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Sunday, 13 June 2010

Arshile Gorky A Retrospective



When Mandip finally arrived at Tate Modern(I'm late, I'm late for a very important date) we decided tobegin by dining in the restaurant before going along to the exhibition itself. I had three courses and enjoyed each and every one of them. The food was delicious. The restaurant afforded views over St Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge. However we both decided that we preferred the restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery for ambience. The fact that Clive Owen was filmed dining at the latter for the film Closer would of itself grant the National Portrait Gallery Restaurant pre-eminence in my partisan eyes.  As it was the last day of the exhibition we were not sure how many people would be there but the rooms were packed. At one point one man engaged in an extremely loud conversation about his business affairs on his mobile phone until taken to task by another female visitor. When he refused to shut up she summoned a warden to escort him outside. He left grumbling, it never even occurring to him in his extreme arrogance that the rest of us wanted to focus on the artwork and not his dreary telephone call.

It has to be said that I have never acquired much of a taste for modernist abstract art. Nevertheless I was inspired to go along to the Arshile Gorky retrospective at Tate Modern on account of his fascinating and tragic life. The booklet to the exhibition contained an extraordinary leaflet debating whether or not the whole-scale slaughter of Armenians 1915 by the Turkish Ottoman Empire could be deemed genocide. The pusillanimous Labour Government of the United Kingdom thought not. The Tate Modern believed it had been genocide, a view shared by many European Governments. Gorky, his father and sisters were eventually able to flee to safety in the West but only after his mother had died of starvation as a direct consequence of the genocide.

Gorky had been named Vostanik Manoog Adoyan as a child, but as if to flee his traumatic past in America changed his name to Arshile Gorky and let it be thought he was related to the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Like many other painters, Gorky’s early works were heavily influenced by the work of other artists until he was able to develop a style of his own. It seems he was rarely satisfied with his oil paintings and would return to the same canvas time and again over the years.

During the Great Depression Gorky could not afford to buy oil paints and canvas and was forced to rely on paper and ink instead. I rather liked some of the work he produced at this time, particularly admiring the textures he was able to produce from paper and ink alone. I also took a fancy to the preparatory work he carried out for what was intended to be large-scale murals destined for Federal Arts Projects sponsored by President Roosevelt under his New Deal. Had I the money, I would happily have such paintings adorn the walls of my home, which is the highest compliment I can pay any artist. Much of Gorky’s later work needs a room the size of an art gallery to be seen to its best effect, something beyond the scale of my own modest garret. 


It was the painting that Gorky did of himself and his mother that had originally captured my imagination. It was used as the poster for the exhibition and was based on a photograph that Gorky had managed to take into exile with him in America. It shows him as a boy standing alongside his seated mother. He has the innocence of youth whereas his mother’s face seems to foresee the terrible calamity about to befall the Armenian people only 3 years later. The exhibition showed two versions of “The Artist and his Mother” based on the photograph:one is reproduced above.

Try as I might the remaining paintings did not resonate with me. In the lobby outside the main exhibition a looped film interview Gorky's wife Agnes "Mougouch" Magruder described her life with the artist.(Footage of Arshile Gorky's wife) Mandip and I erroneously thought she was a British grande-dame judging by her patrician voice and general appearance in the film. In fact she was the daughter of an American naval officer and the descendant of the celebrated 19th century American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer. Prior to her bohemian later life she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, being educated in schools in Europe and America including a spell at a Swiss Finishing School. She finally left Arshille shortly before his death from suicide, taking their children with her.  

After such a haunting life it was something of a relief to step out into the blazing sunshine and come across the resolutely cheerful painted elephants further along the Embankment. I describe them in more depth in an earlier post. Elephants on parade

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