A ccording to curator Jasper Sharp, there are profound connections between Mark Rothko’s paintings and the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s expansive collection of Old Master paintings. The museum will examine this relationship in a new show created in collaboration with Christopher and Kate Rothko, the artist’s children.
Mark Rothko was deeply fascinated with the history of art, and he took special interest in classical mythology, Dutch Golden Age painting and Christian iconography. On his first trip to Europe, in 1950, Rothko and his wife Mell travelled to Italy, France and England to visit classical collections and historic paintings that would profoundly influence the artist. Though less taken with Paris, in Florence he was moved by Fra Angelico’s frescoes in a convent at the Church of San Marco, where the paintings of monumental scale, delicate light and meditative aesthetic affirmed his search for beauty. At the Kunsthistorisches, a large gallery of studies for Rothko's Seagram Murals will explore their influence.
Art critic John Berger once said that Rothko “did nothing else but look back in a way such as no painter before had ever done,” and this referencing of the past allowed him to borrow numerous techniques from Old Masters. “Rothko was fascinated by Rembrandt’s work,” says Sharp, “both from a technical point of view, his handling of light for example…but also the feeling that Rembrandt would simply give his visitors – this sense of the great human drama.” To achieve this, Rothko focused on light and its effect on color, and his paintings explored new techniques to create depth and transparency in paint to bring about an inner radiance.
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition will feature around 45 paintings that Sharp says convey “how he synthesises the history of European art and architecture into his work.” The opening gallery will present the first 20 years of his career, beginning in 1933, before he settled on his characteristic style. Figurative works, self-portraits, still lifes and subway paintings owe much to Cézanne and his friend Milton Avery, whose weekly drawing sessions Rothko attended.
Leaving the first room will give the sense that Rothko is just on the verge of making a change, that it’s all bubbling up, says Sharp. A series of bay galleries, each with a major painting from 1950, will mark the artist's defining decade, and attempt to display the work how Rothko believed was best: one at a time to envelop a single visitor.
The exhibition concludes by challenging perceptions around the work made in the last years of Rothko’s life, before his suicide in 1970, which often suggest that his deeper-hued paintings reflect his depression and presage his death. A darker palette of blacks, burgundy, deep greens and purples certainly features in his late work, but in these years he also painted with the baby blue, baby pink, terracotta and lilac. “People don’t see these because they don’t fit the story,” says Sharp. But “the last work left on his easel was tomato red.”
Mark Rothko, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, 12 March–30 June.