Art-historical Notes: The double life of a `starving Armenian'

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The Independent Culture
YOU ARE a famous artist whose work is exhibited in some of the finest museums but your name and nationality are invented. Why would you renounce your identity and country?

Manoug Adoian, an obscure 18-year-old Armenian immigrant, arrived in America in 1920. He had grown up in Vaspurakan, the highland plateau of Lake Van with its fine Armenian architecture. As a child who could not find words he drew and painted to gain control over the frightening chaos. He had fought in the historic siege of Van when a handful of Armenians repulsed the Ottoman army. He marched on the long retreat with his mother and sister over 200 miles of parched and rocky mountains to arrive in a cholera-stricken Yerevan. Famine took the lives of a quarter of a million people, including his mother. As a result of forced marches and butchery one and a half million Armenians perished in Ottoman Turkey's 1915 genocide.

The young refugee wanted to put it all behind but the New World stigmatised him as "a starving Armenian". Like many thousands he had to trim his name to fit in. His survival and reason for living was art. Escaping the drudgery of the foundry, he dared to conceive of himself as an artist. Nature's gifts of draughtsmanship, intelligence, emotional depth and fantasy had been nourished by his mother with the mythology, music and arts of his region. He had an inborn sense of style with which to style himself.

Yet during the act of self-liberation his black angel clung to him. He branded himself with names which had a dark side - Arshile Gorky. Maxim Gorky, his revolutionary hero, had adopted the word "bitter" as his pen name. "Arshile" hid the first letters of Adoian's own country and resembled Armenian Christian names. The mythic Achilles with his secret weakness would bedevil his life. Gorky had to brazen out the racism of the Ku Klux Klan and of the Saccho and Vanzetti trial. Immigrant artists felt that they had no right to exist, let alone enter the artistic establishment.

The inexperienced artist took wing as the nephew of a famous writer. He swept through New York in a long wool coat and wide-brimmed hats pronouncing on exhibitions, the latest art news from Paris, the poverty of Social Realism, the urgency to strive for perfection by studying the masters. Torn away from his home and culture, he did not indulge in nostalgia. Instead he became one of the great leaders of the modern movement in America, passionately introducing Cubism. He survived the Depression and painted some of the finest abstract murals in Roosevelt's WPA. He integrated Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism to earn praise from Andre Breton.

He led a double life, staying in touch with his Armenian family and friends. Even when he married a second time his Bostonian wife was vague about his ancestry and did not know his real name until after his death. Trapped by his false identity after having children of his own, Gorky expressed his Armenian identity through his art. His fine drawing line flew into arabesque like the rainbow edges of Armenian carpets. Robust and complex organic forms nested like stone carvings on churches and crosses. Brilliant colours dazzled with the wealth of medieval Armenian manuscripts and the iridescent light of his lakeside paradise.

The artist even brought his mother back from an unmarked grave by painting her. Today she sits beside him in the National Gallery, Washington DC, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in queenly splendour. Yet the trauma of the genocide finally claimed him. After a series of catastrophes in 1948 he took his own life. Gorky would be amazed to read beside his painting "Manoug (Vosdanig) Adoian, born in western Armenia".

He had always planned to reclaim his name once he became famous and proved himself worthy.

Nouritza Matossian is the author of `Black Angel: a life of Arshile Gorky' (Chatto & Windus, pounds 25)