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Book Forum: Biography   |    
From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:2004-a-2006.
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

By Matthew Spender. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 417$35.00.

With great pleasure I report that this book, in spite of some discouraging and condescending reviews by critics, is what might be called a "good read," ideal as a Christmas or any other gift, and of great interest to psychiatrists who are interested in complex psychodynamics, artistic creativity, or the history of art in general. Although at times it is a bit gossipy, I found the book to be quite enjoyable; in addition, I learned a lot from it about how abstract expressionists think and about that peculiar genius Arshile Gorky in particular. He was one of the more obscure twentieth-century painters, who, when he arrived in the United States, created an incredible false persona, becoming a Nietzschean man of many masks. He pretended a kinship to the Russian writer Maxim Gorky and claimed he studied in Paris and had a degree in engineering from Brown University, among other fictions.

Arshile Gorky was born in poverty as Vosdanig Adoian around 1903 in the Armenian town of Khorkom, near Van City in Ottoman Turkey, during a period of cruel Turkish persecution of the Armenians that eventually ended in the horrible slaughter of the Armenian people that shocked the civilized world. Gorky’s life story immediately brings to mind Deutsch’s concept of the "as-if" personality (1), but Gorky disintegrated into fragmentation, psychotic depression, and suicide at the end of his life. There was, however, one significant difference between Gorky and the patient with the type of borderline or narcissistic personality disorder one commonly sees in clinical practice: Gorky was an authentic genius. He remained unassimilated, intransigent, chauvinistic toward women, and absurdly proud and arrogant. After the development of rectal cancer necessitating a colostomy, he deteriorated into a life of violence, paranoia, and overt borderline impulse disorder. No better example could be found of my description (2) of how an artist’s neurotic, borderline, or psychotic psychopathology hampers the artist’s creativity throughout life and wrecks any chance for finding the appropriate mirroring and audience that artists need to stabilize a sense of self and stimulate the full potential of their creative talents.

In Gorky’s case, as he found himself increasingly isolated, he regressed to the search for an archaic "selfobject," which he finally found in an 18-year-old girl named Agnes Magruder, the rebellious daughter of a military officer. Gorky and Agnes, whom he called Mougouch, produced two daughters, and the older one is married to the author of this book.

Throughout his life, Gorky made up many conflicting stories, and it is almost impossible to produce an accurate biography, but Spender has come up with at least a plausible history of this remarkable man, who hanged himself at the age of 44.

Trying to understand the psychodynamics of Arshile Gorky and trying to decipher his paintings, which seem to incorporate many of his memories from Armenia as well as other more transcendent themes, would constitute a lifetime of study. One should not lose sight of the fact that the genius of Gorky brought him as an autodidact from the slaughter in Armenia to the forefront of twentieth-century art even though he was trapped in a severely neurotic set of chains. He was one of the founding abstract expressionist painters in the United States.

Since the use of striking emotional colors often characterized his paintings, the book would have benefited greatly from color reproductions of Gorky’s work. It contains many interesting illustrations and photographs but nothing in color. In the preface, Spender tells us that his ideal readers "are themselves artists," so he includes "what interests them: technique, money, and the tension between creativity and the distraction of life swirling around it" (p. xxiii). This book also contains nice discussions of some of Gorky’s artworks, which will probably not satisfy sophisticated art critics but are certainly of great interest to the general educated reader.

The 1915 mass murder of the Armenians left an indelible mark on Gorky. He suffered through the hardships that characterized that situation, as well as the desertion of his father and the death of his mother from what was probably depression and anorexia after they had found shelter in Russia. The indifference and arrogant misunderstandings of the art critics who viewed Gorky’s work during his lifetime, the incineration that he accidentally or nonaccidentally caused of his own studio, which destroyed a number of his significant paintings, and the narcissistic isolation in which he lived throughout his life were all factors leading to his self-destruction.

The reader should pay careful attention to the Gorky "family tree" that is presented on page xvii, because most Americans will have difficulty in following and remembering the numerous unfamiliar Armenian names mentioned by the author; one sometimes looses track of them, necessitating a review of the family tree. As an example of the Armenian attitude toward artists, we are told that at one time when Gorky did not have enough money to pay a small bill he had run up at the Armenian club, "he gave the owner a drawing instead. To show how much he despised art, the man tore it up in front of Gorky’s eyes" (p. 76).

Gorky’s mother and father did not like each other (p. 10), and the desperate situation of the Armenians at the time of Gorky’s childhood is eloquently described. He did not utter a word before he was 5 years old. We are told that in spite of all this misery, however, Gorky’s sisters "remembered his precocity in producing works of art" and "his energy and his capacity to lead" (p. 32), even as a child. As an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island in 1920, "Gorky assumed the pose of the most flamboyant artist he could imagine" (p. 59). We can only speculate, as Spender does (p. 60), why he chose the pseudonym Arshile Gorky, although subsequently he certainly pretended that he was indeed a relative of the novelist Maxim Gorky. He had a wild, poetic imagination, and his early work, even as reproduced in the simple black and white illustrations in the present book, is very impressive indeed, although some of it is quite imitative.

Spender quotes Gorky as saying, "Art is not in New York, you see; art is in you." The true artist, Gorky believed, aims for " ‘the universal idea of art’ which exists below the surface of the real" (p. 69), a theme consistent with my observations (2). So Gorky complained, "Too many American artists paint portraits that are portraits of a New Yorker, but not of the human being" (p. 69). "See the excitement of the brush," said Gorky to a pupil who was watching him working, "as if the brush in his hand possessed a life of its own" (p. 95).

