Rothko Plot Twist

How could he just smear some blocks of color on a canvas and call it good? Who did this guy think he was? I was enraged when I first learned about Mark Rothko.

There I was, frowning at the little splotches of red and yellow paint in my textbook while the lecture droned on. The bell rang, I closed my textbook, and I didn’t think of Rothko again- until this week.

Rothko untitled-1968

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1968)

As I walked peacefully through the galleries of the MoMA in New York, I scanned the rooms – Kandinsky’s clean cuts of shapes, Klimt’s shimmering goddesses, Katz’s flat planes of pigment… and then a massive canvas of molten orange and yellow. A Rothko. This was different, I liked it. It looked nothing like the harsh blotches of color that I had seen in my textbook.

The tints faded into one another, they were soft, sensual. After timidly approaching the next painting, I saw that, under the layer of brown, a deep blue lay discreetly underneath and shone through. It was as radiant and luminescent as Klimt’s The Kiss.

The gallery security guard shifted nervously on his feet as I became enveloped in the painting, I hadn’t noticed I was so close to the work. Sorry, sir. Backing up, I plopped down on the bench and faced the massive, harmonious canvas.

Peace at last.

The feathery rectangles looked like soft pillows and blankets, I wanted to enter the painting and sink into a deep sleep. It was visual numbing for the mind, a buzzing sensation, a deep tissue massage to my brain. John Elderfield says, “As your eyes settle to it, things start to happen.”

Beginning to adjust, my eyes began to flick from one hue to the next, stimulating a mix of colors made entirely by my brain that was not physically on the canvas. For example, after I stared at the blue for a long time, I shifted to the yellow and saw a tint of green. It seemed almost as if I were creating my own painting, from this already existing painting! Whhhaaattt? “You are the companion to the picture,” says Elderfield. And I couldn’t agree more. Never before had I felt like such an active participant in the process of viewing a painting. I felt so special; it seemed that the colors were competing for my attention.

I left the room feeling airy and weightless, a converted Rothko fan (I even caved for some Rothko greeting cards from the MoMA gift shop).

The days following my New York visit were riddled with stress and anxiety as I made my move away from home. What am I going to cook? A shoe?! Who knows. Every day is a surprise. Luckily, I had a trick to cope with my scattered thoughts. I close my eyes; I think about that Rothko. The colors hover in thin air, a few deep breaths, I open my eyes, and voila. I have pulled myself back down to earth.


rothko portraitAfter researching more about Rothko and his work, I have cycled back to where I started- dismayed. He did not at all intend for his paintings to be a source of comfort or familiarity. In fact, he even said that if viewers of his work were “doing it right,” they were supposed to cry. Frantically I scrolled to the next article hoping maybe this was just a false claim. Again, I was wrong. Rothko once said to a friend, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration- all of these at once. I would like my paintings to have the quality of such moments.”

No, no it can’t be!

Everything I thought that Rothko stood for in this paintings, shattered. Instantly I was flooded with self doubt. Did I look at the painting wrong? Is that even possible? Why was I incapable of feeling what he worked so hard to communicate? What did I miss? Where I had felt familiarity, he had meant mystery. Where I had felt comfort, he had meant threat. Where I had felt peace, he had meant frustration.

Red on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

Rothko, Red on Maroon (1959)

I’m still struggling to grapple onto the new meaning of Rothko’s work. But, which is the real meaning- my personal opinion, or his intended message?

This brings me to my new philosophical question about art: Can the “meaning” of a work of art deviate from (or, in my case, be the total opposite of) the artist’s intent? I think yes. I feel that my emotional reactions to Rothko’s paintings are still valid.

Have you ever felt dismayed by an art piece? If so, which art piece? What did you discover about the piece or artist that contradicted your opinions? I am curious to hear about your thoughts in the comments.

Header Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (1952)


Chaplin’s World

My recent visit to Chaplin’s World in Corsier sur Vevey, Switzerland left me feeling starstruck. Chaplin’s World, opened in April 2016, consists of both a museum dedicated to Chaplin and his personal home – Le Manoir de Ban – in which he spent the final years of his life.

The museum is extraordinarily organized, inviting, and interactive. After watching a ten minute introductory film on Chaplin, the guests begin weaving their way through informative panels, excerpts from films, and Grévin wax figures. I really didn’t expect to run into Albert Einstein, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Sophia Loren, Oona O’neill, Buster Keaton, Roberto Benigni, Federico Fellini Paulette Godard, Winston Churchill, The Tramp, and multiple Charlie Chaplins! Guests are welcome to interact with small staged sets from Chaplin movies and take pictures.

chaplin barber

Frequent chuckles and occasional fits of laughter from guests as they watch a movie excerpt testify to the pleasant and amusing atmosphere that accompanies the museum visit. Besides being extremely entertaining, however, the museum is immensely insightful.

Did you know that Chaplin wrote, played in, directed, and produced his own films? I certainly didn’t. His particular work ethic of involvement in each step of production is a trait I find admirable and impressive.

Furthermore, his movies starring his famous character The Tramp are deeper than a mod tim. dic. cc.surface level silent comedy. They communicate political and social messages pertinent to the contemporary issues of the time. Modern Times comments on the changing of the industrial, modernized world and the struggles of the Great Depression. The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin plays the roles of a fascist dictator and a Jewish barber, condemns Hitler, Mussolini, and anti-semitism.

I sincerely marvel at Chaplin’s talent; he was able to create a harmonious melange within films, which were charged with heavy sociopolitical subjects, yet laugh-out-loud hilarious.

After visiting the museum, I watched my first full length Chaplin film, The Gold Rush: I laughed uncontrollably. Laughing alone is a difficult thing to achieve, and a film capable of bringing me to do so is a confirmation of true quality. It is special to laugh alone, not out of social convention, but out of genuine amusement. You’re a wizard, Chaplin!

If you get the chance, I strongly recommend you pay Chaplin’s World a visit.