The story of Arman Manookian, one of Hawaii’s foremost modernist painters of the 1920s and ’30s, is full of mystery and sadness. An Armenian born in cosmopolitan Constantinople during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, he was driven out of his homeland by the Armenian Genocide and eventually ended up in Hawaii, where he died by drinking poison at his Honolulu home at the young age of 27.
Like the other great Armenian-American modernist painter and genocide survivor, Arshile Gorky, Manookian briefly attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). But unlike his compatriot, Manookian chose to join the US Navy, pretending to be an American citizen, and later settled in Hawaii, far away from the horrors he witnessed during his youth and removed from any semblance of an Armenian community.
It’s hard not to see Manookian’s art through the prism of his difficult life; his idealized images of Hawaii, which combine the lessons of Gauguin and Diego Rivera with the sheen of Art Deco, inevitably come across as an escapist fantasy that contrasts strongly with the depression that haunted him his entire life. Little is known about that short life, but a fascinating self-published book by California-based art historian and critic John Seed, Arman Manookian: An Armenian Artist in Hawai’i, has strung together the facts to create a very useful portrait of an artist little known outside his adopted state.
After a short career as an illustrator for a US Marine Corps Leatherneck publication, Manookian began illustrating for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper and Paradise of the Pacific magazine in 1927, but the bulk of his fame comes from his paintings of colorful landscapes and emotionless painted figures, who seem trapped in the golden glow of amber. Nothing is rosy in Manookian’s story, except that in the last decade there has been a renewed focus on him, as art historians have excavated the details of his life and raised awareness about his work. In 2009, an Armenian Genocide resolution adopted by the state of Hawaii highlighted Manookian’s story as the beginning of “Armenia’s ties to Hawaii” and pointed out that he was known as “Hawaii’s Van Gogh.”
Looking at his work in reproduction, it’s obvious that while Manookian may have loved the clarity of strong lines, it was in color that he found real refuge and comfort. Curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Academy Theresa Papanikolas explains, “Indeed, like Gauguin in Tahiti, Manookian’s theory of abstraction freed him to reimagine Hawaii, and to picture it as a dazzling earthly paradise far removed from the corruption and sorrows of contemporary society.”
But then there’s his sudden suicide.
John Seed tells the story of the final day of Manookian’s life. It’s almost cinematic in its symbolism and atmosphere:
On the evening of Sunday, May 10, the Lemmons and a few friends were playing the parlor game “Murder,” while Manookian, who had been depressed for days, sulked in his room. It is hard to believe that the artist had told his friends many of the details of his early life, or they might never have played “Murder” so lightly.
Members of the Lemmon family have stated that he was in love with Belinda, the flirtatious first wife of his friend Cyril. It will never be known for certain if this was true, or whether there were any other personal complications that drove him over the edge. Admirers of his Hawaiian figures have noticed his sensual treatment of men’s bodies and suggested that he might have been gay or bisexual, but there are no anecdotes to substantiate this idea. The records of a police inquest into the death by Detective John Cluney vanished years ago.
While the game went on in the living room, the distraught artist drank poison. He may have taken arsenic, but more likely he took cyanide. Cyanide had been in the news a few months before, as the agent of death in the suicide of Lewers and Cooke heir Will Lewers. Manookian’s friends heard him cry out as he stumbled into Lemmon’s kitchen, never to regain consciousness.
Manookian’s art had celebrated adventure and heroic myths, yet he killed himself pointlessly and created a world of pain for those he left in the present.
Seed has done an excellent job compiling critical reactions to Manookian’s work, many of which emphasize the use of color, and added family details in an effort to reconstruct the timeline of the artist’s life. Seed has also thankfully included a rich stash of sketches, published illustrations, photographs, and over two dozen paintings in his book. The only thing missing is Manookian’s own voice — no diaries and few letters written by him appear to exist, so he only speaks to us through his art and illustrations, which clearly only tell part of his story. In the pages of Arman Manookian, Seed offers an apt assessment of the artist: “His broken childhood had taught him not to trust the future, even in paradise.”
Today, it should be mentioned, is April 24, the day people commemorate the Armenian Genocide around the world. One of the things that’s most striking about Manookian is that, unlike other Armenian Genocide survivors who turned to art, including Gorky, Yousuf Karsh, and Léon Tutundjian, his work never reveals any glimpse of the turmoil of his life. Unless we consider that we’re more often defined by what we don’t talk about or paint or document then what we do.
Manookian’s most famous murals, which hung until 2010 in the lobby of the Hana Hotel on Maui, will be featured in an upcoming Art Deco Hawai‘i exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, opening on July 3.
John Seed’s Arman Manookian: An Armenian Artist in Hawai’i is available on Blurb.
Seed just tweeted out this helpful info for those interested in the book: