Tag: Rothko

Who’s the Greatest Artist? The Story so Far


Blogging can be a tricky business at best, coming up with engaging content is not always easy. Sometimes you have to set yourself a challenge to get the juices flowing. Any regular readers of this blog will have noticed an irregular set of posts entitled Who’s the Greatest Artist? What I thought would be a quick summer series has now stretched out over two years. I hadn’t really appreciated the scope of the project when I started down this road, but I would have to say it being one of the most enjoyable to research and write. Close to 14 000 words later and here we are. As I approach writing the final four face-offs: Picasso vs Van Gogh and Da Vinci vs Michelangelo, I thought I would compile the story so far.

Who's the greatest artist

Here’s the one that started it all and explains the premise – Who’s the Greatest Artist?

picasso vs rembrandt

I didn’t want to make it easy on myself so I intentionally tried to create difficult match-ups – Picasso vs Rembrandt

goya vs rothko

I liked the idea of using the artist’s likenesses in the banner for each piece – Goya vs Rothko

dali vs warhol

In my mind the outcome of some match-ups were more obvious than others – Dali vs Warhol

Da Vinci vs Duchamp

I liked this one because it pits two very intellectual artists against one another – Da Vinci vs Duchamp

bacon vs basquiat

As I went along, it was increasingly enjoyable to find the parallels between the two – Bacon vs Basquiat

cezanne vs kandinsky

This may have been one of the more difficult one’s to decide – Cezanne vs Kandinsky 

Velazquez vs Van Goght

Sometimes the two artists couldn’t be more unalike if you tried –Velazquez vs Van Gogh

michelangelo vs matisse

This was a tough one because whoever got eliminated could easily have gone on to the top of the bracket –

Michelangelo vs Matisse

That was the first round, now I had the daunting task of writing about some of the same artists all over again but try to keep it fresh. In my mind I knew I had to pace myself and if I knew a particular artist might advance I had to keep some interesting information for later. Some pairings really helped to inform the direction the piece would take. Now on to the quarter-finals.

picasso vs warhol

I made sure I found pictures where they are both wearing their ‘trademark’ striped shirts – Warhol vs Picasso

bacon vs van gogh

This one was probably the most lopsided of the bunch – Bacon vs Van Gogh

da vinci vs goya

I had to eliminate one of my all time favourites, which is always a bit difficult – Da Vinci vs Goya

michelangelo vs cezanne

David and the Giant Peach – Michelangelo vs Cezanne

This brings us up to date and soon the semi-finals. At this point, I’m still not sure who is going to take this thing and that’s part of the enjoyment. I hope you have had a fraction of the amount of pleasure reading these things as I have had writing them.

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

goya vs rothko

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?

Goya The Parasol 1777

Goya   The Parasol 1777

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.

Rothko Rites of Lilith 1945

Rothko Rites of Lilith 1945

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 They're preening themselves again 1798

Goya They’re Preening Themselves Again        1798

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.

Advantage: Goya

Rothko No 3/No 13 1949

Rothko No 3/No 13 1949

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.

Advantage: Rothko

Goya Colossus 1812

Goya(?) Colossus 1812

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.

Rothko Seagram Mural (detail) 1959

Rothko Seagram Mural (detail) 1959

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.

Goya Colossus 1812

Goya Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga 1788

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.

Advantage: Goya

Rothko untitled 1969

Rothko untitled 1969

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.

Goya The Fates 1823

Goya The Fates 1823

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.

Winner: Goya

Who’s the Greatest Artist?


An impossible question to answer, a very controversial proposal, a polarizing proposition, a can of worms wrapped in a barrel of monkeys, but why not throw it against the wall to see if it sticks.

Here ladies and gentlemen for your contemplation is the bracket and its combatants. (If you are offended by the premise of pitting our artistic maestros against one another, let me remind you that when it comes to competition; the arena of art is essentially the Colosseum.) Just like the ancient Romans who would throw any two things together to see who would win: bears vs lions, giraffes vs tigers etc, I have assembled a who’s who of radically different styles.

Choosing the artists was a very daunting task. There are some no-brainers along with a few perhaps surprises. I can already hear the criticisms: “How can you include Basquiat and not include Ruebens?” When mining the entirety of art history:  the artists I did not include breaks my heart. People that almost made the cut: Titian, Giotto, Vermeer, Mondrian, Joseph Beuys, Caravaggio  Artemisia Gentileschi, Bridget Riley, Miro and on and on. You’ll notice that the bracket rests heavily on the dead white man western side of things. This aspect I do regret, but I feel history has conspired against us in this regard. We are slowly making amends for this in the twenty first century by broadening our millennial-long narrow mindedness and finally becoming more inclusionary. You will also notice that no living or contemporary artists made the show. I believe time is the greatest critic of art and we haven’t gotten back far enough to see their whole picture yet.

The artists I did choose I believe most people would concede their place here among some of the greatest of all time. (I realize there is noway to satisfy everyone.) I did try to put together some unlikely and highly contested match-ups. It’s really hard to find sparing partners for Da Vinci and Michelangelo; Renoir’s cute flower girls would be no match.

But how to ascertain who is the superior artist, there must be parameters. The artists will be judged on: historical significance, masterpieces, innovation and influence, technique and overall impact.  Over the course of the summer I’ll be weighing the titans of art against one another in a series of posts to eventually crown a winner. Any and all suggestions are welcome in the comments.

This idea was formulated by looking at the search terms on my WordPress dashboard. Last year about this time, I wrote a review comparing the Picasso show at the AGO with the National Gallery’s Van Gogh exhibit. I entitled the piece Van Gogh Vs Picasso, and it was meant to compare the two shows, not the two artists. Over the past year I have noticed quite a few search queries that read Who’s better Van Gogh or Picasso? It is like people out there are asking the great genie that is the internet to tell them who is the greatest artist of them all…..I’m no genie but I know a fun challenge when I see one.


  Related posts:

W.T.G.A.: Picasso vs Rembrandt

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp

W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat

W.T.G.A.: Cezanne vs Kandinsky

W.T.G.A.: Velazquez vs Van Gogh

W.T.G.A.: Michelangelo vs Matisse