Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926–36. Oil on canvas, 60 × 50 in. (152.4 × 127 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father 50.17
ADAMWEINBERG: This painting of artist Arshile Gorky and his mother is based on a photograph from 1912. A few years after the photo was taken, Gorky and his family were among the thousands of ethnic Armenians who were victims of the Armenian genocide. The artist and his sister survived the ordeal. Geoffrey Hartman is Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.
GEOFFREYHARTMAN: We know that this painting was done when the mother was dead. She died close to him, he says, in his arms of starvation when he was, then he would have been, what, sixteen years old. This may be a picture which has to do with redemption of the mother. By redemption of the mother, I mean a particular theme of the child bringing the mother to rest, or laying to rest a memory of the mother which haunts him.
It’s clear in the picture that there may have been some, a painting of actual hands, at least the right hand. But there does seem to be a violence in erasing the two hands, so I am struck by the muteness here. If you wanted to bring that muteness back to the actual features of the painting, you would probably mention the very tightly closed mouths. But there may be other things which point to that quality of muteness, also. Of course, we know that trauma often produces muteness. Sometimes psychologists call it elective silence—often especially in the young child. There’s a refusal to speak or a difficulty of speaking. That is when you begin to stutter, for instance. What one could very metaphorically say there is some stuttering there, around the hands. You know, the painting begins to stutter . . . shake and stutter around the hands.