There’s so much to say about Without Gorky, a peculiar and insightful documentary about the immediate family that Armenian American painter Arshile Gorky left behind, but it is the silences that speak the most. Created by Gorky’s granddaughter Cosima Spender, the film documents the absence of the giant of Modern Art, and the residue of his life and art on those who continue to live with his estate and legacy.
The story of Gorky is tragic. A survivor of the Armenian Genocide, his mother died of starvation in his arms, and he escaped to the fledgling first Armenian Republic before it was taken over by the Soviets in 1920. So much surrounding Gorky is frustratingly incomplete, and the histories that have emerged have been somewhat unsatisfying because they always leave something out. Here much of the story revolves around Agnes Magruder, whom Gorky called by the affectionate Armenian name Mougouch. The pair were married when she was 20 and he was probably 41. What attracted Gorky to the very young Magruder is anyone’s guess, but it seems clear that he wanted a break with his past.
It’s incredible how much time the people in the movie spend on imagining what Gorky may have done or thought. At one point his daughter, Maro Gorky, suggests he died by suicide in their barn because he didn’t want to do it too close to the house, as if it was a fact. Gorky is a ghostlike presence, roaming the hallways of their lives. While being “without Gorky” is the focus of the film, Magruder is the real central figure. Everyone relies on her to live out what at times feels like a kabuki theater of mourning and remembering. Magruder is not exactly the warmest of characters; she fills the screen with a very WASPy presence, her peculiar accents and strange, almost formal mannerisms. But she’s not a wilting lily, even if she appears to have endured a lot of emotional abuse. She is the only one left in the clan who remembers Gorky well, and it’s notable that their relationship lasted less than a decade — a short but important period of his life. She says she took him at face value, probing no further than he wanted her to, which is rather odd, considering the little stories that trickle out about their time together that puncture the idealized version he worked hard to maintain.
Magruder left Gorky at the height of their troubles to sleep with Surrealist Roberto Matta, a friend of theirs whom she found comfort with during the many fights she had with her husband. One could only assume the impact such a betrayal would’ve had on a traumatized, macho traditionalist like Gorky, even if she dismisses the episode with an almost too-convenient-to-be-true recollection of Gorky chasing Matta around a park before they sat down on a bench together and talked things it out. After Gorky died, Magruder traveled Europe with Matta, placing her children in a Swiss boarding school rather than allowing Gorky’s sister in Chicago to adopt them. “For a weekend, a long week, mummy sent us there to try out, to see whether we wouldn’t be happier as nice little Armenian chicks being brought up in Chicago,” Maro Gorky states with a tone that’s hard not to read as disparaging. But Gorky’s daughters didn’t find solace in the expensive school, and one admits they were treated as a “little bit Oriental.”
It’s incredible to me how much time the group spends avoiding the elephant in the room, namely the genocide. Even when they travel to Lake Van in what is now Turkey, where Gorky was born and raised, Matthew Spender (Gorky’s son-in-law, an author of a Gorky biography, and the filmmaker’s father) summarizes the events in a rather offensive way. When Maro asks, “How many were killed?” He responds, “Between 1.5 million and 2 million, 3 million, anything,” as if it wasn’t well-documented. He later refers to the events as “The experience that Armenians define as a genocide and the Turks define as being a displacement.” The masks come off at that point, and we see the family and its insular world. Anyone who has actually studied the history would never characterize it this way, and the filmmaker’s decision to include this suggests her own strange understanding of the history. Or maybe she’s highlighting her own family’s particular take. Spender has demonstrated such peccadilloes elsewhere. When he describes the relationship between Gorky and renowned playwright William Saroyan in his book, he says that they “loathed each other, for very Armenian reasons,” which is a strange statement that plays to the “crazy ethnics” trope so common in US and Western culture as a way to dismiss whole communities. What exactly were these mysterious “very Armenian” reasons?
During the journey to Lake Van, the family doesn’t attempt to retrace Gorky’s route as a refugee, preferring to linger in the ethnically cleansed area where he grew up. It’s a little obnoxious to watch. It’s also surprising that they never ask any questions of the Turkish and Kurdish people they encounter. “Did you know my family lived here?” “Do you know what happened to them?” “Are there still Armenians in the area?” “Who destroyed the giant monastery in this old photograph we came to find?” All easy questions to ask and answer, as we have seen done in other documentaries that tackle the genocide. But we only get Spender’s half-researched guesses. Ultimately this story is about them, and their idea of Gorky and the world they think he inhabited.
