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Genius in Exile

The year is 1908, the place Khorkom, a small village set 5,500 feet above sea level amid the spectacular mountains and valleys of western Armenia. Sedrak Adoian, a Christian Armenian from a prosperous family of traders, is emigrating to America. Early one morning he wakes his small son and daughter and leads them to a wheat field by the shores of Lake Van. Sitting on the ground, they share a last meal of eggs and flat bread. Before kissing his children goodbye, Sedrak presents his five-year-old son Manoug with a pair of pointed wooden shoes of the sort traditionally worn by Armenian men; he then mounts his horse and disappears into the mist, never to return.

Two years later, Sedrak’s young wife Shushanig Der Marderossian Adoian moves with her children to Van, the region’s capital city. She is leaving to distance herself from her husband’s family, who have been treating her harshly in his absence. The move is only temporary. As a matter of family honor, Armenians who have emigrated to the US save enough money to bring their relations, even distant ones, to the New World. Sedrak will send for his family as soon as he can. Shushanig and her children wait.

But the years pass, and in 1915, with the major European powers distracted by the Great War, the Turks step up their persecution of Christian Armenians. The government’s aim is to eliminate non-Turkish minorities from the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the extermination of all Armenian males twelve years of age or older. Between 1915 and 1918, one and a half million people perish through deportation or massacre in the worst act of genocide in this century before Hitler’s.

As the Turks lay siege to Van, neither the Red Cross nor the American missionaries who run the school where her son has been educated can protect Shushanig and her children. Amid scenes of almost unimaginable horror, they flee for their lives. In mortal danger every step of the way, the family trek with thousands of other refugees toward Russian Armenia in the northeast, sometimes crossing wild ravines piled high with the bodies of the dead. Attached together by a rope, they march toward Mount Ararat and the relative safety of the provincial town of Yerevan, 150 miles from Van.

There they are destitute, and yet no help comes from Sedrak, now living in relative prosperity in America. As the temperature sinks to thirty degrees below zero during the winter of 1918-1919, they face starvation. Ill and undernourished, Shushanig has surrendered to a despair more lethal than malnutrition or cholera. At this moment she receives a letter from her husband proposing that she abandon her children and join him in Rhode Island. Lying on a pile of rags spread over the dirt floor of a derelict house, she dictates a scornful refusal. As her daughter Vartoosh later recalled, “Mummy was speaking. She was saying, ‘Write that I can never leave Armenia. That I will never come to America. They’ve abandoned us completely.’ Then suddenly we saw that mother had died.” Her fifteen-year-old son Manoug was huddled at her feet.

These are all scenes from the early life of Manoug Vosdanig Adoian, the painter who would be known to the world by the pseudonym of Arshile Gorky. No other major artist of this century survived experiences as dreadful as those endured by Gorky in the years between 1915 and 1918. Later, as an exile in America, he would draw on memories of his boyhood in Armenia in creating a new language of lyrical abstraction. Though slow to mature as an artist, when his genius did flame up in the 1940s, it briefly lit the way for an entire generation of American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning, before guttering violently out.

After his mother’s death, Manoug became the head of his family in Armenia. Keeping grief at bay, he and Vartoosh made their way by train to the Georgian city of Tiflis, then by cargo ship to Constantinople, where at last they found the $300 they had been promised for their fare—sent not by their father, but by their older half-sister Akabi and her husband, who were already living in America. The money enabled them to reach New York, two ragged teenagers among the thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe who landed at Ellis Island in March 1920.

It is a small but significant detail in the story of Gorky’s life that the father whom he had not seen for twelve years did not come from New England to meet him or his sister when they arrived in New York. The children of Sedrak and Shushanig by their first marriages would become Manoug’s family in America. Yet even toward them Vartoosh and Manoug harbored mixed feelings. In their first days in America, the brother and sister were shocked by what they perceived as the wealth of their relations. Now they asked themselves, “Where were you when we were starving? What did you do when mother was dying?”

Manoug and his sister settled in the industrial suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts. Temperamentally unsuited to work in a local rubber factory like his father and his other Armenian relations, Manoug set out to become an artist, studying first at the New School of Design in Boston and then, after his move to New York in 1924, both at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League. Six feet four inches tall, romantically good looking and with a charismatic personality, Gorky became a minor celebrity in the bohemia of Greenwich Village. He survived by giving private art lessons, supervising the life classes at the Grand Central School, and selling an occasional painting. Contemporaries remember him drawing and redrawing his mother “hundreds of times,” as though through his art he could somehow repossess her. Of the past, of Armenia, he never spoke. “All he wanted was to leave the chaos and misery behind him,” writes his biographer Nouritza Matossian. He “had lost his home, his mother; his childhood paradise was ravaged. He was taking with him a tragedy which filled his heart and against which he would have to battle for the rest of his life.”

