Post-Madrid-memories Part 1

by Helen Barker

Confessions from the Reina Sofia – (notebook honesty).
Sometimes I feel like a load of egg shells stuck to a blank canvas, too….

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966

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In “The Collection”, a book written for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte – Reina Sofia, Madrid, the following is written about Rothko:

Rothko understood the canvas as a field of action; the outcome was not the creation of pictures as mere color fields, however, but as spaces in which to transpose objective ideas or to make moral and prophetic statements. Rothko considered painting to be the space in which tensions are materialized, deriving from the presence/absence of color produced by the weightless suspension of patches of color, from the contrasts produced and the trace of the brush stroke (the chromatic nuances the brush stroke produces render the expressiveness and emotion of the artist), as can be seen in Untitled (Orange, Plum, Yellow), (1950).

Mark Rothko, No 8, 1952

I can’t pretend that I know much of Rothko’s life, his emotional capacity, however, seems to have been quite big – I understand that much. When I sit in front of his paintings, it’s as though my insides have somehow left my body and are looking back at me. The hidden tears that prick at the back of my mind are driven forward, and the inner smiles I sometimes suppress are forced out of the corners of my mouth. In front of a Rothko, I suspect I look quite mad. But then what else is there to be when faced with an interior world the eye rarely has to look at?

The visual language of human emotion is a spectrum beyond my comprehension, but Rothko somehow manages to open the rift between the heart and mind. Whatever we fear, whatever we assume has died in us, Rothko calls us to re-live it. His canvases hang like giant stretched out amplifiers, enhancing the feelings that course through our veins – however deep and buried.

If you felt like crying, it’s too late now. There’s nothing that can stop you once you’ve stood before his painting and opened your eyes.

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1996

In our western world we are so afraid of our own emotions that we wander through galleries looking as blank as the walls before anything was hung on them. In the atrium of the Reina Sofia a giant scribble slashes its way across the sun-lit space and Lichtenstein reminds me that some things are bigger than words. Bigger than our own physical weight. Some things are just giant brush strokes in the sky, and it’s all we can do to stand in their presence and not get knocked down.

The fact that I don’t know what it is that I’m meant to be doing next, I don’t feel that I am where I belong, and I don’t feel that I can make sense of the trust I have that somehow, something will work itself out, made the Reina Sofia a strange experience. But there’s one sure thing that I was reminded of – that the imprint of human life is an expression which can never be fully understood. If it takes standing in front of a large blob of colour for me to accept this, then so be it. I can think of far worse ways to sit on the edge of incomprehensibility. And feeling small and incomprehensible every now and again is no bad thing.

So, in short, I recommend you go sit in front of your nearest Rothko – there’s probably a part of you there already that you never even knew about.