At one point Gorky published a poem by someone else, claiming that he wrote it; another time he prepared a portfolio allegedly of his own work in which he copied work by Picasso in order to obtain a commission. His idea of a good wife or female companion was similar to Proust’s attitude toward Albertine: she "was supposed to stay quietly in the bedroom and pretend she wasn’t there" (p. 79) and to obey him and serve him as he wished, like a dumb horse pulling a cart. Needless to say, the women Gorky encountered did not cooperate very well with this attitude until he was lucky enough to meet the devoted Mougouch, a very unusual person. Mougouch did not even know that her husband had been an Armenian called Vosdanig Adoian, and "she was at a loss to explain why she had never asked him for more accurate information about his past" (p. 317). But even she ran out of patience with him as he fragmented after his colostomy.

Gorky was very insecure and sometimes accused his colleagues of stealing his ideas; for example, he had an ambivalent relationship with the much more famous artist Willem de Kooning, fuming as he observed the cleverness of de Kooning and his wife in promoting himself, something Gorky could never do. He always had to be a teacher and assumed authority on all subjects to the point where he really sounded ridiculous, but he had absolute integrity as an artist. Colleagues could not believe that Gorky was serious when he insisted that "abstract art had the emotional power of a Renaissance work of art" (p. 111). His work also portrayed vivid abstractions in violent and magnificent color, which viewers either immediately responded to or turned away from in confusion. Because of his integrity and devotion to art, Gorky was able to create a small circle of interested and supportive friends who put up with his unpleasant personality traits to a remarkable extent and often gave him a place to live and food to eat. He believed that "the truth and the beauty of a work lay somewhere in between what lay on the canvas and the feelings which had gripped the artist while at work" (p. 160). If one is unable to grasp this, then one is unable to appreciate Gorky’s art, in which the artist "acts upon his material, takes it apart, reassembles and re-creates it" (p. 166). He suffered through the Great Depression in the United States of the early 1930s, and, as the Depression lifted, some of his major public work was destroyed by Communist-hating individuals who were convinced that abstract artists were all Communists. (The Russian pseudonym Arshile Gorky did not help either!)

Spender explains, "Towards the end of the 30’s, he felt a terrible isolation which no amount of subsequent friendliness on the part of the surrealists or anyone else could eradicate" (p. 178). Although he was an extremely difficult man to live with (especially for a woman), he had an intense desire for a permanent relationship. "He had no talent for meeting people and persuading them to take an interest in his work" (p. 225). His depressions were at their worst when he was unable to paint. Painting for Gorky functioned as a "selfobject" and enabled him to maintain some form of self-cohesion, as Kohut (3) has described this phenomenon.

The 7 months from April to November 1944 produced "the most free work of his career, the closest in spirit to the abstract expressionist idea of spontaneous creation on canvas, though there was nothing unpremeditated in the way Gorky worked" (p. 278). An excellent description of Gorky’s thinking and creating was written by Breton (paraphrased on page 287); Breton views Gorky as an instinctually natural painter whose mind functioned by "analogy" and who needed to draw from nature. We do not know why he saved so little of his work from the fire in his studio in 1946; a couple of months after that he was operated on for cancer of the rectum and given a colostomy. He refused to let anyone help him in cleaning the colostomy, resenting all the time and bother this required. Waves of rage overtook him, and he began increasingly to resemble a classical case of borderline personality disorder.

In spite of all his psychopathology and physical pathology, during the first 10 months of 1947 Gorky completed roughly 25 major paintings, including "a large proportion of the work which is valued today, and without these canvasses his reputation might easily have languished for lack of a major body of work to sustain it. It was a last, crushing effort of will" (p. 324). He became increasingly obsessed by the need to dominate his bodily functions and viewed the colostomy as an "attack upon himself from within" (p. 327). He withdrew into noncommunicativeness, depression, and paranoia, although I gather there was no recurrence of the cancer itself. Near the end, he began giving away his beautiful collection of artist’s materials, but no one, including psychiatrists who knew him socially, seems to have realized what that meant. Finally, "He descended from a reluctance to engage in any kind of physical contact to a psychological rejection of his wife’s presence, a rejection connected with an increasingly tortured relationship with his own body" (p. 353). He ended "like a man with no control over his own emotions" (p. 353).

One either can admire Gorky’s abstract expressionist paintings or not, but what has an undoubtedly deep and haunting effect are the photographs and the paintings he made of himself and his mother, a theme which seemed to haunt him all his life. Spender brings this out beautifully, even indicating how a drawing of his mother’s face from memory is similar to a photograph of his wife’s face. Gorky believed that human consciousness arose

when man took power from the gods and fashioned the gods in his own image. Gorky had often talked…about the decline of the sacred in art, which he thought could be traced in paintings from the Renaissance onward. The patron who was initially present in the corner of the composition as a humble suppliant gradually came forward to assume the center of the stage, supplanting even God. "Now it seems we have smashed the image in one blow annihilating God & man—Now who is to say—shall we fashion a new god or a new man or will the next step be utterly different—In crying for a new myth are we crying for the past, or the future?" (p. 356)

Deutsch H: Some forms of emotional disturbances and their relationship to schizophrenia, in Neuroses and Character Types. New York, International Universities Press, 1965, pp 262–281
 
Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Kohut H: The Restoration of the Self. New York, International Universities Press, 1977
 
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References

Deutsch H: Some forms of emotional disturbances and their relationship to schizophrenia, in Neuroses and Character Types. New York, International Universities Press, 1965, pp 262–281
 
Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Kohut H: The Restoration of the Self. New York, International Universities Press, 1977
 
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