On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 10): More Miscellaneous Thoughts on Antonioni and Rothko.

Posted: March 31, 2012 in On Beauty
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Tonight I will be going to the Northwest Film Center to see a brand new 35mm print of one of my favorite films. I’ve spoken of it before, even in the context of Rothko. It is Antonioni’s film “Red Desert”. As it happens, the screening has absolutely nothing to do with the Rothko Retrospective at PAM. Perhaps that the film is showing in a theater at PAM is just serendipitous. But it has me again considering why I like both Rothko and Antonioni so much. I’d like to briefly share that and to consider one connection that I’ve never before seen discussed.

Let me quickly dispense with a couple well-known quotations.

First, Antonioni has described a Rothko painting with the words “It’s painted anxiety”. Many have disagreed with my proposition that there is a direct connection between Antonioni’s use of color, and Rothko’s. Yet, I still believe that, as colorists, both Rothko and Antonioni apply color effects as conveyors of pure emotion.

Second, I mentioned in an earlier post that, when Antonioni visited Rothko’s studio in New York, Antonioni is well-known to have said:  “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing… with precision”. Personally, I don’t think that either artist’s ouerve concerns “nothing”; I do, however, think that they both concern the notion of “nothingness“. I won’t go into a big discussion of why I consider those two concepts as very different. Let me just say that I consider “nothingness” to be an embodiment of emotions and feelings like alienation, loneliness, silence, despair, isolation, and the like. The something, in both artists work is, in that sense, “nothingness“. But, at least to me, that is one big something!

Both of those Antonioni quotations are well-known and (perhaps) overused. So, let’s put them behind us and look at another thought I had today. It’s not a brilliant new contribution to art theory; it’s just a thought. But I’d like to share it – especially in light of the structure of the Rothko show.

You may recall that my recommendation for seeing the PAM Rothko show is to walk around the gallery clockwise, which is essentially chronological, and to do so twice. First you will see how Rothko’s work progressed from abstract but figurative to his mature color fields. The second time, I recommended noting a progression that Christopher Rothko explained to me: the ideal that, throughout his entire historical progression, Rothko maintained the idea of color panels (or color fields) but that, over time, the foreground gave way from figure to emotional essence. In other words, the seeds  of the mature color field paintings exist throughout the body of work. Let’s think about this as a painting career that progresses by gradually dispensing with foreground figure in order to deal solely with emotional atmosphere.

Now, if you are an Antonioni buff, as am I, you may already know where I’m going with this. If not, here we go. One of Antonioni’s most telling pieces of nonfictional writing is an essay called “Il Fatto e L’Immagine”, or, “The Fact and the Image”. In this essay, Antonioni discusses an example story of a drowned man; he describes his method of film-making, with regard to this story, as trying to  “remove the actual event from the scene and leave only the image“. That describes no film in the history of cinema better that Antonioni’s seminal 1960 film “L’Avventura: A girl goes on a boating trip and disappears, everyone looks for her, her boyfriend starts a relationship with her best friend, the end. Well, guess what? The disappearance happens in the first few minutes of the film and all the rest of the film is about its effect! – Just like the essay says it should be!

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. Rothko’s entire painting career exactly mirrors Antonioni’s aesthetic! Antonioni dispenses with facts for the purpose of dealing solely with atmosphere and emotion. Rothko dispenses with figure for the purpose of dealing solely with atmosphere and emotion!!! In both cases, light and color play fundamental emotive roles. But, more importantly, both artists dispensed with subject in order to allow the viewer to experience atmosphere. In both cases, perhaps there is great tragedy, but what we get to experience is the after-effect – pure emotion, pure atmosphere.

Maybe, just maybe, it is possible to consider the way Rothko’s paintings matured over time as “la figura e l’immagine“! At least that’s what I’m considering on a rainy Saturday afternoon before heading off to see a film about “nothingness”.

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