Mark Rothko – A journey into human emotions

Mark Rothko has been one of the most influential artists of the last century. Despite his great production –nearly 800 works were left in charge to the heirs after his death – and the different periods that have characterised it, he is known in particular as one of the protagonists of the Abstract Expressionism, the first American current that got international recognition. And that is also how I got to know him: through his colourful undefined rectangles. When I’ve started to see his paintings on the many online art channels I follow, I genuinely wondered why he has become so important in art history. I started to read more about him, and his works were described as a pure journey into the human emotions, to be experienced in first person. Then the exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Museum of Art History in Vienna, came.

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Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red (post-title), 1949 (image taken from wikiart.org)

While Rothko has revolutionised the art world during his times, I think in Europe he still hasn’t the recognition he deserves, if we consider other artists like Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Henri Matisse (and I haven’t mentioned these artists as merely contemporaries of him; but let’s proceed step by step). Europe in history has always been the centre of the artistic movement with respect to the rest of the world (and here it is interesting to mention my post about a study from Roberta Sinatra, where it is shown that nowadays the major museums and art institutions are almost concentrated in the United States). And it is from the old continent that Rothko takes his inspiration.

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Untitled, 1944 (image taken from wikiart.org)

But let’s start from the origins: Marcus Rothkovich was born in 1903 in Dvinsk, a city in Russia, nowadays in Latvia, from a Jewish family. Since an early age he shows a perceptive and sensitive soul, particularly affected also by the times he lives in: before the First World War there is already a feeling of intolerance against Jews all over Russia. When the situation worsens, his father decides to emigrate with the family to Portland, in the United States. Here Marcus becomes a great student and receives a fellowship for Yale University, although he is still not devoted to art only and chooses a major in humanities. He will never finish his studies at Yale, though he will get, 46 years later, an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts.

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Interior, 1936, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, US (image taken from wikiart.org)

After having dropped out of Yale due to financial reasons, he decides to move to New York and continues his studies in drawing and design. He enrols in the class of the famous Modern artist Max Weber, who shares the same background of being Jewish and immigrant with his student and soon becomes friends with him. Max Weber had travelled to Paris and met Henri Matisse, with whom he studied for a short timee. Thanks to him and to the increasing interest in museums and exhibitions, Rothko gets introduced to his contemporaries in Europe, like the Fauves (the French group around Matisse) and the German Expressionism. This will be the beginning of a long exploration in the art world, from which Mark will constantly take inspiration to create his personal and unique style. Other strong influences –and artists that will deeply inspire him – will come from Milton Avery, Giorgio De Chirico, Michelangelo, but also Nietzsche, the Greek mythology, poetry, music.

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Underground Fantasy, 1942, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, US (image taken from wikiart.org)

His artistic development can be divided in four different periods: the Realist years, from 1924 to 1940, the Surrealist period, from 1940 to 1945; the transition ‘til 1949 that will lead him to the Abstract Expressionism period, his trademark style.

The works characterizing his first two stages are mainly landscapes, interiors, still-life, New York subway scenes, clearly inspired by his first mentor, Max Weber.

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Untitled, 1942, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, US (image taken from wikiart.org)

In 1940 Marcus Rothkovich decides to change his name in Mark Rothko, uncanny because disconnected to any nationality. The period during the Second World War has a strong influence on his style, bringing a deep change in his conception of art, making for him inconceivable to keep painting like before. This change makes him revisiting the Greek mythology, whose brutal tragedies of violence and revenge and strong passions well reflect the modern times. The transition in his works starts with the abandon of concrete subjects to focus on colours and shapes (the so-called multiforms), getting then to his classical stage of pure abstraction, influenced by Dada and Surrealism coming from Europe.

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Multiform (post-title), 1948, 118.7 x 144 cm, National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra, Australia (image taken from wikiart.org)

What emerges from Rothko’s art, in particular from the last period, is the absence of any guidance to interpret his works, later reflected also in the removal of the titles, with the artworks simply numbered. His intention is, indeed, to leave the viewer, through the colours and the large sizes of the canvasses, free to experience their own feelings and emotions.Mark Rothko hasn’t been a poor, unfortunate artist: he has rather been successful and estimated. Yet, he has always refused any label and has always felt somehow misunderstood by the art world. A double proof of his great talent and ability of touching human vulnerability.

