Arshile Gorky and Magouche or Mougouch
I have received word of the death of Xan Fielding’s wife, Agnes “Magouche” Fielding. She had apparently been ill for some time and I am informed that she died on 2 June 2013. We know little about Magouche who was married to Paddy’s very dear friend Xan until his death in Paris in 1991. This article tells us much more and is by her step daughter, the art historian and writer, Hayden Herrera.
First published in Vogue and reformatted for Vogue.com December 2009.
The painter Arshile Gorky’s relationship with his wife, “Mougouch,” was passionate, turbulent—and misunderstood.
I grew up surrounded by the paintings of Arshile Gorky, one of the greatest American artists of the twentieth century and the subject of a current retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The paintings belonged to my stepmother, Agnes (nicknamed Mougouch), and they gave me hints not only about Gorky but about who Mougouch was and had been in the past. Full of searing colors, peculiarly animate shapes, and energy-driven lines, they moved me in ways I did not understand. Since then, I have looked and looked at Gorky’s work. I even wrote a biography of Gorky in order to try to figure out why he painted the way he did. Still, his work remains a mystery. That was the way he wanted it.
The specter of Gorky came into my life in the summer of 1948, when my father, a painter named John C. Phillips, met Agnes Gorky at a party in New York City. The host took my father aside and said, “Be nice to Mougouch. Her husband, Arshile Gorky, just died.” My father was happy to comply, for Mougouch was a beautiful and vibrant 27-year-old with long brown hair, a sensuous mouth, and large eyes that held a hint of mischief. Her responsiveness and her blend of boldness and femininity made her a magnet to men.
In the months that followed their meeting, my father and Mougouch fell in love. In December, together with her two young daughters, Maro and Natasha, they sailed for Naples and finally settled in France. My older sister and I learned about our father’s new family from photographs he sent us at our boarding school. During summers on Cape Cod we came to know our stepmother and our new sisters, who called our father “Daddy.” Compared with our previous stepmother, Mougouch was astonishing in her affection and her sense of fun. She called us “darling,” and I was entranced by her swift, graceful walk and her melodious voice.
When to my delight my father returned with his family to the United States and bought a house on Beacon Hill in Boston, my mother, who lived in Mexico, sent me to live with them. Mougouch was so motherly that when my baby sisters Antonia and Susannah were christened at Boston’s Trinity Church, I decided to be christened with them so that she could be my godmother. Our house in Boston was full of Gorky’s art books and, even better, his art. His presence was alive there, for Gorky remained a powerful figure in Mougouch’s world. Ten-year-old Maro, who herself became a painter, talked about her father incessantly, holding on to the image of his genius. She insisted that with his Armenian background, he was a much more compelling figure than my proper Bostonian father. We would try to decode Gorky’s imagery. Some works had almost cartoon-like lines that nearly coalesced into recognizable creatures. In one, we definitely discovered Bugs Bunny.
Mougouch was born Agnes Magruder in 1921, the eldest daughter of a naval officer and a mother who was descended from the renowned neoclassical sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Agnes’s childhood was full of travel—school in Washington, D.C., then the Hague, Virginia, and finally Boston, where she was sent to live with her dying grandmother and where she fell in love with painting. “My mission,” she explains, “was to cheer up my grandfather and his gloomy house overlooking the Charles River.” Her mother thought college unnecessary, so Agnes finished school in Switzerland. When her father was posted to Shanghai in 1940, she was so rebellious—she spent the night with a young diplomat and broadcast her fascination with Chinese Communism—that her parents packed her off to college, after all, in Iowa City. From there, she took a bus to Manhattan and enrolled at the Art Students League, only to quit for a typing job at a magazine called China Today. What she remembers about this period was her extreme loneliness. Every day on the way to work she said hello to the man behind the newsstand just to have a human exchange.
In February 1941, Willem de Kooning and his future wife, Elaine Fried, told Agnes that she ought to meet de Kooning’s great friend Arshile Gorky. Elaine described Gorky as a “terrible show-off who sings and dances and makes everyone dance in a circle waving a handkerchief.” A few days later Gorky stopped by de Kooning’s studio and said he wished he had a strong American girlfriend like Elaine. Elaine persuaded him to come with them to a party where they would introduce him to a nice blonde American girl. At the party, Agnes remembers, she sat on a bench between de Kooning and “a man with a mustache who was very quiet and rather pokey.” She was still waiting for the exotic stranger to appear when most of the guests had departed. On her way out, the man with the mustache stopped her and said in his accented English, ” ‘Miss Maguiger?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Gorky!’ ” He had expected a blonde, and she had expected an extrovert. They went to a coffee shop, and Gorky asked her so many questions that she finally emptied her handbag onto the table to give him a picture of her identity.