It’s also peculiar that the family never considers that the genocide was a factor in Gorky’s eventual suicide. It’s sadly not rare for genocide suvivors to kill themselves; many families have such stories of loved ones who took their lives after wrestling with the trauma the event that inspired Raphael Lemkin to create the term “genocide.” Arman Manookian, who landed in Hawaii around the same time Gorky moved to New York, became known as the “van Gogh of Hawaii” for his lush canvases of happy Indigenous people living their lives unhindered in paradise (it’s hard not to read his own personal history of being forced out of his homeland into the work). Manookian would go on to kill himself too in 1931. The Honolulu Advertiser said, “No reason for the artist could be offered by his friends. He was said to have been despondent for several days prior to his taking poison.” Recent studies of Holocaust survivors suggest that as those individuals age, they are more prone to suicide, which points to the fact that something similar may have also been the case with Armenians, who are saddled with added pain of denial by the perpetrators and, in the case of Armenian Americans, even by their own government — though that may indeed change. That this never occurs to the family is perplexing, until you recognize the undertow of disdain for Gorky’s heritage that runs throughout. Another thing that puzzles me is that no one in the family bothered to learn Armenian. If Gorky was a major topic almost every night, like Spender explains at one point, then why wouldn’t they take the time to learn the language the artist’s personal letters were written in?
The families of famous artists are often not the ideal people to continue their legacies. Some turn out to be greedy, others vindictive and competitive. Gorky’s family seems more hurt by his absence and the silences than anything else. In some ways, that sounds very familiar to those of us from post-genocide Armenian families, or any family so ravaged by a major catastrophe. Recently, Japanese studies scholar Harry Harootunian wrote a memoir about his own family silences, The Unspoken as Heritage. He writes:
The decision to not share these memories and experiences with the children is still a mystery. It could have been the enormity of experiences, its virtual unbelievability, a negative fable from the Tales of the Arabian Nights, putting into question the credibility of occurrences that exceeded the capability of children and anything they might be able to grasp.
Those silences speak volumes, and they writhe in the minds of those who are forced to endure the absences. In some ways, Gorky’s daughters did become “Armenian chicks,” living in the shadow of a tragedy too enormous to comprehend while asking all sorts of questions, knowing that the answers may always be beyond their grasp. In Armenian, we have a saying, ցաւդ տանեմ (tsavet danem), which roughly means “Let me carry the burden of your pain.” It is said to express sympathy and empathy to those enduring a tough time, and it suggests that trauma is communal and can be shared, or at the very least that others can help lighten the load. It seems Gorky’s family has been carrying their burden on their own, for decades.
The first time I watched this film, I was livid at its omissions, and it took me a few months to watch it again. Through subsequent viewings, I’ve slowly come to care for the family in a way I didn’t expect. Their hurt and pain is obvious (and familiar and raw), and part of me hopes they wake up to what seems obvious to some of us. Living with a genocide survivor is tough, losing them is sometimes tougher, and those of us who have gone through it have many stories to share. Ultimately, it helps one understand that the pain may never go away, even though it lessens. What Cosima Spender has done is create an important film about some of those closest to her, sharing some important moments that offer the rest of us insight into a figure we otherwise only know through his art.
But one of the central themes in the film concerns Gorky’s fictions and lies, presented as if they were just the way he was, with no investigation into why. One reason Gorky may have listed Russia as his origin, rather than Turkey or the Ottoman Empire, is that at the time there was no security for Armenians in the US, not to mention that discrimination against them was common. Categorized as Asiatics, they were at risk of deportation, particularly if they were destitute, which he often was. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, that fear was justified, since in 1921, 17 Armenians were killed in Istanbul after being deported from the US. And Gorky certainly wasn’t the only Armenian immigrant to falsely list Russia as their birthplace; if an Armenian was to be deported, it was certainly better to be sent to Russia rather than Turkey. Decades later the FBI visited Gorky’s camouflage class at Grand Central School to ask, “Where could Gorky, without authority, obtain information to teach such art?” The visit shook him. In his book, Spender dismisses it as a mere security check, but in context, it’s completely understandable why it might have rattled the artist.
Two years ago, I was interviewing Onnig Kardash, who mentioned that Gorky would always sing “Groong” (“Crane”) to Raoul Hague, a fellow Armenian American artist, and that the two shared a love of Armenian music. At the end of his life, Hague would turn to Kardash and ask him to sing him the song. “Groong” is one of the great songs of the Armenian diaspora; the groong is a common symbol of the diaspora itself, since it was widely believed cranes always returned to their homes. In various biographies, it is mentioned that Gorky’s friends would tire of his animated singing and dancing, what Armenians call kef. It’s worth asking why this Gorky is not in Without Gorky. He jettisoned that seminal marker of 20th-century Armenian American life to be part of the mainstream American art world, which looked down on ethnics and minorities who’ve not properly shed their pasts (and which continues to do so today, to a certain degree).
One day we might have a more holistic image of Arshile Gorky, one fashioned from a more complete story about him, one of a survivor who harnessed his talent to change the direction of Modern Art, who struggled with becoming American and lost as much as he gained, who tried to forget his past but ultimately couldn’t, who left behind a family that continues to struggle with his legacy, and who continues to inspire people today. One day we’ll learn about this human figure rather than the legend, and when that day comes, I hope his family can finally feel relief knowing that, while the pain is there and may never fully heal, it is not all-consuming. Eventually, descendants of genocide realize that feeling the pain can be a form of love, as you try to get closer to the unknowable and carry that burden until you pass it off to a new generation, who will decide their own role in this sprawling story. Gorky is too much to contain in any one thing, and that might be why he’s still relevant today.