Born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in Armenia circa 1902, Arshile Gorky fled his homeland for America in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide. Paintings signed with his alias, Arsheie Gorky, began to appear around 1924, when the artist worked as a teacher at the New School of Design in Boston.
His is a name not often heard, yet the new ‘Retrospective’ at Tate Modern simultaneously exposes the extent of his tremendous talent and the tragedy that was his short life. This monster, twelve room exhibition shows the development of Gorky’s work, from early pieces inspired by Cézanne and Picasso, through his experimentation with Cubism and finally his discovery of Surrealism, all the while revealing flashes of his own tormented personality.
Passing through the first few rooms of bold, thickly layered oil paintings which shout influences from the likes of Miró, Kandinsky and even Dalí, one emerges into what is, in my opinion, the most significant room of the entire show. The room comprises what was effectively the artist’s personal gallery of family and friends. However, as its name “The Artist and His Mother” would suggest, the majority of space is given over to two versions of a painting Gorky created from an old photograph of himself and his mother in Armenia, which was sent to his father in the US.
Memorials to his deceased mother, the large canvases hang on adjoining walls; one a mixture of muted greys and yellows, the other pinks and oranges, both barely finished but often reworked by Gorky, as was his habit. The images exude a distinct air of both sadness and nostalgia. The misty grey eyes and unfinished figures a testament perhaps to the artist’s irretrievably fading memory of his mother’s likeness. The faces are stern and serious, the poses stilted and wooden, yet the paintings seem engulfed in a haze, perhaps Gorky’s distant recollections of a remote, alien past in Armenia.
In the subsequent rooms we see a transformation in the artist’s style. His works become much more fluid, utilising washes of dilute paint and organic, free line. He simultaneously begins to adopt more Surrealist principles: an emphasis on psychological reality rather than the external world and a closer association with nature and human perception.
It was around this period, in the early 1940s, that Gorky befriended André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement. This friendship resulted in some of the rather more imaginatively named pieces in the retrospective, such as How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds In My Life. However, most works are untitled, as Gorky purportedly found no reason to explain his inspirations.
Despite a devastating studio fire in 1946 in which much of his recent work was lost, Gorky was unfazed and continued to be highly productive. During his last few years, Gorky’s paintings became increasingly inward, personal and difficult to decode, perhaps due to his deepening depression.
After a short foray into sculpture – a reclamation of his childhood apprenticeship to his uncle which displays the same sinuous, smooth and pure forms, his leitmotifs of thorny outcrops and curving lines which recall curling, upturned leaves again clearly visible – and a car accident in which Gorky’s neck was broken, one arrives at his last, unfinished painting.
Entitled The Black Monk, (a reference perhaps to the ‘black dog’ of depression as it took its hold over Gorky) the painting epitomises the majority of those in this last room of the showcase; rough, transparent layers of thinned paint with scratchy black streaks and contours traversing blank areas like spider webs. It is immediately clear that Gorky makes more generous use of black here than in his other canvasses. Scrubby, nightmarish figures seem to loom from his brush strokes in every corner, intermittently punctuated by smudges of dazzling and coarsely applied red, and a macabre shade of shadowy green. A tangle of red strokes at the centre of the canvas reads like a bloody wound, and a translucent green rounded smear appears before the viewer as a vortex. This is perhaps a suggestion of the spiral of despair into which, the artist was slowly slipping. Less than a month later, in July 1948, the artist was to take his own life.
And so, riddled with cancer, painting arm paralysed by a neck brace and abandoned by his wife, Gorky took his own life, aged only 46; a lost genius the likes of which this fabulously insightful, intimate and reflective showcase makes unquestionably clear.