These days, exhibitions of the American artist Mark Rothko’s work are huge crowd-pullers, and his paintings fetch record sums at auction. Now the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is presenting a new exhibition of Rothko’s work, forty years after the last such show in the Netherlands. This is a unique opportunity to enjoy the artist’s work, as the exhibition is only being held in The Hague – and nowhere else.
With works constructed layer upon shimmering layer; Rothko’s colour fields are of unparalleled intensity and communicate universal human emotions such as fear, ecstasy, grief and euphoria. The artist was an intensely committed painter who invested his whole being in his art and, like many other great artists, he led a difficult life. Rothko was deeply disillusioned by the two world wars, and plagued by depression, yet capable of producing great art with an enduring capacity to comfort and enthral.
Interaction with the viewer was of great importance to Rothko. The artist felt that, for both the artist and the public, an overwhelming emotional experience was the most sublime form of inspiration, which Rothko considered bordering on the spiritual. ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.’ In fact Rothko was not the first abstract artist to attach importance to the spiritual aspect of art; artists like Mondrian and Kandinsky had also seen their work as a spiritual exercise. But Rothko was the first to give pride of place to the emotional, contrary to the impersonal abstraction of the day.
The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum will also include examples of the rather less frequently exhibited early work. Recent research on Rothko’s transitional period shows that he moved towards full abstraction via a kind of Fauve-like Realism, and a highly personal form of Surrealism.
The museum is also home to the world’s greatest collection of work by Mondrian; making the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag the ideal place to show the development in Rothko’s work. Although Rothko was utterly dismayed when one art critic called his work ‘blurry Mondrians’, he was indeed to some extent influenced by the Dutch artist. Speaking with his use of colour in mind, Rothko went so far as to say that Mondrian was the most sensual artist he had experienced.
The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum will spotlight both the similarities and the differences in the artistic development of the two leading first and second generation pioneers of abstract art. It will also shed light on the differences between European and American abstract art, in particular in terms of format and composition.
Mark Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz) was of Russian Jewish origin but grew up in America from the age of ten. Nothing in his background or family seems to have predestined him to become an artist. Indeed, he discovered his bent for painting only relatively late and more or less accidentally. He took some courses but always regarded himself as essentially self-taught. The last years of the artist’s life were overshadowed by mental health problems. His palette became ever darker and more sombre; and in 1970 the despondent artist took his own life.
The Exhibition is on at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag until 1 march 2015