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Apr 2010 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

Can a tragic background inspire great art? Holocaust survivors who became great artists prove this point many times, as the Ben Uri Gallery can testify. When he was 15, Arshile Gorky’s mother died in his arms as they fled the Turkish pogroms against the Armenians in 1915. One hundred miles on foot later, Arshile (real name Vosdanig Adoian) and his sister reached the USA in search of their father, who had left them to fend for themselves. In America, revolutionary ideas were fertile ground for the young artist. There, having rejected traditional art as too conventional, he achieved success with his synthesis of European Modernism with American Abstract Expressionism. But the anguish of the past and his memories of a pastoral life continued to haunt his art, to which he brought an emotional intensity lacking in the work of other Modernists.

Tate Modern’s retrospective (until 3 May) analyses Gorky’s work from the early still lifes and portraits, heavily outlined in black, to a gradual abstraction in heavy, flat primary colours which begin to betray the Cubist influence of Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse. Gorky tended to rework his canvases over several years but, by the early 1930s, he developed a freer association with abstract ideas, such as his drawing Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, in which dreams seem to take abstract shape. But he also painted realistic portraits of family and friends from the 1920s. Two moving portraits of the artist and his mother, the most illustrious of his early works, are taken from a single photograph in 1912. They testify to the depth of his loss. The young Gorky holds a posy of flowers like a bridegroom, while to his left his mother, in traditional Armenian dress, stares out with a lifeless and sorrowful blankness. In this intensely moving portrait, Gorky continues to mourn her as both child and man.

With Gorky’s growing reputation as a Surrealist-Expressionist, such portraits became more abstract and fantastic. How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life is a visual memoir of his mother’s story-telling, with his face pressed into her pinafore. A decade after he left his homeland, allusive imagery began to appear in his work, such as his Image in Khorkom, the village where he was born, which recalls his father’s orchard.

Although technically a Surrealist, sharing with his contemporaries the free association of line and rich colour, Gorky differed from them in his nostalgia for nature, which represented the magic of memory, real or imagined. But tragedy pursued him. In 1946 a fire in his rural studio destroyed a year’s worth of work. Then, a cancer diagnosis, marriage breakdown and finally a car crash broke his spirit and he killed himself in July 1948. Just as he rejected traditional art, Gorky remained a free thinker, refusing to be bound by the new orthodoxy of European Surrealism. His individualism anticipated Abstract Expressionism.

Another Modernist is celebrated at Tate Modern in ‘Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde’, which concentrates on the geometric abstractionist movement De Stijl, of which Theo Van Doesburg was a founder member and editor of the De Stijl magazine. His idea was to create a visual vocabulary of geometric forms, based on the creation of a new society following the First World War. This is the first time the work of the Dutch artist has been seen in Britain. The movement had far-reaching effects, including designs for the Café Aubette in Strasbourg, furniture typography, magazines, stained glass, film, music and sculpture.
 

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Thoughts at a Kristallnacht ceremony
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