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Untitled, 1968, Gemeentemuseum den Haag, Hague, Netherlands (image taken from wikiart.org)

There is a lot more I would like to add about this artist that has deeply impressed me; but I would, instead, suggest to simply take the chance to visit the great exhibition that the Kunsthistorisches Museum is offering in Vienna until the 30th of June, or simply to get curious about him, and to open your mind to the beauty that is not necessary expressed in the form of an idyllic landscape.


 

Head image: Self-portrait, 1936 (image taken from the official page of the exhibition)

All the information are taken from the book Rothko – Pictures as drama, from Jacob Baal-Teschuva, Taschen Books editions, that I bought at the Kunsthistorisches Museum after having visited the exhibition. I give high value to the quality and correctness of my contents, but I am also just an enthusiast (you can find my self-introduction here). Please leave any comment or addition that can improve or give a wider view on this great artist!

Roberta Sinatra and the algorithm of art

Back in my quiet little village in Italy I was reading my favourite newspaper, “Il corriere della Sera”, and I found an article that particularly got my attention: Roberta Sinatra, an Italian physicist, has found an algorithm to analyse fashions in the art market. In order to do so, she studied almost half million careers of artists worldwide during the last 35 years to determine whether there were some common factors responsible for the fortune (or not) of an artist.
Success in art, like in every human activity whose value depends on individual perception, is strongly influenced by other factors than talent only (that is, de facto, unquantifiable). Recognition and values are determined by a network of experts, collectors, art dealers and institutions that will determine the visibility and prestige of an artist.
From the study Roberta carried out, Quantifying reputation and success in art, published on Science, it emerged that talent alone is not sufficient to reach fame. The most important factor is geography, specifically referring to the network available for an artist. Given the role of the major institutions as art portfolios, the researchers have mapped the network around these cores, finding a dense community mainly located in Europe and North America with access to selected artists frequently exhibited, while more peripheral areas appeared isolated, showing little or no exchange outside their local network. Within these cores, a high correlation was found between their centrality and the economic value of the artworks exhibited.

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Coexhibition network: the map represents the existing connections among countries and institutions, with the cores identifying the the top institutions. (Image taken from the paper)

The beginning of the career, defined by the average prestige of the first five exhibits, is the stage determining the future development of an artist. Artists exhibiting in or connected to prestigious institutions since the beginning of their career had better chances to continue exhibiting and easier access to top institutions. On the other hand, artists starting from a low-initial reputation, i.e. in a peripheral network, had a high dropout rate, although an increasing access to the top institutions was shown for the ones who persisted.
For a deeper comprehension Roberta and colleagues tried to define how the reputation of an artist grows. With a probabilistic model they found out that reputation doesn’t depend on the current exhibit only; an average of 12 exhibits is what defines the “memory” of an artist, determining her/his advancement within the institutions and, therefore, an affirmed reputation.

I think that this study has confirmed with numbers what was already easy to expect (that is the reason about conducting a study, too…). It is unlikely that talent only is enough, in any field, to emerge, few lucky exceptions aside (read about the interview to the collectors John and Stuart Evans and their role in the art world). I also think, though, that the study has considered a period in between the traditional networking and the increasing diffusion and power of Internet and social media, and I believe this will be a new key factor to analyse while posing the same question again. On the other hand, the quantity of (more or less) artistic production has increased dramatically, leading to a higher concurrence in terms of visibility and, therefore, possibilities. Maybe this is just the result of sharing publicly what was hidden before in our drawers or timidly shown to our closest ones. Maybe this is motivating people to be more creative and free with their imagination. Maybe this is moving the conventional networks and spreading to new connections and expressions.

Whatever it is, I personally know the need of create, the calling that never stops: and I think that is the special flame that makes you an artist.