By J.S. Porter
(for J.L. Tossounian)
Ararat is a mountain in eastern Turkey. Mythically, it’s where Noah’s Ark reached land after the flood and over which the rainbow of new life shone. Musically, it’s a CD by Mychael Danna with the heavenly soprano voice of Isabel Bayrakdarian. Historically, it’s the heart of Armenian civilization.
Filmically, it’s Atom Egoyan’s work of art.
Keith Garebian in his poetry collection, Reservoir of Ancestors, speaks of all Armenian descendants as “orphans of Ararat”. Ararat is the mother who lost her children, the mother who can be seen from present day Armenia but cannot be touched. It’s the emblem of loss. It’s the physical embodiment of the Armenian genocide.
Atom Egoyan’s Ararat tells many stories about Armenian disasporans living in Toronto, but the main one is the story of denial.
How a country (Turkey) denies its genocide against its fellow citizens (Armenians) in 1915. The denial continues. Over a million Armenians died, nearly 2/3’s of the Armenian population.
How a son (Raffi) tries to deny his roots, his heritage.
How Raffi’s girlfriend and half-sister denies the possibility of Raffi’s mother’s innocence and her father’s accidental death.
How a father denies the sexuality of his son.
How an actor of Turkish heritage playing a Turkish role denies the fact of the genocide and Turkey’s role in it.
Ararat is also the story of ambivalence, ambiguity and the great Armenian-American painter, Arshile Gorky. Gorky denied too. He denied his father. (He told a fabricated story that his father abandoned him at an early age and that he never saw him again. The fact is that Gorky’s father lived in the United States and Gorky lived with him for a time.) He denied his Armenian heritage, pretending to be Russian and changing his name from Vosdanik Adoian to Arshile Gorky. Not even Gorky’s wife knew that he was Armenian, so convincing was his storytelling. The one person that he didn’t deny was his mother.
He carried with him a photograph of himself and his mother from 1912. From the photograph, and perhaps owing something to youthful exposure to Mother and Child icons in Armenian churches, Gorky fashioned a charcoal sketch and two paintings of The Artist and His Mother: one now in the Whitney Museum in New York City and the other, on which Egoyan relies, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Both are haunting paintings of a beautiful mother and her artist son in iconic pose.
The artist as a boy has flowers in his right hand. The mother has her hands in her lap. Her hands are more abstract than realistic, more appendages than fully formed. She’s sitting. He’s standing. The mother’s hair is covered. Both are dressed in heavy clothing. The mother looks sculptural, almost sepulchral, as if carved in stone. Both peer at the viewer with dark, intense eyes.
All portraits are elegies, one of Gorky’s biographers, Matthew Spender, implies. “They start from the premise that we are all irretrievably lost,” Spender says. The mother looks lost—she is only a few years away from death— her face, a death mask. And yet, paradoxically, Gorky’s portrait rescues her from death. She will not be lost or forgotten. The painting will not permit her oblivion.
Egoyan gives you the back story (the lead up to the photograph being taken) and the forward story (Gorky transforming a photograph into a painting). Throughout the film, Gorky works on his homage to his mother. It’s the one constant in the film along with frequent footage of Ararat.
Gorky was “an orphan of Ararat”. In 1915, he and his mother fled Van where they had lived through the massacres. In 1919, his mother starved to death in the famine. Egoyan gets much of this historical background into his film. You see Gorky fretting over the painting, by turns dancing and weeping. In real life, he worked on the painting from 1926 to 1942, “never wholly finishing it, never letting it out of his studio, leaving it on the wall for long periods without touching it” (“His Own Private Armenia” by Anne Hollander in London Review of Books, Volume 26, Number 7: 1 April, 2004).
Egoyan stays within the facts and moves beyond them. He has the character Gorky leave the portrait unfinished, and his mother’s hands unfinished, in keeping with the facts about the painting and Gorky’s philosophy “When something is finished that means it’s dead…I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it” (quoted by Nouritza Matossian in Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky ).
Did he keep the painting unfinished because to finish it would have implied that his mother was dead to him?
For dramatic effect and to underscore the deliberate incompleteness of the portrait, Egoyan takes Gorky one step further: he has him smear his mother’s hands at the completion of the painting. His hands smear the paint on his mother’s hands as if he’s smearing blood from her hands to his. The gesture is ambiguous. It signifies blood, pain and tragedy, but also unity. For a moment, the one who was separated from his mother’s body is returned to it. The artist and his mother are one again. For a moment, an orphan of Ararat is no longer an orphan.