Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work

Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work

by Hayden Herrera

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Nominated for the Pulizter Prize, "the definitive biography of Arshile Gorky—lucid, persuasive, intimate and refreshingly clear-eyed" (Andrew Solomon, The New York Times Book Review)

Born in Turkey around 1900, Vosdanik Adoian escaped the massacres of Armenians in 1915 only to watch his mother die of starvation and his family scatter in their flight from the Turks. Arriving in America in 1920, Adoian invented the pseudonym Arshile Gorky-and obliterated his past. Claiming to be a distant cousin of the novelist Maxim Gorky, he found work as an art teacher and undertook a program of rigorous study, schooling himself in the modern painters he most admired, especially Cézanne and Picasso. By the early forties, Gorky had entered his most fruitful period and developed the style that is seen as the link between European modernism and American abstract expressionism. His masterpieces influenced the great generation of American painters in the late forties, even as Gorky faced a series of personal catastrophes: a studio fire, cancer, and a car accident that temporarily paralyzed his painting arm. Further demoralized by the dissolution of his seven-year marriage, Gorky hanged himself in 1948.

A sympathetic, sensitive account of artistic and personal triumph as well as tragedy, Hayden Herrera's biography is the first to interpret Gorky's work in depth. The result of more than three decades of scholarship-and a lifelong engagement with Gorky's paintings-Arshile Gorky traces the progress from apprentice to master of the man André Breton called "the most important painter in American history."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374529727
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux-3pl
Publication date: 01/03/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 784
Sales rank: 856,261
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.87(d)

About the Author

Hayden Herrera is the author of Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Mary Frank, and Matisse: A Portrait. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


His Life and Work

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2003 Hayden Herrera
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374113238

Chapter One

On a summer night in 1903 near the shore of Lake Van in Turkish Armenia, the Der Marderosian family gathered in their ancient monastery church, Charahan Surp Nishan. Arshile Gorky's grandmother, the widow Hamaspiur, had brought the family together to hold a vigil for her youngest son, sixteen-year-old Nishan, who had vanished several days before. She suspected that he had been abducted by Kurds, for he had fallen in love with a Kurdish girl whose brother took offense. Widow Hamaspiur knew that Armenians who erred in any way were fair game for Turkish or Kurdish brutality. Only five years earlier, her husband, Sarkis Der Marderosian, the last of a long line of Armenian apostolic priests, had been nailed to the door of the church where he served in Van City.

Gorky's mother, Shushan, may have joined her mother and her five siblings at this vigil. Perhaps Shushan brought her children to the vigil too-her daughters, Akabi and Satenik, and her tiny son, Vosdanig, who a year or so later would be renamed Manouk and a quarter of a century after that, in America, would change his name to Arshile Gorky.

As the Der Marderosian family sat on the carpet-covered floor beneath the smoke-blackened dome of the tiny stone church, the faint flicker of incense candles lit their solemn faces. The summer heat, the darkness outside, and the binding mood of apprehension made the square room seem close. Finally, over the murmur of their prayers came the sound of a thud against the heavy wooden church doors. Hamaspiur Der Marderosian rose to open them. On the threshold lay her favorite son's body. It was covered with dagger wounds and his clothes were soaked in blood.

Centuries of living as a subject minority in Ottoman Turkey had given the Armenian people, once known for their rugged independence, a fatalistic passivity, but Hamaspiur did not follow her countrymen's habit of accepting fate. Instead she clenched her fists and wept. Months went by and each day the force with which she rejected God's will grew. She paced back and forth inside the church dedicated to the fifth-century saint Yeghisheh, whose power to cure madness gave Charahan Surp Nishan its name: Holy Sign of the Demon Seizer. In her fury, Hamaspiur resembled the insane people who used to be chained to a pillar near Saint Yeghisheh's relics until their screams were spent and the devils within them were expelled. No such miracle would cure her grief. Her endless pacing took her out into the graveyard, past her husband's gravestone, where she could look over the ever-changing surface of Lake Van, a lake so vast it has been called an inland sea. Hamaspiur Der Marderosian beat her hands and forehead against the church doors and cried, "Why, oh God, did you take him?" There was no answer except, her family said, in recurrent nightmares, and that answer gave no solace: "Beat not on my doors," said the voice of God. Having been warned in a dream that his mother's blasphemy would bring a curse on her family, her eldest son, Moses, tried to silence her. But Hamaspiur's grief was beyond even her son's remonstrations.

