Mark Rothko's conception of his art and its general reception seem to have little in common. He did not set out to create a contemplative environment or an aesthetic experience but wanted to engulf the viewer in a world of tragic myth and universal human drama. The viewer should experience dramatic emotion in front of his paintings, as Rothko explicitly stated: "If you... are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"

I'm not an abstractionist... I'm not interested in relationships of color or forms... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions -- tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on -- and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. 1

The meaning and scope of Rothko's art changed little over the course of his career and, while there are few clues in the mature works to help the viewer tease out his intentions, an examination of his early paintings reveals the themes that occupied the artist for his entire life.

As a young man Rothko was influenced by Nietzsche's 1871 history of Greek tragedy, THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY OUT OF THE SPIRIT OF MUSIC, which argued that Greek tragedy and tragic myth represent universal human truths that are infinite and eternal. Nietzsche's idea that art should dramatize the terror and struggles of existence supported Rothko's conception of the artist as the modern mythmaker whose works reflect the course of the human spirit in all its aspirations and vicissitudes. Nietzsche's view of antiquity was far removed from the romanticized version of previous generations, revolving instead around the chaos of the archaic world. It is this concept of antiquity -- mysterious, powerful and ominous -- that Rothko adopted.

During a 1943 radio broadcast, Rothko discussed his belief in a collective psychology that is based in antiquity and expressed in mythology. Such myths, he argued, expressed the fundamentals of human experience, whatever their topical differences: "If [the] titles [of my paintings] recall the known myths of antiquity... [I] have used them because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. They are the symbols of man's primitive fears and motivations, no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance... and modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward conditions of life." 2

Early on Rothko decided to place the human figure at the center of his art, through it addressing the ideas of the fates and the forces at work on humanity. As was the case with many artists of his generation, however, the human figure as it had been portrayed for centuries proved inadequate. Neither did Rothko want to mutilate the human form. He developed, as a result, a kind of composite image within the framework of horizontally segmented bands inspired by Greek vase painting in which heads and feet appear intact but are separated by seemingly unrelated forms.

"The Omen of the Eagle" (1942; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) [fig. 1] is a key example of Rothko's composite images of the early 1940s. The subject is taken from AGAMEMNON, the first play of the ORESTEIA, in which two eagles attack a pregnant hare and devour her unborn young, a gruesome act that foreshadows the coming war with Troy and the sacrifice of the innocent Iphigenia. Along the top of the composition is a series of Greek heads, a frieze paralleled at the bottom by a corresponding set of human feet in motion. The heads and wings of eagles surmounting classical architectural forms appear in the bands in between. Two of the columnar forms are rounded and pendulous, recalling breasts, while others are jagged and sharp, suggesting the talons that ripped open the hare's womb. Rothko described his intention with this painting to make something primitive and religious, a work that evokes the spirit of the story rather than its narrative: "The picture deals not with the particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times. It involves a pantheism in which man, bird, beast and tree, the Known as well as the Knowable -- merge into a single tragic idea." 3

Rothko introduced Surrealist elements into his works before abandoning the figural altogether around 1949. From 1950 his allusions to universal truths and collective identity became even more generalized, expressed by the most basic of compositional arrangements and abstracted motifs. The earlier themes are still present, however, and can be seen in the rectangular color fields that echo the earlier horizontal bands. The viewer is engulfed in Rothko's later works much as the early figures were dominated by their segmented environments. As the artist said of his own paintings: "You are in it. It isn't something you command."

Footnotes:

  1. S. Rodman, CONVERSATIONS WITH ARTISTS. New York: Capricorn, 1961, p. 93.

  2. S. Polcari, "Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment, and Tradition," SMITHSONIAN STUDIES IN AMERICAN ART, vol. 2/2 (Spring 1988), p. 34.

  3. Ibid, p. 42.