Rothko at the Gemeente Museum

Can an artist portray emotions of happiness, fear or ecstasy through the sole use of rectangular shapes of color?  Can they do so without explanation or words? That is the question that came to the forefront Saturday afternoon during a visit to the Gemeentemuseum to view the Rothko exhibit

I have to admit, his large swaths of color, with their soft edges and meditative yet simple rectangular shapes do elicit feelings in me. But not, perhaps, what he intended. We have seen Rothko exhibits before in San Francisco, and I’ve seen a sampling of his work in New York as well. But never before have I spent so much time contemplating them, and letting the colors and feelings wash over me.

imageMy tendency, as a social female and a writer, is to write about the art I see and to discuss them in terms of color and shape. But as I read about the artist, I soon realized he had an aversion to people trying to convey his art through words. Words, according to Rothko, desecrate the art. And they are not about color either; they are about the emotions; about a personal relationship between the painting and the viewer and the emotions that are evoked. They are intentionally hung low on the wall, so the viewer can “step into” the painting, and really experience the art.

As if to drive his point home, all of his works are untitled, as in the name of the paintings are Untitled, followed by the year they were created. Thus, without a title, we lean toward a description through color. “The one with the purple on top and black on bottom edged in orange.” More words, not feelings. But colors are known to be associated with feelings and terminology.

Red: anger, passion, danger, love.
Blue: calm, serene, sad.
Gold: regal, wealthy, happy, holy.
You get the idea. Colors are also a language of emotions. Yet who is to say if these color associations are universal?


Coronation of the Virgin, by Enguerrand Quarton, 1454
Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton, 1454

Take this untitled cobalt blue and gold Rothko painting above. What do you experience when you see it? For me, I see a spiritual work of art.

The gold rectangle in the upper third pulls to my mind the halos encircling the heads of angels and biblical figures from the fifteenth century a la Corination of the Virgin style (right). The deep cobalt blue reminds me of opulent gowns and the richness of a night sky.

But my associations have a lot to do with my Catholic upbringing and my western orientation with color and art. How would a Muslim woman or man experience this Rothko painting? Or a Hindu? Or someone with a western upbringing who has never entered a church in their lives?

Or how about the happiness and warmth I felt BEFORE I listened to the commentary about this painting. It was one of Rothko’s smaller canvases that he painted during a period of depression, right before he swallowed pills and slit his wrists, ending his troubled life. So much for the happiness that had enveloped me.

What was Rothko striving for in his paintings? As observers, we like to discuss the art. Take this man for example; he stood before the painting, gesturing with his hands, explaining a concept to his son–a concept that was not laid out in the untitle of the painting or in the curator’s interpretation of the art, as these were rather non-existent. image

So for an artist who didn’t want to be categorized, refused to participate in many group shows, and was very controlling of how his art was presented, what was he actually trying to convey?

This explanation struck home: image





In case that’s too hard to read, let me pull out a few excerpts:

“I am not interested in colour.” He regarded color as merely a means of expressing something far greater: something sacred, almost divine, that would only be desecrated by the introduction of language.

When I read this, I imagine a man who was extremely controlling and difficult, but also a man that strived to connect in a beautiful way–through the core; trying to touch the essence of what makes us human.

I liken this to the conundrum that is meditation; we can talk all we want about how to do it, but it is in the practice of meditation and the silence of the mind that we get to the essence of spirit. I imagine Rothko would like us to experience his paintings in the same way: Stop talking, be in the moment, step inside my painting and experience the emotions waiting there to engulf you. Sorry Rothko, I’m using words again to imagine your artistic desires and to say just how much I appreciate the feelings you evoke in me through your art.

It’s been 40 years since such an extensive Rothko exhibit came to the Netherlands, so don’t miss your chance! Rothko’s work is on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague through March 1, 2015. 