The following evening he took her to an Armenian restaurant. Soon they saw each other daily, and he gave her the name Mougouch, which he said meant “little mighty one.” When Gorky identified the welts on her stomach as bedbug bites, he moved her to a new apartment, whose skylight he scrubbed so thoroughly that the putty collapsed and rain poured in. The upshot was that she moved into his studio on Union Square.
That summer Gorky was to have an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He and Mougouch drove across the country with Gorky’s good friend the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. When he and Noguchi argued about clouds, in which Gorky was absolutely certain he saw peasant women, Mougouch sided with Noguchi, and Gorky was furious. Crossing a bridge over the Mississippi, he became so angry that he ordered Noguchi to stop the car. He was going to walk back to New York. “I went after him,” Mougouch recalls. “He almost threw me into the Mississippi River!”
Upon their arrival in Los Angeles, Gorky was in a pique because the hotel was too expensive. Exhausted, Mougouch went to bed. Noguchi came in to say good night, and Gorky, in a fit of jealousy, burst into the room and dumped a bagful of lawn clippings on top of her. Mougouch insists that “there was not a murmur of electricity between me and Isamu,” but the critic Katharine Kuh suspected “a flirtation on Noguchi’s part.” In fact, both Mougouch and Noguchi were extremely seductive. Mougouch was brought up to be amusing and articulate and to make whomever she talked to happy. Gorky, reared in the Armenian province of Van in Ottoman Turkey, was highly puritanical. He did not understand that for Mougouch, flirtation was simply part of good manners. To this day, as a great-grandmother, she is an irrepressible flirt with men, women, children, and animals.
In September Mougouch and Gorky were married in Virginia City, Nevada, scandalizing her patrician family. She was 20. Gorky, who lied about his age, was probably about 41. They bought a curtain ring at Woolworth’s, found a justice of the peace, and said their vows. After drinking champagne in a bar, they camped in the Sierra Nevada in a double sleeping bag. During these early years, Mougouch and Gorky struggled to make ends meet. She worked for United China Relief, and Gorky made a few sales and did some teaching. He had not had a New York show in years, and his reputation was at a low ebb. Mougouch tells me that even Noguchi had warned her not to marry Gorky, because he was “stuck in a rut” and kept scraping and repainting the same canvas.
With the captivating Mougouch at his side, Gorky’s circle of friends expanded. Over the years, Léger, Mondrian, and Miró all had occasion to visit. The couple met Surrealists Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy, and André Masson, who had come to the United States to escape the war. At a dinner specially organized for them to meet the Surrealist poet André Breton, Mougouch served as translator, and the friendship took off. She remembers dancing down the street with Gorky because Breton had promised to visit the studio. Later, she was apprehensive: “What does one give a poet for dinner?” The menu—artichokes, pilaf, and Brie cheese—was a success, and Breton was full of admiration for Gorky’s paintings.
The breakthrough in Gorky’s work came in the summer of 1943, when Mougouch’s mother invited him, Mougouch, and their infant daughter, Maro, to stay at her farm in Virginia. Being in the country surrounded by family was a catalyst for Gorky. “Gorky came back one day with this rather complicated drawing and said, ‘Will anybody understand this? Do you think I’m mad?’ ” Mougouch told him his drawing was marvelous and to go back into the fields to make more. “This summer was the real release of Gorky,” Mougouch wrote to an aunt. He had created a world of his own, a world so immersed in nature that he could look in and out at the same time.
Mougouch had a deep understanding of Gorky’s work and was also a brilliant facilitator of his career, charming potential dealers and cooking delicious meals for museum curators. But during their second Virginia summer, her letters to her best friend, Jeanne Reynal, expressed a feeling of aimlessness. For a woman of Mougouch’s intelligence and energy, cooking, cleaning, and looking after her baby was not enough. She wished she could be a writer, and her letters indicate that she might have excelled in that field. She set up her typewriter in a cabin, wishing “to lay an egg myself and when I get up and look, nothing there…humiliating.” In another letter, she rationalized: “…o well hell there is time and there are more important fishes to fry, how to live and propagate gorkys, paintings and infants though I know it would be better if I did more I don’t so there.” Jeanne told Mougouch to look at Maro and at the transformation in Gorky’s work. “You have had a part in this. These things are not to be sniffed at.” (Mougouch did produce another Gorky—Natasha, born in 1945.)
