Artist Matvei Waisberg About Vahan

22.06.17, Matvei Vaisberg

It was 1987. I was drawing portraits in Odessa City Garden.

A bearded man of medium height came up to me, cast a glance at my portraits and said:
- You are definitely a genius!I am also a genius, my name is Alexander Knopp. How much is your portrait?…
I told him that it cost five roubles and he answered that he had no money anyway. I answered that I didn’t need any money and would draw his portrait as a gift.

And I drew it.

He took his portrait, rolled it up and ran away.

I was going to leave when suddenly aged Odessites with a guitar came to City Garden. So I stayed and started drawing them hectically.

All of a sudden my recent acquaintance appeared among them. He took a violin from Grandpa Liosha and started playing.

Marc Chagall’s shadow fell upon me. This violin player seemed too overwhelm the gravitation.

I kept on drawing.

He noticed me, tore out the drawing and showed it to a man of monumental appearance that came to the City Garden at that time. He was completely bald, wearing lots of amulets, with a sheaf of papers and a stack of pastels. We were scrutinizing gone another for a long time.

- You are our old boy! – said Vahan – that was him – and embraced me.

Later at night in the pavilion of the City Garden he drew my portrait. I kept it and will show you somehow.


About Style.

It was 1987. Vahan and I were drawing portraits in Odessa City Garden.
A woman came up to us and asked us about the style of drawing.

It is worth saying that at that time there was the following rule in Odessa: 1 rouble for a mot-juste.…
Ну, - думаю, - щасзаработаю.
- Ваганизм, - говорю.
- Вобще-томояфамилия - Ананян, - ответилВаги. (Фамилииегоятогданезналеще).

I thought: ‘Oh, I will make money right now’.

- Vahanism, - I said.

- My last name is actually Ananyan, - Vagi answered. (I didn’t know his last name at that time yet).

I gave him two roubles at a loss for words.

P.S. I always tell this story when somebody asks me how this style is called.


Rules of life

Vahan was once invited for dinner as a guest.He started persuading me to go with him. I refused to go and explained to him that those people didn’t know me at all. He answered that if he can’t go anywhere with his friend, so what the hell is the sense going there.
I made it for a rule of my life.
However,  not without exceptions.


In 1987 Vahan and I were drawing portraits at New Arbat Avenue in Moscow. One day a bystander compared Vahan’s works with Matisse.

- Who is that Matisse? –Vahan cried–I don’t know any Matisse! Matisse was a good guy. And I am Kilp Vahan! Corpsephiles! Necrophiles! Love the living people!
As for the inner content his speech was similar to Mayakovsky’s article about Khlebnikov:
"...when will the comedy of post mortal treatments be finally over?! Where were those men of letters when Khlebnikov was alive and humiliatedby critics in Russia? I know the living people who are probably not equal to Khlebnikov, but who are waiting for an equal death.
Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!"

It concerns everyone.



Vahan’s visit to Kiev in 1992 or 1993

First he lived at my place, but several weeks later my mother (Shella Matevosovna - as Vahan called her- was likely the only person he was a bit afraid of) couldn’t stand Vahan’s volcano of emotions any more. Vahan had to move to Borshchagovka and stayed with Kate Demchuk and Andrey Mokrousov who were in love with his paintings and his indomitable energy. They lived in an apartment rented at their friends.
Two months later I saw him off to the railway station.
At that time he left ruins after him. And paintings, of course.
Moreover, he brought an alive mouse to the apartment at Borshchagovka.
Once I quoted him the saying of Decemberis Lunin: ‘Never try your friends’ patience’.
But at that period Vahan tested everyone’s endurance.
It was not only difficult, it was sometimes unbearable.
After a long time he told me:
– If I stopped getting on people’s nerves, I would probably die.
And he smiled.
But these were the words of another Vahan, the words of Vahan after a life-changing and tragic year of 1995.



Unlike all other Vahan’s stories I heard this story from Vahan only once.

Vahan was drinking all evening with somebody whose name he didn’t want to tell me in a café in Havannaya Street, where everybody knew him, treated him with vodka and his favourite fried eggs.It was cold and it was time to leave. Vahan’s drinking companion asked him to walk him home. Vahan offered him money for a taxi, but his companion refused to take it and told him that his feet couldn’t walk. Therefore Vahan took him on his back and carried him in the direction that the man on his back showed him.

– They probably poured something into my vodka, – Vahan said.

I was in different situations with Vahan and I can definitely say, that I hardly ever met any person like Vahan who would have such a clear understanding of people, prediction of their behavior, a “moment-quick” (as Vahan would say) reaction to different, including extreme situations. It is highly likely that someone has mixed something into Vahan’s glass. They went deep into some backstreets. When Vahan finally understood that something was wrong, the man sitting on his back hit him on the back of his head with the cutoff the pipe. Vahan came to himself when homeless vagrants were trying to pull off his leather jacket. He found himself without money and passport with residence permit in Estonia. He stood up and went home. At home he felt very bad and phoned Knopp. Knopp called the ambulance and Vahan was taken to hospital. He had a skull cup fracture and a huge hematoma which clotted because it was cold.That probably saved him. Several days later his wife came to hospital to ask Vahan for a divorce.

