Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorkyby Nouritza Matossian
Born in Armenia, he survived the Turkish genocide begun in 1915 and arrived in America in 1920. One of the first abstract
In this first full-scale biography of the artist Robert Hughes called "a kind of Bridge of Sighs between Surrealism and America," Nouritza Matossian charts the life of Arshile Gorky, one of the most mysterious of major twentieth-century artists.
Born in Armenia, he survived the Turkish genocide begun in 1915 and arrived in America in 1920. One of the first abstract expressionists, he was a major influence on the New York art scene, which included de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, and others. After a devastating series of illnesses, injuries, and personal setbacks, he committed suicide at the age of 46.
In Black Angel, Nouritza Matossian uses for the first time Gorky's original letters in Armenian and other new source material, writing with authority and insight about the powerful influence Gorky's Armenian heritage had upon his painting. She also provides an informed and important critique of the entire body of Gorky's major work.
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The Angel of Birth 1902
In the early years of the twentieth century, Khorkom was a small village by Lake Van, in the province of Vaspurakan, Western Armenia. Armenians had lived continuously on the rugged highland plateau since pre-Christian times. The plateau was edged with lava fields, cut through with rivers. One third of it was taken up by Lake Van, 5,500 feet above sea level. In the Lower Valley of the Armenians, Vari Hayotz Dzor, the lake had risen, flooding fields and squeezing out the people. The Turks, under whose authority the Armenians had lived in the Ottoman Empire, also oppressed them.
The village still stands, under another name, although the original inhabitants have been wiped out. Arshile Gorky was born Manoug Adoian. His large, patriarchal family was one of the wealthiest in the poor village, which lived off the land and the lake. A high bluff, with a church standing on it, overlooked the lake, protecting the village, which nestled in a hollow behind. In fact, khor means `deep', and koum, `stable', in Armenian.
The people of Khorkom were Christians but their rituals and way of life originated from ancient cults of nature. They believed that at the birth of a baby, angels and demons waged war over him. As the boy grew up to become a man, he would feel that demons and angels were never far away.
His mother, Shushanig, went into labour in a mud-brick house smelling of farm animals and manure. She was twenty-four and this was her fourth labour. Her long face had filledout in pregnancy. Her large almond eyes were bright. She lay by a fire in the central room on bedding laid out on the floor. Her husband and all other men had left the house.
Babies were delivered by a midwife who had to perform ceremonies to protect the mother and child. First, she picked up a long metal skewer and blackened its point in the fire. On each wall of the room, she drew the sign of the cross to keep the devil away. Then she gave the skewer to the mother with a prayer. Childbirth was dangerous. Many women died, and fewer than half the infants survived until the age of two. The elder sisters-in-law were on hand to guide her:
`When labour starts, the angel comes down and takes all your sins and puts them in a bag and hangs them over your head. When the baby is born, the angel will return and sprinkle all your sins back on to you.'
This was the signal for elderly aunts and young women to come forward. `Please, now you are pure, bless us. Please, bless us!'
After three daughters, Shushan prayed for a son. A woman on either side of her, at her elbows and knees, supported her back.
`A boy! God bless him. A boy!'
Long limbs and a mass of damp black hair. The baby's eyes were black.
The umbilical cord had to be cut while a healthy woman was nearby, the blood smeared across the baby's wax-covered face so that he would have red cheeks, then the afterbirth and umbilical cord were taken in a white cloth for burial in the churchyard so he would be a fine singer in church.
The midwife beat some salt and a couple of eggs into warm water, and gave the infant his first frothy bath. She put salt on his dark head, under his arms, feet and hands, and swaddled him. He would remain swaddled for the next forty days. The children rushed out with sweets, to pass on the news to the village.
Prayers and ritual verses were said. The midwife asked the mother as she brought her the swaddled baby, `Girl, am I light, or are you?'
`May it pass lightly,' Shushan had to reply.
Three times they repeated the response, then the baby was laid into the crook of her right arm. He was thin, with long fingers. She saw the faces of her dead father and her brother.
`Eyes open, Atchke patz. He's smart.' Her relatives praised him and congratulated her, spitting `tout, tout' in between words to fool the evil eye His mother-of-pearl eyelids were fringed with dark lashes. She whispered `My little black one.'
