Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.

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