Profile: Dali's Disciple: Persistence of Childhood Memories and Metaphysical Visions is the Stuff of Onik Sahakian's Surrealism

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Dali’s Disciple:

Persistence of Childhood Memories and Metaphysical Visions is the Stuff of Onik Sahakian’s Surrealism

By Lucine Kasbarian

Published in Armenian International Magazine (AIM)

July 1992

The idea of meeting Onik Sahakian elicits a sense of baffled fascination. Would he act obnoxious? Or forbiddingly arrogant? Would he – an illustrious disciple and assistant of Salvador Dali – take it upon himself to serve me lunch on a bed of nails?

What I discovered instead at the artists’ apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side was a rather conservative-looking man whose comportment scarcely betrayed the often enigmatic tendencies of his art. In fact, I found him to be a living reflection of the studied solemnity that pervades much of his work.

To absorb Sahakian’s art is to become conscious of an otherworldly quality of expression. In works that appear so open to the simplest interpretations lie layers of esoteric meaning. His gouache paintings, with their masterful renderings of celestial tranquility, convey the regenerative principle of open spaces. Within the vast silence of infinity, illusions and apparitions serve as alternatives to the turmoil of everyday life, as possibilities of escape from what is normally accepted as visual reality.

As Sahakian pays homage to wind-swept beaches, breathtaking skyscrapes and open doors leading to oblivion, he crossblends these visions with myths and symbols that are at once universal and intensely personal. The effect is that of weaving together of diametric opposites: the past and the present, the wisdom of tradition and the reasoning of the futuristic, earthly emotion and spirituality, the real and the surreal.

As art critic Ana Maria Botelho has noted, Sahakian “never lets go of his roots, his impressions of the cradle and the many different songs which rocked him to sleep… In all his paintings, there is a sort of immense nostalgia for all that has been, and a return to the primeval truth of purer plastics.”

A native of Tehran, Sahakian started his dance, music and art education at the age of seven. He continued his ballet and art studies in the Soviet Union and, on his return, became a cultural advisor at the Iranian Ministry of Culture. In 1956, he moved to California, where he fully devoted himself to a life of artistic experimentation. He speaks of these early years with a rather sour note, recalling how a woefully conservative Armenian cultural milieu had shunned his work. But it was also during this period that a singular event helped give new impetus and meaning to his career: Sahakian’s cousin and hairdresser to Iran’s Queen Farah, Sebouh Badalian, introduced him to a client who fancied having enormous rollers in his hair … This was none other than Salvador Dali, whose association with Sahakian would, over the next 19 years, span the bounds of friendship, tutorship and collaboration.

Sahakian credits Dali with a discipline so rigorous that he, as a student, could not help but emulate.

“Dali’s influence was profound, both in terms of method and perception,” he says. “He always preferred speed: he could not stand languor. He would advise that once a given subject was crystallized in the mind’s eye, one was to finish panting it in no more than three days or else it would never reach a conclusion.”

As far as pure technique was concerned, Dali insisted on mastery of the fundamentals. “When you studied with him,” Sahakian explains, “you first had to build a strong classical foundation, you had to be a draftsman and be able to paint like an Old Master. Only then could you choose your own style.”

Asked if he was ever accused of sharing the commercial opportunism of the notorious artist, Sahakian is quick to point out some fundamental differences that he says set his and Dali’s sensibilities apart.

“Dali was an electric current. He was also a selfish, manipulative character who loved ostentation and media publicity. You had to accept him as he was. He, in turn, had to trust you implicitly to let you get near his work. As I helped him assemble gallery exhibits in New York, he’d announce, ‘You’re the most Dalinian person I know. Therefore you should and do know what I want without having to ask me.’” And though having been given the master’s blessing, Sahakian underscores further differences of stylistic and philosophical outlook. “Whereas my works are mystical and lyrical, Dali’s are aggressive and shocking. If critics compare us, they must have never known him. I paint directly from feeling and what comes to me naturally, whereas he kept on creating in a purely commercial manner that goes against my natural grain. And yet I understood what he was doing and accepted his genius. I could never be Dali, but I never wanted to be Dali either.”

Despite a flurry of exhibition schedules that drives him to paint at least two works a week, the 56-year-old artist manages to maintain an indulgent residence in Lisbon, Portugal, where Sahakian collects art and provides his services as an international art consultant. His work also includes jewelry (many of the pieces worn by Dali and his wife Gala were Sahakian’s designs), sculpture, stage design and ballet costumes.

Lately, Sahakian has also been active in trying to convince the Portuguese government to sponsor the establishment of an art center in Lisbon. “There are so many creative people out there who don’t know how to pursue their dreams, haven’t gotten much parental encouragement, or lack the inner strength to face competition,” he says. “The center that I’m proposing will be a forum for emerging artists, with facilities available for guidance counseling, lectures, courses, exhibits and concerts. It will also become a showcase for living Portuguese artists and various schools of art history, including exhibit works by Dali and myself.” If the project comes to fruition, Sahakian intends to bequeath all his collected works to the center. “I’d love to refurbish a palace and make this institution very social and glamorous, yet unintimidating. I want to emphasize that art belongs to the world.”