Tag Archives: ephemereal

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.