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Art City Break: Mark Rothko Retrospective in Vienna

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Rothko fan? Need a quick escape from the Big Smoke? How about an arty city break to Vienna to see the exclusive Rothko Retrospective? "A concise survey of his artistic career", co-curated by his children Kate and Christopher - on at Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien until 30 June 2019.

"Rothko looked back in a way such as no painter before had ever done"(John Berger)

Kunsthistoriches Museum collections cover over 5,000 years of creativity and artistic expression, enabling an insightful context for Rothko's artistic expression. Because before breaking the tradition, Rothko absorbed it, mastered it and then broke its essence down to its rawest, almost-bleeding core.

The exhibition takes us along four decades of Rothko's becoming, from his early figurative paintings to the innovative masterpieces from the 1960s. Watching how his cultural trips to Europe, seeking old master's collections, churches and observing their architecture opened his inner eyes wider, into what later became a masterful way of incorporating the sacred in a groundbreaking abstract way of expressing his favourite themes: the timeless, the tragic, the sacred and the spiritual. Equally sacred and profane - that's the secret key behind his canvases.

Studying the Old Masters

Born Marcus Rothkovich in today's Latvia, Rothko's first contact with the art practise was through a life drawing class. It opened his interest in art and made him enrol at the Art Students League in New York. The Big Apple's museums and galleries introduced him to Cezanne, Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as determined him to create his own replicas to traditional subject matters such as bathers, mother holding a sleeping infant, still life, portraits and light studies.

Early Works (1933-1940)

The First Room of the Exhibition takes us through his early works (1933-1940) and already hints at some of his later iconic style: in Contemplation he already chunks the background into fields of colour, Untitled (Two Women at the Window) and Self Portrait (inspired by Rembrand's 1659 self portrait) already share his interest into the act of looking. Even Interior (1936) - a small painting of two-tiered marble columns against colourful walls trigger his abstract compositional framework and the hovering portals developed in his mature years. The first 15 years of his painting career also include a series of paintings of the NY subway, with passengers descending or waiting - studies of urban alienation, abrutised melancholy and depersonalised public solitude. The tall and slender figures recall Giacometti's frail, tragic subjects - timely portraits of the Great Depression harshness.

From Figurative to Mythical (1941-1946)

In a time consumed by social struggles and war, Rothko turns away from figurative painting to a new-found interest: symbols.

"The figure could not serve my purposes." (Mark Rothko)

An entire generation of artists sought refuge in the untapped unconscious and tried to escape the horrors of everyday life by turning to literature, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Carl Jung's ideas or Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. Many European surrealists had to flee the old continent and seek refuge in NY, bringing with them a fresh air of inspiration and new aesthetic perspectives. In line with the changing times, Rothko too tried to set his subject matters free, adapting looser, slightly biomorphic and icreasingly-abstract ways of visual expression. He painted scenes from the New Testament, while stylistically mingling influences from Picasso with Renaissance altarpieces. He is combining modern and ancient symbols, architectural structures and amorphous shapes.

Multiforms (1947-1948)

After leaving the mundane shapes aside, the transition towards Abstract was made through a collection of works titled Multiforms - patches of lightly layered colour pigment hovering within fleeting spaces. He also gives up on two conventions: he eliminates the frames, leaving his paintings free, while abandoning descriptive titles in favour of numbers or just "Untitled." He forces the colour onto the viewer by empowering it to become the sole carrier of emotion and meaning. The viewer is left without any explicit clue and has no alternative than to turn to his inner self, experience and emotional baggage in order to "get" the message.

Pictures are dramas, shapes are performers.

Early Classic Works (1949-1956)

Starting with 1949, Rothko's signature style is starting to crystallise due to an intimate artistic triumph as his first luminous bands of colour floating on gently painted backgrounds see the artistic world's daylight. Rothko doesn't shy away from colours, experimenting every range, including black (a first for him!), lilac, crimson, lime green or even saffron.

Light, Darkness, Coolness and Warmth - they all meet up in his bursting palette. As his visual ambitions grow, they're taking the spectrum of pigments and canvas size along with them. "Monumental" gets a new dimension, claiming more physical space and intensifying the aesthetic experience.

This chapter of his artistic journey is my personal favourite from this exhibition because each artwork is separated in a mini-chapel-like space in the gallery. Visitors can simply sit in front of it, take it all in, in a one-on-one encounter with Rothko's brilliance.

"I paint large pictures because i want to be very intimate and human." (Mark Rothko)

Viennese curators are taking us back to 1950, when Rothko left for his first trip to Europe with his second wife. They visited chapels, churches and they got to see old masters' art collections from London, Rome, Siena, Florence, Paris and Venice. Four years later, in an interview, Rothko was fantasising about the possibility of setting up small sacred chapels here and there, where travellers could take an hour to mediate on just one painting majestically exposed in one little room.

In 1954, ahead his first major American exhibition in a museum, his indications on installing the artworks were very specific. He insisted for a close encounter between the audience and the painting. By hanging them low, as close to the floor as possible, they would co-exit in the same dimension as the viewer and trigger more emotions, guaranteeing a personal connection between art and viewer.

Across the last 2 rooms we follow the slight changes he carved in his practice, channelling the inspiration he found during all his four European trips taken between 1950 and 1956.

Although Rothko never visited Austria, he was very passionate about its musical legacy and he was often listening to Vienese concerts recordings of Haydn, Schubert or Mozart.

"I want to raise painting to the level of poignancy reached by poetry and music." (Mark Rothko)

In the last room, the Seagram Murals are at last together, creating that PLACE where his paintings become architecture. After all, his muses were the colonnaded Greek temples he visited during his trips.

The retrospective is an extraordinary gift to these times, and if if it reveals critical junctions between Rothko's biography and his artistic path, it raises further questions and invitations to meditate upon his legacy. An enigma we'll always need to carry us away when reality strikes. We cannot but remain silent, still and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by his perspective on life, death, light, darkness and colour.

On the way out, treat your sweet tooth in the cafe

Rothko Retrospective poster in the U-Bahn (the Vienese Subway)


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