"Those who think the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art."

SUMMARY VIEW

Mark Rothko's Jewish identity was bound up with his childhood experiences as a Jew growing up in Latvia in the Pale of Settlement. His early memories of anti-Semitism not only stayed with him his whole life, they also conflated with and informed his reaction to the Holocaust.

In late 1941-around the time the Nazi plan to exterminate Europe's Jewish population became common knowledge-Rothko's art reflected a dramatic shift. In place of the realistic genre scenes that had dominated his work up until that point, Rothko turned to "tragic and timeless" themes from Greek mythology and Christian iconography, which he combined with subtle references to Jewish burial practices and the Holocaust. Rothko's effort to come to terms with the unfolding catastrophe and its aftermath can also be seen in ehis latteryabstract color field paintings of the 1950s and beyond.

Mark Rothko Artist Page - Including full biography, works, analysis and resources


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A CLOSER LOOK

Russian Jewish Heritage

Rothko's experiences as a Jew growing up in the Pale of Settlement during a period characterized as the "worst in the history of Russian Jewry," left an indelible imprint on the artist's psyche. Born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkowitz to a relatively affluent and well-educated Jewish family, Rothko spent the first ten years of his life in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, a hotbed of Russian and Jewish radicalism. His father, Jacob Rothkowitz, was an ardent Zionist who helped instill in the young Rothko an interest in radical politics. While his three older siblings all attended public school, Rothko alone was selected to attend heder, where he received orthodox religious instruction. Although there were apparently no pogroms in Dvinsk at that time, Rothko's awareness of such events was nonetheless very real-many years later, the artist even described a scar on his nose as the result of Cossack violence. In 1913, Rothko's family immigrated to the United States. Settling in Portland, Oregon, the family lived in an largely Jewish neighborhood-"Little Russia"-with the young Rothko retaining his fluency in Yiddish and Hebrew.

New York's Jewish Community

Rothko relocated to New York in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his life. There, he was involved with Jewish institutions and close to various Jewish artists during his earliest decades in the city. Several years after his arrival, Rothko began teaching at the Brooklyn Jewish Center (1929-46), which housed a conservative congregation; the following decade, he also taught at a Jewish school in Far Rockaway, Queens. In addition, Rothko was a founding member of The Ten (1936-41), an artists' association, nearly all of whose members were politically active and Jewish, and included Ilya Bolotowsky and the future Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb. Like the other artists associated with the group, Rothko worked in the style of Social Realism, creating works reflecting or indirectly hinting at his Jewish identity, such as Street Scene.

The Holocaust

Rothko's work of the 1940s and beyond is often seen in terms of the artist's efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust, especially in the dramatic shift in subject matter in 1941, when Hitler's Final Solution became widely understood. Abandoning his style of the previous decade, which focused on realistic urban genre scenes and sometimes depicted Jewish subjects, Rothko now turned to more universal subject matter: Greek mythology and Christian iconography. Amid an era of rising anti-Semitism, such themes enabled Rothko to address the tragedy unfolding in Europe without publically proclaiming his status as a Jew. (For example, around that time he changed his name from Rothkowitz to the less identifiably Jewish surname Rothko.)

Although Rothko refused to openly discuss the Holocaust, it was, in his daughter's words, "always there in the background." In 1959, Rothko vowed to never exhibit his work in Germany because of its role in the Holocaust, telling the art historian Peter Selz, "Well, you know, this kind of disfiguration and this kind of thing you cannot touch, but it is, you know, part of what you feel and part of what you express about the tragedy of it all."

The Spirit of Myth

For Rothko, Greek myths were "tragic and timeless" stories that bore instructive parallels to the catastrophic events transpiring in the present, as he and Adolph Gottlieb (who also turned to mythological themes at that time) famously explained in a radio interview of October 13, 1943:

If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas.... Those who think the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art.

While Rothko was inspired by various classical tales, for him the most important was Greek playwright Aeschylus's Agamemnon, as exemplified in The Omen of the Eagle. His paintings based on Aeschyus's play conflate past and present, blending elements of the classical narrative-marked by incidents of murder, human sacrifice, and cannibalism-with references to Nazi symbolism and Judaism. They do so in a modernist style inspired by Surrealism and the writings of Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Religious Imagery

Rothko was one of many New York Jewish artists to embrace Christian iconography in the early 1940s to convey reactions to the Holocaust. Christian imagery enabled Rothko to express his horror at the catastrophe unfolding in Europe, but to do so without publicly announcing his status as a Jew. Also similar to his mythologically-inspired paintings, Rothko's works on religious themes conflate different eras and belief systems, deploying Christological motifs alongside allusions to Jewish burial practices and the Holocaust, and in a distinctly modernist idiom. The Entombment-the burial of Jesus Christ after his death-figures largely in this body of work. The biblical story had particular resonance during and after the Holocaust, given the chilling photographs of mass graves that appeared in newspapers and magazines even prior to the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1944.

