An essay by Annig Agemian Raley (daughter)
What is the transformative gift of this Armenian artist who converts the poles of seeming opposition in life into the light of mystical wholeness on canvas?
Ariel Agemian’s compelling artistic expression derives from a deeply felt spirituality as authentic as his talent-a sense of vocation that led him to pursue an art career at Moorat College in Venice rather that pursue a medical degree from the University of Rome, which had been the preference of the monks with whom he lived. He continued his studies at the University of Padua and received a Doctorate of Philosophy degree at the age of 21. He met his agreement with the monks, who supported his continuing education, by painting a few historical, religious works, which still hang in the dining room and in the hallway of the College. In 1931, he visited Torino, Italy, where he studied the public exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, the basis for his painting, Face of Christ (1935), which has become the most widely accepted representation of the Shroud.
The vortex of his colorful life seemed always to be in high-energy centers: Rome, Milan, Venice, Paris, and New York City. From Italy he went on to Paris, set up a studio, taught at the College Moorat and the University of Paris and also committed much time to painting murals and ceiling panels for the Church in Arnoueville. His recollections of the massacre were painted with oils on canvas and are entitled, The Turkish Massacre. The Louvre expressed an interest in acquiring this painting after his death, as per their agreement. It is now in the home of one of his nephews living in La Ciotat, France.
In 1937, his maternal uncle, who was a priest, died of an epileptic seizure, an event that devastated him and led to his decision to take his favorite works to New York for a showing arranged by the Armenian community in the surrounding area. While visiting, he also planned to study the American people for a series of tableaux on democracy. See the painting, Twentieth Century, on the display page. Unfortunately, he left the majority of his paintings from the late 20’s to the early 30’s in his studio in Paris, intending at the time to return to retrieve them after his short stay in America. See Location Unknown. Fate dictated otherwise: the SS Normandie, on which he had booked his return passage in 1942, caught fire in the New York harbor. Regarding this omen, he never again attempted to return and what had begun as a three-month stay extended to the last twenty-five years of his life.
While settling in New York City, he set us studio and met many celebrities in the musical world through his teaching; one of his pupils, Maria Roxas, was an artist in her own right and soon to be his wife. Maria’s father was the coach for the Metropolitan Opera Singers and her mother sang with the Neapolitan Opera Company. Soon portraits of opera stars hung in his studio. Maria and Ariel were married in 1939 and in 1941, their first and only son, Stefan was born. The joys of life were now multiplied with the bearing of a son, who would carry on the Agemian name and talent. At this time Ariel decided not to delay any longer his priestly vocation and he would continue to love God thru his art, and paint mostly religious works. At the same time, he changed the medium for his work from oils to pastels, to pen and ink and to chalk images on dark construction paper.
Sadness came to both Ariel and Maria when they learned in 1942 that Stefan was born with a severe handicap of Cerebral Palsy. His high hopes and dreams were dashed and Maria never forgave herself for not “birthing right.” It was at this time that he planned his return to Europe; the burning ship, coupled with the birth of their only daughter, Annig in 1943, led him to embrace his life in America.
From 1945 to his death in 1963, Ariel painted every night, producing over one thousand pen and ink sketches for the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. He rarely sold any of his works including those portraits of famous musicians from his early years in New York. For twenty-five years he painted on commission and donated his time and what money he received to the Armenian Catholic Church. Tuition for his daughter was the only major expense and one of his illustrations was sufficient to pay part of the monthly fees. In 1958, Pope Pius XII awarded him the highest honor given to a layman (Knight of St. Gregory.)
It was apparent that he internally suffered from the sorrow of seeing his son so helpless and incapacitated. What would be the salve were the annual pilgrimages that the family made to Quebec, Canada, to visit the St. Anne de Beaupre Shrine in the hope that their prayers would be answered in the form of a miracle and Stefan would be cured.
The passage from dark to light in life manifested in the shift from dark background to light in his painting. From his experience of traumatic witnessing of the horrific event of the genocide, his frustrations in having a handicapped son, and the conflicts he experienced between his art and his love of God, he worked through all of this psychic turmoil in his writings and in his art, tapping into the deep religious devotion that was powerfully reflected in his work.