Icon is a word so often used today, that it can be a shock to behold art that is truly iconic. In the case of Arshile Gorky, the mystical emotions evoked by actual religious icons are very much present in his work.
Arshile Gorky, who explored virtually the entire range of modern art during his tragedy-shaded career, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gorky dedicated himself to a spiritual quest, as few other artists in the 20th century sought to do. His aim was nothing less than to recreate the land of his boyhood, Armenia. The people of that ancient nation had been decimated in the opening genocide of modern times, victims of Turkish aggression during the First World War.
“Who now remembers the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler exclaimed, as he and his Nazi lieutenants planned the Final Solution. The answer can be found lining the walls of the masterful exhibition in Philadelphia. Arshile Gorky remembered.
“I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush,” Gorky declared in 1944, “for all the world to see.”
Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanik Manook Adoian in 1904. He changed his name to honor the great Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, who had championed the cause of the Armenian people when so many others had been content to ignore their plight. Gorky’s name change also reflected his search for an identity after the culture of Armenia, along with many members of his family, had been exterminated by the Turks.
After arriving in the United States in 1920, Gorky embarked upon a disciplined study of art history and the techniques of the masters of modern art. Except in his very earliest paintings, Gorky was never a mere acolyte of other established artists like Paul Cezanne and Joan Miro. From the first, Gorky was set on finding a new path for himself – his own.
It was the memory of Armenia and the example of his mother’s devotion and death by starvation that drove Gorky on. For the greater part of his working life as an artist, he labored on a number of works devoted to themes inspired by the experiences of his youth. The chief of these, and the “show-stopper” of this exhibition, are the two portraits and related sketches entitled The Artist and His Mother.
The Turkish persecution of the Armenians predated the First World War. In 1908, Gorky’s father, Setrag Adoian, escaped to the United States to avoid being conscripted into the Turkish Army. Four years later, the young Gorky and his mother, Shushaniq, posed for a portrait photo which was sent to his father. Though strictly conforming to the rigid conventions of the time, there are emotional undercurrents in this remarkable photo that Gorky would later explore to the full.
In the photo, the young Gorky’s expression is tinged with shyness, while his mother faces the camera with more than a hint of doubt, even reproach, hovering on her features. Gorky’s paintings change the emotional landscape. In both portraits, he recasts the little boy as a man of sorrow. More spectacularly, in the somberly painted version now in the Whitney Museum of American Art, Shushaniq Adoian transfixes the viewers of this painting with the gaze of an avenging angel.
At first glance, the eyes of Shushaniq Adoian appear to be the gaping sockets of a skull, mere blackened hollows. Look more closely and her fully dilated eyes radiate with the energy of hardened orbs of anthracite coal. Her face is a study in defiance and resolve. The petulant lips of Gorky’s mother, smeared with a blur of gray and red leaking down onto her chin, give her the look of a victim of a brutal police interrogation. But Shushaniq Adoian is the one doing the questioning in this powerful, searing portrait, asking the viewer why the plight of the Armenian people has been trivialized into tasteless remarks like “hungry as a starving Armenian.”
The ultimate source for Gorky’s homage to his martyred mother and his lost childhood can be traced much further than reworkings of a 19th century style photograph. Gorky’s chief inspiration for The Artist and His Mother was one of the most revered forms of art in the Eastern rites of Christianity, the Theotokos Hodegetria. These icon portraits of “The Mother of God Who Shows the Way,” depict the infant Jesus being embraced by his mother Mary, whose head is tilted in loving, wistful solicitude. Her slender curving fingers point to him as the redeemer of humankind, while the expression of the Christ child in these icons is usually marked by wisdom or suffering beyond his years.
Both versions of Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother evoke these hallowed themes, but with crucial differences. In both, it is the young Gorky whose head is bowed toward his mother. His reverent pose and sorrowing countenance acknowledge his mother as the martyr, sacrificing her life that her son might live. Yet there is no embrace, not even a touch in the Whitney Museum version. Here, the two figures are separated by a slight, yet unbridgeable gulf. Indeed, this tragic severing of the bond between mother and son is taken to a truly terrifying degree. Gorky renders his mother’s hands as unformed, whitened masses. Her hands look as though they are swathed in bandages, the fingers having been burned or hacked-off. No physical intimacy is thus possible, nor is there any future of hope or happiness that she can point to.
The tragedy implicit in the gulf between mother and son in the Whitney Museum version is underscored by the fact that Gorky’s mother had actually died in his arms.
The second version of The Artist and His Mother, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is lighter in tone and closer in spirit to the original photograph. It is hugely significant, however, that both paintings transform the apron worn by Gorky’s mother when she posed for the portrait photo. The vividly embroidered designs on her apron, so evocative of Armenia’s culture and heritage, are completely erased in the paintings. The apron of Gorky’s mother has become her shroud.
In Gorky’s memory, the embroidered designs lived on. As his dialogues with the various schools of modern art resolved into an embrace of Surrealism, he was finally able to do justice to the designs on his mother’s apron. In 1944, when he was at the height of his artistic power and enjoying a brief moment of personal happiness, Gorky painted How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life. Upon finishing this work, he wrote to his sister Vartoosh that “just a short while ago I completed a most successful work emanating from the abstract Armenian shapes of her apron. . . .”
