Rothko’s Art Reflects Baltic Landscapes, Scars of Russian Youth

On April 23, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture will open the first exhibition of work by the abstract painter Mark Rothko held in Moscow.

The event at the exhibition space run by Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s partner, raises a question: How much was Rothko affected by the decade he spent in Russia?

Of course, Rothko (1903-1970) was a U.S. citizen, and a leading member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters. He left Russian territory, never to return, in 1913 when he was 10. Yet there are reasons for thinking that Rothko’s art and imagination were deeply influenced by those early years.

He was born Marcus Rothkowitz in the city of Dvinsk, which was then part of the czarist empire. It’s now the Latvian city of Daugavpils. His family was Jewish, but spoke Russian not Yiddish at home, a sign of their educated status.

The culture at home was literary and liberal. Rothko recalled the family sitting shiva -- the Jewish mourning ritual -- when Tolstoy died in 1910. His older sister Sonia remembered that “we were very interested in literature, all of us.” They left behind a library of 300 books when they emigrated to the U.S.

According to his friend Herbert Ferber, quoted in James Breslin’s biography, Rothko was “very strongly interested” in his “Russian background.” The stories he told about those early years were often dark.

Cossack Whip

Rothko had a scar on his nose that he said was caused by the slash of a Cossack whip while he was being carried as an infant. Several times Rothko described hearing relatives talking about a massacre -- where and when he wasn’t sure -- in which Cossacks forced Jewish villagers to dig a mass grave for themselves in the woods. Rothko said that he’d been haunted by the image of that grave and was sure it had found its way into his paintings.

His friends suspected this memory to be a fantasy, and no such incident seems to be recorded. True or not, Rothko, “a high-strung, noticeably sensitive child,” according to his brother Moise, grew up in an atmosphere of menace. There were no pogroms in Dvinsk, but there were Cossacks, anti-Semitic prejudice and mounting political violence. That’s a possible source for the darkness in much of Rothko’s work.

It’s the landscape, not the persecutions, of Dvinsk/Daugavpils that may have influenced his euphoric, light- filled abstractions of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s a place of forests and wide horizons on the Daugava River. The winters are long, dark and hard -- Rothko remembered skating to school -- and in midsummer the sun only sets for three hours a night. In a poem, he associated heaven with a light shining through mist. To a fellow painter, Robert Motherwell, Rothko extolled the “glorious” Russian sunsets of his childhood.

Purple Skies

On a personal note, a few years ago I sailed off the Baltic coast of Latvia in July. Each night there was a spectacular display of reds, pinks, gold and purples in the sky, for hour after hour. It recalled one painter above all: Mark Rothko.

As is always the case with great art, the sources of Rothko’s painting are numerous, complex and ultimately mysterious. One point that’s often forgotten, though, is that he grew up in a Northern land, close to the latitudes of the midnight sun.

“Mark Rothko: Into an Unknown World” opens April 23 and runs through Aug. 14 at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Information: for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Information: http://www.garageccc.com.

“Rothko” by John Logan is at the John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com.

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