PRINT May 1975

A Tough Nut To Crack

IN MY OPINION, THE PLAYERS of sophisticated games, like chess or bridge, view the limiting rules of the game as a challenge to their virtuosity, while the modern artist and the poet challenge us by presenting language games whose rules we do not as yet know. As the knowledge of having played skillfully compensates for abiding by the rules, so the structure of a new enigma is a challenge to the artist and the cracking of its code is, for the viewer, a liberation from problems of beauty.

High-frequency shocks of Surrealism enabled Arshile Gorky, in the early ’40s, to rid himself of his stylistic subservience to Picasso and substitute an inward imagery for a formalized interpretation of reality. Born in Haigotz Dzor of Turkish Armenia, Vosdanig Adoian revealed his romantic disposition by changing his name to Arshile Gorky. For the oppressed Christian minorities of Turkey, Russia loomed always as a protector and an eventual liberator, while Maxim Gorki stood for the defender of the downtrodden.

Arshile Gorky’s personality is vigorously asserted in three striking paintings called Garden in Sochi I, II and III (1941–43). Stylistically these paintings are indebted to Miró, but imagistically the forms are the artist’s own. Under the metaphorical name of the Garden in Sochi, with its connotations of the beauty and luxury of a famous Russian summer resort, lies hidden recollections of the garden of Arshile’s father by Lake Van in Armenia. Gorky described the latter garden at the time he made these paintings, in a statement written at the request of The Museum of Modern Art, as follows:

There was a ground constantly in shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nests. There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches of moss placed here and there, like fallen clouds. But from where came all the shadows in constant battle like the lancers in Paolo Uccello’s painting? This garden was identified as the Garden of Wish Fulfillment, and often I had seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependable breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock. Above all this stood an enormous tree completely bleached by the sun, the rain, the cold, and deprived of leaves. This was the Holy Tree . . . I have witnessed many people, whoever did pass by, that would tear voluntarily a strip of their clothes and attach this to the tree. Thus through many years of the same act, like a veritable parade of banners under the pressure of the wind, all these personal inscriptions of signatures, very softly to my innocent ear, used to give echo to the sh-h-h of silver leaves of the poplars (quoted in William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art, New York, 1969, p. 401).

According to Ethel Schwabacher, who was Gorky’s close friend in the middle ’30s, Gorky had already included in a number of paintings forms evocative of medieval warriors on horseback, traceable to mural paintings of saints in the Armenian church of Akthamar, but fused with cavalry scenes by Paolo Uccello (Arshile Gorky, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1957, p. 231). For Gorky’s paintings to become the garden of his own wish-fulfillment, he had to become both more Russian and freer, impressed as he was in the ’40s by Kandinsky’s masterpieces of 1911–13. It is likely that he was affected by Kandinsky as the driving spirit of a group that had adopted for their battle cry the challenging name of Der Blaue Reiter.

Gorky’s The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944) has been compared to Improvisation #30 of Kandinsky, for its iridescent surface and fluidity of colors. In my estimate, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb should be seen as a more elaborate version of Gorky’s earlier The Pirate 1 (1942). The right-of-center figure in The Liver . . . has a Miró-esque eye that recalls the crest crowning of the Pirate’s head. The strange title of the later work suggests a sexual pun, confirmed by the juxtaposition of giant male and female genital organs, left of the center portion of the painting.

Although Gorky handles color with the freedom of Kandinsky, he never reduces lines to tracings, and flights from reality. Influenced by the Surrealists, and especially by Matta, Gorky wanted to see an image that veiled reality. Matta’s volcanic landscapes of the early ’40s were meant as materialization of dreams, but Gorky borrowed their composition as a model for his wish-fulfillment.

Gorky’s direct reference to sexual organs, both in paintings and drawings, is also traceable to Matta. Yet, unlike Matta, who distorts human figures both to exaggerate and conceal the difference between sex organs and limbs, Gorky prefers to isolate the sexual forms and blur their image. In his graphic work, Gorky reinterprets Matta’s erotic cobweb of bodies in terms of lines and links, perhaps suggested to him by Tanguy’s drawings.