In a 1995 ArtForum article, the British poet and cultural historian, John Ash, wrote of his visit to Turkish Armenia in which he tried to trace the roots of Gorky’s abstract art back to his boyhood. Ash described how Gorky’s mother had taken him as a child to the ancient monastery of Varak to view its peerless collection of Armenian manuscript paintings dating to the Middle Ages. About these, Gorky recalled “their beautiful Armenian faces, subtle colors, their tender lines and calligraphy.”
During their 1915 ethnic-cleansing campaign, the Turks burned these manuscripts, destroyed the town of Khorkom, later memorialized in Gorky’s art, and targeted members of his mother’s family for death. When Ash tried to visit Khorkum in 1994, he was prevented from doing so, but when he showed his Turkish guide copies of Gorky’s paintings, the guide responded that “these were the colors of Van in spring and autumn.”
Gorky transformed these talismans of his youth, the embroidered flowers on his mother’s apron and his memories of the gardens, fields and groves of trees surrounding Armenia’s Lake Van into the subject matter for his surrealist masterpieces of the 1940s. In How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life, the embroidered flowers are dissolved by memory and Gorky’s distinctive brush strokes of liquefied, almost translucent color. The surroundings of the garden where he played as a child are likewise liberated into the willowy, floating imagery of The Garden in Sochi series.
Gorky explored the themes of his Armenian boyhood as an American artist. It is one of the great strengths of this retrospective that we can see how the experience of his childhood informed his later life and influenced the development of American art. Along with The Artist and His Mother and other paintings directly related to the Armenian genocide, the exhibition presents Gorky’s murals for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, his abstract evocations of the rural American landscape during the early 1940’s and his searing depictions of the physical pain and mental anguish that drove him to suicide in 1948.
Like many American artists, Gorky survived the lean years of the Depression working on projects funded by the U.S. Government. During the years 1935 to 1937, he painted a cycle of murals for the Newark Airport Administration Building. Gorky covered ten vast canvases with colorful, stylized airplanes, aircraft hangers, maps and other motifs on the theme of Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations. Only two of these murals survived. Remarkably, they were recovered in 1973 under fourteen coats of paint. They have been restored to their original dazzling state and are on view in the exhibition, along with preliminary sketches and paintings.
Gorky’s skill at drawing is readily discernible in the Newark murals. That was not always the case with the Surrealist work that came to dominate his career from the late 1930s. Some of the titles he gave his paintings like Waterfall, 1942-43, give a good indication of the effect he was striving to achieve. Others, like Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln, 1944, provide few clues to the inner meaning of his work.
Gorky’s love of natural settings, recalling his happiness as a child, is often the best indicator of what is going on in his paintings.
In Water of the Flowery Mill, also dating to 1944, Gorky presents a riot of color that evokes the landscapes of New England and Virginia. In 1941, he married Agnes Magruder, a lively and attractive young woman. For a few sunny years of happiness, Gorky was able to study nature at the farm in Virginia owned by the Magruder family and in the rural surroundings of his new studio in Connecticut. The blazes of pure pigments in Water of the Flowery Mill overpower the streaks of almost translucent coloration that feature in many of Gorky’s other works.
Water of the Flowery Mill radiates life at its fullest. Yet, Gorky’s happiness was clouded by the death camps and battlefields of the Second World War. The hell that he had endured as a child in Armenia was being reenacted on a global scale. In another of the retrospective’s major works, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, painted in 1943, Gorky sprinkles the body parts of a sacrificed bird on a picture plane dominated by smears of primary colors. Death and life co-exist and during the 1940’s, death was winning.
In works like Water of the Flowery Mill and a new series begun at the end of the war, The Plow and the Song, Gorky tried to preserve the Arcadia of his Armenian memories and of his married life. He even carved little wooden plows, exclaiming to the writer, Talcott Clapp, “What I miss most are the songs in the fields… And there are no more plows. I love a plow more than anything else on a farm.”
On a wintery night in January 1946, many of The Plow and the Song paintings were lost, along with countless drawings and other works, in a studio fire. Following this calamity, repeated personal disasters befell him, ironically just as his work was gaining widespread acclaim.
A short time after the studio blaze, Gorky underwent a painful operation for rectal cancer. In June 1948, he was badly injured in an automobile accident which temporarily paralyzed his painting arm. Alarmed at Gorky’s increasing melancholia, his wife took their two children to safety, leaving him in a suicidal spiral that ended with the tormented artist hanging himself on July 21, 1948.
As he prepared to take his own life, Gorky wrote in chalk on a wooden crate, “Goodbye My Beloveds.” The word “beloved” was well chosen. Gorky was a man and an artist who evoked love in his work and in his life. Willem de Kooning, his great friend, called him “Sweet Arshile.”
Though many of his later works are grim in tone and composition, Gorky never gave up trying to revive the remembered paradise of his childhood. In one of his last great works, Dark Green Painting, based on a drawing done in Virginia years before, the glowing embers in a fireplace and the rich hues of leafy and evergreen trees speak of his enduring love of life and beauty. If death invaded Gorky’s Arcadia, it never stopped him from trying to “resurrect Armenia with my brush.”