lecture itself took place on the Saturday. Before the lecture, the audience was addressed and welcomed by Prof. Dr Peter van Nuffelen, research professor at Ghent University and co-organiser of the event, and Dr Krikor Moskofian. Then Krikor Beledian, renowned Diasporan Armenian poet, prose writer, literary critic and intellectual, took the stage.

Entitled I Have Seen Europe: the Time of the Destruction of Images, Beledian’s lecture focused on Varouzhan’s time studying in Venice and Ghent and the impressions that this time in these two cities of art left on him and his writing. As Varouzhan mentions his letters, Venice, where he encountered the colourful exuberance of Titian, and Ghent, where he was introduced to the “barbaric realism” of Van Dyck and the realist masters, were major influences on his work. Varouzhan’s plunge into these two European painting traditions became an underlying feature of his poetry. In particular, the colours he found in Titian’s work reminded him of Anatolian– despite becoming enamoured with the culture he found around him in Europe, Varouzhan was often homesick and longed for his village. His experiences in Venice and Ghent led Varouzhan to think of his own art through the lens of imagery; it became paramount to him, it was ‘impossible to even think’ without it, as he says in a letter from 1911.

It was after taking a long draught of the potion of Flemish realism that Varouzhan began to write poetry about the shocking events back home, including the Adana massacre. His concern became that of what role imagery had to play in the writing of such atrocities. In his lecture, Beledian found expressions of this realism in Varouzhan’s writing on the massacre of Adana, where, not dissimilarly to the writing that came after the Holocaust, the question was how to build images that faithfully convey the horror of such events. For Varouzhan, the answer is to destroy images rather than build, to shut one’s eyes, as the narrator does in To the Ashes of Cilicia, and so deny the image and the event from holding a place in reality[1].

After the lecture, guests were invited to have a glass of wine and peruse Taniel Varouzhan: The Legend, an exhibition on the poet’s life meticulously prepared by Palestinian-Armenian artist Kayané Antreassian. Over a number of panels with text written by Dr Krikor Moskofian in English and Western Armenian, the exhibition took viewers through the major events of Varouzhan’s life, from the beginning of his career as a teacher, to his studies abroad, his return to his homeland and his tragic death as one of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

The narration of the exhibition which accompanied Antreassian’s composite images was a product of painstaking research by Dr Moskofian. Tracing the progress of the poet’s life, it began with his childhood as a member of a humble family in the village of Prknig in historical Armenia and the conflict between the natural beauty of his home with the ugliness of the environment of injustice and persecution experienced by Armenians at the time. A visit to Constantinople with his mother where he saw his father in prison on trumped-up charges became the inspiration for his poem In My Father’s Prison. Varouzhan would stay on in Constantinople, first as a pupil of the Mekhitarist Elementary School in Pera and then of the Mekhitarist Boarding School.

Then came his education in Venice at the Mourad Rafayelian School, where he published his first poem in the Mekhitarist monthly Pazmaveb. In Varouzhan’s Armenian literature teacher’s letter to the Mekhitarist monks he compares the young poet him to one of the outstanding figures of Western Armenian Romantic literature, writing “I’m sending a new Mgrdich Beshigtashlian, look after him!” Thereafter came Varouzhan’s departure from Venice to Ghent for the study of political and social sciences, economics and literature. Ghent saw the poet struggle financially on a scholarship of one hundred franks a month, and then struggle emotionally following the rejection of his love by Belgian woman. It is thought that the poems Abandonment and Lament are reflections on hopeless love. Nevertheless, the beauty of the city and its artistic heritage coupled with the world literature he devoured while studying left a magnificent aesthetic stamp on his poetic mind.

Varouzhan returned to Prknig in 1909 and became a teacher. His students were excited by his enthusiasm for the lofty subjects of literature, art, theatre, painting, societal progress and justice. Varouzhan saw it as his mission to expand the horizons of the Armenian youth who were in his care, and he pursued that mission at his next teaching post at Tokat National College and later when he found himself in Constantinople once again, this time in front of the blackboard rather than facing it, as the principal of St. Gregory the Illuminator School of the Armenian Catholics.

The next panel told of Varouzhan’s meeting of Araksi, a bright young woman who came to him first with a desire to study poetry. The two quickly fell in love, but the fact that Araksi was already engaged to another man from a wealthy family, coupled with the social gap between Araksi’s Apostolic family and Varouzhan’s humble Catholic background, almost scuppered the relationship until the famous freedom fighter Mourad of Sepasdia intervened. They married in 1910, and by 1912 had had two children: Varouzhnag and Armen.

Exhibition attendees were then taken through the effects that the radical Modernist movement in Europe was having on Armenian political, social and cultural life in the early 19th century. These ideas set the scene for Varouzhan’s further poetic maturation; he writes Shivers in Venice in 1906, The Heart of the Race in Ghent in 1910. In this latter collection Varouzhan tackled the issue of national self-determination, and the poem within deal with the horrors and agonies taking place in his homeland and his mourning for the lost glories of the past, although not without a firm belief in a bright future. His next collection, Pagan Songs delved into the Armenian pagan past, exalting primitive expressions of love and sensuality; The Song of Bread extolls the earthy and ancient honesty of Armenian village life.

Towards the end of the exhibition a dark cloud settled over the reader as they were informed of the circumstances of Varouzhan’s deportation and murder. On that infamous 24 April in 1915, Varouzhan was taken from Constantinople to Chankiri, and then from Chankiri to a village called Tuney, on the way to which he met his cruel end, not the first and far from the last victim in a whirlwind of violence exacted against the Armenians during the Genocide.

The final panel told of the dedication of a memorial plaque to the poet’s memory at Ghent University in 1958 on the initiative of a committee of Belgian-Armenian students, bringing the reader’s journey through Varouzhan’s life to a close and depositing them back in the very city they stood in. The exhibition was a fitting tribute to a sparkling life, brutally cut short in one of history’s greatest atrocities.

The weekend’s events were capped off with a dinner at a restaurant beside one of Ghent’s many famous canals. Toasts were raised to all the people who had made the event not only a possibility but a great success, as well as to Varouzhan himself. As the night drew to a close, it was very moving to hear the name ‘Taniel’ on everyone’s lips in that corner of a city which had given him so much.

[1] A recording of the full lecture (in French) can be found on the Programme of Armenian Studies’ YouTube channel. In addition, a longer summary of the lecture has been written by Hasmig Seropian, and can be found below this report.

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