A Borrowed Vision, A Purloined Past
National Post, 15 May 1999
From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, by Matthew Spender
Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages
If you want to understand the painting of Arshile Gorky, it helps to know that he was a liar and a plagiarist. You would think these would be black marks against an artist’s reputation. But in Matthew Spender’s magnificent new biography of Gorky, From a High Place, Gorky’s vices in no way corrupt his artistic genius. Indeed, they form the very core of his unique aesthetic vision.
Consider the truth behind his lies. Vostanig Adoian (as Gorky was named) was born around 1904 into a world of troubles. His parents, Armenians living in eastern Turkey, had both been previously married, their first spouses murdered by rampaging Turks and Kurds in 1896. His father escaped the far worse massacre to come by abandoning his family in 1908 and emigrating to America; his mother saved Gorky and his siblings from the butchery of 1915 by marching them to Yerevan, where she slowly starved to death in March 1919. Somehow, the remnants of Gorky’s family were able to raise the cash needed for his passage across the Atlantic. Stepping off a boat at Ellis Island in March 1920, Gorky was understandably reluctant to speak truthfully of the horror that was his childhood.
Even so, the stories he told were fantastic. He was a Russian (or a Georgian) prince, the nephew of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (a doubly outrageous tale given that Maxim Gorky was a pseudonym for Aleksei Peshkov). He had studied for years at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had won the long jump. He had completed his artistic education in Paris, studying under Aristide Maillol. Through sheer audacity and undeniable artistic mastery, Gorky managed to pull off his outrageous tales. Not even his wife knew that he was Armenian.
But in the gallery of artistic sins, telling lies ranks low indeed — it might even be considered a virtue. Plagiarism, on the other hand, strikes at the very heart of the artistic mission: originality of vision. So it’s more than simple prurience to be concerned about a few of Gorky’s love letters from the 1930s: they consisted almost entirely of passages lifted from books he’d been reading at the time. (Later, Gorky used the same passages in love letters to his wife.)
Not surprisingly, we come across similar offenses in his art. When Gorky was asked to illustrate a cover for Fortune magazine in 1942, he submitted a portfolio that included direct copies from Picasso, a detail that the editor was astute enough to detect.
That Gorky “borrowed” too generously from other artists, most notably from Picasso, MirÃ², and CÃ©zanne, was the most persistent and damaging charge levelled against him throughout his career. Years before he praised Gorky as “the equal of any painter of his own generation anywhere,” Clement Greenberg, the enormously influential art critic for The Nation, complained about the “dependent nature of [Gorky’s] inspiration.”
But Spender will have none of this. Gorky’s lack of “originality,” he argues, was in fact a conscious aesthetic choice, a deeply-felt conviction that the fashionable quest for “originality” was nothing but, in the words of his friend John Graham, “a cheap trick of an ignorant and vulgar yokel.” As Spender writes, “Gorky’s appropriations were themes learned by heart and, as it were, ‘performed,’ just as a musician performs a piece of music.” Gorky did not so much “use” ideas as transform them through his own peculiar artistic vision.
How can we describe this vision? It’s best to leave aside stale academic debates over whether Gorky was a late Cubist, a Surrealist, or a proto-Abstract Expressionist. Spender argues, persuasively, that Gorky’s works are alive with the tension between his need to reveal and reflect upon his most painful experiences and memories, and his equally vital need to protect and conceal his inner being. Certain subjects, he told the great French surrealist AndrÃ© Breton, would “lose their sacred qualities” if expressed too openly. There were “too many windows open” in the modern world.
Sometimes even his painting technique conveyed this tension. During the 1930s he would squeeze layer upon layer of paint on a canvas, sand the surface until it was as smooth as paper, then repeat the process dozens of times. The effect could be something like a fresco — painting on fresh plaster — when the paint seeps beneath the surface, giving the colours a luminous depth and obscuring the painting’s surface. “Hundreds and hundreds of layers of paint to obtain the weight of reality,” Gorky once told a friend.
As consistently insightful as Spender is, the greatest strength of his book is the shimmering descriptive prose — especially in his treatment of Armenia and Virginia — and the aching sympathy he brings to his subject. (Spender is married to Gorky’s elder daughter, Maro.) Vivid anecdotes punctuate a lively account of the New York art scene between the wars. We see a drunken Jackson Pollock bullying Gorky until he calmly pulls out a knife and begins carving a pencil. We see Gorky angrily confronting Clement Greenberg, hurling a piece of chalk on the sidewalk and challenging the critic: “Draw!”
And we witness, almost unwillingly, the destructive spiral of Gorky’s final years. Stricken with cancer in 1946, he endured the humiliation of a colostomy. But his troubles had just begun. A studio fire destroyed many of his paintings and drawings later that year, and a car accident in 1948 left him with two broken vertebrae and numbness in his right hand. In July, his wife left him, taking their two children with her. Despondent, Gorky hung himself. On a small crate nearby he had written in chalk, “Good-bye my loveds.”
Gorky sought tirelessly in his life to create an artistic persona capable of transcending the horror of his past. Telling lies helped. So did using established artistic styles as a crutch. Exploiting surrealism, which purported to tap the deepest wells of individual creativity, was perhaps the most artistically satisfying solution of all. But when Gorky’s own body finally betrayed him, he was left to face his demons defenceless and alone.