In this touring exhibition, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, the Tate (10 February – 3 May 2010) celebrates the extraordinary work of Arshile Gorky and traces the development of his unique creative achievement. It firmly positions him amongst the greatest 20th-century American painters. Room after room, his astounding development is shown through his paintings. The interested viewer is given ample guidance through the exhibition catalogue’s well-written essays, to explore and see for herself the painter’s progress, as well as link it imaginatively to his life as a survivor of the Armenian genocide.
From his repainting of a 1912 photograph of himself and his mother, to the obsessional scraping of layers of paint in his canvasses, the viewer is provided with material to reflect upon not only the work of a genius, but also on the effects of trauma and the possible survival mechanisms at work. Best of all, Gorky’s paintings of himself with his mother serve as a pointer, a witness to the horrifying experiences and provide a background to that history and relationship.
For this blog – which focuses on cultural and historical factors impacting on themes of identity expressed in the visual arts, literature and society – the relevance of Gorky being an Armenian refugee from the Ottoman Empire, his life experiences and their influence on his subsequent development and work is self-evident. Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, in the surroundings of lake Van in the Armenian part of the Empire, he was said to be first traumatised by the emigration of his father to America; then by the persecution and expulsion suffered by the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman empire rebuilding its identity as the Turkish nation. Gorky, together with his family, was forced on an eight day ‘death march’ during which many perished, suffered extremes of danger and famine and indeed lost his mother to starvation. He travelled via Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Athens some time in 1920 on his way to America.
Upon arrival, he took a new name: Arshile, as his first name, possibly from the Russian version of the Greek hero Achilles; and Gorky, from the great Russian writer, whose nephew he claimed to be. The question why Gorky changed his name, is one of the most discussed in the first newspaper reviews of the Tate exhibition, and has been prominent in the writings about him.
In The Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston mentions the version of Gorky’s nephew, Karlen Mooradian (the same one who forged the letters from Gorky to his sister). He believed that Gorky was so overwhelmed by the weight of Armenian culture, history and language (passed on to him by his mother) that he felt he would never be able to live up to it. Changing his name, Mooradian is purported to have suggested, meant that Gorky could rid himself of this heavy burden.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston herself does not sound convinced that this is the main reason. Emphasizing the traumatic aspect of the wiping out of a whole community and subsequently this genocide being denied, she wonders whether the excessive trauma of this experience may have led Gorky to deny his true identity.
Whatever the reason – and several alternatives have been suggested and explored in the exhibition catalogue – there have been several charges levelled at Gorky and his art that are implicitly linked to his name change: imposture, mimicry, derivative, copying. William Feaver’s recent contribution in The Guardian is replete with references to boasting, or “an art of deception and concealment.” However, Michael R. Taylor in his article “Rethinking Arshile Gorky” (see exhibition catalogue) points out that what the critics saw as efforts by Gorky to copy the masters (Cézanne, Picasso and others) were misconstrued. These charges “fail[…] to grasp the radical nature of his self-imposed discipleship to these artists … Rather, Gorky emerges in this exhibition … as a quintessential self-taught artist in the interwar years whose steadfast allegiance to other artists’ visions was a means of self-creation” (p. 27).
Perhaps this is the point to remind ourselves how common it has become to write or paint under ‘pen names,’ ‘nom de guerre,’ or ‘nom de plume’. Would that mean that in relation to Gorky, different standards have been applied regarding his changing his name and not speaking about his own origins and trauma? If so, it would be interesting to consider why this might be the case.
However, there is a different point to consider. Without wishing to belittle the impact of the Armenian genocide or other explanations of Gorky assuming a new name, it may be useful to refer to the substantial amount of thinking and research carried out on the effects of colonial, imperial and post-colonial subjects. This work describes a clear pattern in the behaviour of those who aim to start a new life in another country, whether as refugees from war, persecution, hardship or for other reasons. In modern English literature, for instance, Indian and Pakistani authors, fleeing the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistan declarations of independence, have described the experience of such upheavals. Writing in English, these authors provide a culturally rich and imaginative perspective on displacement, exile, losses suffered and ways of coping/surviving them. They also explore, through their characters, a number of survival mechanisms being adopted in the new countries. Change of name, or slightly shortened/modified/Anglicized versions, as a sort of baptism, are among them.
Gorky’s change of name, his refusal to speak about the family trauma, may well be seen as expression of survival mechanisms which served him well in his work and life. The fact that he faced apocalyptic losses in his forties – lost paintings and books due to a fire in his studio; rectal cancer; wife’s affair with friend and supporter; subsequent abandonment by his wife, who took their children with her; breaking his neck in a car accident – meant that he was faced once again with a repetition of the original trauma he had suffered. Losing the life he had struggled so hard to build in America, Gorky may have lost the survival structures and the life energy that had propelled him forward to his becoming a new man, and a great artist.
Video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide.
Michael R. Taylor (ed) Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009)
Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998)