While the world is watching the XXII Winter Olympics opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia, I thought it would be an interesting time to explore one of the most famous mentions of Sochi in art, Arshile Gorky’s Garden in Sochi series (1938–42).
Gorky is traditionally characterized as a bridge between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism, and this group of works is a perfect example of that connection, with its bulging biomorphic forms, breezy brushstrokes, and sense of myth making.
Writing about the Garden in Sochi series in Arshile Gorky: Implications of Symbols, Harry Rand points out that the Sochi works often invite critics, curators, and academics to order the wide-ranging series that includes dozen of paintings and drawings into a chronological sequence but the artist’s tendency to rework his canvases make that very difficult to do:
Bridging Gorky’s early and mature work, the series presents a stylistic Rorschach test for the critic — reflecting projected biases rather than an inherent art-historical problem. The paintings are so layered with pentimenti that, like the early portraits, they may individually span a long period of work.
Rand goes on to see a universality in the hybrid forms that appear in later works morphed and distorted but mostly recognizable.
Why Gorky chose to name his pivotal series after “Sochi” is complicated. Gorky long claimed to have a Russian pedigree, even after people realized that he wasn’t related to Russian writer Maxim Gorky, as he once said he was. So, the Sochi label could be seen as just one in a long line of Russian fictions he clung to rather than representing actual gardens on the Black Sea, where Sochi is located. Another reason for the word is that “Sochi” was a private pun for the artist, since the Armenian word for poplar, a beloved tree for Armenians in much the same way as the cedar is for the Lebanese, is Sos or Sosi. Populars would’ve surely had a place for Gorky in any garden he’d create.
In a letter from July 1943 that was long attributed to Gorky, the artist supposedly wrote:
I named them Garden in Sochi although in actuality I should really name them garden in Khorkom and I believe I will. For that is what they are. The Americans, alas are ignorant of Armenia and I have been told that they prefer names of places more “popularly” known.
The letter, which is now believed to have been faked by his nephew Karlen Mooradian, may not contain Gorky’s own words, but it does point to a reality: the artist may have felt the need to cloak his identity in a world he felt was hostile to him, his art, and his history. As a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Gorky’s tendency to veil his past was common, and like many of his generation, the trauma of the event was sublimated into his art through veiled references. It wasn’t until the 1960s that most artists of Armenian descent began dealing with the topic directly and openly.
But it doesn’t appear that Gorky’s myth making was limited to the mainstream American art public. Badrik Selian remembers Gorky telling others who were attending an Armenian-American charity event in 1942 that his work “Summertime in Sochi,” which was being auctioned, ” … shows the sea coast of Sochi, and there, standing, are my mother and I.” In reality, Gorky’s mother died in a famine that took the lives of many survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and there’s no clear evidence that Gorky ever visited Sochi, particularly since it’s believed that he used another Black Sea port, Batumi, when he fled towards Constantinople (later Istanbul) before eventually landing in the United States.
For a possible reason for Gorky’s desire for a fabled Russianness, I think it’s probably best to look at the 1926 Surrealist map of the world. Created by a Belgian magazine, the illustration turns the world upside down, the imperialist powers mostly erased in favor of lands with a sense of mystery for the early-20th-century Westerner. Armenia doesn’t exist on this map, while Russia dominates. Perhaps, like other Surrealists, Gorky’s imagination lived in Russia, which was a far-off, largely unfamiliar place. His desire to create a myth about himself may have transplanted his origins to a land he’d never visited, but that lived in his imagination.
Decades ago, during the Soviet period, Sochi was known as a delightful seaside resort where communists vacationed. It was a place of leisure, where Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, and Georgians lived and mingled. Today, we have a very different vision of Sochi, as Russia’s homophobic laws cloud our vision of a place that seems somewhat unprepared for the world’s premier sporting competition. Then again, maybe we’re just projecting what we want onto Sochi, much like Gorky did. It’s a place most of us haven’t visited but is the focus of many dreams, even if only for a few weeks, while the Olympics are taking place.