To revenge herself against God, Hamaspiur set Charahan Surp Nishan on fire. Only the wooden parts of the structure, the altar, and other accoutrements burned. Most of the church was built of stone and remained intact. The local villagers were horrified at what Hamaspiur had done. With this act of sacrilege, the Der Marderosians' official ties to the church were severed. Hamaspiur left the walled monastery complex to spend the last six years of her life in a monastery in the mountain village of Ermerur. Charahan Surp Nishan and its lands were rented to a priest and fell into decay.

Arshile Gorky would look back with admiration at his grandmother's rebellious spirit. As a grown man, he had a passion for fire. "I think our lives flow like a molten lava," he said. The hot light of embers and flames glows in many of his paintings and drawings. For Gorky no celebration was complete without a bonfire, and every fire he built had to be a conflagration. But, according to family legend, Hamaspiur's fire had brought a curse on her descendants. Though he left religion as a young man, Gorky was superstitious, and he felt that curse. He told friends that his mother used to call him "the black one, the unlucky one who will come to a no-good end." The fatalistic attitude with which he bore life's sufferings astonished those close to him.

This fatalism showed up during the Great Depression when poverty, neglect, and the struggles associated with being an artist nearly overwhelmed him: Gorky would shrug his shoulders and say that to suffer for art was his destiny. Discussing thought versus feeling in art with friends at the Waldorf Cafeteria in New York in the 1930s, Gorky startled them by suddenly interjecting: "The story of Christ is misunderstood. In my ancient country we saw the story differently. The figure of Christ was that of a man of fate, not a man of tragedy who gives his life to save us. In my country the son is a man of fate. It is the fate of the son to kill his father, but Christ's father was God and Christ couldn't kill God." His companions assumed that Gorky was talking about his compulsion to be loyal to father Picasso. Gorky could not kill off his artistic progenitor; he had to follow as a worthy disciple. "I am not a man burdened by art but necessarily doing what I must do," Gorky said. "I am, therefore, not a tragic hero like Christ but I am a man of fate."

Chapter Two

Gorky regaled his friends with stories of his idyllic childhood. His first ten years must have held many delights: a strong and lively boy, he was his mother's only son. Although he was a member of a Christian minority in a Muslim world, Gorky's early years were shielded from some of the harshness of being an Armenian in Ottoman Turkey.

Situated in the northeast corner of Asia Minor, Armenia has a history of successive invasions and brief periods of political independence. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes Armenia as a "theater of perpetual war." Since ancient times the plentiful natural resources of Armenia's vast highland plateau, with its volcanic earth and alluvial valleys, have made Armenia prey to the rapacity of neighboring peoples. But the principal cause of its turbulent history has been its strategic position as a trading route between East and West.

In the ninth century BC this land was ruled by Urartian kings, one of whom established his capital at what is now the city of Van. During the next centuries, Assyrians, Medes, and Persians invaded. Then some time between the eighth and the fifth centuries BC, the Armenians, an Indo-European people thought to have migrated eastward possibly from central or south central Europe, appeared on the plateau. They conquered and assimilated the various indigenous peoples. From the second century BC to the fifth century AD the Armenians had a united kingdom. Around 301, when King Tiridates III converted to Christianity and forced his people to follow suit, Armenia became the first Christian nation. Throughout subsequent invasions by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Tartars, and finally the Ottoman Turks, the Armenian apostolic church was the central force that preserved Armenian cultural identity.

In the late ninth century, after an Arab caliph conferred the title of "prince of princes" on an Armenian noble named Ashot Bagratuni and recognized him as king, Armenia once again became an independent kingdom. The century and a half of Armenian sovereignty that followed was a period of cultural flowering. Several schools of manuscript painting flourished and splendid churches were constructed. One of them was Gorky's favorite, the Church of the Holy Gross on the island of Akhtamar in Lake Van. The magnificent churches in the city of Ani were built during this period as well. But independence ended in 1045 when the Armenian plateau came under Byzantine rule. Then in 1064 Seljuk Turks appeared in the Van area, overthrew Byzantine control, and ushered in a period of turbulence and cultural decline. When the Mongols overran the area in 1236 and appropriated the Armenians' hereditary grazing lands, the Armenian ruling class disappeared.

A modicum of relief came to the Armenians with the Ottoman Turks' conquest of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century. As the Ottomans spread their power to the east, they brought order and religious tolerance. Non-Muslim subjects were organized into millets (religious communities), which were virtually autonomous and which preserved religious and national homogeneity. The Armenian millet, for example, was ruled by the authority of the patriarch of the apostolic church at Constantinople. As long as taxes were paid, the Armenians in the eastern vilayets, or provinces, were free to go about their business as farmers and traders. Armenians in Constantinople achieved positions of great wealth and power in banks, businesses, and intellectual institutions. Yet Armenians were not allowed to bear arms or to join the army, and they were not equal before the law. Their disputes were handled in Muslim courts in which Christian testimony was not accepted and only Muslim witnesses were allowed. Thus if an Armenian was robbed or injured by a Muslim, he or she had virtually no legal recourse.

