Recent Acquisitions: John Steinbeck's Cold War Armenian Legacy

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John Steinbeck

Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every Friday.

The Saryan Museum in Yerevan, Armenia, is a rather unusual place to find a portrait of the American writer John Steinbeck. The Pulitzer Prize winner's reluctance to sit for such paintings was well-known, and yet there it is, an unmistakable likeness found in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia, painted by Martiros Saryan, the nation's most famous and revered artist.

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The Armenian artist Martiros Saryan, who invited Steinbeck to sit for a portrait in his home.
"Not much, if anything, is written that [John Steinbeck] was in Armenia and now we have proof that in fact he was there, who he visited, and the great personal connection he made with architects, poets, artists, and people in general that loved his written words," said Deborah Silguero-Stahl, the curator of exhibitions and collections at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.
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Steinbeck gave Aramyan a signed copy of his novel.
Proof has arrived in the form of a three-minute film of Steinbeck and his wife, Elaine. The footage was taken in 1963 by Rafael Aramyan, an Armenian writer tasked by his government with hosting the Steinbecks during their visit. His granddaughter, Shamune Aramyan, recently sold the movie, a signed edition of Grapes of Wrath baring the dust cover for The Winter of our Discontent, and two photos signed by Steinbeck to the Center.
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An autographed author photo Steinbeck gave to Aramyan.
According to Aramyan, Steinbeck visited Armenia at President John F. Kennedy's behest. From 1922 to 1963, Armenia was under Soviet Rule, almost a decade into the Cold War. After Armenia, Steinbeck continued his goodwill mission on behalf of his country, subsequently visiting other Soviet Republics, including Georgia and Ukraine.
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A still from Rafael Aramyan's home movie of Steinbeck in Armenia, 1963.
According to Silguero-Stahl, footage of Steinbeck is extremely rare, making the recent acquisition a significant one. Filming took place after Steinbeck had left Saryan's home for a visit to Geghard, the monastery complex founded in the fourth century by Gregory the Illuminator. The main chapel was built in 1215, which, alongside the Azat river gorge, has since been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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