Her husband, Setrag Adoian, rugged, over six feet tall, had to stoop to get through the low doorway. He was handed his son with ceremony and blessings. His previous marriage had ended sadly with the death of his first wife, Lucy Amirkhanian, leaving him with a son and a daughter. He was forty, and he and Shushan had one daughter together, Satenig, but this was their first boy.
Shushan was supposed to stay indoors for forty days to protect herself. The boy was christened after Setrag's father, Manoug Adoian, but his mother nicknamed him Vosdanig after her home town. From birth the boy had two names, one from each side of his family. He answered to both, as though he were two separate people, until he later adopted a third name.
His date of birth was subsequently lost; in the turmoil of events, all family and official records were destroyed. Gorky would later give his birth date as 1902, then as 1903 and 1904. His elder sisters and cousins maintained that he was born in 1902 or 1903, in October. Vartoosh, his younger sister, insisted it was 22 April 1904. The year 1902 is the most probable one, and corroborated by other boys of his age.
His mother was the daughter of a priest in the Apostolic Orthodox Church belonging to the early Eastern tradition. Sarkis Der Marderossian was head of Saint Nishan Monastery on the slope by Vosdan overlooking the lake. Her name meant `lily' and she was named after a martyred saint. She married into a farming family but her own background was very different. As an eighteen-year-old widow, after her husband's murder, Shushan had been forced to give up one daughter, Sima. Widows who remarried usually left their children with their own parents, but she had not been able to do this. She kept the younger girl from that earlier marriage, Akabi, now seven. The eldest, she had entrusted to an orphanage in the nearby city of Van in the tradition noted by H. F. B. Lynch, the scholar and traveller who wrote one of the finest accounts of the area at the turn of the century: `A widow, about to marry again, will bring her young child to the feet of the missionaries, beseeching them to bring it up and educate it in her place, as their monument for so she puts it before God.'
Setrag's son by his first wife lived with them. Young Hagop saw the baby put to sleep in a cradle on rockers or in a kelim strung up between ropes for a hammock. While Shushan breast-fed him, she sang and talked to him. Hagop was jealous of the intruder, and grew up into a rough, angry character, quick to push his young stepbrother around. Shushan had entered the marriage of convenience not only to support herself and her children, but also for physical protection. In the archetypal Armenian home, the mother, in-law ruled supreme and the bride was `an uncomplaining servant under the grandmother', waiting for permission to speak to her elders. Sometimes this did not come until the bride was in her sixties.
Setrag's elder sister, the widow Yeghus, called Dadig, Grandma, because of her age, was also above Shushan in the pecking order. She controlled the household stores and assigned Shushan work and chores. The unhappiness of a young woman in a loveless union went unremarked by elders who arranged them for convenience. Shushan conformed, `always wore a scarf on her head, was very quiet and never sang out loud. She was modest and hardly spoke,' her nephew Ado remembered. But in a crisis she could show her mettle.
His grandfather Manoug Adoian had three sons, named after Shadrak (Setrag), Mishag and Abednago, whom Nebuchadnezzar had cast into the fiery furnace, but had then seen `walking in the midst of the fire' in the Old Testament. A resourceful man, Grandfather Manoug had gone to labour in Greece to earn money for a team of ploughing oxen and some fields. Farming his fields, cutting poplar trees for lumber and growing most of the fruit and vegetables, he struggled to make a living out of land that was constantly being claimed by the rising waters of the lake. Setrag, his eldest, was born in 1863.
All families lived cheek by jowl in the small houses. Manoug's young cousin recalled the home:
The Adoians had one house. When you came in, to your right was Setrag with his family and to your left was Krikor [the family's name for Abednago]. In the centre was a large room with two windows where they received guests. In this room was the tonir, a very big oven where they made bread and cooked. Behind the house was a storeroom where all kinds of fruit and vegetables were kept.
Manoug grew up in a house by the lake with a dirt floor, unpainted walls, hardly any furniture. He wrote later, `The walls of the house were made of clay blocks, deprived of all detail, with a roof of rude timber.' The heart of the house was the hot red fire in the ground. Flames flickered out of the tonir, a clay pot sunk into the earth. Everything pivoted around the central fire and out of it the women pulled bread and food. Smoke went through a hole in the centre of the roof, and the ceiling was always black. Women sat around this fireplace cooking, or when it was empty and cold, covered it with a lid.
