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Paris exhibition presents 115 masterpieces by iconic American painter Mark Rothko

The Fondation Louis Vuitton presents the first retrospective in France dedicated to Mark Rothko.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton presents the first retrospective in France dedicated to Mark Rothko. Copyright Credit: Louis Vuitton Foundation / AFP / Mark Rothko
Copyright Credit: Louis Vuitton Foundation / AFP / Mark Rothko
By Theo FarrantAFP
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The Louis Vuitton Foundation presents the first retrospective in France dedicated to Mark Rothko since the exhibition held at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1999.

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A new blockbuster exhibition featuring 115 works by the renowned artist Mark Rothko has opened in Paris this week. 

His son, Christopher Rothko, says he combined a "European soul" with "the freedom of America" to become an icon of 20th-century art.

The show, hosted at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, offers a comprehensive journey through Rothko's artistic career, encompassing his early figurative pieces to the monumental, abstract rectangles of vivid colour that he is most celebrated for. 

I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.
Mark Rothko

Rothko's overarching aspiration was to elevate painting to the same echelon as music and poetry, a sentiment echoed by his son, who played a pivotal role in curating the exhibition and concurrently penned a collection of essays in conjunction with the event. 

Who is Mark Rothko?

Mark Rothko smoking a cigarette
Mark Rothko smoking a cigaretteCredit: Bridgeman Images

Rothko's art is among the most recognisable of the 20th century.

Born Marcus Rothkovitch to a Jewish family in 1903 in Daugavpils, which was known as Dvinsk at the time and is now a part of Latvia, he emigrated with his family to the United States a decade later. 

Although Rothko discovered his artistic calling relatively late in the 1930s, his early works already emanated a somber mood, characterised by isolated and melancholic figures.

Figurative art did not come naturally -- "he became aware of not being able to paint without mutilating it," said co-curator Suzanne Page - and by the 1940s he was dabbling in surrealism. 

As with many artists, such as Pablo Picasso, the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust compelled Rothko to seek out a new artistic language. 

It was in the late 1940s, with his Multiforms, that his work transformed into abstract shapes, initially resembling brightly coloured ink blots, with the iconic rectangles emerging, waiting to take center stage. 

Rothko found his distinctive style in the 1950s and steadfastly adhered to it until his suicide in 1970, producing massive, emotionally charged rectangles of intense colour that, as Page aptly puts it, emit "a great vibration."

And his paintings aren't cheap - on 8 May 2012, one of Rothko's paintings titled Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), was sold at Christie's from the estate of David Pincus for $86,882,500 (€82.3m).

The sale exceeded the previous highest price ever achieved for a postwar artwork in the open market, just slightly surpassing the 2008 sale of a Francis Bacon triptych by Sotheby's for $86.3 million (€81.7m). 

What to expect from the exhibition?

Paintings by US artist Mark Rothko are displayed at the exhibition dedicated to his works at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris on 13 October, 2023.
Paintings by US artist Mark Rothko are displayed at the exhibition dedicated to his works at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris on 13 October, 2023.Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP

Seventy of these colourful works are displayed at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which has funnelled the vast profits of the LVMH luxury brand into a series of blockbuster shows lately, most recently an unprecedented joint-collection by Jean-Paul Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

The exhibition underscores Rothko's shifting moods, from the deep reds and maroons of the Seagram Murals to the nearly monochromatic Blackforms, and even a sudden burst of brightness following a mild aneurysm and cautionary advice from his physician.

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"There's an inner glow even in the lighter paintings," said his son, Christopher. "He only gives you the suggestion of the idea. You have to bring a large piece of yourself in order to communicate with him."

Paintings by US artist Mark Rothko are displayed at the exhibition dedicated to his works at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris on 13 October, 2023.
Paintings by US artist Mark Rothko are displayed at the exhibition dedicated to his works at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris on 13 October, 2023.Credit: AFP

Years of heavy drinking and a marital breakdown took their toll. He was 66 when he took an overdose of barbiturates and slit open his wrist.

"He sought to express fundamental human emotions - tragedy, death, ecstasy," says Page.

It is all there "if you take the time and the risk to look inside the painting and look for a very long time".

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"Mark Rothko" runs until 2 April 2024 at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. 

Check out the video above for a look inside the blockbuster exhibition.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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