Thanks to the dramatic change in Gorky’s painting, the dealer Julien Levy took him on and gave him a show in 1945. Then came the first of a series of disasters that made Gorky’s last years a calvary. On January 16, 1946, his studio at their house in Connecticut burned down, and many of his paintings were lost. Early in March, disaster struck again. Gorky underwent a colostomy for rectal cancer. He became, Mougouch recalls, “totally paranoid …a tree cut down.” No matter how hard she tried to convince him that his “rearranged body” did not disgust her, he himself, a fiercely fastidious man, was revolted. He sometimes burst out in violence. The miseries that plagued Gorky seemed to rekindle the horrors of his childhood—his experience of the Armenian genocide in 1915 and, four years later, the trauma of his mother dying of starvation in his arms. Mougouch wrote to Jeanne, “Gorky has to do some drawing or he & I will die.”
Soon, “working like a mad man—a happy one,” as Mougouch wrote, Gorky was drawing as though it were a race against mortality. But his total focus on work was distancing. “More and more our marriage was just about my engagement with Gorky’s painting,” she recalls. “But I loved him.” She wrote him letters of encouragement when she took her daughters away for the summer: “Everything that comes from your beautiful hand seems touched with magic that sings in my chest.” Gorky wrote back, “…when you return I want my harvest too [sic] be very big and good…. You are with me my darling without you I could not go on working.”
When Mougouch returned, she was thrilled with Gorky’s “harvest.” Gorky, however, was depleted and unable to work. He talked of suicide. Ever the optimist, Mougouch tried to lift his spirits. At a party for her twenty-seventh birthday, in June 1948, she remembers “whirling around with a lunatic pleasure,” dancing by herself in the vegetable garden. But Gorky’s depression was invasive. “He was wrapped in silence all those last months.” In mid-June she had had enough. She left the house and spent two days with Matta, who, over the years, had made many attempts to seduce her. “I felt a new strength. I felt that somebody had loved me and I could go on forever.”
Gorky found out about the affair but for a while said nothing. Another disaster swiftly followed. Gorky’s neck was broken in a car accident. His right arm was temporarily paralyzed, and he thought he would never be able to paint again. Mougouch did what she could to alleviate his misery, but, she recalls, after the accident “everything just collapsed.” One night in a rage, Gorky broke furniture and tore up drawings Matta had given them. Mougouch tried to soothe him, but he pushed her away, and she fell down the stairs. Later that night, she told him that she loved him and would not leave him. The next day, Gorky’s doctor told her that Gorky was dangerous. He insisted that she take her daughters to her mother’s in Virginia. On the morning of July 21, Gorky called Mougouch and said he was going to commit suicide in order to “free her and free himself.” She said she would come back to him, but it was too late. Having left ropes dangling from various trees and rafters, Gorky hanged himself in a shed. He left a note written in chalk on the box he’d stood on and kicked away: “Goodbye my loveds.”
After Gorky’s death, Mougouch stayed in the city with Jeanne. Matta’s love, she says, “held me up.” In August she went to Maine, and Matta joined her. On their way back, they stopped at my father’s house on Cape Cod. My father was out, but when he returned he discovered Mougouch—with whom he had flirted at the party they’d met at just the month before—dancing with Matta. In the following months, he and Matta vied for Mougouch’s love. Mougouch went to Marcel Duchamp for advice, and he told her that the responsibility of a wife and two children would be too much for Matta. He said, “I think you should go somewhere with the children and paint or write.” Mougouch wept as she saw Matta off on his flight to Chile to see his family.
She and my father were married at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris in 1949. For Mougouch this was a marriage of equals—she was not in my father’s thrall. She kept the myth of Gorky alive and shepherded his legacy, finding dealers to handle his work and encouraging museums to show and buy it. Though the shadow of Gorky’s suicide hung over her life, she was the perfect artist’s widow, just as she had tried to be an ideal artist’s wife. Since then, her life has been rich in friendships with artists, writers, and filmmakers. She is admired as a dazzling hostess, witty, elegant, and subtle. Restless always, she left my father after ten years and eventually married the writer Xan Fielding, with whom she seemed content. While he was dying of cancer, they lived in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli. I remember with various sisters following Mougouch down the Paris street and trying to imitate her proud, sensuous, and graceful stride. I did not love her any less after she was no longer my stepmother. Over the years, I have learned from her how to cook, decorate a house, dress, talk, walk, and look at paintings.
Today, Gorky is seen as a bridge between the School of Paris and Abstract Expressionism, a movement that took off just at the moment when he died. As her best friend put it all those years ago, Mougouch played a part in this artistic transformation. When the Gorky retrospective opened in Philadelphia in October, Mougouch could not be there, but the coming together of so many magnificent Gorky paintings and drawings is testimony to her triumph as well.
Find out more about Arshile Gorky on his Wikipedia page.
Xan Fielding obituary