Gorky was able to borrow so freely and fruitfully from Matta because he possessed the ability to exploit these visual proclamations to transmit a private message. Gorky’s The Agony (1947), richly red, could easily be seen as a response to Matta’s Vertigo of Eros (1943). I presume Gorky’s agonizing figure, despite its Picasso-like grimace, is the counterpart of the monstrous totemic figures of Matta (1946). The figure position of The Agony bears a striking similarity to a complex figure in his The Betrothal II (1947). The title Betrothal, seen in conjunction with the cylindrical central form, suggests a pictorial association to the coffee grinder in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped by her Bachelors, Even, a work that has had a decisive influence on Matta, who refers to it overtly in his The Bachelors Twenty Years After (1943). My belief is that Gorky has distracted attention from the cylinders of the coffee grinder by means of a “Trojan horse,” or, more specifically, a strange figure in the foreground. Gorky’s “horse” may well be derived from a like composite figure in Tanguy’s Witness (1940). Its prototype is certainly not a horse of Uccello as was suggested by John Loftus (Arshile Gorky, Columbia University, 1952, unpublished thesis, pp. 42, 44).

The incongruity of associating a horse with a coffee grinder is accounted for when we recognize that the “cylinders” together with the “sieves” form part of what Duchamp called a “machine agricole.” Visualized in these terms Gorky’s horse evokes the pitiful beast of the treadwheel which has the task in the Middle East of drawing water by circling the well when the garden is being watered.

In 1948 Gorky, fatally stricken by cancer, his home life in shatters, returned to his deserted country home in Connecticut and committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree. He thus fulfilled in bitterness, for this is the meaning of the word gorky, the wishes that were to be fulfilled around the enormous tree of the paternal garden.


The incongruous title of René Magritte’s still life with an eye in the center of a slice of ham begins to make sense when we reinterpret it in terms of a nature morte, with emphasis on mort (death). When read as two words por and trait, the first syllable puns with porc (pronounced por in French, that is pig), and trait, meaning drawing. The eye in the center of the ham may have been suggested by the expression oeil-de-boeuf (marrow bone). An eye in a circle of ham is the reverse of the spiritual, as opposed to natural, portrait of God symbolized by an eye in the center of a triangle.

A repast served at a table without bread suggests that the ham set on a table before an empty verre (glass) might denote the revers (pronounced re-verre) of what is symbolically represented by a supper of bread and wine. This painting could be viewed as an atheist’s version (pronounced verre-Sion (Zion) of the transubstantiation of bread and wine through the mystery of the Eucharist. It should be recalled that according to Andre Breton Dieu est un porc (God is a pig).


Valeurs Personnelles (Personal Values, 1952) provides us with an interesting version of the artist’s armoiries (coat of arms) as is suggested by the armoire (cupboard). This riddle becomes easily decipherable when we realize that personal values in the artist’s private life also denote objects that are of value in his professional life. The blaireau (shaving brush) atop the armoire is a substitute for the blaireau (paintbrush); the peigne (comb) on the bed suggests that before he fell asleep the artist peignit (painted). Since lit (bed) puns with reads (as in il lit—he reads), we deduce that the artist painted what he read. His knowledge is denoted by savon (soap) punning with savons (we know). The match with the sulphur tip, alumette chimique, set next to the verre vert (green glass) is an allusion to rêve (phonetic anagram of verre), an indication that the artist paints what he dreams.


Max Ernst’s Capricorn (1948) is a sculptural group made out of concrete that stands next to the artist’s home in Sedona, Arizona. In a widely reproduced photograph, Max Ernst and his wife, the painter Dorothea Tanning, complete the sculpture by their presence, turning it as it were into a collage of flesh and cement. Lucy Lippard, in her introductory essay to Max Ernst’s sculpture, has dubbed this photograph a “family portrait,” since it also includes, as she points out, a sculptured version of the artist’s two Tibetan dogs (Max Ernst: Sculpture and Recent Painting, New York, 1966, p. 55). Actually the dogs have been cemented into little demons. The enthroned king holds one of them by the neck just over its crouched companion. In the photograph Dorothea (whose name means gift of God) comfortably seated on the throne, leans against the Capricorn’s right shoulder. Her eyes are closed while she is indulging in an erotic reverie, as is suggested by her hand placed against’s phallus. As for the sculptor, he is peering at us from back of the throne with head and arms resting over the Capricorn’s left shoulder.

The sculpture’s Egyptian frontal ity, its monumental appearance, plus the astrological connotations suggested by its name, induce one to unravel secrets by means of a “hieroglyphic” interpretation of the Tarots, specifically of card XV, dedicated to the devil. He is depicted as a winged hermaphrodite, with the hoofs and horns of a ram with red hair, with thighs covered by a fish’s scales, and shown standing on a pedestal as if he was a statue that came to life.

