Home Entertainment Review | ‘Mozart and Mark’ series breaks the silence of Mark Rothko’s paintings

Review | ‘Mozart and Mark’ series breaks the silence of Mark Rothko’s paintings

Review | ‘Mozart and Mark’ series breaks the silence of Mark Rothko’s paintings


“Silence is so accurate.”

It’s one of those little quotes that seems to follow the paintings of Mark Rothko wherever they go. Curators love to hang it on the wall like a skeleton key — promising entrance to the paintings beyond their opaque surfaces, hinting at an answer.

The painter’s aphorism makes another appearance as one of several bits of wall text at the National Gallery’s splendid current exhibition, “Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper.” Rothko made the remark in the late 1940s, near the outset of his most pronounced and profound stylistic shift, when the form we now instantly recognize as “a Rothko” first came into full (if blurry) focus.

In the early 1950s, the painter’s very busy Multiform pieces began to resolve into a calmer consistency: diffusely defined panels of abutting colors — their most subdued hues ignited into a strange glow, their uncanny depth achieved through layers of paint and pigment, their silence overtaking every room they occupied. (Imagine a speaker that can blast only feelings.)

On paper (pun very much intended), Rothko’s trajectory as told by the National Gallery’s narrative arrangement might come across as a shift toward simplification. But contradictions flourish in Rothko’s most comfortable register: Though washed of conventional “meaning,” the paintings seem steeped in raw emotion. A buoyant 1959 “Untitled” strikes a far different chord than the advancing horizon of an “Untitled” completed 10 years later. Though static and still, their surfaces seem to churn with action — an “Untitled” painting from 1968 seems to endlessly close in on itself.

And though they’re heavy with silence, it’s undeniable that his paintings also contain music.

Rothko’s works have influenced dozens of 20th-century and contemporary composers, including Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Bruce Adolphe, Kamala Sankaram and Tyshawn Sorey.

But there’s been less exploration into the influence of music on Rothko — a significant shaping force on his aesthetic if we’re to believe what might be his second-most-quoted line: “I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.”

For Danielle Hahn, who heads the National Gallery’s music program, the exhibition’s emphasis on the painter’s practice in the studio offered an opportunity to hear Rothko differently.

“In the past when we’ve programmed Rothko, we’ve focused a lot on Morton Feldman and other of Rothko’s contemporaries, composers who wrote things inspired by his art, composers who he knew,” says Hahn. “But Mozart, and to a lesser degree Schubert and the other classical composers, were to the forefront of what Rothko really adored.”

With this in mind, Hahn has programmed “Mozart and Mark,” a series of short afternoon concerts at the National Gallery that seeks to make more audible the connection between these two seemingly disparate visionaries.

On Jan. 21, the Vega String Quartet will be joined by pianist William Ransom for a program including Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major (“The Hunt”) and the Piano Quartet in G Minor. And on Jan. 28, members of Maryland Opera Studio will perform scenes from three Mozart operas — “Così fan tutte,” “Le nozze di Figaro” and “Die Zauberflöte.”

In assembling the series, Hahn drew guidance from an essay by Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, whose 2018 book, “Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out,” puts into words many of the unspoken qualities of his father’s work, including the influence of Mozart — i.e. the “alpha and omega for Rothko.”

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With their emphasis on “harmony and balance” and reverence for classical forms, Rothko’s paintings are, to many who encounter them in the silence of an art museum, “fundamentally musical.” In the music of Mozart, Christopher writes that his father found “the stylistic and formal principles, and more especially the means of articulating ideas, that would influence the development of his own artistic language.”

“Rothko’s colors are remarkably like Mozart’s melodies,” he writes, “put forth without decoration, at liberty to resonate within the sonata structure of the rectangular forms.”

The younger Rothko also points to the painter sharing “the transparency that is the hallmark of Mozart’s compositional language … thinning his oils and temperas to allow the ‘inner voices’ of his paintings to radiate through.”

But most profound to the artist — and perhaps most evident in his own work — was Mozart’s ability to combine emotional colors into complex experiences, to “smile through tears.”

The connections between Rothko and Mozart may run deeper still. Exhibition curator Adam Greenhalgh suggests that Rothko’s reading of Friedrich Nietzsche — specifically his 1872 work, “The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music” — provided a philosophical foundation for the painter’s work, as well as a source for its dramatic depth.

“I think for Rothko, aesthetic harmony was sort of empty without that tragic element,” Greenhalgh says by phone. “Rothko hoped his paintings conveyed basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom — and that comes from tragedy, which in turn comes out of music.”

Take these considerations with you into the galleries — where silence is hard to come by — and these paintings begin to sing. Arrangements of colors suddenly seem more like duos and trios, gently decorating each other through complex counterpoint. Variations in scale, from miniature to massive, give the paintings an exciting dynamic range. And in their wordless balance of joy and grief, hope and despair, the paintings quietly echo Mozart’s ease and economy of expression.

But even if these connective threads seem like a stretch, there exists an affinity between Rothko’s paintings and the music he painted them to that remains apparent.

“Like music,” the younger Rothko writes, “[his] paintings offer a gateway to our inner selves.” The right music may be the key to unlocking it.

“Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper” is on view at the National Gallery through March 31. Check performance times at www.nga.gov.


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