Ariane Bankes

‘If he couldn’t paint, he couldn’t live’

Ariane Bankes talks to the widow of Arshile Gorky, whose retrospective is about to open at Tate

‘If he couldn’t paint, he couldn’t live’
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Ariane Bankes talks to the widow of Arshile Gorky, whose retrospective is about to open at Tate

Mougouch Fielding opens the door to me looking a little gaunt but as beautiful as ever, though I have not seen her for a couple of years. She is in her late eighties, but no less stylish now than when we knew her as children; we were mesmerised by her chic, her gravelly voice with its hint of an American accent, her sense of fun and the faint whiff of excitement that enveloped her. When she was about 17, my father, then working in China, helped her ashore from a capsized sailing dinghy and fell in love with her on the spot. She was then Agnes Magruder, daughter of a captain in the American Navy stationed off Shanghai, and her youthful romance with my father evolved into a lifelong friendship.

It was the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky who named her ‘Mougouch’, an Armenian term of endearment, and she has been Mougouch to all and sundry ever since. We talk in her elegant, light-filled drawing-room, she sitting on a long sofa brightened by colourful throws and cushions, the walls around her hung with paintings, many by old friends. She slowly rolls the first of several cigarettes as she tells me about Gorky and the start of their life together. ‘We were both very innocent and unsophisticated. When I first visited him in his studio he invited me to sit with him on the sofa, but just sat there saying nothing. Long minutes passed in total silence until I summoned all my meagre experience and said, “I think you’re supposed to entertain me, young man!” It just hadn’t occurred to him.’ It was not long after that he asked her to cook him breakfast, and she realised it was ‘the thin end of the wedge’. They were married within the year, en route home from San Francisco, where his first solo exhibition was held.

Mougouch was born in 1921 into an old Washington family; she remembers as a child rolling Easter eggs down the lawn of the White House. By the age of 19, when she met Gorky in New York, she had travelled halfway round the world, become a communist and decided to study art. It was an attraction of opposites: her optimism and confidence contrasted strongly with Gorky’s propensity to melancholy, the legacy of his tormented youth in Armenia during the genocide, where he watched his mother die of starvation in his arms. He escaped with his younger sister to America in 1920, and by 1941, when he met Mougouch, he had established himself as a central figure in American art’s shift towards abstraction.

Having adopted the Russian name Arshile Gorky and forged a new narrative of his life, he felt a deep ambivalence towards his Armenian roots. ‘He had once been greeted by an American pastor with the words “Ah, one of the starving Armenians” and he was keen to distance himself from that,’ Mougouch told me. ‘He was close to his sister Vartoosh, but never left me alone with her, even for five minutes — he didn’t want me to hear her stories. And he never admitted that his father was still alive and working in a foundry in Rhode Island; he’d told me that he had simply disappeared years before in Armenia. When I discovered a local Armenian grocer and the owner learnt I was married to Gorky he was very impressed and told me all about Gorky’s family, its ancient lineage, its importance in the Armenian Church, etc. But Gorky was furious, denied that the man knew anything about him or his family, and said I must never visit him again. It was not until years after his death that I discovered his real, Armenian, name and the truth about his father — it was such a shock.’

Mougouch moved into his studio in Union Square; before long their daughter Maro was born and, two years later, Natasha. Despite his growing reputation and the praise of critics like Clement Greenberg, Gorky sold very few paintings, so money was tight. ‘There we were, all living on top of one another, Gorky cleaning his brushes in the kitchen sink, and he wanted to be with me and the children but at the same time it drove him nuts,’ says Mougouch. They had to get out of the city, and spent long summer months staying on her mother’s farm in Virginia, where Gorky reconnected with nature and found boundless new energy to paint.

It was around that time that they first met André Breton, the great Surrealist-in-exile. ‘What did you make of him?’ I asked Mougouch. ‘Oh, I loved him passionately because he so admired Gorky, and did so much to support him,’ she replied. ‘But Breton didn’t speak any English and Gorky spoke no French, so I had to be interpreter. In fact, I once heard Breton talking English to a New York taxi-driver — he had a terrible New York accent — but he didn’t admit to it. He was a poet, and knew he couldn’t choose his words in English with the precision that he could in French. We always felt that poets, if they weren’t visibly stupid, were superior beings.’

I suggested that Gorky felt ambivalent about Surrealism. ‘Well, he made it his own, and he had steeped himself in its writings — Cahiers d’art was his Bible when I met him. My great-aunt, a wise woman and a follower of Jung, used to say that he was a fisherman who cast his line deep into the well of the subconscious.’ Along with his close friend, the Chilean-born Roberto Matta, he explored new expressions of spontaneity and automatism that reached further and deeper into abstraction than the other Surrealists.

Then, as if the Fates were pursuing him, a series of tragedies engulfed Gorky. First his studio caught fire, destroying all its contents, then he had to undergo an operation for cancer which made him desperately anxious and depressed. At her wits’ end, Mougouch turned to Matta. ‘Matta was very important in Gorky’s life, and was the only person I could confide in — because I knew he loved Gorky and yet could see my misery for himself.’ Unbeknownst to Mougouch, Gorky also learnt of his father’s death around this time, and soon after he was involved in a car crash in which his neck was broken and his painting arm temporarily paralysed. It was a desperate time and, in 1948, on the advice of their doctor, Mougouch took the children and fled to safety. A few days later Gorky hanged himself, leaving a note, ‘Goodbye My Loveds’.

‘He was a broken man: if he couldn’t paint, he couldn’t live,’ reflects Mougouch sadly. But he left a powerful artistic legacy, one that she and her daughters have overseen with scrupulous care, and one that Tate’s retrospective now gives us a perfect opportunity to judge for ourselves.

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern from 10 February to 3 May.