PRINT April 2011


the Sergei Paradjanov Museum

Sergei Paradjanov, The Departure of the Wardrobe, 1977, paper, tinted birch bark, magazine clipping, fabric, foil, 6 x 9 7/8". From the series “Inventory of Confiscated Belongings,” 1977.

AS ONE APPROACHES the Sergei Paradjanov Museum, a modest stone building in Yerevan, Armenia, it is difficult to anticipate the size of its collection of Paradjanov’s work. More than six hundred collages, assemblages, photographs, drawings, original film posters, dolls, and costumes fill two floors of this former residential house, which also holds the Soviet filmmaker’s unpublished screenplays and his correspondence with directors such as Fellini and Tarkovsky. Accompanied by wall plaques in Armenian, Russian, and English, the works on view are densely installed, salon style, among vases, tapestries, and a humble dining table. Since its opening in 1991, a year after Paradjanov’s death, the museum has become one of the city’s chief cultural centers, hosting talks, book launches, and Yerevan’s annual film festival.

Paradjanov was acclaimed in the Soviet Union and the West for his theatrically decadent vision of Caucasian history and folk traditions. Films such as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), The Color of Pomegranates (1968), and Legend of the Suram Fortress (1984) combine a dizzying kineticism with a restrained, histrionic layering of images that have nothing in common with the muscular tenets of socialist realism. In 1973, the authorities, who had grown suspicious of Paradjanov’s transgressive predilections (including his bisexuality), sentenced him to five years of hard labor in Siberia for “sodomy by consent,” an alleged rape, and the dissemination of pornography. During his incarceration he produced numerous paper and cloth collages and drew sketches for larger assemblages. After his release in 1979, he was prevented from making films until 1984; it was during this five-year period that Paradjanov created the bulk of the collection on view in Yerevan.

Having visited the “Paradjanov le Magnifique” exhibition in 2006 at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, I was eager to see the entire collection in the very different setting of Yerevan. I had been struck by the connections between the collages and the films, in which figures and objects are peculiarly animated among ornate or neutral landscapes. But seeing the collages as part of a larger body of work and hung in close proximity at the Paradjanov Museum, I became more aware of their decidedly unexpected take on Susan Sontag’s notion of camp: They exhibit a symbolic code of exaggeration that resists the established order, that of heterosexuality and socialist realism—and laments the loss of freedom incurred as a result of the order’s power. The camp of Paradjanov’s work is the alchemical product of his imprisonment, where suffering and repression led to an unexpected joie de vivre, an affirmation of identity in the face of hardship.

In The First Tractor, 1984, for example, the letters of the Cyrillic acronym CCCP have been crudely cut out and placed over an institutional building. A challenge to socialist realism is implied through the inclusion of domestic objects, such as a teapot and an urn. A naked woman is placed among an array of other objects, including Lenin (in triplicate), a desk lamp of the same green as the acronym, and a mass-produced doll holding a tractor. In having one of the Lenins point to the smaller of two tractor cutouts, the work undermines the propagandistic image of heroic Soviet industry. What makes the work especially outré is the detail of the Lenin on the far right, where his erect penis is mostly concealed by a neon-green fragment of the CCCP sign above. By projecting a failed seriousness, Paradjanov unsettles orthodox paradigms, stripping the veneer of official rhetoric to reveal a more complicated reality via a mix of adornment and frivolity.

On the other hand, The Departure of the Wardrobe, 1977, part of a larger series of the same year titled “Inventory of Confiscated Belongings,” features a locked wardrobe with a tapestry on the front that functions as a double concealment of the illegitimate forms of representation presumably contained within. The confiscation of “belongings” implicitly refers to a larger loss of tradition and culture. Through the representation of the Caucasus’s heterogeneous histories and cultural artifacts (such as the tapestry fragment, as well as miniatures from medieval Christian and Islamic manuscripts), Paradjanov liberates the discourse of suppressed traditions. This privileging of the folk object explodes the official conventions of Soviet representation so as to permit multiple identifications and diverse subjectivities.

Of all his films, the one most analogous to these collages in its aesthetic mode is The Color of Pomegranates, which is constructed as though it were an illuminated manuscript rather than a work of narrative cinema, pointing to an idiosyncratic appreciation of Eisensteinian montage. Static images unfold on one another in sequence; each scene is made up of theatrical set pieces. The film’s lavish pictorial language conveys a surrealism and anachronism excluded from the intransigent facade of socialist realism: Scenes show pomegranates whose juice bleeds into the shape of Armenia; wool dyed to the red, blue, and orange of the Armenian tricolor; medieval paintings from the Caucasus. The collages, against this background, should be regarded not only as an extension of Paradjanov’s oeuvre but as a central part of it. During his exile from filmmaking, he was able to explore the complex iconography of Armenian and Georgian art in a wholly new way: by channeling the crafts of costuming, metalworking, and rug weaving into delicate assemblages. If the collages serve in part as material witness to the gulag, they also reveal the extent to which the transgressions of his art are a way of altering historical memory.

Nathan Dunne is the Editor of Tarkovsky (Black Dog, 2008).