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Article excerpt

Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective

Tate Modern, London SE1

He was a bridge not only between surrealism and abstract expressionism, old Europe and a new American culture, but also between a vanished eastern world and the west. Like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under a series of heteronyms, Arshile Gorky's tragic past led him to reinvent himself according to the poet's dictum that: "Life is whatever we conceive it to be." Indeed, there are few painters for whom autobiography and artistic output are so intimately linked.

His adoption of the pseudonym "Gorky" was an attempt to link himself to his celebrated contemporary Maxim Gorky, and to disguise his Armenian origins. He was born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in 1904 in a rural part of what was then the Turkish Ottoman empire. An attack on the city of Van by the Turks in 1915' had prompted virtually the whole of the population of western Armenia to walk a hundred miles to the east, in a desperate evacuation over the mountains.

Gorky's father had already left in 1908 to work in Rhode Island, leaving mother and children behind (until the money could be raised for their passage). During the winter of 1919, as the Russian civil war raged, Gorky's mother died of starvation before he and his sister, Vartoosh, finally began the long journey to join his father in New York. This tragedy was to colour Gorky's relationship to his art. Issues of loss, nostalgia and belonging haunt these edgy, intense paintings.

Studying works in the museums of Boston and New York in the 1920s, Gorky became passionate about contemporary art. His early paintings show him somewhat overwhelmed by the painterly language of his heroes Picasso and Cezanne, to the extent that his self-portrait and still lifes of 1928 might actually have been done by the latter. …