The fact that the world-renowned 20th-century American artist Mark Rothko (25.11.1903-25.02.1970) was born in the Russian Empire town of Dvinsk (present-day Daugavpils) is little discussed in international circles.
At the age of five, Marcus Rothkowitz was sent to study the basics of Talmud at a Jewish religious elementary school. Mystical Judaism inspired the young Marcus to write Old Testament-themed poetry, and it became a key inspiration for him later on. In 1913, with his mother and elder sister Sofia, the 10-year-old boy undertook a 12-day sea voyage to reunite with his father, who had already immigrated to the USA. The Rothkowitz family settled in Portland, Oregon.
Having graduated top of his class from Lincoln High School, Marcus Rothkowitz gained a scholarship to Yale University (1921). The young man’s initial aspiration was to become and engineer or a lawyer, but two years later he moved to New York, where he attended drama classes and studied at the Art Students League under Max Weber (1924-1927). The works by French postimpressionist Paul Cézanne, surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miró, and fauvist Henri Matisse in particular had a great impact on his artistic development.
In 1940, Marcus Rothkowitz changed his first and last names, becoming Mark Rothko. Rothko was a central figure in the post-war painting scene in the USA and, together with Paul Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnet Newman and Clifford Still represented the so-called New York school of the abstract expressionism movement. Like other artists of his generation, Rothko explored several stylistic directions until, in the mid-20th century, he arrived at his own unique style. Throughout 1920s and 1930s, he created hundreds of figurative works on paper and canvas, including nudes, portraits, interiors with human figures, cityscapes and landscapes. Around 1940, Rothko began to dip in antique mythology and depth psychology, read Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Gustav Jung and Søren Kierkegaard. For almost a decade, his works were created in the surrealist stylistics, featuring images from antique tragedies as a response to the tragic wartime events in Europe. Around 1947, Rothko eradicated all figurative elements from his artwork and evolved a personal style: two or three rectangular-like shapes, hovering above and interacting with one another against a field.
One of the essential features of Rothko’s paintings is their ability to evoke strong emotional responses within viewers, which mirror simple and complex, personal and universal concepts by means of a reduced yet highly potent visual language.
In 1961, New York Museum of Modern Art organized a one-man show of Mark Rothko, which was the culmination of his creative work. This exhibition toured all major European cities. In 1962, the artist completed his series of murals for Harvard University. In 1964, he began work on a mural commission at the Houston Chapel in Texas, which was unveiled posthumously in 1971. Mark Rothko passed away in 1970 in New York. His work can be found in some of the most acclaimed art galleries worldwide.
Rothko was a central figure in the development of post-war painting in the United States, closely identified with the New York School. Together with many painters and sculptors of that period, Mark Rothko came to believe that recognizable images were obstacles to a direct experience of art. Drawing on expressionist and surrealist imagery, he finally evolved a personal style, characterized by two or three rectangle-like shapes hover above and interacting with one another against a field. Rothko was able to create paintings of either intense melancholy or radiant luminosity within the basic compositional format he had developed by 1949.
His works are concentrated on the expressive potential of large colour fields and the physical sensations generated by an enveloping atmosphere of luminous optical effects. One of the essential features of Rothko’s paintings is their ability to evoke strong emotional responses within viewers, which mirror simple and complex, personal and universal concepts by means of a reduced yet highly potent visual language.
In 1969, Yale awarded him an honorary degree. The citation read: “As one of the few artists who can be counted among the founders of a new school of American painting, you have made an enduring place for yourself in the art of this country. Your paintings are marked by simplicity of form and a magnificence of colour. In them, you have attained a visual and spiritual grandeur whose foundation is the tragic vein in all human existence. In admiration of your influence, which has nourished young artists throughout the world, Yale confers upon you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts”.
Over the past decades, we observe steadily growing interest in Rothko’s creativity, especially in regions where he has been little known. A big number of songs are dedicated to his images of painting, from Morton Feldman to Peter Gabriel. It is not by chance, since the aim of the artist’s life was to raise painting to the level of greatness where music is, which is in the first place in the hierarchy of the arts concerning the efficacy on consciousness and subconscious (according to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche). Many poetic works, inspired by the paintings of Rothko, are written in different languages.
Now we can safely say that we should be unlikely to find a single contemporary artist who could avoid a direct or indirect influence by Rothko, irrespective of their professional experience with colour. All of that is reflected in recent record sales of Rothko’s paintings at auctions. Retrospective exhibitions of Rothko’s work shatter all records in terms of visitor numbers and become most successful museum projects. The most prominent European and American museums are proud to have the artist’s works in their collections.
ROTHKO IN DAUGAVPILS
Mark Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz (1903-1970) was the fourth child of a Dvinsk pharmacist Jacob Rothkowitz. The family lived in Shosseinaya Street that started near the river Daugava and further down turned into a road leading to St. Petersburg, the birthplace of his mother, Anna Goldin. The children remembered their father as a person with high moral principles, an idealist, intellectual and philanthropist, who shared medicines to poor people free of charge. Like his father and sister, Rothko was an avid reader (the family owned a home library – more than 300 volumes of Russian and foreign literature) and relatives recall that he liked to draw “particularly when he was supposed to be doing something else”.
All the children in the family got secular education. Marcus was the only child who attended the heder at the synagogue, which meant strict discipline, reading in Hebrew and interpretation of complicated texts from Talmud. Although Marcus was furiously resisting doing that, his knowledge on Mystical Judaism inspired him to write poems on the Old Testament themes in his youth time and later became one of the main sources of his painting.
To compare to Marc Chagall or Jean Jacques Rousseau, Rothko not so often reminisced in paint or words about his boyhood in the native town. His daughter Kate observed that he “was sort of closed about it”. He did tell her of being allowed to sleep on top of the brick stove and about ice-skating to school on the Dvina River, about frequent family picnics on the river banks and trips by the river boat to the left bank for visiting fairs with merry-go-round. It is easy to notice that his best memories were connected to the river. Talking with his friend artist Robert Motherwell, Rothko recollected the glorious Russian sunsets over the river and spacious flat horizontal planes.
It is from here that he borrowed this illusive northern light, dispersed like curling mist in his classical works. Having left for America with his family at the age of 10, Rothko became an outstanding painter of the 20th century, the founder of abstract expressionism. Up to Rothko’s friend and biographer Dore Ashton, he never stopped identifying himself with Russian culture and feeling his inextricable internal connection with his birthplace even being the rest of his life very far from it.