Witness of His Time: Krikor Norikian

Armenian International Magazine (AIM) Vol. 11, No. 3, March 2000, pp. 62-64

Witness of His Time
The Oppressed and the Rejected Find Dignity and Respect in Norikian

By Hratch Tchilingirian

"The different faces I paint have the same agony and suffering," says Krikor
Norikian, 58 -- popularly known as Norik -- who is one of the Diaspora’s most
well-known painters. "I don’t know where that agony comes from. It’s from
nature, from human suffering. It’s from my past, my family and my life
experience. It might come from a specific source, but it is universal."

Joseph Tarrab, who wrote the introduction for Norikian’s latest book, says
that even when the characters in Norikian’s paintings "surround themselves
with flowers and mandolins, they still belong, by their carriage, their
peasant garb and a kind of pathetic awkwardness ,,, to those who, at each
turning-point in history, let themselves be smashed, victims of the tyrannic,
omnipotent father, ever invisible but ever present in his very absence."

Indeed, mankind or rather womankind in Norikian’s paintings are
"meaningfully reduced to its most vulnerable members, women and children."
At least two women were very significant in Norikian’s life. "My mother was a
woman to be worshipped," he says with awe. And, all these years later, he
still feels the same about his grandmother with whom he lived as a teenager
because she lived near his school.

"When I start painting, I don’t have a specific thought or theme in mind, I
just start, like a title-less novel or story. When I sit before a white
canvas, I feel in a vacuum, in an empty space, I’m transformed into another
world, another reality," explains Norikian.

"I feel that I don’t know anything. Then my hand gestures start; inspiration
comes, calm and intense, with complete faith and dedication, by preserving my
self - who I am. It is a battle between the canvas and myself - there is
something that goes on between you and the canvas. There is a power, energy
that directs you hands and brush," he continues.

Born in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood, Norikian received his primary
education at a Jesuit school under the watchful eyes of Catholic friars. "In
school, instead of paying attention to the class, I used to draw all the time
and got punished for it," he remembers.

He recalls being a "rebellious teenager" as well, playing at theater and
painting on walls with pieces of black coal. "I used to be reprimanded all
the time," says Norikian, the son of a mason.

Unlike others of his generation, Norikian was not involved with the Armenian
community in Lebanon. It was only later as an accomplished artist that he was
somewhat drawn in. "For me, party and politics was my art. I am not
interested in Armenian politics, neither right, nor left," he says as a

At 14, Norikian worked with his uncle in a printing shop to earn a living. He
was still indecisive about a career. "I was very handy," he remembers, "I
could learn quickly as long as the base was provided." But, obviously, "My
only passion was painting. I wanted to become a painter."

Between 1959 and 1967, Norikian studied fine art in Lebanon, Italy and
France. At 25, his first exhibit of prints was displayed at the L’Orient
newspaper gallery in Beirut. His first introduction to the Armenian community
came in 1971 when he won the first prize at the AGBU-sponsored "Armenian
Painters of the Middle East" exhibition. Subsequently, his works were
exhibited in Canada, Germany, Argentina, France, and the US.

In 1994 a collection of his works of the last two decades was published under
the title Norikian: Humanism of the Other Man.1976-1994. Recently, the book
was launched in California and Canada.

"I paint to know, to learn why am I living," says the reclusive artist. But,
"I haven’t reached a point where I’m painting the way I want." Through the
canvas, "I want to express pain, injustice of humanity," he says. And express
he does.

One of the most striking features of his paintings is the dominant depiction
of women and children who seem mature but ageless. Men are virtually absent
from his canvas.

"I haven’t figured out why I use women in my paintings," Norikian wonders
himself. "But, I use the canvas to protest, to complain to the viewer."
There is a subtle, poetic sexuality in his paintings. He explains that unlike
the desecrated sexuality in modern art, whose roots go back to the
Renaissance, he prefers esthetic, reserved sexuality. "The sexuality is in
the mood of the painting rather than in the depiction," he explains. "Nudity
says something, it’s not literal."

Of course, there’s a marketing concern here, too, says Norikian laughingly.
"Armenians don’t buy nudes — the husband wants it, but the wife doesn’t."
Human suffering and devastation caused by the civil war in Lebanon are also
central themes in Norikian’s paintings. In the context of the war, "I used to
paint the immigrant," he says, but "I became an immigrant myself," referring
to his move to Paris in 1976 to escape the war.

"Any human disaster moves me, whether the war in Lebanon, the earthquake in
Armenia or Turkey, I feel the pain of the mother holding a broken child," he
says, the melancholy obvious. "I paint to escape from the disaster of the
past. I don’t paint to amuse the public, not to be displayed in salons - I
paint to find out why I live."

Norikian wonders, "Why am I born Armenian? Born not in my own homeland but in a distant land. This is the major agony for me."

Nevertheless, he insists that art doesn’t have national boundaries, it’s
universal. "When it comes to art and they speak about Armenian art, I get
angry. The importance is not that it is Armenian, but it is human freedom."
Ultimately, "art cannot be explained, nature is God’s creation, art is man’s

Norikian’s fans agree with the critic Tarrab, that "Norikian is a witness of
his time committed to the ethical-artistic struggle for the reinstatement and
the respect of the Face and the rights of the Other, of women, children, the
weak, the unloved, the oppressed and the rejected."

Hratch Tchilingirian
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