His father was busy with the huge, lumbering animals. Gorky's earliest memories were of oxen and bullocks, horses and sheep. They were stabled right next to the house and as important to him as the human members of his family. All around the house, shoulder-high mud walls enclosed the animals. They were not so much built as moulded from packed mud and straw, with smoothly rounded tops and a rough, dusty surface. The whole village was earth-coloured. The only bright shades were fresh green trees and grass, abundant wild flowers, and the mysterious lake changing from blue to fuchsia and dark purple.
Shushan woke first each day, and while the family slept, she sat by her favourite rose bush, where nightingales perched. Her son used to hear her sing softly as she brushed her hair. Quickly she tied it in a scarf, before the men saw her, and left for the fields and orchards. While she worked, the older women and girls cared for her children. Shushan kept seven horses and was happiest riding. The family had many animals to tend: three hundred sheep of the large-tailed variety used for buttermilk and cheese, twenty goats, two horses for transport. There were four water buffaloes for labour, four oxen for ploughing, three cows for cow milk and dairy products which the people of Van considered inferior to products of sheep milk. Setrag had a khan (warehouse) in Constantinople for import and export. The family owned forests in Van and cut lumber which they transported with their own large sailboat to Adeldjevas in exchange for wheat.
As the toddler grew up, he was drawn to the animals, the sound of baaing sheep and lowing oxen, their dusty odours, the smell of drying dung, as his father herded them around the yard. His mother fed and watered the sheep, and also milked them. Chickens pecked the ground. His father shouted `Ho-yez!' at the oxen; his mother repeated their names for her boy. But though he reacted to her voice, he did not echo her words, and Shushan grew anxious.
Young Manoug was often woken by bellowing oxen. Then he heard waves beating on the lake shore, and hoarse, shouting men. His father Setrag and his uncle Krikor yelled and fought daily, and the small house shook with their rage.
Setrag's two younger brothers had gone to America in 1896. They had laboured for long hours in dangerous conditions, living cooped up with other men in unsanitary boarding houses, but they did not get rich, and the youngest brother, Mishag, had died of tuberculosis. The thousand dollars in insurance money was the main cause of strife between the two remaining brothers.
Krikor bragged on his return, `America is a miracle come true. A dream! They have tall buildings like towers with clocks that chime every hour.' The open-mouthed villagers noticed that he was still wearing the same worn-out suit.
In 1904 a severe famine struck Van. Grain was scarce owing to bad crops. What little remained was stockpiled by the corrupt Ottoman administrators. Prices were pushed up, while thousands died of starvation. The Armenians were on the whole careful farmers who cultivated their land, growing cereals, tobacco, vegetables and fruit, in contrast with their nomadic neighbours, the Kurds, whose wandering herds stripped the land. There were a number of settled Kurdish villages, but the Armenians were extremely poor and their farming methods were still primitive, relying on wooden ploughs and threshers. The people were described as undernourished, even in normal times, by the excellent anthropologist, Yervant Lalayan from Tiflis:
They harvest the wheat fields by hand, crawling on their hands and knees. Men and women are slow to walk and weak, a sign of bad nourishment. Their heads are bowed, they lack enthusiasm and are slow to talk. After centuries of living in the sight of greedy eyes, they appear like beggars in rags and without shoes. Famine is frequent. It is typical of Vanetzi men to emigrate for years all over the world and work, while their families stay in Van.
Manoug grew up within a community of subject people. For three centuries, Armenians had endured the tyranny and corruption of the Ottoman Empire. Armenia had been divided, with the West falling under the Ottoman, and the East under the Persian Empire, until 1828 when Russia annexed Caucasian Armenia. With the final decay of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century the Christian Armenians became scapegoats for the Turkish pashas, always on the lookout to impose ever more crippling taxes in addition to customary exactions taken by Kurdish overlords. Manoug's cousin, Azad, remembered the hardships:
The Turkish government had tax gatherers who came to the village, very evil people who took away one tenth of the best crops. Their demands were hard on the villagers, who wept on those days.
