Henry Madden Library exhibition features pioneering Armenian artist from Istanbul

by Cindy Wathen Kennedy

Hours before Kristin Saleri passed away, she asked her son two questions. “What will happen to my paintings after I die? Will I be forgotten?”

“I will make sure that you will be as well known as Van Gogh,” her son, Dr. Nansen G. Saleri, president of the Kristin Saleri Art Foundation, says he told her.

Saleri painting

A retrospective exhibition of artwork by Saleri, a pioneering 20th century artist of Armenian heritage who lived in Istanbul, is on display through May 31 at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State. Admission is free and open to the public.

Despite the challenges presented by Saleri’s gender and ethnicity, she secured her place as a member of the founding generation of modern art in Turkey.

Saleri, who trained in Paris, was influenced by Impressionism and used art to convey a message of modern feminism. Her work is filled with images evoking her love of the vast Anatolian landscape and its people — from women in traditional village dances to Bosporus fishermen to laborers in booming post-World War II factories.

Stylistically, Saleri’s work presents a blend of Eastern mysticism and Western Impressionism. Her folkloric themes range from Christian images to whirling dervishes, and from Mother Earth to the Tree of Life. Her message was one of inclusivity, expressing her deep appreciation for the range of diversity in nature and humanity.

“The heavily worked surfaces of her pictures … speak of a faith in the poetically expressive power of paint,” says art historian and critic Morgan Falconer, a faculty member at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York.

Saleri worked in oil paint as well as charcoal, ceramics and glass. She produced more than 3,000 works — 72 of which are displayed in the Madden Library exhibition. In 1965, she became co-founder of the International Turkish Female Artists Association and was a leading figure in the Armenian artistic cultural community.

The paintings on display in the Madden Library are on loan from the Kristin Saleri Foundation, which was formed by her Houston-based family to honor her memory and to help support future artists.

The exhibition is curated by Fresno natives Joyce Kierejczyk and Carol Tikijian, who also curated a spring exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum of works by artists of Armenian descent in commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian genocide.

— Cindy Wathen Kennedy is a public affairs communications specialist for the Madden Library at Fresno State.