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

The Enchanted Palace Part Two

Statue of William III

Having been stunned by the sheer vulgarity of the gilded statues in the Georgian Cupola Room, I quickly made my way to the King’s Gallery. Upon the floor of the latter had been set out countless rows of toy soldiers to represent the kind of games King William III would play with one of his young nephews, which seems rather a departure from the overall theme of Princesses. When I was a child I played war games with my “brother” using toy bricks to build the walls of a fort and miniature cannons that fired matchsticks to try and make them tumble down again. Inspired by such battles I later studied Military Strategy as one of my electives at University.

I took the opportunity of a vacant window-seat to sit down and examine the William and Mary gallery in more detail. Unlike certain other rooms it seemed little changed from when it had first been built. As I was looking around one of the Wildworks’ artists strode into the room, placed herself at a desk and began to loudly bash the keys on an old fashioned typewriter and sing at the same time. I always feel somewhat disconcerted when faced with such interactive installations. Usually I am not at all fazed by actors dressed up in period costumes, although I do baulk at being accosted by a group of such actors and tend to steer well clear if I see Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I bearing down on me amidst a huddle of courtiers. The Wildworks actors were an altogether different kettle of fish. For a start I had no idea what or who they were supposed to represent. They wore a strange outfit of long grey trousers and skirts with a kind of miners’ light affixed to their heads. They would walk from room to room singing or declaiming loudly. I wondered if the woman typing away would have bothered to do so if I had not been there to hear her. I also toyed with the idea of sneaking over and seeing if she had actually typed anything legible or whether it was sheer gibberish. As a result I failed to observe the famed weather dial William III had had installed so that he could take note of wind direction and calculate the effect on his navy.  

From William’s gallery I passed in to what was once the comparatively modest bedroom of one of his successors, now decked out with a sleigh covered with wild furs to represent Wild Peter, the feral child of the Georgian Court, whose likeness is immortalised along the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase.

Eventually I made my way to the set of rooms most closely associated with Queen Victoria before she came to the throne. One room had what I took to be her original crib along with a modern light sculpture of Kensington Palace made to resemble a doll’s house. 

An adjoining chamber had her coat of arms in the fireplace. Yet another had an installation of a pile of mattresses placed upon a bed, presumably symbolising the story of the Princess and the Pea. I was more interested in the mirrored dressing table. Sitting at a dressing table and whiling away countless hours carefully applying unguents, potions and powders to my face is not something that has ever formed part of my own beauty regime. Hence my extreme bashfulness on those rare occasions when I have tentatively approached a beauty counter in a department store seeking advice.(Mr de Mille I'm ready for my close-up)

The King’s Drawing Room held a large cabinet of curiosities, whose drawers contained items placed there by a range of artists and an 18th century dress  by the 21st century illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan, fashioned out of paper and illustrated with antique maps to represent a dress of the world.

The King’s Council Chamber had been staged as enchanted woodland by night. Two glass cases contained dresses which once belonged to the Princesses Margaret and Diana respectively. Margaret’s was a lace-covered confection which did not appeal to me in the slightest. By contrast I was rather taken with the diamond encrusted tiara she had worn at her wedding floating above it. Diana’s dress was a simple ivory silk gown topped with a delicate lace jacket. As we were once the same height and of a similar build, I could well imagine myself wafting around Brimstone Butterfly Towers in the same outfit. The glass case in which Diana’s dress was displayed was adorned with white feathers. At first I took them to be feathers from the Prince of Wales’ insignia but decided they were perhaps more likely to represent the feathers of a swan.

One of the smaller closets was set out as if for a meal. Two women’s voices could be heard close by, raised in argument. I though they were supposed to represent the 17th century Queen Mary and her sister Anne, whose relationship was particularly fraught at times. I later discovered that the voices were supposed to be those of Queen Anne and her erstwhile chief friend and companion Sarah Churchill, the wife of the Duke of Marlborough. I have never been nor wish to go to Marlborough Palace built by the nation for the Duke after his outstanding success against the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV of France. Marlborough Palace strikes me as being too bombastic and on too large a scale to have any inherent appeal for me, lacking too the turbulent historical dramas associated with a palace like Hampton Court.  It seems the Duke and his Duchess also found the palace somewhat overwhelming and oppressive at times. It was said that in the last years of his life the Duke preferred to keep to his own chamber rather than wander endlessly from one splendid state room to the next. The closet at Kensington Palace, like the King’s Gallery nearby, appeared little changed since the late 17th century when it was first built. At one point one of the doors suddenly opened and a woman stepped into the room. She gave a small gasp of shock when she saw me. She later admitted that she had taken me for a ghost on account of my elaborate straw hat. I was rather tickled at the thought of being mistaken for the shade of a long dead courtier.

The final state room on the tour was that of the Queen’s Gallery, which displayed the images of the seven royal princesses whose personal histories had inspired the exhibition. From thence I descended the staircase to the ground floor and the exit. I popped into the shop and bought a couple of postcards. I then tried to ascertain whether I had time to walk across the way to the Orangery and partake of afternoon tea before embarking on another perambulation of the exhibition. I always feel the first tour is to take my bearings and the second to consolidate my memories of a place. Fortunately, as it transpired, I decided to heroically forgo my date with a pot of china tea and a cream cake and wander anew around the palace instead. I noticed on the ground floor that the door frames had legends on them, bearing witness to the fact that soldiers, (yeoman of the guards, one of whom is depicted behind Wild Peter) had once been billeted there.

On this second tour I had only got as far as the Room of Enlightenment with its display of haute couture hats when the guide received a message on his walky-talky instructing him to arrange an orderly closure of the palace. We were thus herded out of the state rooms. Outside the Organgery too was closing its doors to the general public but I was able to sneak a picture of its interior from one of the windows. My exit across Kensington Gardens to the High Street was similarly barred as helicopters whirred overhead. As Kensington Gardens was the stomping grounds of the Cad of Kensington it struck me that he might have sent out one of his snatch squads to ferry former girlfriends hurriedly from the vicinity.