Magazine article The Spectator

'If He Couldn't Paint, He Couldn't Live'

Magazine article The Spectator

'If He Couldn't Paint, He Couldn't Live'

Article excerpt

Mougouch Fielding opens the door to me looking a little gaunt but as beautiful as ever, though I have not seen her for a couple of years. She is in her late eighties, but no less stylish now than when we knew her as children; we were mesmerised by her chic, her gravelly voice with its hint of an American accent, her sense of fun and the faint whiff of excitement that enveloped her. When she was about 17, my father, then working in China, helped her ashore from a capsized sailing dinghy and fell in love with her on the spot. She was then Agnes Magruder, daughter of a captain in the American Navy stationed off Shanghai, and her youthful romance with my father evolved into a lifelong friendship.

It was the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky who named her 'Mougouch', an Armenian term of endearment, and she has been Mougouch to all and sundry ever since.

We talk in her elegant, light-filled drawingroom, she sitting on a long sofa brightened by colourful throws and cushions, the walls around her hung with paintings, many by old friends. She slowly rolls the first of several cigarettes as she tells me about Gorky and the start of their life together. 'We were both very innocent and unsophisticated. When I first visited him in his studio he invited me to sit with him on the sofa, but just sat there saying nothing. Long minutes passed in total silence until I summoned all my meagre experience and said, "I think you're supposed to entertain me, young man!" It just hadn't occurred to him.' It was not long after that he asked her to cook him breakfast, and she realised it was 'the thin end of the wedge'. They were married within the year, en route home from San Francisco, where his first solo exhibition was held.

Mougouch was born in 1921 into an old Washington family; she remembers as a child rolling Easter eggs down the lawn of the White House. By the age of 19, when she met Gorky in New York, she had travelled halfway round the world, become a communist and decided to study art. It was an attraction of opposites: her optimism and confidence contrasted strongly with Gorky's propensity to melancholy, the legacy of his tormented youth in Armenia during the genocide, where he watched his mother die of starvation in his arms.

He escaped with his younger sister to America in 1920, and by 1941, when he met Mougouch, he had established himself as a central figure in American art's shift towards abstraction.

Having adopted the Russian name Arshile Gorky and forged a new narrative of his life, he felt a deep ambivalence towards his Armenian roots. 'He had once been greeted by an American pastor with the words "Ah, one of the starving Armenians" and he was keen to distance himself from that, ' Mougouch told me. 'He was close to his sister Vartoosh, but never left me alone with her, even for five minutes - he didn't want me to hear her stories. And he never admitted that his father was still alive and working in a foundry in Rhode Island; he'd told me that he had simply disappeared years before in Armenia.

When I discovered a local Armenian grocer and the owner learnt I was married to Gorky he was very impressed and told me all about Gorky's family, its ancient lineage, its importance in the Armenian Church, etc.

But Gorky was furious, denied that the man knew anything about him or his family, and said I must never visit him again. …

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