Mougouch Fielding: Painter who became muse to Arshile Gorky

According to one account she was caught with a sailor in flagrante delicto and sent away to the US

Mougouch Fielding was born Agnes Magruder in Boston, Massachusetts in 1921. The name “Mougouch,” an Armenian term of endearment (“little mighty one”), was bestowed by her first husband, the great Armenian-American abstract expressionist painter Arshile Gorky (1904-1948).

Her father, John Holmes Magruder II, an American naval attaché from an East Coast establishment family, took his Bostonian wife Esther Hosmer, a society beauty, and their family around Europe and Asia on his various postings. Agnes was at school in Washington, The Hague and Switzerland. In Shanghai she became interested in the Communist movement and left, taking a ship across the Pacific, ending up in Iowa City, hoping to be taught by Grant Wood (the painter of American Gothic).

Wood, as Mougouch later said, “wasn’t there.” (Hannah Rothschild said: “When, aged 16, Mougouch was caught with a sailor in flagrante delicto, she was packed off to America in disgrace with $100 and a suitcase full of ballgowns.”) She went to New York and worked as a typist on the communist magazine China Today. Willem and Elaine de Kooning invited her to a party to meet Gorky in 1941, but neglected to introduce them; leaving, Mougouch was surprised to be joined at the door “by the silent man I’d been sitting beside”, who mispronounced her name but invited her to a café.

Gorky “was tall and had marvellous dark eyes – there was something fatherly and familiar about him,” Mougouch said in a 2010 interview with her granddaughter, Cosima Spender (who made a film in 2011, Without Gorky and whose other grandfather was Stephen Spender). He had recreated himself variously as a Georgian prince, nephew of the celebrated Russian writer Maxim Gorky, a former undergraduate at Brown College, and a student of Kandinsky. She later discovered that he was born Vosdanig Manoug Adoian in the village of Khorgum on the shores of Lake Van, then in the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 he witnessed the Armenian genocide, saying that his mother had died of starvation in his arms, and fled to America, settling in New York.

Mougouch and Gorky had an exciting life together, which included driving to San Francisco with Isamu Noguchi via the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Big Sur, “but Gorky,” she said, “was deeply unhappy in San Francisco and wanted to go home.” On the way back they were married in Virginia City, Nevada.

They had their first daughter, Maro, in 1943 and went to stay in a farmhouse in Virginia belonging to Mougouch’s mother. Their second daughter, Natasha was born in 1945, the year Gorky was taken on by the important New York dealer, Julien Levy. Mougouch’s social contacts had given him access to a new circle of collectors; the couple’s friends included Léger, Mondrian, Miró and several Surrealist artists, Roberto Matta Echaurren, Yves Tanguy and André Masson.

Her granddaughter Cosima said, “Mougouch was too afraid to challenge his lies: she wanted to believe him. But once they had children, the pressures of being a young mother desperate to keep the children quite so that her volatile and increasingly violent husband could paint, became too much.”

According to her stepdaughter, Hayden Herrera. writing in 2009, Gorky’s concentration on his work damaged his family life. Mougouch told her: “More and more our marriage was just about my engagement with Gorky’s painting. But I loved him.” Depressed, Gorky talked about suicide, and she left him in mid-June 1948 and spent two days with Matta. Gorky, though, soon learned of the affair.

In January 1946 Gorky’s studio in Sherman, Connecticut had burned down and he lost a good deal of work. He was also in pain from a car crash, with a neck injury and damage to his right arm that made him despair of painting again; then he learned he had cancer of the colon and needed surgery. He became violent, tore up drawings Matta had given them and Mougouch fell down the stairs. Gorky’s doctor said he was dangerous, and that Mougouch should leave and take the children. On 21 July Gorky hanged himself in Sherman, aged 44, chalking a note on the box he’d kicked away – “Goodbye my loveds.”

Mougouch was supported by Matta, but Marcel Duchamp advised her “that the responsibility of a wife and two children would be too much for Matta,” and Matta returned to Chile.

She met and married another painter, John (“Jack”) C Phillips, from a prominent Boston family, in Paris in 1949. This, said her stepdaughter, “was a marriage of equals – she was not in my father’s thrall. She kept the myth of Gorky alive and shepherded his legacy, finding dealers to handle his work and encouraging museums to show and buy it.”

She and Phillips had two daughters, Antonia and Susannah Phillips. In a Director’s Statement for her 2011 film, Cosima Spender said, “It is no coincidence my mother, Maro, and my grandmother, Mougouch, live in separate countries. My mother is still angry with my grandmother for having an affair just before my grandfather killed himself and then sending her and my aunt away to boarding school.”

Mougouch was remorseful about sending the girls to the Swiss boarding school, saying in the film that it was the only thing she “really regrets.”

However, says her stepdaughter, “restless always, she left my father after 10 years.” She moved to London, where I met her in the 1970s with her friend Frances Partridge. In her diaries Frances writes of Mougouch’s hospitality (she was an excellent cook), and calls her “the best ‘hostess’ I know.” Her guests included some of the remaining Bloomsbury characters, such as David “Bunny” Garnett and Duncan Grant. When her daughter Antonia married Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens said she had sprung from “pure bohemian aristocracy.”

In 1978 Mougouch married the travel writer Xan Fielding;they lived in the Serriana de Ronda, looking across Andalusian ilex-woods to the Atlas, then in Paris on the rue de Rivoli, while he was dying of cancer. Her stepdaughter wrote: “I remember ... following Mougouch down the Paris street and trying to imitate her proud, sensuous, and graceful stride. I did not love her any less after she was no longer my stepmother. I have learned from her how to cook, decorate a house, dress, talk, walk, and look at paintings.”

Agnes Magruder, painter: born Boston 1 June 1921; married 1941 Arshile Gorky (died 1948; two daughters), 1949 Jack Phillips (divorced 1959; two daughters), 1978 Xan Fielding (died 1991); died London 2 June 2013.

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