1904 – 1948
9 May – 22 September 2019
Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice
I – PORTRAITS AND FIGURES
Amongst Gorky’s earliest influences was the work of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), as can be detected in a number of works dating from the 1920s. By the 1930s he had made the logical progression from Cézanne to Picasso (1881-1973). Like many of his generation of artists, Gorky recognized Picasso’s dominance in the field of modern art. It is in Gorky’s portraits and figures where Picasso’s influence, and indeed Picasso’s own development from Neoclassicism to Cubism, can be most strongly detected.
However, the range of styles within this genre indicated a wider sphere of references which Gorky garnered over his expansive studies. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)’s portraiture was of great interest, both his rigorous detail and highly worked finish, but Gorky also went much further back than this to Classical and Renaissance portraiture.
In addition to these various references, Gorky’s portraits were also imbued with a strong and personal emotional force. The drawing of his mother was inspired by a photograph of Gorky and his mother, taken around 1910, an image which undoubtedly provoked strong feelings of memory and acute loss. So too, Portrait of Myself and My Imaginary Wife, 1933-34, whilst harnessing elements from Classical depictions and Picasso, also anticipates Gorky’s growing interest in Surrealism and notions of the examination of the psychic projection and imagination.
There is a formality and intensity to all Gorky’s portraits, the smaller works fusing elements of Cubism with some of the traditions of classical and religious depictions displaying iconographic qualities, and the larger Self-Portrait, ca. 1937 and Portrait of Master Bill, 1937, whilst retaining clear facial details, the body is flattened out and simplified, almost merging with the background. Painted the same year as the large portraits, Blue Figure in Chair moves further in the direction of Cubism and displays many of its tendencies. Untitled (Smiling Lady) painted three years later, suggests other artistic influences and a move in the direction of Surrealism.
II – STILL LIFE
In the pursuit of honing his artistic skills, Gorky undertook a self-imposed path to study and emulate many of the techniques and styles of a number of Modern European artists. His motivation was not merely to copy Cézanne and Picasso, Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Fernand Léger (1881-1955) or Joan Miró (1893-1983), but to find a way to understand them – to engage with their creative force by literally getting beneath the layers of their painting, by reapplying and appropriating them, and in so doing, enabling his own artistic identity to emerge.
In this section, Gorky’s painting can be seen to undergo a continual and complex series of changes over a period of thirteen years. Beginning with the influence of Cézanne, in the Still Life of 1928, through to Miró, in Painting, ca. 1941-42, what is of note is not only what Gorky takes from each of his self-selected ‘tutors’, but where he chooses to diverge from their influence, putting his own firm mark on each work. Also of note is the cumulative effect of this exercise; as he progresses, he did not drop what was learned in the previous lesson, rather, he built on it. As Gorky’s subject matter and style developed, so too did his consummate manipulation and employment of paint. Consequently, through his remarkable ability to adapt paint so dexterously, and to exploit a broad colour palette, Gorky simultaneously engaged with the paintings of ‘his masters’ on a physical level, as well as on an intellectual one.
III – DRAWINGS
Drawing and working on paper was a constant activity for Gorky from an early age. Throughout his career, Gorky maintained an innate understanding of the importance of drawing within his overall practice. This selection of works on paper reveals how Gorky used drawing as an aide-mémoire and a mechanism to work out compositions for his paintings. From his earliest finished drawings, his skill as a draughtsman and an acute observer are clearly evident, revealing a subtlety and economy of line.
Gorky’s reconnection with nature in the early 1940s triggered a shift toward a new phase in his work, during which time he produced his greatest number of works on paper. Drawing from observation marked Gorky’s break with any of the residual formalities he retained from Surrealism and Synthetic Cubism, neither of which are associated with working directly from the motif, having more in common with Cézanne and the Impressionists. It was through drawing in the fields of Connecticut and Virginia that Gorky’s work entered into maturity.
Building his signature motifs, these highly worked compositions, with their subtle injections of colour, introduce elements and forms which can be detected in the paintings which followed.
IV – 1940S WORK
The early 1940’s was a turning point in Gorky’s artistic development. Spending prolonged time in rural Virginia and Connecticut his attention turned to the natural world around him, triggering recollections of the countryside of his birth. In capturing nature through his drawings he tapped into his own emotions, memories and intellect. This engagement with nature enabled Gorky to recalibrate his focus, allowing the artistic thinking and practice of others, gleaned from his long period of study, to recede, and his own to come to the fore.
In the studio based paintings, which are derived from the drawings, Gorky’s deep knowledge of the history of art is in clear evidence. At this point all of those influences he had interrogated – Miró’s line, Kandinsky’s colour, Roberto Matta’s (1911-2002) balancing imagery of reality with abstractions from the imagination, Picasso, Cézanne, Léger – all played a part in this new body of work. Gorky’s remarkable achievement here was his ability to uniquely amalgamate all of these influences, as well as the broad elements of Cubism and, to a greater extent, Surrealism, and from them establish a new and varied synthesis; one that was completely his own.
His explorations had been so wide ranging and expansive that no one of these early influences emerged as primary. For an artist searching to strengthen his own voice, nature had become his vehicle for authenticity.
V – FINAL WORKS
So strongly infused with his artistic voice, Gorky’s late paintings reflected his fragile state when a series of tragic events in his personal life occurred. The paintings take on a sombre tenor, revealing a psychological intensity as seen in works such as The Limit, Dark Green Painting and Last Painting.
Amongst Gorky’s late paintings, his largest, the Liver is the Cock’s Comb perhaps marks the highest point of his achievement. A tangle of abstracted and recognisable forms woven together in a web of visual ‘stream of consciousness’, the thinned paint drips lend a great sense of movement and latent energy to the composition.
It is a sublime example of Gorky’s evocation of the natural world blended with his deep emotional engagement summoning up both memory and imagination, with all elements hovering in a state of flux.
Arshile Gorky remains a key figure in the canon of American Art. Not only for the number of masterworks which he left behind but also for the extent to which he determined the formation and development of Abstract Expressionism. His ability to do so lay in both his profound and self-taught knowledge of the history of art – which he communicated to fellow artists – and also his facility to absorb diverse trends, such as Synthetic Cubism and Surrealism, and develop them into a wholly new artistic vocabulary.
Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney
In collaboration with The Arshile Gorky Foundation