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With Rembrandt and Rothko, a Message of Hope from the Netherlands

Rembrandt van Rijn: Portrait of Jan Six (1654), private collection

As the city of Amsterdam is about to live under the spell of the 17th century absolute master for the coming three months (with Late Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum), the city of The Hague is ending a five months fervor for one of the 20th century greatest painters (with Mark Rothko at the Gemeentemuseum). But these two exceptional exhibitions –probably drawing half a million visitors together- would have easily fallen into the category of commercial block-buster shows, if it were not for their presentation of Rembrandt and Rothko as special artists who, in a similar way and three centuries apart, followed a singular attitude in their later life and ignored prevailing conventions of their time in order to pursue their creative impulse, sometimes even at the cost of vertiginous risks.

In Amsterdam, one discovers the old Rembrandt who, famous and bankrupt, produces blunt self-portraits, favors instantaneity and truth over beauty while tirelessly searching for the third and fourth dimensions through depth and movement. Such is the case with the stunning Portrait of Jan Six, definite master piece of the show, -a painting (almost) never lent and which has not left the family mansion since its creation- in which, wearing a red cape and absorbed in this thoughts, Jan Six seems caught in his entrance hall at the very instant he carelessly pulls off the rider’s glove from his left hand. In The Hague, it is the last Rothko who, in 1959, after rejecting the commission of a site-specific series of panels for the most sophisticated New York restaurant, embarks on a very elaborate chemical research on pigments in order to create almost fluorescent paintings and draw the viewer into the canvas, with the firm conviction that contemplating a work of art is first and foremost an experience.

In view of the colossal impact that the Rembrandt and the Rothko exhibitions are provoking today, in view of the success of their appeal to the viewer’s commitment, one should once again underscore the key role played by the artist as a whistle-blower, beyond his own time, beyond his own culture. In 2015, we remain speechless and stricken by the repeated attacks that we just experienced –as tragic messages sent by uprooted people who, radicalized and self-destructive, express themselves through terrorism to react to what they feel as humiliations. In this respect, how can one neglect the lesson of empowerment given by Mark Rothko who, at age 10, immigrated to the US where he endured all possible rejections in the Portland ghetto and at Yale, during the 1920° –a notably tough period against immigrants- and who became an artist as last resort, in order to inscribe his identity in US society? By pushing the boundaries still further, Rothko conceived and realized a pioneering project with the Rothko Chapel in Houston -a new experimental institution, an œcumenical space-, which in turn became the essential crossroads for non-violence leaders in the 21th century.

In 2015, can one ignore those messages of hope from the Netherlands ? Should we not simply admit that the art world, as an allegory of social order, allows us to decipher political signals differently? What if these artists’ trajectories could signal imminent threats weighing upon us today ? What if they unveiled the fact that some challenges met by an immigrant may well be transformed into the very tools to mend the social fabric of the future ? If Rothko managed to build his own identity against the ethos of exclusion, if he managed to become an agent of transformation in US society, it is certainly by fighting conformism and institutional order, and by helping this very society to reinvent itself. Rothko also managed, as did Rembrandt, to recall the vanity of social order while emphacizing, by the same token, that solutions should be found in terms of creation rather than destruction. In 2015, Rembrandt and Rothko have certainly much more to tell us. In 2015, art and artists still hold fundamental messages that we should listen to in all emergency.

par Annie Cohen-Solal