Happy New Year – and a Note on Art

The Art of Mark Rothko

(Some comments from and on the book ‘Mark Rothko, From the Inside Out’, Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2015.)

The quest for meaning was at the root of all Mark Rothko’s  work.  What he sought was to express the human condition.  He sought to speak as directly as possible to us, in our inner selves.  He wanted passion dampened by as few mediators as possible.  ‘Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create state of intimacy – an immediate transaction.’

Rothko kept returning to the physical relationship between art and the viewer.  He said that form and proportion were dominant, but for us, it is likely to be the colours that seduce us.  Rothko said that sensuality was his essential way of getting the painter’s message across.  In his writing, Rothko expressed sadness that abstraction in modern art had been ‘at great sacrifice in the expression of human passion….and a tragic abnegation of the human spirit.’  He thought perspective had drained the impact of colour.  His hero was Giotto who had no interest in creating visual space.

Rothko spoke of his paintings as dramas. ‘The paintings are a stage for human concerns and human dialogue as drama, unlike narrative, inherently involves interaction.’  We speak of psychological dramas, and what we hear from people who love Rothko’s work is that they find the paintings to be moving.   Some are moved to tears (just as some react in that way to Casablanca)

The tears tell us that that viewer has been moved, and that some see tragic content in the work.  Something on the canvas strikes a chord with the viewer.  Rothko saw not just drama but tragic drama – ‘the tragedy of the human condition.’  Mozart was by far Rothko’s favourite composer.  His son tells us this:

Mozart generally wears a genial face, his music so tuneful it is frequently canned into packages of background music, much as my father’s work is often reduced to decorative wall covering.  But listening to Mozart carefully and openly, one becomes aware of the sadness, the longing, the ache of human suffering.  Mozart was ‘smiling through tears’, my father would often say.  Perhaps, I would suggest, the same was true for him.

(An English music critic said that the glorious tenor voice of the tragic Swedish drunk Jussi Bjorling was ‘full of unshed tears.’)  Mozart, too, expressed complex themes in the simplest way, and most of his music is nothing if not sensuous.

In his Poetics, Rothko’s son reminds us, Aristotle says that the best tragedies arouse ‘pity and fear’.  Aristotle said that pity is our response to ‘undeserved misfortune’ and our fear comes from seeing this suffering ‘in one like ourselves.’ (‘There but for the grace of God go I.’) Tragedy then may be the ultimate expression of the common experience of mankind – or just our humanity – and art becomes the lyrical reflection of humanity.

When Rothko offers us a painting, he is making an overture to us.  He is saying: ‘We’re not so different, you and I’.  He is inviting us to take a journey to explore the tragic drama of human life.  In his artistic development, he sought to strip away layers to achieve simplicity and clarity and to achieve the simple expression of something complex.  Quite by chance, Rothko’s son, who is a psychologist, stumbled on a formula: content + impact = contact.

And thank heaven, Rothko scotched one rotten myth:

I never thought that painting has anything to do with self-expression.  It is a communication about the world to someone else…..You may communicate about yourself; I prefer to communicate a view about the world that is not at all of myself.

Rothko reaches pure abstraction where he is unfettered by tradition and the viewer is unfettered by social context.

The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer….To achieve this clarity is, inevitably to be understood.

That last proposition might be safer, or less optimistic, when applied to writing rather than painting, but the stand taken by the painter is fundamental to understanding his work.  Rothko was not a religious Jew; a major commission was for a Catholic chapel; but his insistence on clearing away blocks between artist and his viewer has a Protestant air about it.

Compared to the forms, the colours suggest a type of abandon.  The end result is the painted expression of what it is to be human – ‘This is what it feels like to feel this way.’  He is looking for a chemistry between us and him, ‘a primal, preverbal communication’ conveyed by the painting.  He wants to get across to us feelings that can’t be put into words.  So did Mozart. (And if you put to one side porn and hookers, so does sex.)  And as his son remarks, ‘if Rothko’s works still make us uncomfortable, then perhaps it is not comfort we should be seeking.’

But even in the early figurative paintings, a similar drive to embrace humanity can be seen.  Rothko was a socialist painting during the Great Depression, but he was not painting the suffering of the ‘masses’.  He was looking at the individual struggling for air.  He was the reverse of the ideologue – he was looking at you and me, and not ‘the proletariat’.  What Christopher Rothko calls these ‘framed, cramped figures’ look to be trying to break free, to be liberated, and we are reminded of Kafka as he was writing at about the same time.  Aristotle also said that ‘Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life.’  Yes, but we get there by looking at persons, not by looking at abstractions.

So, when Christopher Rothko says his father wanted to express the inexpressible, what he was saying is that his father sought to express emotions – or, if you prefer, sentiments or ideas – in paint that he could not express in words – and which we may be at best presumptuous if we try to express in words.  The son does refer to the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  But one of his father’s better known remarks is:

I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.

And whatever else you may say of Rothko’s paintings, he did compose them (and, for my part, I don’t get the sense that that composition came without a fight).  Christopher says:

The paintings are, in fact, my father’s abstracted notion of reality – his generalisation of the truth – communicated through emotional, sensual experience.

If, that is right, then for once a label – Abstract Expressionism – may have some merit.

