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Armenian Homeland Permeates the Painting Of Arshile Gorky

My beloveds, Vartoosh, Moorad and little Karlen,

I wish that we were together now so that we could speak of the homeland....

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Images of distant homelands reveal themselves in the work of many emigre artists. Perhaps none was so influenced by these memories - almost overpowered by them - as Arshile Gorky.

''Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years,'' an excellent collection of about 40 oils and drawings by the Armenian-born artist, is being exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Sept. 17. This particular group of works represents Gorky's mature years, 1941-48, during which he became established as a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, a movement that produced such artists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

On exhibit are works from Gorky's dramatic and prolific last years leading up to the taking of his own life. While enigmatic, his paintings are also intensely personal, reflecting the inner turmoil of the artist as he struggled with both the tragedy and beauty of his childhood, and reconciled his past with the present.

''At their most poignant level, [Gorky's] images resulted from an intense need to connect memories of his ancient homeland of Armenia with his new American home ...'' explains curator Michael Auping in an essay about the artist. ''For exiles and refugees, however, identities do not come easily. Indeed, there are only a few fairy-tale stories in this regard, and Gorky's is not one of them.''

Though Gorky spent most of his life in the United States, his native Armenia was never far from his thoughts. ''... Sweet Vartoosh,'' Gorky wrote to his sister, who also emigrated, in 1942, ''loving memories of our garden in Armenia's Khorkom haunt me frequently.... Beloved sister, in my art I often draw our garden and re-create its precious greenery and life. Can a son forget the soil which sires him....''

Not only could Gorky not forget, but he also seems to have been driven to express these images: gardens, fields, trees, a waterfall.

Born Vosdanig Adoian in 1905, the artist's young life was a string of tragic events. Gorky witnessed the persecution of his people by the Turkish Ottoman government, his family's ''relocation'' and the resulting loss of aunts, uncles, and cousins, and his mother's death from starvation on a march across Armenia. Soon after this last event, Gorky, at age 16, and his siblings left for the US, where some of the family had begun to establish new lives.

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In New England, Gorky set out to be an artist. He was self-taught, studying and emulating works in a variety of styles - Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism - and at the same time creating his artist persona as outspoken and eccentric.

Gorky returned again and again to his Armenian roots, painting his memories - vivid, although they dated from his childhood. Particularly poignant is ''How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life'' (1944).

One can imagine the small boy, face buried in his mother's apron: ''She had a long white apron like the one in her portrait, and another embroidered one,'' Gorky recalled. ''Her stories and the embroidery got confused in my mind with my eyes closed. All my life her stories and her embroidery keep unraveling pictures in my memory if I sit before a blank white canvas....'' In the painting, it is as if we are seeing a child's memories, not quite clear - just bits of color, some sort of pattern.

''What reason ... remains to sit in the stagnation of realism? Art is more than mere chronicle,'' Gorky wrote to his family in 1939, explaining his work. ''It must mirror the intellect and the emotion, for anyone, even a commercial artist or illustrator, can portray realism. The mind's eye in its infinity of radiations and not optical vision of necessity holds the key to truth....''

* ''Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years'' is on display at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 17; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., Oct. 13-Dec. 31; and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 13-March 17, 1996.

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