Arman Tateos Manookian is one of Hawaii's most celebrated modern artists, even though he worked there for only five years and eleven months before taking his own life at the age of 27. His works are celebrated for their bold, high-key coloring, and for his idealized portrayals of Hawaiian life and history. He is considered a pioneering Modernist even though the artist himself always insisted that his art was derived from Western Classical and Renaissance values.
Manookian, the eldest of three children, was born on May 15, 1904 in Constantinople, the troubled heart of the collapsed former Ottoman Empire. His given name, which he used until joining the U.S. Marine Corps was Tateos (Tady to his family), which is the name of one the two apostles who brought Christianity to Armenia in 35 A. D. He came from a family of Armenian Christians, and his father Arshag owned a successful printing business. The Manookian family was one of the Europeanized Armenian families that had held on to their status and affluence despite crippling taxation and the political dominance of the Islamic Turkish Pashas at the end of the 19th century which morphed from persecution and massacres into deliberate and systematic genocide of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I.
As a boy, Tateos was fascinated by the ships, and used to watch them coming into port for hours. As a five year old, he must have been impressed by the four great battleships, including the Maine and the Missouri that visited Constantinople during the tour of Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." His family still has detailed drawings of military ships that he did as a seven year old. Manookian's childhood fascination with ships may also help explain his decision to join the Marines later in life.
He received an excellent early education at the School of "St. Gregory the Illustrator" administered by the Mekhitarist Order of Venice. The principal of his school, Daniel Varoujan, was a key figure in the "Mehian" movement, an Armenian cultural renaissance, until he was imprisoned and executed by Turkish authorities in 1915.
On April 24, 1915, just shy of Manookian's 11th birthday, 600 Armenian intellectuals writers, poets, politicians and others were gathered up and murdered. Manookian's father, the publisher of an Armenian newspaper, managed to hide himself and his brother-in-law in the family print shop. Within weeks perhaps 5,000 more men were dead, some forced to die on death marches into the desert. Although Manookian's father survived the first wave of terror in Constantinople, he fled to France where he died in 1917 after contracting the Spanish flu. Tateos, along with a younger brother and sister remained with their mother, enduring years of fear and hardship as the growing Armenian genocide claimed over a million victims.
In April 1920, Tateos came to live with relatives of his mother in New York City and then in Providence, Rhode Island. Always gifted in art, he won a state scholarship to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where he took night classes from 1920 to 1922. He specialized in commercial Illustration at RISD and worked as a lithographer.
On October 8, 1923, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and within a few years was contributing decorations and eventually cover art for the Marine magazine, "Leatherneck." Manookian's work caught the attention of a Major Edwin McClellan, who began asking Manookian to illustrate a 2,000 page history of the Marine Corps that he was writing. Manookian completed over a hundred illustrations for McClellan's book although the text was never published, except in a microfilm record for the New York Public library. He followed McClellan to take an assignment at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1925.
Upon discharge from the Marines in 1927, Manookian opted to stay in Hawaii, where, living in Honolulu, he provided illustrations for "Paradise of the Pacific" Magazine, to which McClellan was contributing articles. Many of the artist's sketches from this period are at the Marine Historical Center in Washington DC. Manookian also was hired to do illustrations for the "Honolulu Star-Bulletin" and began an active career as a fine artist, joining the Honolulu Artist's Association.
Trading work for meals, Manookian created a series of oils that depicted Hawaii in the era of Captain Cook for the "Green Mill Grill" Restaurant. Many of the restaurants patrons came in late after leaving the Hawaii theatre. They would have just watched a show beneath Hawaii's most ambitious mural, the 35 foot wide "Glorification of Drama" completed by Lionel Walden in 1922. What a shock the Manookian paintings must have been when compared with the pastel, Neo-Classical composure of Walden's work. Manookian's color, applied in broad, bold patches reflected his memories of Byzantine colors, as well as his attraction of the brilliant colors of Paul Gauguin's work.
To the Honolulu public, the Marine from Constantinople had remade himself as an exotic and a true Hawaiian artist. In truth, the nostalgic aura of Manookian's work was a sign of his personal sense of displacement. If the alternation between manic highs and dismal lows that Manookian's friends observed were an indication, the broken bond with his family, and a longing for the past may have colored his moods. If he was indeed homesick, it was for a Constantinople that he could never return to: history had seen to that.
It has often been said that Modernism was the creation of exiles, and Manookian's life sadly fits this profile. His instantaneous and miraculous bond with Hawaii suggests a deep longing to be connected to a place and culture, perhaps as a replacement for what had been lost. Ultimately, Manookian's portrayal of Hawaii, like Gauguin's of Tahiti, is an idealized fantasy of a place that had never existed except in the Colonial imagination. That of course, was a fantasy of Eden that the world and its travel agents needed badly in the in the late 20's, and which it still needs now
In the last four years of his life, Manookian could hardly have been more productive. He exhibited at the Honolulu Academy, had a show at Gump's Waikiki and completed a mural cycle, now lost, for the Waipahu Theater. Reviews and reproductions of his work appeared in magazines including "The Argus" and "Art Digest". He experimented with a style portraying contemporary life in Hawaii, but he was often not satisfied with his own work, and once destroyed several of his works in front of astonished friends. Whether it was caused by the growing economic gloom of the depression or the haunting memories of atrocities in Turkey, his behavior became increasingly puzzling to friends, and he gained a reputation as being erratic and troubled.
His career was cut short by a decline into despondency, and on May 10, 1931, he took his own life with poison at the home of friends where he had been living for several months. His work was featured in a Memorial Show at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts in August and September of 1933. Manookian's early death has made his work both unfortunately rare and sought after by collectors.
McClellan was away from Hawaii at the time of his friend's death, and no article or mention of Manookian's death was ever to appear in "Leatherneck" where his career had started. Had Manookian lived he would have had to cope with the disappointment of knowing that the massive history he illustrated for McClellan was never published. The Depression made publication of such a large book unfeasible, and McClellan resorted to mimeographing sections, chapter by chapter.
The only complete record of the "History of U. S. Marines and Origin of Sea Soldiers" by Edwin North McClellan, illustrated by A. T. Manookian exists on microfilm as recorded by the New York Public Library in 1954.
Excerpted from a monograph on the artist published by John Seed for 2001 issue of Honolulu Magazine; Published here with the kind permission of the author.Read More