Tuesday, 13 April 2010


One of the Tate Modern's major spring exhibitions is a retrospective of the modernist Armenian-American painter Ashile Gorky. The show's ubiquitous tube advertising features a striking two-dimensional double portrait of the artist and his mother in delicate, flat, muted pastel tones. The image appeared somehow haunting, even under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the Piccadilly line. I was eager to get to the Tate one sunny Saturday to view the work in the flesh.

The story behind Gorky's mysterious painting made the work all the more poignant. The piece was based on a 1912 photograph the artist rediscovered at his father's American house, many years after witnessing his mother's death from starvation during the 1915 Turkish Armenian massacres. Gorky reworked the painting over many years, beginning a parallel second version in 1929.

This seemed to me a beautiful example of the emotive power of artistic expression and the creative process towards healing. It also illustrated the importance of allowing personal tragedy to inform an artist's output, something done so effectively by the likes of Tracey Emin and Frida Khalo. This emotional expression infuses a work with far richer and more evocative layers of meaning than that of works concerned purely with aesthetics. Hence, the sterotype of the tortured, long-suffering artist.

The Tate's Gorky show featured more light-hearted works such as the whimsical Portrait of Myself and My Imaginary Wife (above). Again, Gorky uses flat, bold blocks of colour in a messy, unfinished style to eke out an impression of himself with some mysterious future love. Is the artist's evasive downward gaze symbolic of his fears of troubled horizons ahead, or merely expressing a hope that love will repair the damage caused by his turbulent past? I like the fantasy element of the envisioning of an imaginary wife - it seems such a feminine, almost adolescent subject to paint. Something which makes Ashile Gorky all the more charming and endearing a character.
All images courtesy of the interweb

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