History of Art

Arshile Gorky:
Fruition Through Complexity
By Nouneh Sarkissian 

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‘I see my life as an artist, as having gone through three main experiences. The first is simplicity, the time of purity. The next is a time of confusion caused from the ordeal of the search for truth. The last is mastering extreme complexity. The last is fruition.’ – Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky was born in 1904 to Shushanik and Sedrak Adoyan, in a little Armenian village of Khorkom near the city of Van, in the Ottoman Empire. Born as Vosdanig Adoyan, a name he later thought unsuitable. He changed it to Arshile Gorky, which to him sounded more artistic. Besides, gorky is the Russian word for ‘bitter’, a word defining his emotions and state of mind at that period.

In early childhood Gorky’s life was idyllic under the protection of his mother. He was a boy of artistic abilities with an attentive and watchful mind, grasping every detail around him, such as the relief on the wall of the monastery, the miniature illustration in the Gospel of the village church, the butter churn in the kitchen, the pattern on his mother’s apron. The details appeared as shapeless formations and coloured patches much later in his works.
The peaceful family life in Khorkom was interrupted in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide when the severe persecution of Armenians by the Young Turks’ Government in the Ottoman Empire forced Gorky together with his mother and sister to move to Yerevan, where after years of hardship his mother died of starvation in his arms. Gorky was only fifteen.

In 1920 Gorky and his sister arrived in the United States of America. Gorky entered the Rhode Island School of Design. Later he continued his studies at the Grand Central School of Art.
In the eyes of his contemporaries he was a strange foreigner with a funny accent, bold and authentic looks, a strong voice, exemplified by his singing of harmonious Armenian melodies and unconventional dancing. He kept his studio impeccably clean and tidy with all the brushes washed and the pencils always sharpened. This was how he attracted many bohemians and soon was accepted in the group of artists like John Graham, Max Ernst, Breton, Miro, Duchamp and by the critics Harold Rosenberg and Julien Levy. Years later he had his followers in the group;  de Kooning, Pollock, Matta and Rothko.

As all great artists, Gorky went through phases. ‘I was with Cezanne for a long time…’ he said once. He was devoted to Ingres and Uccello and finally Picasso. Copying works of these artists matured his colour palette and drawing skills.

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After years of hard work, Gorky found his signature style; a symphony of amazing biomorphic shapes. It was a new way of expression. Images were born in the artist’s subconscious, then after being profoundly meditated upon by the artist, they were applied on paper or canvas in oil, ink or crayons.
The ‘archetypes’, as per Carl Jung’s term, images and motifs from the unconscious were emerging into Gorky’s conscious mind.  In an amazing drawing and painting technique, masterpieces such as ‘Water of the Flowery Mill’, (1944), ‘How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life’, (1944), ‘The Plough and the Song’ (1947), ‘Agony’ (1947) have been created.
Gorky’s art illuminates light and a limitless sensation of beauty and radiance. His pieces are very sensual and sexual, puzzling the viewer. One can’t just pass by Gorky’s works, as they make the viewer stop and solve the puzzle.

In 1945 Gorky already had his unique style. He was, albeit, unaware that his work was going to start a new movement in American Art; Abstract Expressionism.
Gorky was tall and handsome. He had an open face with thick dark moustache and deep large sad eyes. He sometimes wore a black velour hat pulled low over the eyes and a black overcoat tight under his chin.

His appearance was dramatic and one of his friends recollected a scene in a museum, when he appeared beneath one of the spotlights. A woman crossed herself, then apologised. ‘For a moment,’ she said, ‘I thought you were Jesus Christ.’ ‘Madam,’ Gorky said, ‘I am Arshile Gorky.’ That was how he confessed his total devotion to art. Speaking as, he thought, he was not less than Jesus Christ in his art. Gorky, indeed, was getting ready to sacrifice himself to Art.

