Saturday March 30, 2002
Artist: Arshile Gorky (1904-48), one of the greatest American painters, was so uncertain about how to make sense of his Armenian origins that he adopted a Russian name, telling people he was the nephew of the writer Maxim Gorky – implausibly, since this was a pen name. Arshile Gorky’s real name was Vostanig Adoian. Born in Khorkom, on the shores of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, he had a childhood dominated by nature, folklore and religion, marred only by the departure of his father for America. In 1915 Turkey decided to get rid of its Armenian minority. Throughout eastern Turkey, Armenian men were taken out of their villages and murdered, women and children driven on forced marches causing mass starvation. An estimated million people died. Gorky’s family fled to Yerevan, now capital of Armenia.
After his mother died of starvation in 1918, Gorky made it to Ellis Island. With a habit of making up stories about his meetings with famous artists, he became an art teacher and avant-garde painter in New York. He was connected with artists who would, with him, become known as the Abstract Expressionists – including his pupil Mark Rothko and close friend Willem de Kooning. Gorky hit his stride when he returned imaginatively to the landscape of Lake Van, resurrecting it in dream paintings such as The Waterfall (1943) in Tate Modern. In 1948 Gorky – who had jokingly given himself a first name that in Armenian means “accursed” – hanged himself.
Subject: Shushan der Marderosian was widowed with two daughters when she married Gorky’s father at the age of 16 – both had lost spouses in a Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1896. Shushan was a pious woman with a deep feeling for the Van landscape. When they fled she became malnourished, and although Gorky and his sister desperately tried to get food, she made them eat it. On the morning she died in March 1918 she was dictating a letter in which she said she wanted to go back to Van.
Distinguishing features: This is one of the most distressing and powerful of portraits. Even without knowing the story you know it is about loss. Gorky has given his mother a mask-like face, as if hewn in stone, and perhaps it is this, or the ghost-white fall of her dress, or the flatness of her body on the canvas, that tells us this is an image of someone dead. There is a monumental distance between us and her – she is remote as a statue. The boy standing by her is distant too, in his formal coat, clutching a pink flower. He has signs of life. Dressed as if he cares about himself, he is future-bound. But his face is so sad.
The wall behind them is strange, its location indiscernible. The painting is a meditation on a photograph of them taken at a studio in Van before the first world war, to send to Gorky’s father in America. Gorky found the photograph in his father’s US home in the 1920s. This painting is testimony to how much it anguished him. The transfiguration of the image into cubistic planes of colour emphasises Gorky’s complex reaction to the photograph, as he remade it in his mind. He gives it colour, animation, but cannot bring his mother back. While the boy moves in three dimensions, she remains fixed, a flat ghost. Armenia itself is a no-place. Gorky paints a brown square behind his mother’s head resembling a window. But it is opaque, no view. Her landscape is gone.
Inspirations and influences: Picasso was one of Gorky’s heroes, and the mask-like face of Gorky’s mother evokes Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein.
Where is it? Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.