Ruminations on Rothko and the Meaning of Art

Rothko 1I have only every seen photographs of Mark Rothko’s paintings but I would love to see them in person.  A dream of mine would be to visit the Rothko room at the Tate Modern.  This is kind of unusual for me because I am usually not attracted to modern art.  But reading about Rothko and his philosophy of art has intrigued me. Alain de Botton who has written a book called Art as Therapy talks about sitting in the Rothko room as a teenager and being overwhelmed by a feeling that he did not really understand at the time.  Later in life he made the connection when reading the following answer that Rothko made when he was asked what was the meaning of his art. Rothko replied;

Life is difficult for you and for me.  My canvases are places where the sadness in you and the sadness in me can meet.  That way, we have a little less grief to deal with“.

To this end, Rothko donated nine of his paintings to the Tate Museum to be permanently displayed in such a way to allow this emotional connection between artist, art and viewer.

rothko_room_tate_modernThis fact is made more interesting by the history of these paintings which were originally commissioned by the Seagram Company to be displayed in the Four Seasons Restaurant in their newly built modernist building in Manhattan. In a famous move Rothko rejected the commission, (worth about two million in today’s currency), because he felt that the true meaning and value of his work would be lost in that world.  To Rothko, finishing a painting was just the beginning of the artistic process.  What happened after, how the painting was viewed, was crucial.

maquette for installation of seagram murals

As such Rothko was extremely fussy and controlling about how his paintings were hung.  Low to the floor, close together and in a space that was dimly lit was his preference. The Seagram Paintings are large, (he called them murals), and he wanted to bring the viewer into the interior of the painting in order to connect with its subject which, to Rothko, was the elemental emotions of the human experience.

Caravaggio is one of my favorite artists.  I have seen his paintings in books and in Art Galleries.  His work is so powerful I always find it striking, even in photographs. Nothing can compare, however, to the experience of seeing his work in the French church, San Luigi des Francesi in Rome.

The calling of St. Mathew -coin box

The Church is dimly lit and the paintings are in the very back.  They are clothed in darkness until you put a euro in the coin box and then a light comes on illuminating the trio.  They are all about the life of St. Matthew but The Calling of St. Matthew is my favorite. The church never seems to be crowded and I always feel I can stand there forever. Some argue that the lighting in the Church is too dim to truly appreciate the brushstrokes and details of these paintings but I love the feeling of the place.

The-Calling-of-Saint-Matthew_CaravaggioThe story is of Levi the tax collector who is summoned by Christ and leaves everything behind to follow him. The story takes place in a Custom house and Caravaggio skillfully illuminates the hand of Christ and the surprise on the face of St. Matthew.  Yet what is going on in the shadows, is equally illuminating. Jesus himself is hard to see, only his hand is illuminated.  Most of the people surrounding St. Matthew are in darkness simply going about their business oblivious to the drama going on in front of them. Caravaggio was known for his use of chiaroscuro, (light and shadow), for dramatic affect.

Whether you are a religious person or not, this painting tells a universal story.  Of those moments, really seconds in time, when we feel truly touched by something outside ourselves calling us to change.  We often are not even truly aware of what this is and those around us are usually completely unaware of what is happening.  These moments are astonishing but essentially private and inexplicable. Yet, if you let them, they can change your life.

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