arshile gorkyIn 1946, twenty-seven of his paintings, all the valuable work of recent years, were destroyed by a fire in his studio in Sherman, Connecticut. Gorky overcame this and started to work with redoubled energy.
However this unfortunate effect had its consequences as his fate continued to fail him: Gorky was diagnosed with cancer. This was followed by a car accident, which paralysed his neck and painting arm. Gorky’s wife Agnes Magruder who was having an affair with Robert Matta, left him taking their two daughters Maro and Natasha.
In 1948, at the age of 44, Gorky hanged himself in their barn in Connecticut. He wrote on the wall ‘Goodbye, my Beloveds.’
Gorky’s works are masterpieces where the intertwined lines and colour patches create the mysticism of abstraction and an enigmatic aura. The artist had reached the most important level of aesthetics where he was able to transfer his emotions from the depth of his soul onto a canvas.

There are no lies or pretence in Gorky’s work. His paintings and drawings are real, sincere and unprotected, like a knobbed pile of naked nerves. Gorky made visible what was invisible through his purity and maturity, as well as his complexity and fruition, through his Art.

Gorky’s work is currently being exhibited as part of  Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy until January 2nd 2017


Ida Kar wrote to her husband, Victor Musgrave "I am becoming a legend". This self-acknowledgement had originated from the attentive and respectful attention her exhibition had received from the Armenian government in 1959. In London, in March 2011 - with the opening of a retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - Ida Kar has indeed become a legend in the history of photography.

She made a name for herself in March 1960 after her exhibition of portraits of celebrated English, French and Soviet writers and artists at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. This exhibition was unique - she was the first female photographer to have a full-scale show at a famous London gallery. She took photography from being simply a form of documenting to the level of fine art. The show was a huge success. The Victoria and Albert Museum purchased 16 of Ida's large black-and-white photo portraits, and the British media lauded her. Her success was not only due to her inherent skill but also her relentless energy and high artistic values. Ida had a knack for attracting people with her conversational skills, exotic charm, and talent for cooking and entertaining.

Ida Kar was born in Tambov, Russia in 1908 to Melkon and Anahid Karamian. Ida's father was an intellectual who spoke fluent Armenian. Russian, French, English, Arabic and Farsi. He took his family from Russia to Alexandria in Egypt when Ida was 13 years old. She continued her education at the Lycee Francais in Alexandria, and in 1928, with her father's encouragement and support, Ida traveled to Paris to pursue studies in medicine. Once in Paris, however, Ida spent her money on singing and violin lessons. Through her friend and lover, a German surrealist painter and photographer named Heinrich Heidersberger, Ida met many influential people such as Yves Tanguy, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray and Suzanne Devechaux-Dumesnil, who later became the wife of Samuel Beckett. Her visits to galleries and cinemas stimulated her interests in photography and her frequent attendance at Parisian parties developed in her a sophisticated taste of the Western lifestyle.

mw1After four years in Paris, Ida returned to Alexandria and started to work as an assistant at a photography studio. In 1945, she married Victor Musgrave and moved to London, where she and Victor ran Gallery One in Soho and led a bohemian lifestyle, which inspired her approach to portrait photography. Each of Ida's photographic portraits is an interpretation of the character of the sitter that, according to contemporaries, was being captured by Ida conversing with the sitters and creating a certain atmosphere for them. Most of the portraits she created include a matching background which interprets the inner world and the life story of the sitter. Ida's every photograph is a story without words.

If Ida were alive today, looking at her own perfectly organized retrospective show at the National Portrait Gallery, she would have witnessed herself truly becoming a legend.




The Before and After in the Works of Sarkis Hamalbashian
By Nouneh Sarkissian

Armenian International Magazine, December 1994

Hamalbashian was born in Gumri. His early paintings are peaceful and quiet. They are monochromatic with no striking contrasts at all. And each work possesses its own beautiful narrative.

One example of his idyllic creations depicts a woman carrying a musical instrument, a naked boy and a strange pinkish-grey animal. Another woman is seen kneeling and holding a washing bowl. The floor and the back wall are painted roughly in blue-grey, with patches of yellow, blue and a touch of pink. Under the layers of watercolour, gouache and pastel, one can see the repeated pencil strokes- betraying the rough finish. These and Sarkis’ other pre-earthquake works emanate a sense of harmony.