Abstraction

Even Rothko's non-figurative color field paintings of the 1950s and beyond can be seen as profound meditations on the Holocaust. Composed of stacked bands of contrasting or complementary colors set against a monochrome background, the rectangular forms of these paintings invite associations with the haunting images of mass graves seen in American newspapers and magazines during and after the war. With these works, whose titles often only list the hues deployed in a given composition, Rothko was primarily concerned with stimulating the viewer's reflection and emotional response: "I'm not interested in relationships of color or form... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions-tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." Dark tones dominate one of the artist's most important color-inspired paintings: Black on Maroon, a mural for the Seagram Building in New York. The mural's panels have been described as "doorways to Hell" and likened to the rims of flames: responses with obvious Holocaust resonance.

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Adolph Gottlieb

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Ilya Bolotowsky

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Street Scene

Title: Street Scene

Description: Street Scene was created when Rothko was associated with The Ten and employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Created in the expressive strain of Social Realism Rothko practiced in the 1930s (and abandoned the following decade), the painting depicts two children protectively guided down a row of steps by a patriarchal figure.

With his long beard, tallis, and yarmulke, the figure recalls Rothko's early religious upbringing, while the otherwise empty street, window-less classical facade, muted palette, and worried expressions on the children's faces convey a mood of sadness and alienation-perhaps echoing the displacement Rothko experienced following his and his family's immigration to the United States several decades earlier.

Year: 1936

Materials: Oil on canvas

The Omen of the Eagle

Title: The Omen of the Eagle

Description: Although Rothko described The Omen of the Eagle as "deal[ing] not with a particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times," the painting had a specific mythological source-the Greek play Agamemnon.

The title of the painting refers to an episode that occurs early in the play-the chorus' description of an omen where two eagles devour a pregnant hare. The eagles in question represented the king Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, who summoned Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to avenge the abduction of Menelaus's wife, Helen of Troy.

Agamemnon and Menelaus appear in several guises in The Omen of the Eagle. In the top level of this multi-tiered painting, they are represented by the yellow heads that are, as one scholar recently proposed, calling for war; in the second tier, they take the form of eagles, whose heads are suggested by the flesh-colored pear-like shapes and whose wings and feathers are evoked in the red and purple linear forms. As the eagle was the national symbol of Germany at the time this was painted, Rothko is here presumably likening the two brothers' acts of violence against the citizens of Troy (including members of their own family) to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. This is supported by the possible inclusion of the Hebrew word chai (life) in the third tier of the painting, suggested in the right side of the arcade-like motif on which the eagles appear to be seated.

Year: 1942

Materials: Oil and graphite on canvas

Entombment I

Title: Entombment I

Description: This painting, as well as Rothko's other treatments of the Entombment created around that time, address an aspect of Jewish burial practice, specifically the notion that a proper burial is needed for a Jew's soul to find peace and leave the body. Featuring a horizontal figure attended by several vertical figures, Entombment I evokes other Christian subject matter from the history of art, including the Pieta, in which the Virgin Mary sits and grieves over her dead son. The painting also features a motif not seen in Rothko's earlier work: wartime portrayals of the Entombment, seen in the floating, seemingly weightless form located near the top of the composition. Rendered in black outline, this motif may symbolize the souls of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, denied the chance for a proper burial.

Year: 1946

Materials: Gouache on paper

Black on Maroon

Title: Black on Maroon

Description: In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to create one of his most important color-inspired paintings: Black on Maroon, a 600-square-foot mural for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. In the course of his work on the commission, the artist shifted from bright and intense hues to the dark red, maroon and black referenced in the title; in place of the stacked rectangles of his color field paintings, the mural panels feature a more architectural scheme, containing dark forms suggestive of doorways or other orifices.

With Black and Maroon, Rothko sought to create an oppressive, claustrophobic environment, largely inspired by Michelangelo's Laurentian Library in Florence, which, in Rothko's words, "achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after... [in which] the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up." Various writers described Black on Maroon in terms evoking the Holocaust. The artist himself perceived the work's connection to the tragedy, as reflected in his proposal to the German art historian Werner Haftmann that he decorate a chapel memorializing the Holocaust-a proposal made apropos of the piece.

Year: 1958-59

Materials: Oil on canvas