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Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem


In the nineteenth and, particularly, the twentieth centuries, tile painting and glazed pottery from Iznik and Kütahya, like their counterparts from Persia and Central Asia, have been understood and evaluated quite differently in the Western world and in the East. The West saw these objects as magnificent handicrafts to be collected and preserved. Indeed, in the collections of leading European museums, this pottery was exhibited as the expression of traditional collective creation and as pieces noted for their particular beauty and charm. However, the ceramics was generally rated as traditional and stereotypical, even in those cases where the names of the creators were mentioned. It seems to me that in the East the painters of ceramic tiles considered themselves as artists and not as craftsmen, despite never having formulated a conceptual artistic theory. And, indeed, David Ohannessian (1884-1952), the founder of the Jerusalem school, expressed his artistic awareness in newspaper interviews and other documents.7

I would argue that Jerusalem ceramics constitute a distinct artistic expression, which has its own unique place in the history of the production of artistic glazed vessels and that we should recognize the unique role of the painter in the workshops of this art form. The painter creates autonomous drawings and sketches, which might or might not be used to decorate the tiles and vessels. Therefore, the investigation of the painter's working routines is essential, as is the study of his/her artistic conceptions and expressive methods.

As an art historian, I have adopted the methods and attitudes of art history in my current analysis. This study is first and foremost chronological, tracing the development of the artist as a creative thinker. Secondly, it is iconographic in that it attempts to understand the images used by the artist and to interpret their role and significance. And finally, the study seeks to comprehend the artist's pictorial traditions and individual visual language. Moreover, it is my contention that in the craft of traditional vessel painting, it is possible to differentiate between a craftsman who mechanically paints inherited conventional patterns and forms and an artist who, working within tradition, develops traditional pictorial schemes to serve as his own visual, dynamic and variable language. Such traditional work creates new images that can be perceived as variations on a theme but that do not necessarily reflect a dynamic outlook. It seems to me, however, that such changes in design and subject matter reflect the development of an individual rather than conceptual artistic consciousness.

The Move to Jerusalem

The three Armenian ceramic artists' families led by David Ohannessian the painter and his partners Nishan Balian the potter (1882-1964) and Megerdish Karakashian the painter (1895-1963) were invited in 1919 to the Holy Land by the newly founded Pro-Jerusalem Society for the purpose of renovating the tiles of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Beyond the concern over the disintegration of the sixteenth century tiled walls of the Dome of the Rock, the invitation of these artists expressed the ambitions of the new British Mandatory Government of Palestine – as formulated by the architect Charles Ashbee, secretary of the Pro-Jerusalem Society – to restore the production of the traditional crafts such as ceramics, glasswork, weaving, etc, thus conferring upon Jerusalem the image of a Mediterranean city, and fulfilling the Western concepts of Jerusalem as a 'city of the East'.

Charles Ashbee, who was active in the British Arts and Crafts Movement in England, introduced upon his arrival in Jerusalem a romantic concept of the East and an artistic tradition forged in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The three years of his service as architect and secretary to the Pro-Jerusalem Society (1919-1922) were crucial to the city. Ashbee's architectural concept strove to create Jerusalem as a city of multi-leveled images, anchored both in the Christian religion and in the romantic conceptions of the East.

David Ohannessian and his disciples Nishan Balian and Megerdish Karakashian brought with them an ancient artistic tradition from their native city of Kütahya. There they had mainly worked for Muslim patrons, for whom they provided glazed ceramic tiles and vessels that expressed a very different perception indeed. In Jerusalem these artists found a new reality, integrated into the ancient Armenian community, and produced Armenian ceramics for Christian, Muslim and Jewish patrons. The new reality, the need to become part of the city's life, and the new sources of inspiration, led these artists to produce an art that differed in several focal aspects from their ancient tradition. The combination of their new patrons' wishes and their artistic work in a new location engendered a unique creativity that differed from that still taking place in the artistic centers from which it had been exported. In 1922, Karakashian and Balian left Ohannessian's workshop and together founded a workshop of their own on 14, Nablus Road.

David Ohannessian explicitly regarded himself as an artist, the founder of the Jerusalem school of ceramics, and so did his younger associates. This was in contrast to Charles Ashbee and the pro-Jerusalem society who wrote and spoke of the Armenian artists as 'The Humble Craftsmen' 8 The works of David Ohannessian, who remained in Jerusalem until 1948, were extremely attached to the Iznik and Kütahya traditions and to models of the Sultan palace. In his work, Ohannessian depicts trees and flowers (primarily cypress trees) based on patterns depicted at the Harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. His rich colors, surrounded by contours, rely on a confrontation between deep blues on a white background, reds and blacks.

I believe, however, that Ohannessian was aware of the Christian symbolic significance of the buildings he decorated in Jerusalem. The Rockefeller Museum's Fountain (fig.1 and fig.2), completely covered with a cloud-studded sky, represents a return to ancient Christian symbolism with the dome representing the dome of heaven and the waters of the fountain, Jesus Christ the source of life. The same constellation of stars appears on ceilings of ancient Christian burial chambers and baptismal chapels. The cypress images represented on each side of the fountain at the St. John's Hospital are constructed in two sets of triptychs and thus are bestowed with the new symbolism of the tree of life. Thus Ohannessian transformed the traditional language into a universal Christian form appropriate to the Jerusalem buildings.

1. David Ohannessian, a wall from the Fountain, Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

2. David Ohannessian, detail of the Rockefeller Museum Fountain, Jerusalem.

The Major Motifs of the Karakashian-Balian Workshop ('The Common Workshop')

From 1920 through the 1960s, the common workshop of Karakashian-Balian developed toward establishing its own independent and extensive vocabulary of forms. This new repertoire although in constant dialogue with central elements in Ohannessian's work, used them in new contexts alongside introducing Armenian and local sources. The new images comprise pictorial systems made both for tiles and for pottery vessels (fig.3); often, the same picture was adapted for both. The Karakashian-Balian repertoire of forms used only few images from the traditional repertory of form of Iznik and Kütahya, integrating them in a novel way into the new composition. Their patterns are however more profuse and linear, the outlines thicker and do not merge with the surrounding colors.

3. Vase from the Karakashian-Balian workshop (‘the common workshop’), H.27 cm.

Next page


7. N. Shalev-Khalifa, 'David Ohannessian, Master of The Dome of the Rock Tiles Workshop 1918-1948,' Assaph Studies in Art History, 7 (2002), Tel Aviv University, pp. 139-157. back to article

8. N. Shalev-Khalifa, 'David Ohannessian', p. 150. back to article

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Richard Carlton

Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem
Nurith Kenaan-Kedar
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Design in Center and Periphery  • Issue 4