What may appear on the surface as two artists that are world’s apart; Goya and Rothko in fact travel a lot of the same artistic highways. Only 75 years separate the death of one with the birth of the other. In many ways their subject matter was to depict the unseen. They both explored the darker reaches of the human condition in their art, culminating in both their painting’s trajectories landing firmly in the colour black. But before they both arrived at a deeper shade of pale, brighter hues burned brightly under their masterful touch. Mark Rothko and Francisco Goya are both titans of painting, but who is the greater artist?
No other artist in the history of art has created more haunting and some cases disturbing images than Goya. His Disasters of War alone would cement this title but he offered so much more. It is hard to fathom that the artist who painted The Parasol believed all humanity was doomed. The Parasol is an early masterpiece painted when the artist was 31. Originally painted as part of a series of designs meant for royal tapestries; the seemingly innocent depiction of everyday life hints at Goya’s acute sense of foreboding. Darkness creeps in from the corners and our lovely maiden front and center is being shaded from the sun. A bit of an odd choice don’t you think? Goya decided to depict her draped in shadow on what is meant to be a sunny day. This is because I believe Goya found the shadows to be the most intriguing and it is in the shadows that Goya chose to spend most of his time.
Mark Rothko couldn’t escape his own personal shadows and in 1970 they would eventually win out. He had come a long way before he tragically took his own life, including rising to the zenith of what may be considered the cornerstone of American painting: Abstract Expressionism. After many years of dabbling with surrealism and expressionism Rothko helps invent colour-field painting. Post World War II, New York becomes the center of the art world and it was people like Pollock, DeKooning and Rothko who put it there. Pollock and DeKooning are both brilliant painters but Rothko makes brilliant paintings. The two action painters are more about the actual act of painting and the process wins out over the product. Rothko’s process transcends the painting and becomes the act of seeing. His paintings are made for the viewer. Rothko wanted people to weep in front of his canvases. For a select few this may have been the case but for many the subtlety of the subconscious may have been lost on them.
Goya also very much kept the viewer in mind, and his artworks range from the historical to the critical to the cautionary. Like Rothko he too wants to evoke an emotional response in his viewer. In many cases that response is horror and in other cases mirth and sometimes he wants both. A prime example of this would be his series of 80 etchings called the Caprichos (meaning: whims or fantastical ideas). In the series of prints Goya’s keen eye is focused on the uglier side of society. He satirizes our vanity, greed and selfishness among other things. Although in his time they were a commercial failure, they have become one of the most important bodies of work by any one artist and their insights still sting true today.
Rothko’s true power lies in experience. No web page or reproduction comes remotely close to the real thing. His paintings are not immediate. You must pause in front of them and let them fill your vision with colour and then wait for the breath. Rothko’s better paintings breathe. The blurred lines expand and contract and the colours glow and recede. Being in a slightly dimmed room full of Rothkos is an out of body experience. An interesting side effect of the attention Rothko received was the colour field artists rekindled a love for none other than Claude Monet. The parallels between his waterlily paintings and what was going on in New York in the 50’s had many people reexamine the father of Impressionism.
Goya is an artist that also gives you pause, he stresses the unspoken truths and drama of the world around us. We are reminded of the colossus over the ridge, a terrible force of nature that can loom large over our lives. The attribution of the Colossus was actually put into question in 2008 when officials at the Prado were convinced that it was the work of one of his followers and not the master himself. Other art scholars have disputed this fact and a general consensus was agreed upon that the painting was in fact the work of Goya.
The beginning of the end for Rothko was his commission for The Seagram murals to be installed in the Four Seasons Restaurant. He painstakingly labored over them, believing that they would elevate the viewer to a higher state. His creative process is wonderfully depicted in John Logan’s play Red. He was paid what roughly would be 2 million dollars today to do the work. After completing the paintings, he and his wife ate in the restaurant. He was so sickened by the gaudy display of wealth he saw there he returned the money and gave the work to the Tate in London. Although I admire his conviction, I’m actually not a big fan of the work. I’ve seen them on several occasions and come out underwhelmed every time. I’m not sure if it is the colour or the scale but they lack the breath of his earlier work.
Every painting Goya executes breathes with life. Whether it is the atrocities of war like his depiction in The Third of May or the simple eyes of a cat waiting in the shadows to pounce. There is always more to the picture. Goya eludes to a much larger narrative even in something as seemingly innocuous as a child’s portrait.
In the end Rothko immersed himself in the shadows and created false landscapes that alluded to the abyss. They are interesting in a way that they plot his trajectory but comment too heavily on the tragedy that is only a year away.
At the end of his life Goya surrounded himself with his infamous black paintings. They were painted directly onto the walls of his house. Executed with a limited palette their images evoke witches, monsters and very dark places. They were only intended for himself but lucky for us were painstaking removed from the house and now hang in the Prado.
Both Goya and Rothko tapped into our collective subconscious stirring up our emotions and making us active participants in the viewing of art. Goya transcends all barriers, conveying his message to scholars and paupers alike. His imagery has the extraordinary gift of being both instantly recognizable and at the same time a slow burner that plays on your memory. Unfortunately, Mark Rothko is nothing but a slow burner. When he burns, he burns brightly but to a lesser degree than the Spaniard.