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Armenian martyr of American painting Arshile Gorky: On 120th birth anniversary of the artist

19:44, April 15

In honor of the 120th birth anniversary of Arshile Gorky, we have prepared a news report about the life and work of the great artist, selecting the most interesting facts, as well as the sayings of the cult master, who laid the foundation for the development of abstract expressionism in world painting.

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Vosdanig Manug Adoyan, or better known under the pseudonym Arshile Gorky, is an American artist of Armenian origin, known as one of the founders of abstract expressionism. Arshile was born during the Ottoman Empire, in the village of Khorkom, and the exact date of his birth remained unknown, but was officially established as April 15, 1904.

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Young Gorki, as a teenager, was forced to leave his native village with his mother and three sisters to escape the Armenian genocide in 1915. The father of the future artist lived in the US, where he took the boy and his sister after the death of their mother, Shushan.

“When I feel tired and depressed and lie down on the sofa, I think of the simplest thing I can - a piece of rope - and I take it and draw it. This is a way to continue to paint - to create something inside that makes you want to recreate it." (The Artist in the Glass House, 1948)

It was in America that Gorki began his first steps in painting, creating murals and canvases. Soon the young artist entered the National Academy of Design and the Great Central School of Art, then becoming a teacher there.

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Arshile Gorky is the artist’s pseudonym, which he took out of love for the writer Maxim Gorky. Since 1924, the artist began to sign his works using this pseudonym.

“The material of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of an artist's brush. Since the eye acts as the guardian of the brain, I convey through art my most intimate perceptions, my worldview.” (Abstract Expressionism; Barbara Hess, 2005)

Gorky was not a fan of the concept of originality and considered the technique of continuity to be underrated. The artist believed that only through a period of apprenticeship does an artist grow and acquire his own style.

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The artist developed a strong friendship with one of the founders of surrealism in literature, Andre Breton, which had a great influence on the artist in the same way as the advanced trends in art of that time. The artist and sculptor Willem de Kooning was a student of Gorki. Willem recalled that once the artist, while in a coffee shop with friends, yielded to their persuasion and sang a folk song. Gorki's musical abilities became a revelation to many around him.

“These days I have been in a very melancholy mood. There is nothing but my work. My dears, I am doing well, I am working, and my way of working is changing. For this reason, I always feel very anxious. I am not and may (never) be satisfied with my job for a single day. I want to create more personal and pure works.” (from the artist’s letter to his sister, Vartush Muradyan; February 28, 1938)

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Philadelphia, 1931—it was then that Gorki’s first personal exhibition took place, which brought him recognition. Soon after, frequent exhibitions began in New York, San Francisco, and several other US cities. At the beginning of his career, Gorki often depicted subjects dedicated to the Armenian genocide and the history of his homeland, which quickly brought him fame among his compatriots.

Gorki continued to write until his death. And in the literal sense, too: there is correspondence between Gorki and his sister Vartush and nephew Karlen. In his letters, Gorki shared his longing for his homeland and the pain of losing his mother.

“Movement is the translation of life, and if art depicts life, movement must enter into art, since we are aware of life only because it moves.” (unpublished letters)

Gorki desperately tried to recreate a portrait of his mother, whom he lost as a child. The artist's collection includes many paintings in which he depicts his mother. So, in the painting “The Artist and Mother,” Gorki painted a self-portrait with his mother sitting next to him. The painting was created from a family photograph of 1912, taken in Van at a local photo studio. The family had sent the photo to his father in America.

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The work is written in two variations: in one the mother is young, in the other she is a little older. The second painting was a symbolic attempt by the artist to prolong the mother's life by imagining what she might have been like in old age. The variation with a young mother is kept in the National Gallery in Washington, and with an older one—in the Whitney Museum in New York. The artist worked on both paintings for about ten years, which shows how significant this work was for him.

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“Art comes to us instinctively, but it is so vague. In front of me are photographs of all the best works of Picasso. The more I admire them, the further I feel removed from all art, it seems so easy, so limited! We are part of the universe, but we ourselves do not create anything.” (from a letter to his future wife, Agnes Magruder (Mugush); May 7, 1941)

Gorki’s paintings, dedicated to his mother, keep one secret: there is an opinion that the artist could not remember his mother’s hands, which is why they are not depicted in the paintings. This detail makes it possible to imagine how tragic the loss of his mother was for the artist.

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In Gorki's early works one can discern his love for Cézanne, and in his later works the influence of Picasso is clearly visible. With the advent of the surrealists, Gorky changed his technique, thereby foreshadowing the emergence of a movement known as “action painting.”

“It would be sad for an artist if he knew how to draw. - so sad. An artist paints because for him it is a challenge - it is like trying to deceive the devil. If you overcome this, there will be no sport left. I don't even like to talk about painting. It’s impossible to talk about painting, because I don’t know what it is. If I knew what it was, I would get a patent, and then no one would be able to paint anymore.” (1848)

The artist’s already complex and tragic life ended at the age of 44. 1948, the last year of Gorki's life, becomes extremely tragic. The artist survived a major fire in his studio, which caused most of the artist's work to burn. That same year, Gorki learned that he had cancer and underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Shortly thereafter, Gorky is involved in a car accident, suffering spinal injuries, and losing the use of his right arm. At the same time, the artist was going through a divorce from his wife, as a result of which he was separated from his children.

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“I don’t like the word ‘finish’. When something is finished, it means it's dead, right? I believe in eternity. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it for a while. I like to draw because it's something I never finish. Sometimes I paint a picture, then paint over it entirely. Sometimes I work on fifteen or twenty paintings at the same time. I do it because I want to, because I like to change my mind often. The main thing is to always start drawing, never finish.” (Movements in Art; Edward Lucey-Smith, 1975)

The tragedies that Gorki encountered as a child, and which continued to haunt him in the future, broke the artist’s soul, and at the age of 44, Gorki committed suicide.

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In 2011, one of Gorki’s untitled paintings was sold at the world’s largest auction house, Christie’s in London, for $902,500.

Today, Arshile Gorky is one of the world's most noteworthy artists of the 20th century.

In 2012, at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, the artist’s granddaughter, Cosima Spender, presented the film Without Gorky, dedicated to the last seven years of the artist’s life. The film contains archival interviews with members of the Gorki family, as well as the latter’s photographic portraits.

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“My dear, I don’t want to upset you by writing this, but I want to tell you that inside of us, as in the nature of the soul of every person, there is emptiness and we constantly strive to find this and that in order to escape from it, to be alone. It has always been this way, and the burden of loneliness always falls on us, and therefore we think about this or that so as not to be left alone.” (From the artist’s letter to sister Vartush; May, 1938)

Regina Melikyan

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