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Art and Images in Psychiatry
April 2004

Agony

Author Affiliations
 

JAMES C.HARRISMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(4):334. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.4.334

Throughout the 1930s, Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) absorbed the style ofpainters such as Picasso, Braque, and Miro,1 becomingknown as the Picasso of Washington Square. His work was a bridge between modernEuropean art and Abstract Expressionism (a form in which artists expressedthemselves purely through the use of form and color), the first American artisticmovement of worldwide importance. Rosenberg writes,

For him abstract art meant, finally, not abstracting from experiencebut making experience over through a protracted series of connected efforts;a sketch was an event that led to another, not a draft to be perfected. .. . the canvas was not a surface upon which to present an image, but a "mind"through which the artist discovers. . . . 2(p118)

Gorky did not meet his stride until he embodied, through allusion toand extraction from past works, the history of art up until his time and learnedto spontaneously express his inner reality.

While mastering modern techniques, he continued to dwell on the traumaof his early life in Armenia as a survivor of genocide.1 His The Artist and His Mother enlivens a 1912 photograph ofthem in Armenia.3 In HowMy Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944), an AbstractExpressionist painting, he begins with the flowery patterns of her apron.As a child, he had buried his head in her apron as he listened to her storiesabout Armenian life. Later he wove the richly colored imagery of fine silksand linens, village rugs and carpets, into this remembrance. Other abstractpaintings dealt with his aesthetic response to nature (Waterfall) and personal events (The Calendars).

The cover depicts Agony, thesynthesis of his anguish in his last years. It was completed after a seriesof personal tragedies: a 1946 studio fire that destroyed 24 paintings andnumerous drawings, and emergency surgery for colon cancer requiring a permanentcolostomy (his care was complicated by his refusal to wear a colostomy bag).The title influences how the painting is seen; the name and the image arecomplementary aspects of the viewer's experience.4

Arshile Gorky (1904/1905-1948), Armenian American. Agony, 1947. Oil on canvas; 40 × 50½ in. A. Conger GoodyearFund (88.1950). Copyright 2004, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY.Digital image copyright Museum of Modern Art, New York/Licensed by SCALA/ArtResource, New York.

Arshile Gorky (1904/1905-1948), Armenian American. Agony, 1947. Oil on canvas; 40 × 50½ in. A. Conger GoodyearFund (88.1950). Copyright 2004, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY.Digital image copyright Museum of Modern Art, New York/Licensed by SCALA/ArtResource, New York.

Gorky scholars' interpretations vary. Lader focuses on its colors andforms:

No lyricism survives in the passionate and tormented expressionof Agony. Extremely brittle lines define forms, whichare generally composed of distorted rectangles, pinched triangles, and clawlikeprojections. Spottings of color contained within the thin lines, and the richlybrushed and modulated areas of reds, oranges, and browns that spread beyondthem, enhance the complex composition and create a powerful mood of distressand desperation.5(p108)

Matossian focuses on the content; the dominant figure is composed ofdisparate parts—shield, palette, wings, feathers, shanks—arrangedroughly in human form, the "rearranged body."1(p434)Agony is entirely conceived in redsand black, from carmine and cadmium to the color of congealed blood. No otherwork unpacks the horror of Gorky's nightmare as powerfully. The bony figureassumes the posture of Christ on the Cross.

Herrera emphasizes confrontation:

The imagery, defined by black lines that are sometimes submergedbeneath the red ground, consists of an insectlike creature with a phallicbody, large feet, and two lines for legs, bending forward toward a tallerskeletal figure on the left. Between them is a dangerous looking contraptionconsisting of a pinched rectangle with pinched contours. . . . This contraptionsuggests a mood of tension.6(p572)

People who knew Gorky and his troubled marriage point to these 2 figuresas illustrating the tension of sexual or marital conflicts. His first wife,Marny George, having undergone a colostomy herself, believed the work representedbodies with body parts askew. The figure on the left is distorted, and thecircular form on the upper right resembles an open colostomy stoma. Gorkywas struggling with his body image and tension in his marriage as he triedto adapt following surgery.

The final blow came when he sustained a cervical fracture in a car accidentwith his dealer, Julian Levy. He experienced partial loss of his right (painting)arm and hand, underwent traction for several months in the hot summer, andreturned home with a cervical collar. At the time, he was convinced that hiswife, Agnes "Mougouch" Gorky, would leave him. Later he discovered that, frustratedby his unstable moods and possibly his sexual problems and feeling demeaned,5(p585) she had had an affair with theirfriend, the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta Echaurren. Despairing after shedid leave with their 2 preschool girls, he cancelled a psychiatric appointmentthat friends had arranged, told his wife by telephone that he would give herher freedom, and hanged himself in a shed. He scrawled a final farewell, "Goodbye,my loveds," on a box nearby. On his easel stood his FinalPainting of an emerging dark presence that might illustrate Anton Chekhov'sstory The Black Monk, which so preoccupied him.7(p9) Perhaps he, like Chekhov's protagonist,also heard the monk's whisper and realized that his damaged body could nolonger serve as the vehicle for his genius. In agony about the recent eventsof his life and his illness, he committed suicide—yet he left art historyenriched by his work, which endures and posthumously brought the recognitionhe sought during his lifetime.

References
1.
Matossian  N Black Angel.  London, England Chatto & Windus1998;
2.
Rosenberg  H Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea.  New York, NY Sheepmeadow Press1962;
3.
Harris  J The Artist and His Mother.  Arch Gen Psychiatry 2004;61220Google ScholarCrossref
4.
Franklin  MBBecklen  RCDoyle  CL The influence of titles on how paintings are seen.  Leonardo. 1993;26103- 108Google ScholarCrossref
5.
Lader  M Arshile Gorky.  New York, NY Abbeville Press1985;
6.
Herrera  H Arshile Gorky.  New York, NY Farrar Straus & Giroux2003;
7.
Levy  J Arshile Gorky.  New York, NY Harry N Abrams1962;
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