MOTHER'S BOY; the Armenian-Born Arshile Gorky Was Feted as the Father of American Abstract Expressionism -- but His Art Is Compelling Only When He Draws on the Tragic History of His Native Land; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

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Byline: Brian Sewell

ARSHILE GORKY Tate Modern, SE1

ARMENIA, the oldest of Christian countries, was once a land where art and architecture flourished. It was, like Britain, a far outpost of the Roman Empire, but, unlike this country, did not sink into a dark age with that empire's retrenchment, division and fall. In what is now north-eastern Turkey and beyond its borders there, are the remains of great churches and monasteries, architectural marvels, mathematically ingenious, the masonry crisp cut. In some, the paintings that decorated their walls still survive, despite the attempts of Muslims to wreck and ravage them for their too evident human imagery; their ghosts find definition in more resistant sculptural reliefs and, on a smaller scale, in manuscripts and miniatures.

Absorbed into the Ottoman Empire by the westward march of the Turks, Armenia lost her borders and her nationality, but the heritage of a great culture, laid down more than a thousand years before, established patterns that were still current late in the 19th century. It was to these that any boy with burgeoning talent as an artist was compelled to turn for his education -- for there were no art schools -- to the painted images and gingerbread sculpture of the churches that were so much part of his daily life. Of these, Arshile Gorky was one -- a boy with a passionate urge to draw.

Now perceived to be the last Surrealist and the first American Abstract Expressionist, Gorky was born in Armenia in 1904, we think, in a village near the city of Van. Many of the churches to which he had access were destroyed during the course of the last century; Armenians had long been persecuted, their response to pogrom so pacific that in 1915 the Turks contemptuously embarked on a policy of genocide so total that none survived -- even now the wary traveller from the west does not utter the word Armenian.

A quarter of a century ago, seven ruined churches were rotting in the hills near Van; constantly quarried for hearthstones and doorsteps, they may by now be utterly destroyed but, by the grace of God, the church of the Holy Cross still stands on the deserted island of Akhtamar in the great Lake of Van, with substantial examples of wall paintings and carvings of which Gorky was aware. His letters demonstrate how powerful were his recollections of childhood, and how much being an Armenian meant to him -- ''I respond to modern life as an Armenian from Van,'' he wrote from exile in America. ''Man cannot escape the sensibility of his time...'' He was, indeed, in thrall to it.

The traditional images of Armenian art are frontal and hieratic. In painting the proportions are elongated, but in sculpture they are stunted; faces in both are oval, the eyes large, unfocused and deep-socketed; what sense of volume there may be is implied by line and the sculpture is in low relief. These were the formulae that little Gorky carried with him when, with his mother and sister, he fled in 1915 into the Russian borderland to the north-east; there, in 1919, in his arms, his mother died of starvation and grief, and his long journey to America began. He was fortunate; chance could so easily have sent him on the genocidal marches that wiped out more than a million Armenians when the Turks drove them south to die either en route or in the desert near Aleppo. The appalling events that were in some measure the experience of all Armenians in Turkey during and after the Great War formed Gorky's mind, burdening him with melancholy that was to overwhelm him.

He escaped to America in 1920, hoping to join his father who had emigrated there years earlier to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. The reconciliation failed. Living in Boston, Gorky developed a museum habit -- western cultures absorbed at random. Moving to New York in 1925, he joined the Grand Central School of Art as a student -- perhaps still only 21 -- but swiftly graduated to the status of monitor-teacher (I suspect the school was less grand than its name suggests) and remained there until 1931. …