The Artist and her Son, Kathy Hettinga

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The Artist and Her Son, after Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother

Archival digital print, Epson 9500

Arshile Gorky (1904—1948)

The Artist and His Mother (date?) Oil on canvas

The frontal somber portrait of myself and my son taken in the early ‘90s reminded me of Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother.  The deep bond of mother and child is revealed in the steadfast similar expressions, and speaks about this relationship of together facing life – the sufferings, joys, hardships, and the closeness.  Gorky’s portrait is iconic, stripped of unnecessary detail, like the Orthodox icons of Mother and Child that he would have seen as a child in Armenia.  His offering of flowers to the timeless and monumental figure of his mother calls to mind traditional icons of the Virgin, the Mother of God, attended by adoring figures.

When Gorky’s father left Armenia for the states, Gorky and his mother were left behind; his mother starved to death, dying with her head in his lap.  Gorky came to America and established his career as a successful teacher and painter; he married and had children.  Then after a series of tragedies:  a diagnosis of cancer, and auto accident which injured his painting arm, a studio fire, and divorce, he ended his life at the age of forty-four.  Gorky believed that suffering resulted in the ability to feel more deeply and to see more keenly.

His paintings and drawings are a brilliant hybrid of Cubist structure and Surrealist abstract shapes, suffused with memories and longings.  In this print, biomorphic shapes from Gorky’s work are juxtaposed with the microscopic images from my pathology slides:  cells – healthy and cancerous, tissue samples, blood vessels, and cysts are compared to cell-like shapes from Gorky’s works such as One Year the Milkweed, Virginia Landscape, and The Plow and the Song also found in the National Gallery of Art.  The hybrid character of his work lent itself to the hybrid possibilities of the computer.  And in the small side portrait, Emerson, my eight-year-old son, is the Wiseman who brings the Christ Child myrrh; the bitter yet valuable perfume used in the embalming or anointing of the dead that came to represent mortality, suffering, and sorrow.

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