The man who was Gorky

Essay; Why would an artist lie to hide a tormented childhood? Because he's an Armenian.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If Arshile Gorky's story had been written by a screenwriter it would surely have been criticised for being over the top. He ranks among the best American painters of this century, but he is little known in Europe. Arshile Gorky was not even his real name: he was an Armenian refugee in the US, but for his career as a painter he created a diligently constructed persona. His short life, 1902-1948, spanned the Armenian Genocide, two world wars, and the American Depression - a fusillade of catastrophes that is hard to imagine now. In his public life, Gorky made no mention of the torments he had known. But only when seen against the background of his turbulent childhood and adolescence does his art become truly resonant.

I have been intrigued by this enigmatic painter for 20 years. I was an Armenian student in London when I first saw his work at the Tate Gallery. The thrill of recognition and the feeling of utter familiarity as I gazed at his dazzling colours and fleeting forms brought a lump to my throat. Behind the adopted, famous name lurked a survivor of genocide. He was born Manoug Adoian, a descendant of priests and farmers on the shores of Lake Van in Vaspurakan. This was a province where Armenians had lived without interruption from Urartian times, where some of the finest churches and palaces from the 10th century had been built. Armenia under the Ottoman Empire had no protection. Harassment and massacres overshadowed Gorky's childhood, just as they had mine.

Gorky suffered the full brunt of the 1915 Genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. The boy fought in the Siege of Van and tramped with his mother and sister across the parched and jagged rocks past Mount Ararat into Armenia. But, as the Turks attacked Yerevan to grab the last morsel of Armenia, to wipe it out of existence forever, the dying nation rallied, defended itself and established a short-lived independence. Gorky's young mother died of starvation along with 250,000 others during the year of famine. In 1920, he and his sister escaped to America.

He knew that he had enjoyed a miraculous reprieve. He persisted in studying art and absorbing trends from Paris through Picasso and the Surrealists. His passion and intellect he invested in making something of himself. But his desire for life could not survive the separation from his family. In 1948, at the age of 46, Gorky hanged himself.

At the end, Gorky was tormented by his traumatic memories and sense of injustice. The creation of his false persona as a buffer zone rebounded on him. Art historians called him a transitional figure, the bridge between New York and Paris. They protested that not enough was known about his culture and background for a serious appraisal. No writer had examined the history and reconstructed his life to reveal the explosive effect of the Genocide on him. For me, the trail was emotional. His sister, Vartoosh Mooradian, told me of their terrible flight from the burning city full of bodies and their march across mountains. She lived until the 1990s, but no one bothered to ask her. His American family, now heirs to a fabulous collection, could not engage with his roots. Karlen, his disappointed nephew, son of Vartoosh, misguidedly attempted to repair the damage. Into a publication of Gorky's Armenian correspondence with Vartoosh, he inserted 39 letters which I could not find in the original. There is a stylistic break and I believe they may have been invented. They regularly reappear in all publications as the authentic voice of Gorky.

Just as the Armenian Genocide had been covered up; so Gorky hid his grief and humiliation. In the end it became a noose around his neck as he tried to lead a double life. After his death it gave rise to confusion. The paintings, his raison d'etre and his tools of survival, were interpreted with reference to anything but his own cultural roots. So long as his background is glossed over and marginalised, his art cannot be correctly understood.

Gorky's dilemma is topical. We read of new epidemics of ethnic cleansing, and of people frustrated by losing their heritage who demand the return of their looted manuscripts, their sacred relics. Germany had to make reparation and continues to do so, teaching the new generation to deplore the Jewish Holocaust. But those responsible for the Armenian Genocide were never brought to justice as Nazi war criminals were. The Times Literary Supplement continues to publish Turkish denials of the Genocide. Fifty years after Arshile Gorky's death, no Turkish authority has acknowledged the murder of 1.5 million Armenians. Government records are being removed to obliterate evidence. No offer of financial or material reparation has ever been made. Here, to show that modern Turkey is capable of an enlightened act, is a challenge of the sort desired by many liberal Turks. Perhaps then it may be a better candidate to join the European Union in a community of civilised nations.

Gorky and all succeeding generations of Armenians, including myself, suffered from a dismantling of history after the Genocide. I now see that we were not only dispossessed of our birthright but became the victims of a generalised cultural rape. We know who we are, but others refuse to acknowledge our identity. When I take my children to see the Urartian and other antiquities of Armenia in the British Museum, the word Armenia is scratched off the wall and I find the works scattered in different sections to suggest that there never was a historic Armenia, During a carpet lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum I heard an expert describe an Armenian church vestment with the Christ on the Cross as "Islamic". It was both insulting and denigrating to a country which was the first Christian state in the world in AD301. The churches where Gorky and my grandparents prayed as a child have been destroyed or left to go to rack and ruin, Turkey refuses Unesco access to restore the majority, dismantles them stone by stone or uses them as stables and bazaars. Only a few useful ones are kept. Tourists are whisked in and out of buildings "constructed by subject races long since dead".

Gorky painted a celebrated, 20th-century, secular icon, The Artist and His Mother, from the only remaining photograph of the original. The two versions hang in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Washington. It is likened to Egyptian Mummy Art, to Ingres, Cezanne, Picasso, all of which may be true. But no one had looked at the frescoes in the ruined masterpiece of the Church of the Holy Cross on Aghtamar Island, a stone's throw from Gorky's lakeside village. Nor the famous reliefs decorating the outer facades, where a Virgin and Child in hieratic pose and rugged lines instantly connect to his work. Gorky will never be understood until his Armenian inspiration in the mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, the geometry of Armenian architecture, the fine patterning and inventiveness of carpet weaving and textiles, the literature and music are clearly unravelled. He took an Armenian attitude in integrating his ancient sources with the newest techniques. He married an Eastern sensibility with Western methods. As for myself, every time I look at a Gorky painting I see Armenia reborn through the spirit of one courageous modern genius.

'Black Angel, A Life of Arshile Gorky' by Nouritza Matossian is published by Chatto & Windus, pounds 25