Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Garden in Sochi

The Tate's impressive and moving new Arshile Gorky retrospective includes a room entitled 'Landscape', with paintings like One Year the Milkweed and Cornfield of Health (both 1944).  AndrĂ© Breton said of these works (for which he provided some of the titles) that they reveal the rhythm of life through Gorky's way of decoding nature.  Gorky had begun working in the Connecticut and Virginia countryside in the early 1940s, improvising drawings and developing his abstract paintings, like the Tate's own Waterfall (1943).  The exhibition guide says of these paintings that they 'combine the immediate with buried memories of childhood.'  I think it is these buried memories (rather than our knowledge of Gorky's suicide in 1948) that give the paintings in the exhibition such poignancy - whether indirectly in paintings like One Year the Milkweed or directly in The Artist and His Mother, that remarkable memorial to his mother who had fled with the rest of the family from the pograms in Armenian Turkey only to starve to death in Russia in 1919.

Earlier in the exhibition there is a room devoted to the Garden in Sochi series.  This is based on Gorky's memories of childhood, specifically his father's orchard at Khorkom.  He said in 1942 that "there was a ground constantly in shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nests.  There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches of moss placed here and their like fallen clouds."  This description (which reminds me of Bruno Schulz) provides an obvious starting point for a biomorphic composition in the style of Arp or MirĂ³, which is what the Garden in Sochi works resemble.  However, William Feaver quotes another more extravagant explanation for these paintings, where Gorky relates them to The Garden of Wish Fulfillment:  "Often I had seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependable breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock. Above all this stood an enormous tree all bleached under the sun the rain the cold and deprived of leaves. This was the Holy Tree. I myself did not know that this tree was holy but I had witnessed many people whoever did pass by that would voluntarily strip off their clothes and attach this to the tree."

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