Who Is Gorky? An Abstract Life

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Duration: 1 hour

In a personal journey into a family tragedy, filmmaker Cosima Spender explores how she and her relatives have been shaped by her grandfather - the pioneering Abstract Expressionist painter, Arshile Gorky. Following a series of tragedies, he committed suicide in 1948, leaving a young wife and two daughters behind. Through conversations with her grandmother, Gorky's widow, Spender tries to make sense of his creativity, the reasons for his death and the shadow it subsequently cast. The film takes the viewer through the pain and courage of the family, coming to an emotional climax in Gorky's Armenian birthplace.

  • Director Q&A: Cosima Spender

    * Favourite film of all time?
    Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin.

    * Most difficult interview?
    My grandmother, Mougouch, as she was going down a rocky memory lane.

    * Best recent read?
    East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

    •Favourite location?
    Lake Van, Eastern Turkey (former Armenia) .
    • What made you want to tell your grandfather’s story? I'd heard stories about him all my life, always tangled tales with no beginning and no end- the 'white noise' of my life. I wanted it to listen carefully and make sense of it all.

    • Could you tell us a little about how you came to make this film? I started with a short piece for the Tate in occasion of their Gorky retrospective in 2010. That was based on my grandmother's account on her early life with Gorky and the defining moment in his art when he went from 'heavy' paint laden canvases to light, lyrical paintings. Then I expanded it by interviewing my mother and my aunt. We visited the house they lived in as a family in Connecticut, their old haunts in NY and Gorky's birthplace in Lake Van, former Armenia. This last trip was very moving and uplifting, it really felt like the end of the long journey of remembering, as if we were scattering his ashes.

    • What was your family’s initial reaction? My grandmother was not convinced when I asked her ten years ago. She didn't want to be in the limelight as it was meant to be a film on Gorky not her. However, she finally saw the importance of recounting her experience as the last witness of his life. A few biographies have come out with her stories filtered through the authors' visions. I think she was pleased to have the opportunity to tell the story in her own words.

    * Person you’d most like to interview (living or dead)?
    My grandfather , Arshile Gorky. It was hard to make a film about him without him.

    * Best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve ever been given?
    Follow your instincts.

    * Piece of filmmaking equipment you can’t live without?

    * If money was no object, what is your dream documentary subject?
    A film on the Palio horse race in Siena, where I grew up.


Series Editor
Nick Fraser
Cosima Spender


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