This devil is androgynous to indicate that he represents the fusion of the four elements; his wings denoting air; his hoofs and horn, earth; his fish scales, water; his red hair, fire. According to Oswald Wirth, this hybrid figure represents Baphomet, and was venerated by the Templars (Le Tarot, latest edition, ed., Claude Tchou, Paris, 1966). Historically he is traceable back to the androgyne of the Gnostics; hence to the Greek sphinx as the latter also symbolizes the fusion of four elements.

Baphomet, suggesting Bapho (to stain or paint, in Greek) is an appropriate symbol for the fusion or union of two painters, prefigured, as it were, by the pair of male and female gnomes flanking the devil’s pedestal, card XV.

In Ernst’s version, the gnomes on the cards have been replaced by two “poles”; the female one on the right side has joint legs covered with scales, both to evoke Ondine, the spirit of water, and to establish a contrast with the earth-born masculine pole on the left. Ernst transformed the hairy Tibetan dogs into gnomelike salamanders which, according to tradition, were born in the fire of the devil’s hair.

The words coagula and solve, painted on Baphomet’s arms in card XV, have symbolic meaning: the former denotes the genitals, while the latter is in the nature of an electric battery, since it is activated only in combination with coagulation. The square head (upper left) with hollow eyes of Ernst’s masculine pole is like an electrical outlet turned into a gnome. Lippard has traced the heads of these two poles to a Katchina doll.

Unlike the devil of Card XV, Ernst’s Capricorn is a strictly male figure whose prototype is Ernst’s own chess king, in The King Playing with the Queen (1948). Max Ernst’s critique of the matriarchal rules of chess should be interpreted to mean that in their life, both private and professional, the sexes are not equal.

The Capricorn marks a turning point in the artist’s oedipal journey. In his well-known painting Oedipus Rex (1922), the fingers, pierced by a bow that is also a metal instrument of torture, hold a nut, denoting that Ernst’s oedipal riddle is a tough nut to crack (eine harte nuss). The nut is a substitute for testicle; the word nut applies to the spring of a gun as well as the lock of a crossbow. On the strength of these associations, I interpret the riddle to mean that the oedipal complex is at the root of the fear of castration and murder. In Ernst’s version, the sphinx represented by a bird is seen in profile looking at the viewer, and denotes the artist himself, for Ernst is known to have identified himself with a bird. Perhaps Ernst had in mind Hölderlin, who in his poem on Oedipus asks if Oedipus has “one eye too many perhaps?” The eye shown back of the bird’s head belongs to a diabolic-looking horned creature. A horned creature reappears in relation to Oedipus in 1934 in the form of Ubuesque anthropoids, actually plaster casts of two wooden poles, one set atop the other. Ernst explained that “the forms suggested their final position which, in turn, freely suggested the title” (Max Ernst: Sculpture and Recent Painting, p. 39). The diabolic horned Oedipus, the King playing with the Queen, the capricorn, recall Minotaure of the Surrealists, who carries us back to the pre-oedipal past of our psyche and our culture, into a labyrinthine world of hybrids and darkness.

Writing on Max Ernst’s painting of the ’50s and after, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues calls them “as beautiful as daylight.” Such a metamorphosis could never have taken place had not the artist “become separated from the climate of terror, horror, hatred and mockery,” as Mandiargues perceptively remarks. A reader of the Tarot might conclude that in so doing Ernst repudiated all that he had achieved with the help of Baphomet, for these latter-day paintings lack the protection of the mighty lunacy that illuminates the paintings of his Surrealist epoch.


Giorgio de Chirico, who was born and educated in Greece, has cryptically recognized his debt to the land of his birth by signing his name under a glove affixed to a wall. Chiricos, as his name would have been pronounced by his schoolmates, suggests a play of words with Cheir (pronounced chir, meaning hand) and oicos (pronounced icos, meaning house). What else is the glove but the house of the hand? Moreover, the glove in Song of Love (1914) appears to be that of a cheirourgos (surgeon), a term that literally means “work of the hand.” The Greco-Roman head placed next to the glove would indicate that it is a work made by the hand of an artist. From these clues I surmise that this painting is a “song of love” of an Italian artist who considers himself to belong to the Greco-Roman world: the predominant objects, green sphere, white statue and red glove make up the colors of the Italian flag.