During the nineteenth century, when the Turkish Empire became so bankrupt and weak that it earned the description "sick man of Europe," all these disparities were exacerbated. Humiliated by the disintegration of the empire in the Balkans and the Middle East and infuriated by European powers vying for its control (and demanding reforms in the treatment of Armenians), the Ottoman government in Constantinople became more and more repressive. An English vice-consul from Van reported in 1883 on the "utter corruption and ineptitude" of the Turkish authorities, who were known as "birds of prey." Van's governor spent his time collecting bribes, and the courts of justice were "engines for extorting money from litigants for the benefit of officials." Dr. Clarence D. Ussher, an American missionary stationed in Van beginning in 1900, told the Story of a Turkish robber who, while robbing an Armenian home, impaled his eye on a nail. He went to court and demanded that the Armenian he had robbed have one of his eyes gouged out. The judge imposed this penalty.

The Turkish governors of the eastern provinces allowed, even encouraged, the Kurds, a nomadic people who had entered the Armenian plateau in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to rob, exploit, and expropriate Armenian villagers. As a result, in Van province many villages, including Gorky's mother's native Vosdan, had become almost entirely Kurdish. Being Muslim, Kurds could bear arms while Armenians could not, and in return for a tax, the Turks gave the Kurds the right to quarter themselves and their herds during the winter in Armenian homes and at the Armenians' expense. In some villages the Armenians and the Kurds lived in harmony: the Armenians were the farmers and the Kurds the herdsmen. Indeed, members of Gorky's family spoke Kurdish and had Kurdish friends. But in many villages the Kurds' acts of robbery, arson, vandalism, abduction, rape, and murder were a constant source of misery to Armenians. In 1877 Kurdish rampages prompted a special correspondent for the Times of London to write: "I have not seen one Christian village which has not been abandoned in consequence of the cruelties committed on the inhabitants. All have been ransacked, many burnt, upwards of 5,000 Christians in the Van district have fled to Russian territory, and women and children are wandering about naked." In 1891, when Sultan Abdul Hamid II enlisted the Kurds in cavalry units called Hamidiye, modeled on those of the Russian Cossacks, he gave them license to rob and kill Armenians.

In the last four decades of the nineteenth century, as Armenians learned about Western ideas of liberty through increasing contact with Europeans, Russians, and Americans, an Armenian national consciousness developed. The loyal millet finally grew restive and formed revolutionary societies, the three principal ones being the Armenakan Party established in Van in 1885, the more radical Hunchak Party founded in Geneva in 1887, and the Dashnak Party formed in Russia in 1890. All three groups advocated reform and self-determination for Armenians. The Hunchaks went further: they wanted to create an autonomous Armenian state. Van, where Gorky was born and raised and where Armenians were in the majority, was a center of Armenian unrest.

In 1895 and 1896 Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordered the annihilation of Turkey's Armenian population. The massacres that took place followed such a set pattern (the murder, rape, looting, and burning began and ended each day with a bugle call) that there is no question that they were planned by the government in Constantinople. Somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed; about a half million were left homeless. In Van City Armenian revolutionaries resisted the massacres, saving the inhabitants from mass murder, but Armenian villages on or near the lake were looted and burned.

The massacres of the mid-1890s did nothing to dampen the Armenian nationalist zeal. Nor did they end the systematic persecution and impoverishment of the Armenians. Armenian lands and possessions continued to be stolen by Kurds and by illegal taxation that forced Armenians into debt to Turks and Kurds. The pace of emigration picked up. Armenians went to Russia, Syria, and other parts of the world. About 2,500 Armenians fled to America in 1896 and 1897, and in 1898 nearly 2,000 more joined them. Typically a young male would be smuggled out of Turkey and, once established in America, would start sending money and eventually steamship tickets to the family he had left behind. Two of Gorky's paternal uncles, Krikor and Misak Adoian, left for America in 1896. Neither was able to earn enough money to bring over other family members. Misak died of tuberculosis, probably caused by miserable living conditions. When Krikor returned to Armenia, neighbors noticed that he was still wearing the same clothes that he'd worn when he left.

Chapter Three

How much butchery has the moon's hard eye seen, and with its frozen heart passed by? -Verse from "Lake of Van" by Raffi

During the massacres of 1895-96, there were brutal deaths on both sides of Gorky's family.


Excerpted from ARSHILE GORKY by HAYDEN HERRERA Copyright © 2003 by Hayden Herrera. Excerpted by permission.
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