PRINT September 1995


ARSHILE GORKY’S MOTHER, Lady Shushanik der Marderosian, belonged to a distinguished Armenian family that could trace its origins back to the fifth century A.D. She was born in 1880 in Vosdan, a town just to the south of Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey, in a valley of rushing streams and poplar groves. Just to the east of Vosdan stood the ancestral monastery (or vank) of the der Marderosians. At the time of Gorky’s birth, in 1904, nearly 40 of his maternal ancestors lay buried at the vank, under elaborately carved tombstones. In later life he referred to his mother as “the last breath of Van nobility.” She was his first teacher, and she seems to have been determined that her son should become an artist.

It is important to remember that when Gorky arrived in America, in 1920, he was already heir to an ancient artistic tradition, one richly represented in the immediate vicinity of his birthplace, the lakeside village of Khorkom. A few miles to the west of Khorkom was the island of Akhtamar, with its famous tenth-century church, which Gorky later praised as “that jewel established in our crown of beauty.” When the family moved to the city of Van, in 1910, Lady Shushanik also made sure that her son became familiar with the collection of illuminated manuscripts housed in the great monastery of Varak, which lay nearby. In a letter of 1945, Gorky wrote rapturously of “the medieval Armenian manuscript paintings with their beautiful Armenian faces, subtle colors, their tender lines and calligraphy.” He might almost be describing his own paintings and drawings.

Gorky’s childhood ended abruptly in 1915, when the Ottoman government embarked on its final solution of the “Armenian question.” In April of that year, Khorkom was burnt to the ground, and the six members of Gorky’s family who had remained in the village were murdered. In Vosdan seven cousins were killed, and the der Marderosian monastery was razed to the ground. The manuscripts of Varak were burnt, and Van was subjected to a savage month-long bombardment that reduced it to rubble. Gorky and his family then walked 150 miles to Yerevan, in Russian Armenia. There, four years later, his mother died in his arms. She was not yet 40. Gorky described her as “the most esthetically appreciative, the most poetically incisive master I have encountered in all my life.”

It would be surprising if the events of 1915–19 had not had a determining influence on Gorky’s subsequent career. It is to these events that we may trace his attempts to evade the “unlucky” fate of being an Armenian by changing his name and passing himself off as Maxim Gorky’s nephew, and by repeatedly claiming to have been born in Tiflis, a city he merely passed through on his way to America. But his letters tell a different story. They are full of longing for his homeland and of pride in his artistic heritage. To have denied that heritage would have been to condemn his mother to a second death. His nostalgia seems to have been particularly intense in 1944, the year of his greatest artistic breakthrough, when he declared, “I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush for all the world to see.”

This impulse is most apparent in the two portraits titled The Artist and His Mother, both of which are based on a photograph taken in Van in 1912, but it also lies behind such seemingly abstract compositions as The Sun, The Dervish in the Tree, Water of the Flowery Mill, Scent of the Apricots on the Fields, and How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life, all from 1944. The last of these also derives from the 1912 photograph, in which Lady Shushanik wears a long, sleeveless overgarment with a design of stylized leaves and flowers. This is usually referred to as a dress, but it is, in fact, the embroidered apron, as Gorky made clear in a letter of 1944 to his sister Vartoosh: “How well I recall the time that photograph of Mother and I was taken in Armenia’s Van in 1912. And just a short while ago I completed a most successful work emanating from the abstract Armenian shapes of her apron. . . .”

For reasons that escape me, most American commentators dismiss such unambiguous statements as somehow exaggerated or irrelevant. Gorky may have felt free to reinvent his past when it suited his purposes, and in letters to his sister his language is heightened and poetic (often bizarrely so), but he cannot have lied outright to her: if he had done so she would have known at once, since she had shared the same terrible experiences with him.

Great artists are not driven by theories or concepts, but by memory and sense impressions of hallucinatory vividness. Hence the centrality of the apron, the patterns of which foreshadow Gorky’s habit of drawing abstract forms from nature: “My Mother told me stories while I pressed my face into her long apron with my eyes closed.” In the painting named after it, the apron’s design is streaked and smeared, as if dissolved in the waters of memory and nostalgia: “All my life her stories and her embroidery kept unraveling pictures in my memory.” It is the unraveling that seems to be recorded in How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life.

In 1994, inspired in part by that painting, I went to Van. I visited Vosdan, Akhtamar, and the smoke-blackened ruins of Varak. I was unable to reach Khorkom; the Turkish police knew that it had been an Armenian village before 1915, and my guide warned me that I would be suspected of making “bad propaganda” if I was found there. When I showed the same guide reproductions of Gorky’s paintings of 1944, he responded immediately, Yes, these were the colors of Van in spring and autumn. At Akhramar it occurred to me that the exuberant sculptures of human, animal, and plant forms that covered the church’s exterior walls were not so far from biomorphic Surrealism, and the frescoes on the interior, with their bristling wings and great staring eyes, spoke eloquently of the equivalence of medieval and Modernist pictorial space.

European painters resorted to non-Western traditions in order to arrive at the new. In Gorky’s case the situation was different. Before arriving in America he can have known little of Western art. He apprenticed himself to the Renaissance masters in order to acquire the necessary technique, but it was his successive discoveries of Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró, et al. that gave him access to his past, through stylizations and distortions of form relating both to Modernism and to the medieval manuscript painters of Van, whose work he had first seen under his mother’s tutelage at the age of six. The way forward was the way back. The apron unfolded.

John Ash’s most recent work is A Byzantine Journey, Random House, 1995.