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Arts: Armenian rhapsody

Despite censorship and imprisonment, in four films Sergei Paradjanov transformed both world cinema and his country's culture.
I am an Armenian, born in Tbilisi, incarcerated in a Russian prison for being a Ukrainian nationalist." These are not the words of a criminal but those one of the world's greatest film-makers. "I was in prison in Ukraine for four years and four months. Two years in other prisons. I served eight years in Tbilisi and Kiev. They yelled at me, mocked and tortured me."

In 1972 he had been denounced to President Brezhnev for anti-Soviet activities by the head of the KGB. His films were difficult to see in the West, but on the strength of a smuggled 16mm print of his extraordinary film, The Colour of Pomegranates, Bunuel, Fellini, Truffaut, Visconti, Scorsese and many others were inspired to campaign for his release.

Sergei Paradjanov was a chaotic genius, larger than life, outspoken, charismatic, able to magnetise an audience with his soulful dark eyes. Another hidden Armenian, like Arshile Gorky, who survived by camouflaging his roots and his name, Paradjanov transformed cinema, as Gorky did American art. Gorky was to commit suicide in the US in 1948; Paradjanov died in 1990, his health ravaged by imprisonment.

For years in the West Paradjanov was thought to be Georgian. He had been born to an Armenian family in 1924 in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, just after Transcaucasia, comprising Armenia, Georgia and present-day Azerbaijan, broke apart. He was christened Sarkis Paradjanian. His artistic mother would act out stories for him on the roof outside a window; his father was an antiques dealer. He grew up soaking in his mother's fantasy, surrounded by magnificent objects that were no longer appreciated by the anti-bourgeois authorities. While he amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Baccarat glass, French porcelain, medieval religious silver and Caucasian carpets, his instinctive love was for the folk art of all countries.

He first studied singing, then ballet, and, with his name russified, finally went to the Moscow film school. He then moved to Ukraine as assistant to his favourite teacher, Savchenko. When he was assigned six standard Soviet pot-boilers to direct, he injected absurd and comic elements that escaped notice by the authorities.

Finally able to direct his own scenario, he shot Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors in 1964, in the Carpathian mountains. The vernacular of different peoples in the Caucasus, and their dress, speech, song and dance, beguiled him. The camera leapt, span, raced at a heart-stopping pace, through the treetops, past rivers and wooden villages, spinning a web of imagery that paid no heed to the needs of Soviet propaganda. Why was his subject mythological? Why was the text not in Russian but in Ukrainian dialect? Although disapproval was harsh the film won an prize in Argentina and 15 more awards, and earned him a reputation in the West.

When at last he visited Armenia in 1965, he fell in love with its rugged landscape, its powerful architecture and his independent compatriots. Sayat Nova, an 18th-century Armenian troubadour who had traversed several countries singing their languages, became his hero. With great difficulty he made his film about Sayat Nova, The Colour of Pomegranates, on location, often clashing with the authorities.

His inspiration, he said, was "the Armenian illuminated miniatures. I wanted to create that inner dynamic that comes from inside the picture, the forms and the dramaturgy of colour." The camera is static. The actors move in a tableau vivant, challenge gender barriers, look out at the public, defy the naturalism of cinema. The accumulation of image on image is exhilarating, an inventory of Armenian culture.

Censured again by Soviet authorities in Moscow, he entrusted his three hours of film to the distinguished Sergei Yutkevitch to cut and add titles. He now proposed a fantastic array of film scenarios on national subjects, Armenian mythic heroes and historic figures. They were rejected. At last, in 1972, he started Hans Christian Andersen in the Armen Film Studio, but the following year he was arrested and imprisoned.

During the long years of imprisonment his hands could never stay still. He drew on scraps of cheap paper with ballpoint pen: portraits of his beloved friends, actors, actresses, singers, artists - no larger than postage stamps - to keep him company in jail. Inmates became his friends and confessed to him; he did portraits of their heads in one series and their genitals in another. He taught them art, drawing and making collages. He laboured in all kinds of jobs but preferred sweeping the prison yard, where he saved every bit of dried grass, flowers, nails, bits of wire, to make collages. "I can create beauty out of rubbish. Beauty has everything in it."

He eventually produced 800 works and smuggled them out with friends, begging that they be preserved. A selection is now on show at Leighton House

He had always made sketches and drawings of his characters, their costumes, settings, cut and pasted from cigarette packs, cloth, leather and reproductions. "My kino-laboratory", he called them. He made dolls and glued bits of cloth, beads, string and sweet-papers to create the Pasha, Queen Tamara, the Turk who betrayed Kars. He concocted fantastic hats and costumes for his films. These can be seen separately at the Judith Clark Gallery.

All these artworks are valuable in revealing his hidden face. They help us to understand his rich world of allusion and symbolism. In a photograph with Tarkovsky at a dinner table Paradjanov has hung a heavy gold medal around his friend's neck, while his own hands are weighted by heavy bronze chains, for he was not allowed to work. It was New Year's Eve, 1981. The following month he was imprisoned again for speaking out in an interview to a Western journalist.

He fought the debasing of the human spirit, the enforced materialism of the Soviet period; he struggled and fought for freedom. There is another poignancy in Paradjanov's interview. "I am an Armenian to the core of my being. I have opened a little window in the Armenian cinema through which it is possible for the world to see the prodigious creative work of our forbears, to pass on the moral and political ideas of our great people." Words which landed him in jail.

After his release he longed to film his autobiography and to live in Armenia. But while a house was being built for him, his lung collapsed and filming was interrupted. In 1990, he went to Paris for cancer treatment. He insisted on returning to Armenia, to die on 21 July, the same date as Gorky. He was buried in the Pantheon Cemetery next to the celebrated composer Aram Khatchaturian. On his fresh grave were strewn hundreds of blood-red tulips and a scroll of white paper with thousands of signatures: "Serko, forgive us".

Paintings, Drawings and Collages at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 (0171-602 3316) to 3 July; Costumes from the Paradjanov Museum, Judith Clark Gallery, 112 Talbot Road, London W11 (0171-727 2754); The films will be screened at Cine Lumiere, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 (0171-838 2144), 11-14 June

Nouritza Matossian, author of `Black Angel, a Life of Arshile Gorky', is currently writing a biography of Sergei Paradjanov