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A collection that is both intimate and historic, humble and grand: Susan Moore in Geneva.

On the grassy slopes above Lac Leman at the heart of Geneva's international district lies one of the world's quirkier small museums (and one of the finest museum restaurants for that matter). Housed in the elegant Chateau de Penthes, the Musee des Suisses dans le Monde presents portraits of illustrious Swiss, from the splendidly costumed Antoine de Reynold de Fribourg, Captain of the Swiss Guards, to the likes of Marat and Necker, as well as tableaux of battle scenes, armour, silver, and other decorative arts. It is also home to an archive, library and exhibition galleries devoted to exchanges between Switzerland and the rest of the world. This spring and summer the nexus has been Switzerland-Armenia.

That Armenia was chosen is hardly surprising, for this year commemorates the centenary of the start of the massacres and brutal deportations of 1915-18. These death marches saw this ancient Christian community deprived of its historic homeland, long absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, at the hands of the nationalist Young Turks who imagined a new and enlarged Turkic empire with one language and one religion. An estimated 1.5m ethnic Armenians died in what historians--but not the Turkish state--recognise as the first genocide of the 20th century. As Europe looks the other way in the face of the Syrian crisis, it is worth recalling Hitler's chilling words on his planned extermination of the Poles. In a speech on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, he asked: 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?'

The answer to that question now would be not only Armenians, as various cultural as well as political events of the year bear witness from Glyndebourne's UK premiere of Poliuto, Donizetti's opera based on Corneille's drama of a martyred 3rd-century Armenian Christian convert, to the awarding of the Golden Lion to the Republic of Armenia at this year's Venice Biennale. This pavilion was dedicated to the artists of the often far-flung Armenian diaspora exploring notions of identity and memory, displacement and resilience--much the same thoughts that prompted the start of the Kalfayan collection of Armenian art in Thessaloniki in Greece in the late 1960s and its exhibition here, appropriately, in Geneva.

Like Switzerland, Armenia is a small, mountainous, landlocked country lacking significant natural resources. Nonetheless it has held a strategic position at the crossroads of its geographical region, and its inhabitants have long been obliged to seek their fortunes elsewhere. After the fall of Greater Armenia in the 11th century, Armenians settled along the great trade routes connecting China and India with Russia, the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. Some held powerful positions in the administrations of their host countries, but all these communities, however integrated, maintained their own independent Orthodox Church, language and alphabet. A sense of the enduring spiritual and emotional importance of the symbols of Armenian faith in the national consciousness--not least Mount Ararat, with Noah's Ark at its summit, and the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin--is one of the revelations of 'Switzerland-Armenia: The Kalfayan Collection, on the Path of Memory'. Another is the extraordinary silk, cotton, and ceramics trading networks facilitated by the diaspora.

This diverse collection, begun by Garabed and Anahid Kalfayan and continued by their sons Roupen and Arsen, spans metalwork, manuscripts and incunabula, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, and carved stone and ivory. What makes it particularly intimate--and historically valuable--is that almost all these pieces bear dedications or inscriptions linking them to specific individuals or places. Humble or grand, and not necessarily of Armenian manufacture, these range in date and dedication from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript leaf from near Lake Van and glazed ceramics from 16th-century Isfahan and 17th-century Kiitahya to 18th-century Chinese export porcelain. The enamelled and gem-studded Constantinople silver-gilt is as spectacular as the tinned copper donation plates made for the Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem are simple. A printed 19th-century cotton altar curtain in a naive Western style depicts the Baptism of King Tiridates III by St Gregory the Illuminator in 301 when Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. While the outstanding Armenian manuscripts and works of art of the medieval period have been widely studied, this later and often unsophisticated material has not.

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.
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Title Annotation:LETTER
Author:Moore, Susan
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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