Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An intentionally unempirical celebration

The colour fields in this canvas
are subordinated to its whole territory. Thus, what they lack in rank by iconographic virtue of hue, density or placement, they acquire by means of their con-centration in detachment from the frame. They create a possibility of a vortex or other mystery, possibly menacing in depth, a setting where investigation may become exploit and exploration, heroic. 
The painting has a title, Blue, Green, and Brown, dated 1951. If it were from The Aeneid, ca 19 BC, it might be Heavens, Earth, Underworld; but it isn't, and we resist unwarranted projection.

One doesn't walk right into a Rothko, any more than one strolls into the underworld in Virgil, unless escorted or at least equipped with a golden bough. Powerfully seductive as it is, the painting declares that something like courage will be exercised in addressing these fields, which are indeed enthralling independently as well as patently engaged with each other. If there were a narrative for braving their distinctions without being locked within one field, why could it not be that of the trials of the young man in establishing his place on an indeterminate shore? I find nothing in this painting to compromise its participation in that struggle, in its own brilliant, virile terms.

On the contrary. The tour d'horison of this paint-ing is not that of an afternoon's browse through Sotheby's list-ings of available villas. It is a saga. In Book 6 of The Aeneid, the wandering Aeneas implores the Sibyl to lead him into the underworld, for the most powerful of motives - and she warns, so famously that a reader cited her in "comment" to our Sunday posting, one might get in readily enough, but getting out is another matter.

   The Gates of Hell are open Night and Day;
   Smooth the Descent, and easie is the Way;
   But, to return, and view the chearful Skies,
   In this the Task, and mighty Labour lies.

Aeneas is demanding an audience with his father, who has finally succumbed under the ordeal of the flight from Troy. Alone among the translators, it seems to me, John Dryden has it right: he wishes for his father to be allowed to see him. I rediscovered this distinc-tion only because BL of Blue Remembered Hills had been thought-ful enough to cite the scene in "Comment" in the prior entry; and I found this illustration of what Aeneas might be facing in this story, only because Thea Beasley had thought to post it. All catalysts are welcome. We are all navigators.

Conduct me thro' the Regions void of Light,
And lead me longing to my Father's sight.

But for the sudden visitor, the persistent allure of this canvas lies in its luminously brilliant upper tier, almost blinding to study, as the eye nevertheless compulsively does for signs of prior passage of human life. What, yes, is the meaning of that outcry from this man? This magnificent painting, part of the incomparable Rothko collection of Mrs Paul Mellon, has been bequeathed to the people of the United States in what I take to be, first of all, a gesture of public service. I look to my would-be leaders to be cognizant of what they are dealing with, to engage honourably the distinctions between the world, their beliefs and their duties, and to be mindful of how they leave the place when they go. I am able to assert these demands of the Sibyl because people before me have shown me the way. One of them, happily, has been Mrs Mellon, whose birthday it will be, this Thursday.

Just sayin'. 

op. post.
ca 19 BC
John Dryden, translation
Frederick M. Keener, editor
Penguin Classics, 1997©

Mark Rothko
Blue, Green and Brown
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC

iv  James Marsden


  1. Love you blog. You have very good taste. A good sense of what is beauty. Regards from Catalonia.

    La Chevalier.

    1. Extravagant generosity, from a partisan of Chateaubriand and John Ford! I would die and go to heaven but I have a dog to feed.