Age and Life Experience: Mark Rothko

“Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day

Rage rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas 1951)

I have been watching Simon Schama’s BBC series on “The Power of Art”. The program on the American painter Mark Rothko is quite remarkable.

Rothko was born in Russia in 1903 and died in 1970. His body was found on the bathroom floor the same day his exhibition opened at the Tate gallery in London. He had taken his own life. I saw that exhibition in London at that time.

Rothko came to America as a young child with his Jewish family. He already knew about persecution in Russia. His father died 6 months after their arrival in a new country. He was a bookish smart child and eventually gained a scholarship to Yale. At the time Yale took only a quota of Jews, and Rothko soon dropped out. Like many smart kids he had the creative itch…..he decided art could change the world…

The leading abstract expressionist painter in America.

By 1958 after 30 years of financial hardship, awareness of the horrors of the Nazi regime during the war, and exposure to Dada-ism, Picasso and the contemporary  art culture of the day (Andy Warhol and Rock ‘n Roll) Rothko had taken the other path to abstract expressionism and became the leading abstract expressionist painter in America.    His struggle as a young child in Russia, attitudes towards Jewish people in America at the time of his arrival (and later at Yale), the death of his father, the war crimes…

The tragic is always with me” he said and his painting was the means by which he communicated this.

As an artist he had lived inside his head..

Rothko: Red on Maroon

As an artist he had lived inside his head for so long, and his life experience and his belief that art could change the world led him to express and communicate strong emotions like tragedy, ecstasy, irony, sensuality, doom….the human condition as he saw it. He found that some people cried when they stood in front of his paintings. The paintings were large, simple, becoming darker and larger as he grew older. He called his colours “performers”. “Red on Maroon” communicated.  Ambiguity was vital.

I have always believed that you need to try to get inside an artist’s head as far as possible in order to really understand. This can only be done by exposure to many paintings over time, developmentally, and to know something of their life experience through letters, writings, travels, places of habitation. Sometimes one  painting by a great artist can engulf an onlooker directly but it is probably tapping a deep seated need or emotion at that time. Remember that we don’t know what is going on in the brain as we contemplate art.

Rothko and Dylan Thomas (see above) both “raged against the dying of the light” in their latter years. The poem was written by the Welshman as a response to  his dying father, and Rothko’s final paintings as a response to a life time of exposure to the human condition as he saw it and experience in an art culture which he did not embrace.

Great art makes one feel differently or see the world in a different way. Or it communicates how another sees or feels about the world…

If you are lucky you may even get a glimpse inside the head of another.

Art as cognitive enrichment

Can we all paint? Yes indeed. We can all do something! But we can’t all be great artists. That is saved for a few. For us, painting can be highly therapeutic and beneficial particularly as we age. It focuses attention, increases plasticity and can give immense satisfaction. Taking part in a beneficial intellectual and social activity such as ART can enhance  knowledge and expertise and promote successful cognitive aging

  • If, like 86, 671 other viewers you are interested , you can see  Schama’s program on Mark Rothko on You Tube here. However the small screen drastically diminishes Rothko’s  paintings but the commentary by Schama is superb.
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