‘Without Gorky’ reveals artist’s secrets
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 23, 2012 22:04
Arshile Gorky was a famous Impressionist and Postimpressionist American painter whose works have been displayed in museums all around the world. But Without Gorky, the documentary film made by his granddaughter, Cosima Spender, is not about his art. It is about his private life and the secrets he kept until his death.
“The only way forward is to be really open and really honest,” Spender said after the screening in the Wasserman Cinematheque last Thursday night. She was taking questions from the audience, and one woman had asked if Spender had been afraid of the impact the film would have on her family. “It was hard to be honest about our situation and I was always a bit scared to hurt people making the film,” she admitted. “I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult. [But] actually … everyone [in my family] feels really liberated. They’ve said things through the film that they never dared say to each other face-to-face. The film is an intermediary for them to solve their relationships.”
Without Gorky tells the painter’s adult life story through exclusive interviews with his wife, Agnes Magruder, and the couple’s two daughters, Maro and Natasha. After hearing the outpouring of truth about Spender’s family’s difficult history, it makes sense why Gorky kept so many secrets.
Born as Vostanik Manuk Adoyan in Khorgom, Armenia, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gorky, his mother and three sisters fled their town in 1915 at the onset of the Armenian Genocide. Walking all the way to Istanbul, he and his siblings were able to board a ship to America, but his mother died of starvation before the journey.
Once in the U.S., the artist changed his name to Gorky in an attempt to disconnect himself from his traumatic past. In 1941, he met Magruder, whom he affectionately nicknamed “Mougouch.” After a brief courtship, the couple married in 1941. They lived in New York City for a time before moving to Sherman, Conn., where Gorky suffered a series of tragedies and eventually took his own life. The film uses his wife’s memories and letters to her late husband and Gorky’s own written records to weave together its narrative.
It was important for Spender to make this film, she said, because she wanted to set the record of her grandfather’s life straight. “[There have] been books written about [Magruder’s] life and I [thought] it was time she just said with her own voice what really happened, all the complicated bits, all the gray areas,” Spender said during the question-and-answer session.
As the film showed, Gorky and Magruder’s relationship was not an easy one. They would often fight in front of their children, and on many occasions, Gorky threatened to beat his wife. He was frequently in a state of depression, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1940s. Following a car accident in which he broke his neck and a fire in his studio barn that cost him 30 of his paintings, he became resolute in his decision to commit suicide and did so on July 21, 1948 at age 44.
Only now, over sixty years later, is the family truly beginning to heal from what Spender called Gorky’s “castle of lies.” At the end of the film, Maro and Natasha venture to their father’s birthplace on the shores of Lake Van in Turkey. Spender explained that the placement of this scene at the end of the film was one of the most difficult editing decisions: “Conventionally, when you talk about the life of someone, you start with their birthplace. … But if you did that, then you weren’t getting to the story with Mougouch, and the audience somehow would blame her for her actions, which sometimes would seem almost irresponsible and violent. But there was so much she didn’t know about him. … I think it was important to structure it along with how Mougouch came to know about it.”
The film aired on the BBC earlier this year, and Spender has also sold the film to television stations in Canada and Finland. It recently screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is on its way to the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles. As difficult as the process of digging up the past has been, Spender hopes to be able to share the truth of her grandparents’ lives with many more people.
“It made me really think,” Spender told the audience after the screening, “about child-rearing and … about the responsibility of being a parent and how difficult relationships can be and the price of living with a genius, the price of living with a great artist.”