Although I tend to avoid antique stores and second hand shops because of the crowded nature of the lay out and the often musty smell that comes with old things, I am drawn to bazaars and the hidden treasures they provide. Bazaars have an extra carpe diem appeal because they are often one or two day events at most. Thus if you find something of interest, you better get it there and then, as it literally won’t be there tomorrow. And on top of that is the glimpse into Dutch culture one gains from what people give away.

collectible silver spoons
collectible silver spoons

This past May, the Christus Triumfatorkerk in The Hague had its bazaar. The bazaar items consist of what people drop off throughout the year. You can liken the offerings of the bazaar to that of a desert flower that only blooms once every two years. A lot of behind-the-scenes work and energy goes into creating this spectacular event, but it can only be appreciated for that one day.

A bright pink purse laden with pink plastic frills made its way into my shopping bag for the sole reason that I had never encountered such a bag before. Its ultra girly style, yet superior design suggested it wasn’t something on clearance at the V&D or Hema. Sure enough, an older woman in the church admitted it used to be hers. She had purchased it in Hong Kong. By the way her eyebrows raised, and my awareness of the luxurious clothing she wears to more formal events, I knew this was once an expensive curiosity handbag, now mine for two euros.

I discovered war time magazines from the 1940s with drawings and photographs of women in sensual positions mixed in with a box of books about Christian theology; I came across delicate silver spoons crested with intricately crafted cities; an entire set of muppet puppets; bracelets made of purple polished stones. I nabbed a high end backpack in great condition for 1 euro. It would have been 60 to 80 euro in a regular store.

Custom tailored suits, once worth more than a 1,000 euros, don’t hold their value at a bazaar. What would you pay? Maybe 5 euro for the whole suit? That’s roughly a 998% drop in value.

And this is where a bazaar gets bizarre; if that pink designer purse caught your fancy in the store, you might shell out the full price. But once it leaves the shelf and is in your possession, the value drops like a meteor through the atmosphere, plummeting downward to an almost sub zero value. Why is that even acceptable? How has the retail experience trapped us so completely in its cycle of consumption? And why does a brand new, name brand t-shirt donated by a children’s store marked down from it’s original price of € 40 to a measly € 2, still inspire people to barter with you on the price?

Bazaars are an inordinate amount of work in comparison to what they earn. Although the church earns an impressive amount in one day, the hours and hours logged over the span of a year from many a volunteer needed to pull it off just don’t add up to a reasonable return on investment; not to mention that the volunteers who have done this for so many years are getting older.

The younger, working generation is not in a position (or not willing) to take over this monumental task. Thus when the bazaar committee announced that this would be the last church bazaar, I understood. But I also felt a palpable sadness among the volunteers; yet another tradition slipping away.

Will there always be bazaars, or will they too become a thing of the past?

I suppose it is all relative. Yesterday, we headed downtown in search of a restaurant terrace where we could enjoy a hot beverage and The Hague atmosphere. We stepped off the tram at The Spui stop and entered through the multi-story department store V&D. They were having a “Prijzen Circus”, thus many of their items were on deep discount. And circus was an apt name, because it was mobbed with consumers looking for a good deal. This is a sort of bazaar; the difference being that in a few days, all of the items will be back to normal price, if not a bit man-handled in the process. We love deals. We love saving money. But does that compel us to buy things we really don’t need?

Perhaps I’m lecturing myself here (see more of my collectible silver spoons). But don’t you remember a tacky movie or two from your childhood where a bad rich person is on their death bed, clinging to their possessions, and the wise, moralistic character says “you can’t take it with you.”

Silver spoons from a church bazaar in The Hague
Silver spoons from a church bazaar in The Hague

We have friends in Santa Barbara that lost EVERYTHING in a fire. The strange thing? The glint in their eyes, like they had looked into the burning flames and encountered God’s searing beauty first hand. I paraphrase here, but the gist of their message? “It felt like a spiritual cleansing. I am free of all of those possessions I have been carrying around with me. They take up mental space in your mind and soul and you don’t realize it until you are freed from them. I feel light, happy.” Not exactly the sentiments you would expect from a person who lost their home to a forest fire.

Dear God,  I am not asking for a fire. I am fine with learning vicariously that it’s high time to pare down, get rid of the clutter and get a bit closer to the true meaning of life. Now if I could only find a bazaar to which to donate all those unnecessary items.