An Armenian Journalist's Notes

What does Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother” mean to me


“The Artist and His Mother” by Arshile Gorky, one of the most influential figures in expressionism, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide.

The photo at the left sight is the only image from artist’s childhood taken at a studio in Van before 1912.The photograph was aimed to be sent to Gorky’s absent father. Gorky worked at the painting at the right sight for ten years, yet, leaving it “unfinished”…

Even without knowing the story you know it is about loss. Gorky has given his mother a mask-like face, as if hewn in stone, and perhaps it is this, or the ghost-white fall of her dress, or the flatness of her body on the canvas, that tells us this is an image of someone dead. There is a monumental distance between us and her – she is remote as a statue. The boy standing by her is distant too, in his formal coat, clutching a pink flower. He has signs of life. Dressed as if he cares about himself, he is future-bound. But his face is so sad…

Would the viewer of this painting understand the motives of why Gorky commuted suicide in 1948 at the age of 44? Was this an act restating that Genocide is not the actual place of a crime, but the continuum hold in memory? Would the viewer be annoyed when learning about experiences Gorky had faced as a survivor? What this portrait illustrates so far and how much is this image tragedy of humanness?

This painting is testimony to how much the Genocide anguished him. The transfiguration of the image into cubistic planes of color emphasizes Gorky’s complex reaction to the photograph, as he remade it in his mind. He gives it color, animation, but cannot bring his mother back. While the boy moves in three dimensions, she remains fixed, a flat ghost. Armenia itself is a no-place. Gorky paints a brown square behind his mother’s head resembling a window. But it is opaque, no view. Her landscape is gone…

I worked at this photography for almost a month, reading, analyzing, considering all the scholarly perspectives. Yet this painting remains a very personal for me as one of those Armenians having a family story behind the Genocide. Usually cripple bodies in Genocide images are always annoying, but these photos would never enter my personal territory of self and identity, but Gorky’s painting does it! Saving her mother – the victim of the Armenian Genocide – from the oblivion, he transferred the unfinished, untold stories of millions woman and girls having the severest human tragedy ever…

No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten!

Shushan Harutyunyan (Blansh)
Your Online Friend and an Armenian at the very deepest of herself