Two brilliant painters of the 20th century, both exiled from their countries of birth, lived in New York at the same time, yet never met. Both were profoundly affected by childhood trauma, which figures in their works of art. The name of one is honoured worldwide. The other described himself as a “black angel”.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985), was one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He was an early modernist, creating works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. Born Moishe Shagal in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire, Chagall was the eldest of nine children. His father was employed by a herring merchant and his mother sold groceries from their home. Out of respect for his father, Chagall would later include fish motifs in his works. Chagall’s early life was a lasting source of inspiration for his paintings, whose visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and fiddlers.
Even before arriving in America in 1941, Chagall had been awarded the internationally recognised Carnegie Prize, but felt ill-suited to being a celebratory in a country whose language he did not yet speak. At first he was lost in his new surroundings. However, he gradually settled into a milieu of writers, painters, and composers who, like himself, had fled Europe, spending his time working, visiting galleries and museums, and befriending other artists including Piet Mondrian and André Breton. Curiously – perhaps – he never met Arshile Gorky, who at that time was also working in New York.
Gorky (1904-48) had a huge influence on Abstract Expressionism. Born in the village of Khorgom, on the shores of Lake Van in present-day Turkey, he was vague about the exact date of his birth, changing it from year to year. In 1910 his father emigrated to America to avoid being drafted into the army, leaving his family behind. In 1915 Gorky fled Lake Van during the Armenian genocide, escaping with his mother and three sisters into Russian-controlled territory. In the aftermath of the genocide, Gorky’s mother died of starvation.
In 1920 Gorky arrived in the USA, enrolling two years later in the New School of Design in Boston where he eventually became a part-time instructor. He moved to New York where he discovered the works of Paul Cézanne and in 1925 was invited to teach at the Grand Central School of Art, where he remained until 1931. In the 1940s Gorky showed his new work to the French writer and poet André Breton (the friend of Marc Chagall) and, after seeing one painting in particular, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, Breton declared it to be “one of the most important paintings made in America”. Later, asked what made him feel he must paint, Gorky answered:
“I remember myself when I was five years old. The year I first began to speak. Mother and I are going to church. We are there. For a while she left me standing before a painting. It was a painting of infernal regions. There were angels on the painting. White angels and black angels. All the black angels were going to Hades. I looked at myself. I am black, too, it means that there is no Heaven for me. A child’s heart could not accept it. And I decoded there and then to prove to the world that a black angel can be good, too, must be good and wants to give his inner goodness to the whole world, black and white world.”