Good news at last!

At lunch with a journalist yesterday, we discussed aboriginal art and footballers.  I recalled being at an exhibition looking at an aboriginal painting that seemed to change before my eyes.  The curator asked what I thought.  I said I was reminded of the Krakouer brothers.  She did not know them, so I explained that they were aboriginal footballers who just saw things and did things that were beyond us white people.

We discussed the paintings of Minnie Pwerle.  I have a fine one here.  They are collections of rows of semi-circles in about five different colours.  I said that I look at it a lot, and that I suspect that instinctively the artist may have arranged the colours very much after the Golden Rule or Ratio (sometimes called Fibonacci), which was applied by Jeffrey Smart.  A tutor at Oxford had explained how Verdi had apparently arrived at the same result in the last act of Othello, around the kisses that come before and after the death of DesdemonaThe class was of the view that this effect was probably instinctive rather than mathematical design.  So it was with the Krakouers.

By chance, when I turned the TV on last night, it was on The Winners from the past.  North Melbourne played South Melbourne in the second round in 1982.  What got to me were the ludicrous hot pants on the boys.  But the Krakouers put on a show kicking seven between them.  And the best part is that they were both in the studio to watch it.  I was aware that one had got into some trouble, but both were there looking fit and well, and not in any trouble, more than thirty years on.

I found it the show very uplifting.  They slowed down one clip.  The ball was free in a pack.  One brother could see that the other could get to it, and set off briskly to offer him a lead.  The other got to the ball, and instead of grabbing it and passing it, he just bunted the ball with a closed fist about twenty-five yards so that it just came in front of his brother on the lead.  He then just gathered it in and after three or four steps slotted a goal on an acute angle.  It was pure magic or consummate artistry – a joy to watch.  They could do things, in footy and in art, that we whites just cannot do.

The other good news is that Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I are moving solidly in our book on writing and thinking – the title and a few other things are yet to be settled, but more on this later.

Crime and punishment

The first time I read this novel – about fifty years ago – I thought that I should think that it was good, so I did – but I found it a bit of a drag.  Since then I have read all the major novels of Dostoevsky, and I have read The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons twice.  Only the first of them kept its charm for me; the other two crashed.  The problem seemed to me to be too many exclamation marks, and too much hysteria, or as Eliot said of Hamlet, emotion in excess of the facts as they appear.  None of these books made it into my top fifty, although War and Peace is up there with only two challengers for numero uno.

I have just had the opposite experience with Crime and Punishment.  It was so much better the second time.  The trick for me is to treat it like an opera, or at least a work or art, on a different plane, and just let it wash over you.  If you do, it can be ravishing.

A young man, Raskolnikov, who thinks too much, develops a Napoleon complex – Tony Blair did not read this novel – and decides to kill a mean old woman to give himself a start and to bring relief to his family.  ‘A single evil and a hundred good deeds….I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless nasty, pernicious louse.’  Here is the author’s version of probably the two most murderous lines known to mankind.  Having accepted his own dare, he finds that there is more to being a murderer than meets the eye.  He unravels in a way that looks logically determined but which is dramatically alive.

The book has a real plot – and a thrashing Act Five that I did not see coming.  (You might say it ends with a bang.)  And some of the interrogation scenes, where a wily cop plays cat and mouse with the murderer, reminded me strongly of that wonderful film Une pure formalite with Depardieu and Polanski.  (It too starts with a murder and focuses on the interrogation; I could never work it out, but it is a truly great movie.)

A lot of the characters and scenes are right over the top – you must treat it like an opera – but two women carry the back story (if that is the phrase) – Dunya, the straight talking sister of the hero who shrugs off a mean and uppity lawyer and whose palpable virtue drives men mad with sexual desire; and Sonya, the hooker who has God, the poor daughter of a drunk who gets a yellow card (goes on the game) to sustain her family, and whose transcendent spirituality becomes the only thing that stands between the hero and the hellish consequences of his crime.  (There is more than a touch of both Fantine and Cosette in Sonya.)  Theatre cannot rise any higher than these two women.  And you get renewed insight into the dark side of the Russians.

Somerset Maugham, who knew something about writing, thought that Dostoevsky was a jerk.  He said: ‘Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant.’  Well, none of us is perfect, but Maugham thought it was the badness of Dostoevsky that made him ‘one of the supreme novelists of the world.’  Interesting, but I want to refer to what Maugham said about the characters of this great novelist.

They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice.  They are strangely lacking in the attributes of normal human beings.  They only have passions.  They have neither self-control or self-respect.  Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency that prevents a man from disgracing himself.  That is why to common sense their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential….They are devoid of culture.  They have atrocious manners.  They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another in order to wound and humiliate….They are an outrageous lot.  But they are extraordinarily interesting.  Raskolnikov, Stavrogin Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab.  They palpitate with life.

And they are like characters in an opera.  The point of this most extraordinary insight in literary criticism is that we are talking about works of art in Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Moby Dick – and masterpieces at that.

This mighty book is a cracker of a read – and I am not surprised that Hitchcock thought that it was too great a novel – or work of art – for him to chance his arm on with a film.  God willing, I will read it again at least once more before I go.