Shushan escaped the noisy arguments in the cramped house by taking Manoug out to the fields. In the orchards of pears and apricots, she worked while his sisters played with him. She made toys for him out of bits of wood and cloth. He watched her take a cork and a few feathers, work them with her long fingers and suddenly, a bird was flying above his head on a string. Manoug loved to twirl the bird, thrilled with his mother. He told a friend years later in New York that her handiwork was as fine as the sculptures Picasso assembled out of found junk, and that it was his mother who first encouraged his love of art. He buried his face in her apron as she sang and told him tales: a shepherd played a trick and was imprisoned in a rock, spirits inhabited trees, giants fought and wrestled, then turned into mountains `See Mount Sipan over there?'
Even in his second year, Manoug still made no effort to speak. The children started calling him lalo, Van dialect for mute. Shushan made pilgrimages to churches; she took him to the sacred rocks, springs and trees where people flocked for healing. She was a strong believer and he later evoked a strong memory of going with her to a mysterious part of their own garden. Thirty-five metres from their house, the only needle tree in the village, just two metres tall, twisted and turned dry branches for thirty metres along the ground. They called it Khatchdzar, the Tree of the Cross. Ado, his cousin, recalled, `If a snake or spider bit someone, they would tear off a bit of clothing and fasten it to the branch. The Khatchdzar had hundreds of strips of cloth on it. There were ten or so apple and pear trees in that garden and in autumn, when their leaves covered the earth, snakes would come and make their homes.'
Every Wednesday and Friday people came to light candles on the huge rocks out of which the tree sprouted and wrap a strip of cloth around a branch with a prayer. Shushan lit candles and prayed fervently for her son to speak. His older sister Satenig remembered that men had once dug around the tree, and found `a huge Bible, ancient script on parchment, not Armenian, an older script. The writings were decorated with birds and flowers. The cover was gold and the edges of the pages were gilded.' Her uncle Krikor stopped the digging in case the Turkish officials found out and caused trouble.
For children the place was a magnet. Later, as an artist, Gorky was exercised by the potency of tree, rock and water. He appeared to be under the sway of the forms and spaces; he drew from nature as though it exerted a force over him. For him, landscape had the function to transform life. He came to write about the Tree of the Cross only after releasing locked-up memories in his late series of paintings entitled Garden in Sochi. Sacred trees still exist in Armenia and the Middle Eastern countries, by a church, shrine or spring. Rags of different colours flutter in the wind, fading into white, and the tatters of people's wishes cling like dead flowers on bare branches. Those forms would surface in Gorky's late drawings when he had plenty of reason to make wishes, but had lost the courage to form them.
* * *
As soon as Manoug could hold a pencil, he had started to draw. Akabi, his elder half-sister, remembered that he drew all the time. Shushan cajoled and bullied Manoug, but he refused to speak. In every other respect he seemed bright and lively and the women tried remedies: they pressed to his mouth the little finger of a child who spoke; they rubbed the key of St Nishan Church on his lips three times with prayers. Then Shushan resorted to shock tactics. One day she walked with him to the top of a crag and showed him that unless he spoke to her, she would throw herself off the edge. As she hurtled to the cliff's edge to jump off, the boy cried out:
It became his template for dealing with crisis in adult life.
All his relatives remembered her efforts. She did not give up, but asked the help of her nephew Kevork Kondakian, her sister-in-law, Dadig's son. Kevork was a fourteen-year-old boarder at Aghtamar seminary who came home at weekends. He played with Manoug and tried to encourage him to speak a few words, without results. One day in the middle of a game, Manoug picked up a long stick and threatened his cousin. Kevork grappled to take the stick away, but the little boy was fast, and nimbly darted up a ladder to the roof of the house. Over-excited, he whacked Kevork, who yelled out in pain and pretended to be badly hurt. This stopped Manoug instantly. Kevork howled, as he realised the effect he was having. The little boy peered at Kevork and made incoherent sounds.
Kevork cried, `You hurt me, Manoug! I'm crying now. Al gou lam. Manoug. Al gou lam.'
Manoug's face went scarlet, his eyes dilated and he repeated the words. `Al gou lam? Al gou lam?', crying and running downstairs.
The women rushed to him. Kevork had a healthy fear of Shushan: `a very, very good woman, but when she got angry nobody would stand in her way. I was frightened she would be angry with me and I ran away.'
Gorky would use an echo of his first words as a title, Argula, in later years, just when he found his own voice as a mature artist.
