Filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Adoration) has, over the course of three decades of movie-making, probed such disparate characters as strippers and comedians in provocative and artful ways. Egoyan further demonstrated his artistic curiosity at The Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday during a public conversation with curator Michael Taylor commemorating the recently opened retrospective on modernist painter Arshile Gorky.
The Armenian-Canadian director shared his thoughts on Gorky, also Armenian, after whom Egoyan named his son. Gorky plays a major role in one of Egoyan’s most known films, Ararat, which dramatizes the Armenian genocide, and in Portrait of Arshile, a short film with footage of his son the director made in the nineties. But the painter has been with the director his entire life, from his childhood in Egypt and Canada with his parents, both painters, to his experiences in young adulthood trying to articulate his identity as both English and Armenian.
“We saw these paintings and they had such a profound effect on us,” Egoyan said of he and his wife’s relationship to Gorky’s work. A Gorky admirer, he commented at length about the museum’s retrospective, which runs through January, saying it properly contextualizes Gorky both culturally and art historically. “It’s a defining show.”
Egoyan also premiered a new short video commissioned by the National Gallery of Art, an edited rumination on Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother assembled from footage from Ararat. Gorky based his famous painting on a photograph taken before his mother died in the Armenian genocide. Egoyan’s video imagines Gorky painting the portrait while remembering the day photo was shot. It focuses on the artist’s nostalgia and speculates he spontaneously painted his mother’s hands with his own hands, massaging canvas in slow, sensuous movements.
“We’re not historians,” Egoyan said. “Artists don’t always do what their communities want them to do… Artists will deal with ambiguities, with impulse.”
He may not be an historian, but artists like Egoyan, and even Gorky, do grapple with history. While previous Gorky exhibits have dealt with his place within art history, museum curator Michael Taylor said Gorky’s art has to be understood within his own history of the genocide.
“Where does modern art begin and the genocide end? I think for Gorky they were inextricable,” Taylor said, mentioned the “heartrending quality” of the artist’s work.
For his part, Egoyan spoke about how his movies, however diverse, often address the theme of healing. The Armenian community, he said, is still grappling with the trauma of its history. “Healing commences when someone recognizes someone else’s pain.”
When one audience member asked if the Armenian community should try to fund, outside the Hollywood system, their own film about the genocide, Egoyan disagreed, saying the problems of distribution mean that in order for a film to be seen major studios have to be involved. He also wondered whether everyone in the community believes now is the time the story of the genocide should be told.
The museum will be hosting a number of events in the coming weeks alongside the exhibit, including a lecture by Colgate University professor and poet Peter Balakian and a screening of a short documentary on the painter in November in its program, Film@Perelman, adjoining Perelman Building (a program I run!).