 – You’d better be a widow than a bitch, – Vahan said to her. He didn’t lose the clarity of thought and laconism of phrases. Then he left hospital witha drainage tube in his skull. He lost his health and his family. He learn to draw all over again. It was winter of 1995.


“Comet Wine” 
Vahan came to my exhibition “Comet Wine”, which was exhibited in the National Museum in 1998.
The Hale–Bopp Comet was shining in the sky above the museum.
The long comet tails were waving in my works.
(I started drawing the comet long before it came, in 1995 while re-reading “War and Peace”).
Vahan was one day late for my exhibition, so I showed him my works in the basement studio which I rented in 15 Tolstogo Street.
Vahan looked awful. Three years ago his head was bashed with a pipe and he narrowly escaped death. He was black like Othello, moved slowly, leant on the stick and breathed heavily. I asked him whether he drew and he answered that one can only survive the winter at the place where he lived.
He looked closely at my paintings and said:
– There is news in each of your work.
I’ve never heard a better comment on my paintings.
Then Valera Sobolevsky,  Irina and I saw Vahan off to the railway station.
He asked us to buy him two bottles of water for his way and told us that he couldn’t fall asleep without them.
He repeated again and again:
– I can’t understand what dirty trick Knopp prepared for me?
When Vahan showed his ticket on the train to the conductor, the latter demanded the certificate of a disabled person. However, the ticket was bought by Knopp in Odessa in his name by the certificate of a fool.
I have never seen Vahan so humble. He silently turned around and started to leave the coach. In two seconds Valera and I without hesitation tampered the conductor and brought Vahan back into the coach. The train with Vahan started moving, we stayed at the platform.

A white coffin and khachkar at the 2ndOdessa cemetery.
Vahan was really lucky in the last six years of his life: he got acquainted and made friends with “mother” and “father”as he called them – with Father Anatoly and Aliona Rimko.
These people committed themselves to taking care of Vahan.
Aliona – the“Mother” – became his Good Angel, she was engaged in all his practical matters and rented a studio in Tolstogo Street, where he lived and kept on drawing until his very last day.
“The winner is a man who works much”, – Vahan used to tell me.
And he kept on working, although he felt that his years, then months and then days are numbered.
His disease became more serious and he left for his native city Yerevan to “die” as he said. Aliona paid for his treatment and sent money to Armenia almost every day. But something went wrong in Yerevan. Vahan said in his typical way that it was impossible to die decently in that city and came back to Odessa.

The air of Odessa had a beneficial effect  on Vahan and he felt better.

At the beginning of autumn 2006 Vahan came to Kiev for a farewell, as we understood later. He gathered almost all his Kiev friends at Valera’s and Tanya’s Sobolevsky house. Vahan was cheerful, made shashliks and ate grilled vegetables. At that moment it seemed to all of us that a fatal prognosis of doctors was at least delayed.

After that he performed his last feat. He went to Tallinn and brought about one hundred of his works from there. Until his last day he was busy with restoring his paintings, stretching them over frames, getting ready for an exhibition which was displayed due to efforts of Aliona Rimko after Vahan’s death in Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Pushkinskaya Street.
On 18thofDecember 2006 Aliona called me and told me that Vahan died.
The Sobolevskys and I came to his funeral.
Vahan was buried in a white posh coffin with handles and gold coating, which was rejected by some Mafiosi. His body which remained mighty even after his death didn’t fit in any other coffins. His funeral was also not without adventures and odd coincidences.
The Father Anatoly said a funeral prayer and was telling much about sinfulness of the deceased.

Accidentally I found in my pocket a spike for picture frames. I put it into a coffin when I bid farewell to Vahan.
The white coffin moved into the opened portal and tongues of flame engulfed it.
The funeral feast was in the restaurant “Klarabara” in the City Garden which was dearly beloved by Vahan.
When I was coming home by train my wife called me and told me that her mother, my mother-in-law Valentina Grigorievna died that day.

With this news I came back to Kiev.
At Vahan’s grave Aliona erected a stone in form of khachkar, i.e. the stone cross which had been brought from Armenia.

When an artist dies, there is something that is left after him – his paintings. Even when the artist is still alive, his paintings start to live their own lives and acquire their fate. That's it. However, the living artist can somehow influence this process. The major part of Vahan’s paintings was in Odessa, at “Mother” Aliona who was a Good Angel of the artist Vahan during the last years of his life and a keeper of his memory and his artwork after his death. There was a dream of opening a museum with Vahan’s works. Vahan’s sister took a part of paintings from Aliona’s collection to Yerevan. Aliona allowed to do so for very obvious reasons, moreover, nobody discussed this question with her. However, a part of Vahan’s paintings which were personally given to Aliona by Vahan, was left at Aliona’s place. But many Vahan’s works live somewhere their own lives.
I hope that those paintings that Vahan’s sister has taken to Yerevan, will become one day available for a public display. A wonderful film director Arutyun Khachatryan that has been making a film about Vahan for many years said that the problem is that very few people remember Vahan in his native country and he is not very popular there. There is nothing new: no man is a prophet in his own land. Once I visited an exhibition in Kiev about Odessa non-conformism. Nobody could explain me why Vahan Ananyan – an artist who had lived for a quarter of a century in Odessa – was not displayed there.
There is nothing to do, we will hope for time and for us.
And the paintings keep on living. Once I asked Vahan about the destiny of his works and he answered: – A painting is not a bun, you can’t eat it up!