Summary of Mark Rothko
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.