The Man From Vosburagan: Vosdanig Manoug Adoian – Arshile Gorky

He was a handsome figure of a man, 6’4” with thick black hair, dark, mesmerizing eyes, who loved to sing and dance—a throwback to his Armenian cultural roots in Vosburagan. Painting was the food of his existence. He lived and breathed for it from the time he was young.

Vosdanig Manoug Adoian’s decision to change his name to Arshile Gorky could have been to avoid the sorrow thrust upon him by the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in his native Van, or because it would be easier to remember.

His niece Azadouhie Amerian Miller says, “His relatives did not mind his name change because we did not know he would become so famous. His birth name would have been a difficult one to carry on as an artist.”

Often for survival’s sake, he would sell his art for $25, $50, or $500, or even give them away to admirers, saying, “Someday this will be very valuable.”

His paintings now hang in noted museums, and command hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions.

In the end the artist who became famous for his surrealism style of painting was overcome with despair and disappointment, driving him to take his own life at age 48.

Many of his prized paintings were destroyed by fire in his Connecticut studio, others in an airplane crash on their way to an exhibit in California.

He was often the victim of serious illness, unfaithfulness from his American socialite wife, and estranged from his beloved daughters Maro and Natasha. How much tragedy should one person endure?

Even the artist crowd that he embraced was fickle in its friendship with him, acknowledging his genius but also jealous of it.

The fate of good fortune had turned their back on Arshile Gorky. Make no mistake, he was the son of Armenia, where he had witnessed the horrors of the genocide. His father had left for America many years prior to 1915. Arshile Gorky and his mother had to fend for themselves, leaving him with a feeling of abandonment and dislike for his father.

Gorky’s bond with his devoted mother was close and everlasting. Together they suffered the torture and discomforts of the genocide. She later died of starvation.

His early years growing up in his native Van had been idyllic. In his village of Khorkom, Gorky was surrounded by the abundant gifts of nature, fruitful orchards with pears and apples, majestic mountain backdrops, wheat fields, and the blue of Lake Van. All this remained as vivid, colorful memories—later transcribed to his vibrant paintings, beginning with the figurative, later surrealism.

The irregular shapes on his canvasses, too, were exaggerations of forms surrounding him in Van, developed by his artist’s eye. Van was his heart, where his artistic soul was born and nourished.

His dark brooding eyes, handsome Armenian face, and extraordinary height on the cover of the book about his life seem to follow me as I walk around the room. Had I lived during that period I surely would have been drawn with infatuation to Vosdanig Adoian. His charm seemed like a magnate.

I dare to say, who but an Armenian woman would understand an Armenian man? Love leads us into unchartered waters where we either sink or swim.

In a recent Los Angles Film Festival screening of the documentary “Without Gorky,” directed by his granddaughter Cosima Spender, she interviews his widow (her grandmother), her mother, and aunt. The documentary resonates with the profound tension and lingering discomfort his death by suicide caused and still produces so many years after.

The artistic soul, the creativity Gorky placed on his highest quality of canvases, thick with layers of expensive paints, were a testament to his life in Van, Historic Armenia.

If it is true that Armenians yearn for their souls to return to the Ararat homeland, then surely our Vosdanig Manoug Adoian has finally found peace. If you listen carefully you may even hear him uttering “Akh-Tamar.”


Correction: In a recent column entitled “Cheerleaders for Hayastan,” “P.S.” did not stand for “Post script” but were the initials of another cheerleading Armenian featured in the column who resides in Canada.


Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

1 Comment

  1. I purchased a collective body of the early work of Arshile Gorky that had been owned by John Hussian who left with Vosdanig Adoain (Arshile Gorky) and his sister Vartoosh for America in 1920. I am still doing the research, it was shear luck, I received a call from a friend that “Frank” was at the flea market and has a van filled with art. It was bitter outside, the snow had begun to fall, I stopped at the ATM withdrew a few hundred and headed toward Collingswood Flea Market on a cold February morning. I bought everything, didn’t pull it out of my Jeep until 5 day’s later and there it was folder after folder “Vosdanig Adoain”. As it turned out John Hussian, who was a close friend of Gorky, married Mariam Melikian moved to Philadelphia, PA and founded The Hussian School of Art had kept safe Gorky’s early work. Apparently, John passed away in 1986 at the age of 84 years, lost contact with the family, but held onto Arshile Gorky’s work.

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