So it actually happened, last Friday I went from being a Rothko skeptic to being a Mark Rothko fan. This is why I love my art history class so much. Our tutor, this tiny, soft spoken lady, manages to talk and convey modern art in a fascinating context of the historical background as well as bringing a completely new insight into the artists minds and methods. Most of the time I go in thinking “this is probably going to be boring” and at the end of the day I am completely fascinated and enthralled by it all. Could also be the fact that I’m a bit of an art fanatic but you know…
Abstract expressionist painting developed in the 1950’s and to most of us, the names of the time quite familiar. Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Richter etc. When I think expressionist paintings, I think of big canvases with paint splattered all over that cost huge unimaginable sums of money and convey nothing to me. To some this may sounds small minded, but I am sure others can relate.
However, when I took the time to really give the art a chance, my views radically changed, in particular my views on Rothko. I remember last year, one of the Rothko paintings at the Tate modern got vandalized by a guy claiming that he was ‘adding to the value of the painting’ (haha) and I thought, “well what an idiot” but at the same time, “maybe the man has a point, all this silly art that is over hyped and has no meaning”. I am admitting a whole lot of shameful thoughts in this post, I guess, but alas I have changed my ways a bit.
Rothko and the other expressionists felt that the physical process of painting is more important than the actual outcome of the end product. As well as doing this, they wanted to paint without having to reference any particular objects or things. By removing all of the traditional elements within a painting, they wanted to make them universal and let them speak for themselves.
To Rothko, the scale of the painting, the colors of the painting and the setting in which they are shown and exhibited were particularly important. With his work he wanted to create a sort of spiritual experience, to let the viewer be immersed in feelings and emotions. On the one hand the emotions that he was trying to convey but on the other hand also let the viewer have his own experience. For Rothko, color was “merely an instrument”. He said: “basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom…The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Weeping?? Really? When I heard this, I thought that this really must be an exaggeration, people don’t weep in front of paintings, do they? Whatever the case, these values were so important to him that he turned down his first ever commission, which was by the four seasons, even though he had already spent years on completing the works, because he felt they would not fit into the commercial setting of a restaurant, which is where they would have been placed.
Instead he donated most of them to The Tate Britain, for the public to see and experience. So after my lecture we headed over to see the Seagram Murals and see what it was all about. The room as well as the paintings are dimly lit and all the paintings are large scale.
I sat in front of the painting below. It was quite busy and many people were talking and discussing so I decided to put on my headphones and listen to some Pink Floyd. It worked like magic and I was quickly away in my own world of thoughts.
And I totally got it. The mood, the feeling, I was completely immersed in the piece and I floated away into my own deepest darkest emotions. I felt somehow connected to the artist and his work, myself, in a strange way, I think I felt connected to the universe. Although this sounds very cheesy and maybe a bit out there, it was my experience and I can only recommend for others to give it a chance.
Sometimes the most beautiful and significant things are also those which are taken for granted. We dismiss masterpieces because we have seen them a million times before. In books or on the internet, or because we feel they are over hyped. In truth they may just be misrepresented and misunderstood. Another thing to remember is that a piece of art can only truly be understood when it is seen in its original state, in a setting for which it was intended. Or maybe you disagree with me?
If you want to see Mark Rothkos work, the Seagram Murals are part of the perminant exhibition at the Tate Modern in London