After the 1988 devastating earthquake in Gumri and the extensive destruction of his home town, Hamalbashian’s work underwent dramatic changes. The artist’s move to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, coincided with the transformation of the artist’s outlook and is reflected in the mode and colours of his further work.

Just as Jung insisted that many artists, philosophers and even scientists owe some of their best ideas to inspirations that appear suddenly from the subconscious, a volcano of repressed emotions of enormous magnitude was unleashed inside Hamalbashian, with the possible trauma caused by the earthquake.

One wonders about Freud’s conviction that the subconscious, that is to say the repressed, offers no resistance whatever to the efforts of treatment and is discharged through ‘real action’. What was repressed in Hamalbashian that burst into ‘real action’ after the earthquake? What is, for example, the red bull, one of the prominent elements in Hamalbashian’s post-disaster work?

On the upper right corner of the oil painting entitled ‘Meat Market’, in an area framed in black, a building is painted in all its architectural details. A red bull is hanging from a hook. Its jaws are wide open, its tail erect, the eyes seemingly furious and the feet hang meaninglessly in the air. Below, there are white bulls in a truck. And further down, there are three frames. In one of them, it’s possible to detect the distorted figure of a big man standing close to something red, possibly flesh. In the two other white framed areas, bodies of dead lambs hang. The narrative follows from the slaughter house, painted like an architectural layout, to the deep yellow carcasses of the lamb. This theme is repeated in the artist’s other paintings. The reason for painting the same object for so many times goes beyond the compulsion for repetition. In Hamalbashian’s case the repetition couldn’t be an indication of a ‘masochistic excitement’, as some scholars would have it. Rather, the process of repeating the same theme probably brings the author closer to the unconsciously desirable end of the repression, or as Freud would call it, the ‘pleasure principle’ – the condition of being discharged while repeating the same expression of the repressing object – in this special case the red bull and the dead lambs, probably associated with the innocent victims of the earthquake.

In February 1992 I saw Hamalbashian’s one-man show at the New Academy Gallery in London. The exhibition was distinctly divided into two parts – the soft and harmonious pre-disaster paintings and the post-disaster ones – wild and outrageous. The striking contrasts both in colours and the plot, determined the neurotic signals from the pictures. A friend of mine couldn’t stand the dominating screaming reds and yellows and the ‘poisonous’ collaboration of the colour palette and walked out of the Gallery. Nothing seemed completed on the canvases. Different plots were seemingly patched to each other. No narrative line, the peace of his early work had turned into chaos. And this process did not happen gradually but abruptly – like an earthquake. However, earthquake scenes are not directly found in Hamalbashian’s works. There’s nothing that recalls ruins or human bodies. The terror of nature has been recalled in the artist’s work indirectly only.

There’s another amazing peculiarity in Hamalbashian ‘s post-disaster work: it’s the imaging of numerals and mathematical equations scattered in different areas of canvases, although mathematics does not have the slightest connection with the plot. There are paintings where Hamalbashian has covered rather large areas with mystically ordered numerals, drawn one after the other, line after line. As to why numerals appear in his recent work, the artist says, ‘That’s right. They do appear. They come. I don’t know why.’

Hamalbashian remembered that years ago his mathematics teacher disliked him for the simple reason that he loved paints more than numerals. Due to my analysis this caused a reflex of opposition and obstinacy in the teenager, and although mathematics kept submerging as a compulsory information into his subconscious, it finally found its out bursting expression in his post-earthquake work.

Somewhere between Hamalbashian’s eccentric creations and the deadly disaster, lies evidence of Freud’s so-called ‘pleasure principle’. It lies in the form of hanging bulls and random formation of numbers and equations, in other words - it’s one man’s attempt to comprehend the trauma, to connect the past and present in his way and to interpret the universe with only a paint brush and a blank white canvas.

‘Each completed work is a victory for me,’ said Hamalbashian.