Akabi, the eldest sister, however, maintained that he stayed mute even longer. According to her, he did not speak until one day he had gone to swim in the lake and no one could find him. There was great commotion and his mother and aunts feared that he had drowned. They were crying when he returned home. He ran to his mother and said, `Yes, hos em. Here I am.'
All the stories associated his first break into speech with anguish, words ripped out of him. Manoug suppressed his reaction to the violent and brutal outbursts at home, between his uncle and father, by a total shutdown. He could keep his equanimity until a moment of crisis, when the outburst could throw him into violent rage and loss of control. It was to remain a characteristic of Gorky. He held the attention of others with his silence, keeping them on tenterhooks. In his artistic life too, people became impatient, he tantalised them with his skill, testing himself, and delayed his flowering until they lost patience.
Satenig, Manoug's sister, born in 1901, was his constant companion. She was finely wrought, with full dark eyes, but at the age of two or three she had caught smallpox and her family feared that she would die. They treated the toddler by burying her in hot mud up to her waist, believing that the heat would enter her bones and chase out the smallpox. She escaped from the sand bath, so they tied a heavy weight between her legs to keep her in place. The child survived, but pockmarked and bow-legged. She remained frail and melancholy, often taking to her bed later in her life. Only a year or two older than Manoug, she was closest to him during his infancy. She found it very difficult later to talk about her childhood, and sometimes broke down in conversation, but her recollections were vivid:
To fetch water we put the jugs on our heads and went to the spring. We went to the fields and we had a lot of gardens. The Turks used to come there to sit. It was a lovely place. Full of pear trees. It was on a high slope and looked down onto the lake of Van. We could see Vosdan from our door.
Shushan's birthplace was within their view. All the children later talked with longing of their beautiful village in its magnificent setting. Small children roamed freely from house to house in the village. Satenig's recollections of her brother were mostly set outdoors.
We had an orchard which was just near the lake and I was only eight years old. Gorky and I used to go to the slope and slide down it to swim in the lake. He found a fish. A dead one. It often happened because we had a lot of fish. The lake had thrown it up and brought it onto the sand. He put it on the sand and started to draw the shape of the fish. Then he drew it again and then again and again. The same fish on the sand. He said, `I can also draw our pear tree.' It was a pear tree, right there on the slope. It had three branches. He drew it exactly and the fish under it. He was about five years old.
In this anecdote his elder sister captured what Gorky achieved in his late and freest works when he dared to reach back to his childhood. He could draw a fish and a pear tree together without contradiction. As an artist he would work to perfect his draughtsmanship. Even aged five, he was not satisfied with the first fish he drew. He went on looking and drawing, again and again. The lake shore was their favourite playground where small children could also feel frightened. She recalled:
Gorky and I were little and we had gone down from our orchard right near Van Lake to swim. We took off our clothes and put them there on the sand. Out of the water a red snake came and hid in Gorky's clothes. I remember this from my fright. We got out of the water. Gorky pulled his clothes and the snake jumped out and slipped into the water. We got home and told our mother.
`Oh, did you see the snake's head? Was there something shiny on its head?' We said, yes. `That snake doesn't bite people. You should have caught it. That was a diamond jewel on its head.'
Local lore was full of poetic images which Shushan passed on to her children. Nothing should be taken at face value, because it could be a disguise for the supernatural. She taught her children to identify nature and find magical meanings even in potential dangers.
In one of the key myths Manoug was taught, a great hero, Vahakn, is born out of an apricot-coloured sea surrounded by reeds, a full-grown boy with golden beard and two suns for his eyes. He is a protector of the people, a slayer of dragons and snakes, a mythical sun god and Dionysian divinity. A fragment of a poem from the ninth century BC locates the myth by Lake Van; and Manoug's name was also associated with the myth. It means child, and was sometimes prefaced with Alek (`good') or eghek (`reed')." He learned that his name and the lake had a place in the central creation myth. At sunset the lake flared up in a sheet of fire; apricot and blue strands of cloud criss-crossed the sky; the reeds stood out by the water's edge, black and rigid.
Meet the Author
Nouritza Matossian is a biographer and music critic. She is the author of an acclaimed biography of composer Iannis Xenakis and a contributor on music and the arts to The Independent, The Economist, and The Observer.
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