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Among the Ruins of Djemila (Algeria)

Djemila (Algeria)

Unexpectedly, Rothko’s Outreach Develops One Step Further

The weather is cool and windy as we walk through the Roman ruins of Djemila (1st-6th century AD), led by two marvelous archeologists, both with unconventional training –Aicha Malek, who studied architecture and Youcef Aïbeche, who graduated as a historian. At first, we discovered the model of the four cities which have successively been built here, over the course of five centuries -each one including the previous one, but each one higher than its predecessor. Located three hours East from Algiers, between the Oued Guergour and the Oued Betame, on an awkward position, high on the mountains, as an intermediary zone between the kingdom of Juda and the kingdom of Sittius, Djemila appears to us in its beautiful austerity, in its majestic remoteness as we progress through the Arch of Caracalla and the forum. We admire the mosaïcs of all possible existing fish in the Christian Basilica. We marvel at the delicate carved stones, at the sophisticated heating system for the public baths -with a furnace providing the circulation of warm water through hollow marble walls. We learn about the Cosinius brothers -Lucius C. Primus, duumvir of Cuicul, and Caius C. Maximus- so eager to perpetuate their name by the construction of the public market, which remains one of the jewels of the city and seems so alive today with its various booths and, especially, its magnificent measuring tools carved in granite. How marvelous to imagine the power games at stake here, as a House of Cards set up in Roman times!


Does anything seem to predict that I am about to discuss Rothko right here -in Algeria, my home country, a country in which contemporary western abstract art is not easily accessible in public institutions? While driving back to Setif in the evening, Aicha comments on this magical site and tells us about her expertise -the wealth and variety of Roman mosaics in North Africa. The space created there by mosaic artists in the Roman times, she states, is the fruit of a sophisticated research and accounts for a true artistic vision, with an intellectual and even erudite tradition. The conversation then shifts to Rothko’s own interest for mythology and to his own quest for unity when, suddenly, Aïcha abruptly asks : « Did you ever read Vincent Bruno’s paper on Rothko and the Roman Second Style ? » No, I don’t know this paper. I know that Rothko’s travel to Pompeii during summer 1959 initiated a process of doubt and eventually lead him to abandon the Seagram project, which he had been working on for almost a year. Opening her computer in the car, Aicha shows me Vincent Bruno’s paper with its illustrations, and helps me transfer it into my own desk. Since that moment, I’ve been burrying myself in Bruno’s paper with absolute fascination.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Bruno states that after working on the Seagram panels in 1958-9, « the intensity of his reaction to Pompeii came from the recognition of this formula, the very formula he had been trying to express in the Seagram mural project. » He also gives convincing illustrations of Rothko’s experiments in 1958-9 in order to represent perspective through colors on a flat surface, comparing them with the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. « Rothko’s own preoccupation with the problems of mural composition, he writes, had prepared him to see and understand the artistic solutions of the ancients (especially with color) » Actually, « he had already come to some of the same solutions himself. /…/ the architectonic image suggests a finite zone within which the viewer moves about normally, but provides at the same time a sense that it is possible to pass beyond it into another realm that seems infinite, characterized only by light and color. »

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Mark Rothko: Study for Segram Murals, 1959-60

Definitely, this discovery gives credit to the interpretation of Rothko’s last phase (1958-1970). Abandoning his classical style (rectangles of color, floating one on top of the other one), he shifts into a new experiment, which has less to do with a « darkening of the palette » as sometimes stated, but rather with a new research on space and light, in order to create a total environment, a feeling of transcendence for the viewer, and foster the artist’s project of art as an experience.[1]

[1] Vincent J. Bruno: «Mark Rothko and the Second Style, The Art of the Color Field in Roman Murals”? It was published in Studies in the History of Art, 43, Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, in the frame of Symposium Papers XXIII: Eius Virtutis Studiosi: Classical and Postclassical Studies in Memory of Frank Edward Brown (1908-1988), edited By Russell T. Scott and Ann Reynolds Scott, published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and distributed by the University Press of New England, Hanover and London, in 1993

After asking around, I discovered that none of the Rothko experts I know had heard of this paper, which dates from 1993. Why? It all has to do with the compartmentalization of disciplines. This very original article, although mentioning Rothko in its title, did not reach the Rothko art historians circles, because it was written by an archeologist and remained within the boundaries of the archeologists’ milieu. Still, we all knew about Rothko’s deep affinity both with Greek temples and with Roman architecture but nobody seemed to know anything much more specific than that. Decompartmentalizing the traditional disciplines has been one of my fascinations when dealing with Sartre or with the US art world, and I always enjoyed freely breaking into a new field in order to find new tools, new experts, thus helping fertilize the scope of the research. It seems now possible that, soon, we might make one more step in this direction in Rothko’s case.

Travelling back to Algiers, we visit my friend Samir Toumi, a writer, businessman and philanthropist whose brand new concept La Baignoire has quickly become the most dynamic contemporary gallery in town. With his text “At the heart of the Algerian chaos”, written as a parabole and poem, -Algerian theme and variations on political commitment- Samir recently evoked the permanent tension between chaos and peace, between noise and silence, his physical wrestling with the swarming city or his diving into the virtuality of the web as “an alternative agora”, and the pulse of the Algerian youth with its “overflowing vitality” confronting the inaccessibility of the sick old man at the head of the state, surrounded by his “parallel universe”. How can I help thinking of Mark Rothko who, in the Rothko Chapel (Houston) tried to recreate the tension between «tragedy and hope», that has mesmerized him in the Torcello Church near Venice?

And this is in the very special political environment –my country recovering from all its wounds- that, little by little, I understand that the scope of Rothko’s outreach is unfolding, one step further, inexorably.

par Annie Cohen-Solal