Toward the end of 1924 Gorky began his painting The Artist and His Mother. As in a Russian icon, stiff hieratical figures stare out at the viewer, embodiments both of Gorky’s own lost childhood and of the experience of millions of displaced persons in this century. Two versions of the painting exist, both based on a grainy black-and-white photograph that had been taken back in Van in 1912 by a professional photographer.

In the photo, Shushanig and Ma-noug pose self-consciously against a painted studio backdrop. The shy and sensitive boy, formally dressed in a dark coat with a velvet collar, stands so close to his mother that his left arm seems to merge with her body. In both hands he carries a little bouquet, like a bridegroom or a page. His mother, in a traditional headscarf and long patterned apron, sits as though enthroned, massive and solemn as one of Giotto’s madonnas, her face impassive, her mouth a gash.

In the paintings, the black and white of the past has been transfigured into an eternally beautiful present through a palette of rose and lavender, beige and pink. In the second version of the picture, on which Gorky worked until 1942 and which is now in the National Gallery in Washington, time and memory are evoked not only in the figures themselvesbut even in the way the figures are painted, for Gorky renders vividly his own black hair, dark eyes, and olive complexion, but lightly sketches in his mother’s face using ghostly grays and chalk whites. Even as we look, therefore, the living boy seems to grow more distinct, while the dead woman fades into memory. Matossian describes the portrait as the artist’s way of snatching his mother at last “out of the pile of corpses to place her on a pedestal.”

But it is more. The more we look, the more we realize that there is a third, implied participant in the picture: the person for whom the original photograph was taken. Manoug offers his bouquet not to his mother but to his father. The reason the photo survived at all is that Shushanig sent it to Sedrak in America as a reminder of his family’s existence, of their plight, of their need for his help. Knowing this, we look again into the eyes of the mother and son. Hers plead. His glare.

In the light of what happened to his mother, the painting can be read as the abandoned son’s bitter accusation against his father. Of Sedrak’s failure to save his wife and children, the family feeling was, as a relative told Spender, that “he should have managed it somehow.” And indeed, the surname Manoug chose as his pseu-donym, Gorky, means “bitter” in Russian. Was this anger unjust? According to Matossian’s account, Gorky retrieved the photograph not from his father but from Akabi, to whom Sedrak must have given it. What the father didn’t value enough to keep became his son’s most precious possession, the only image of his mother to survive the siege of Van and the dissolution of his childhood. When Gorky’s studio burned down in 1946, it is one of the few objects he snatched from the flames.

Both versions of The Artist and His Mother are unfinished, either because Gorky couldn’t let so cherished an image go by completing it, or perhaps because he found the feelings the pictures aroused in him while he worked on them unbearable. Then too, they are painted in a relatively conventional figurative style, from which Gorky was beginning to move away by the later 1920s. At a time when American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were proudly rejecting European modernism for an indigenous tradition of robust figuration, Gorky chose for twenty years to imitate Cézanne, Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky, and de Chirico. Young artists often absorb the styles of their predecessors, but Gorky’s identification with European masters was far more intense than simple hero worship. “I was with Cézanne for a long time,” he used to say, “and then naturally I was with Picasso.”

What is so interesting about Gorky’s thickly painted pastiches of the 1920s and 1930s is his lonely faith in painters whose work he knew only through the relatively few examples he could see in American museums and galleries, and through black-and-white reproductions in magazines like Cahiers d’Art. If the Europeans were his artistic fathers, then the one characteristic they all had in common was that, like his real father, they were absent, known only from afar, idealized.

Manoug Adoian’s rejection of his real father could hardly have been more sweeping. On arrival in America immigrants frequently changed or anglicized their names. But in becoming Arshile Gorky, Manoug assumed an entirely new identity, inventing a new past for himself. A composite c.v. would now contain the information that he was a Georgian prince, born in Tiflis, the nephew of the Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. Forced to flee his native country after repeated raids by the Bolsheviks and by the Whites, he made his way to Paris, where he studied for a time under the sculptor Albert Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian, and was taught both by Maillol and Kandinsky. After arriving in America, he spent three and a half years at Brown University, where he majored in engineering and excelled at the long jump. There was also a period of study at the Rhode Island School of Design. According to his pupil Mark Rothko, “It was all fantastic and you couldn’t believe what he told you if you were a stranger. I mean, for those newly introduced to Gorky, I’m certain it was difficult to tell where reality ended and imagination began.”

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