In search of lost time

How one man’s traumatic youth revolutionised painting.

He was a bridge not only between surrealism and abstract expressionism, old Europe and a new American culture, but also between a vanished eastern world and the west. Like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under a series of heteronyms, Arshile Gorky's tragic past led him to reinvent himself according to the poet's dictum that: "Life is whatever we conceive it to be." Indeed, there are few painters for whom autobiography and artistic output are so intimately linked.

His adoption of the pseudonym "Gorky" was an attempt to link himself to his celebrated contemporary Maxim Gorky, and to disguise his Armenian origins. He was born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in 1904 in a rural part of what was then the Turkish Ottoman empire. An attack on the city of Van by the Turks in 1915 had prompted virtually the whole of the population of western Armenia to walk a hundred miles to the east, in a desperate evacuation over the mountains.

Gorky's father had already left in 1908 to work in Rhode Island, leaving mother and children behind (until the money could be raised for their passage). During the winter of 1919, as the Russian civil war raged, Gorky's mother died of starvation before he and his sister, Vartoosh, finally began the long journey to join his father in New York. This tragedy was to colour Gorky's relationship to his art. Issues of loss, nostalgia and belonging haunt these edgy, intense paintings.

Studying works in the museums of Boston and New York in the 1920s, Gorky became passionate about contemporary art. His early paintings show him somewhat overwhelmed by the painterly language of his heroes Picasso and Cézanne, to the extent that his self-portrait and still lifes of 1928 might actually have been done by the latter.

It took him a decade to complete his most celebrated works, two portraits of himself as a boy with his lost mother. In the first, the flat areas of earthy colour, his averted gaze and his mother's firmness of mouth show an attempt to capture a lost reality. In the second painting, with its soft, pink tones, Gorky seems to be trying to regain a moment that he knows has long been lost. His mother has slipped down the canvas, her face ghostly and pale, while the young Gorky wears differently coloured shoes, as if having one foot rooted in the past and the other in the present.

Slowly, he began to find his own idiosyncratic visual language, influenced by de Chir­ico's dreamlike sequences. In the 1930s, his style loosened as he shifted away from cubism to the more biomorphic forms of surrealists such as Jean Arp and Joan Miró. The experience of drawing in Connecticut and Virginia further transformed his technique, as is evident in the visceral and fluid Waterfall (1943), which combines observation with buried memories of childhood.

A fire that destroyed his studio in 1946, followed by the diagnosis of cancer and a period of depression, led Gorky to take his own life in the summer of 1948. But his strange shapes and intense, saturated colours, born primarily out of lived and felt experience, opened doors to a new way of making art.

Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective at Tate Modern, London SE1 until 3 May. For more details visit: tate.org.uk.