A Small-Scale Rothko

by lowepj33

The Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition of Abstract Expressionist work is, in every sense, a huge show. The quantity of works on display marks it out as a genuine autumn ‘blockbuster’ and the popularity of some of its key artists guarantees a steady flow of visitors to Burlington House. Happily, the equally huge scale of many of the works on display, coupled with the RA’s spacious exhibition rooms, means that even on a busy Sunday afternoon there is still space in which to stand and take in the vastness of the canvases by Rothko, Pollock, Still, de Kooning and their peers. There is paint everywhere: whether dripped or spattered across the canvas or brushed into near-flawless blocks of colour: surely more cubic metres of art then the RA has seen in a long time.

The ‘greatest hits’ of the Abstract Expressionist movement are, perhaps, well known to us: reproduced in smaller formats and absorbed into our culture in such a way that their initial challenge to the viewer is hard to replicate. The opening room of the RA’s display does, in fairness, forge a narrative link between the ‘Expressionism’ of the (largely) American movement and its pre-World War Two European forbear, but this is not always easy to spot when the full force of Abstract Expressionism is woven into post-War narratives of the USA’s rising superpower status and corresponding sense of economic and cultural importance. In the first room, however, alongside Pollock’s immense Male and Female (1943) another giant of the movement makes an unusual, but revealing appearance.

Mark Rothko’s Interior (1936) is, particularly compared to the rest of his output, very small indeed – barely 60cm in height and 46cm across. Within that small space the viewer sees a split-level architectural design. On the top level, painted largely in red, columns frame wall panels, in the central one of which a portrait painting seems to occupy the space. On the bottom, painted largely in green, a group of figures stands in a doorway, again with columns dividing the space and two monumental statues framing the portal, dark behind the group. At first glance very little about the image says ‘Rothko’, but looking closer I was intrigued by how much of his later work is, subtly, anticipated here. The tonal variations in the red and green colour scheme hint at the immense blocks of colour that will feature so much later on, and the detailing of the wall panels suggests his interest in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, and the career-crowning achievement of the Seagram Murals now displayed in Tate Modern.

The figures are a puzzle, not least because we don’t readily associate Rothko with the human form, and the larger-than-life statues add to the mystery, with their Classicism seen in their cream-coloured marble and nude state (each appears to be trailing a length of drapery behind them). Thinking as I’ve been doing lately about the revival of Classical forms there is a distinct sense of order in Rothko’s composition, although the exact nature of the group of figures in the doorway remains a puzzle. Dressed largely in dark colours, could they be Italian Blackshirts, occupying this Renaissance / Roman space? Is the order here something that may threaten as much as it structures? Is there a sense of scale here that, even in a small painting, shows us how much the human form can be reduced by its surroundings, even to the point where it begins to look vulnerable amidst the larger spaces around it? In order to make colour and form as all-pervasive as he would later do Rothko would find himself working on a much greater scale, but this pre-War Interior, while it hints at what is to come, also reminded me of how the ingredients of his later work were both present before the War and appearing not so much in the painting, but certainly in the architecture of regimes less welcoming to the exile from Tsarist Russia than the art world of New York was to be.

Abstract Expressionism runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 2nd January 2017. For more information see:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

Rothko’s Interior (1936) in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. For more information see:
http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.67383.html#history