The Anxious Artist in Pursuit of Rothko
Last Monday saw me on a determined mission to the Tate Modern, in London, with the intention of viewing the famous Mark Rothko paintings, otherwise known as the Seagram Murals. I had thought it was at this location that they were permanently housed. I had recalled visiting them a number of years ago and having been deeply affected by the dark and sombre immersive environment which these murals had been placed in; the deep wine reds, browns and blacks creating, what one critic described as ‘darkly luminous'. I remember the space feeling almost spiritually sacred and I had taken a seat respectfully. I had been completely absorbed, as though the paintings were reaching out to me and drawing me closer and closer towards them and into their various windows or doorways, towards what I could not say. As I recall, others who entered the space seemed equally consumed by this weighty atmosphere, almost claustrophobic. I remember finding it hard to find the energy to stand up and leave. I remember feeling completely drained, with a deep sense of meditative melancholia and possibly grief, such was the emotional impact of the space Rothko had created.
The Seagram Murals, 1958. Shown at the Tate Modern
In the late 1950's, when Rothko painted these murals, they were initially intended for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York. However, the darker mood of these paintings was not suitable for this vibrant, fashionable venue. Rothko, had been influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, with its oppressive atmosphere and blind windows, which blocked the light and the view of whatever lay beyond. Rothko was interested in achieving a similar kind of feeling, wanting his viewers to feel trapped in a room and in the darker corners of their unconscious. He decided the murals would be better situated at the Tate, wishing for them to be in close proximity to the collection of J.M.W. Turner paintings at the Tate Britain initially.
Back to present day; on arriving at the Tate Modern, I was soon to be told that the 'Rothko Room' had moved on to the Tate Britain. I was frustrated with myself for not checking first (typical of me), also relieved, as I had been negotiating my way through school group after school group, it was noisy and busy and this was not a conducive environment to be viewing the contemplative melancholia of Rothko. However, I was not to be deterred and hot footed it down the river, only to be disappointed again, as I was told Rothko is now on tour! I was very frustrated. I was, in fact, fuming! My journey ended there and I admitted defeat.
What had felt like a vital mission had failed. Instinctively, I made my way to the room of Auto-Destructivist art, displaying the likes of Gustav Metzger. The expressive quality and even violence in which he attacked the surface with his palette knife just about suited my mood. Previous work I have made having been interested in the exploration of creation and destruction; something apparently so integral in human nature, art offering a safe space to explore and acknowledge this. There was something therapeutic in viewing Metzger's painting and in recalling my own experience of working in this way.
Painting on Cardboard c.1961-2. Gustav Metzger.
Detail from ‘The Wounded Healer’, 2022. Naomi Elfred-Ross
So, my day might have been described as a wild goose chase, but somehow it didn't feel that way. There was something important to be exorcized, or discovered in taking the journey and in tolerating the disappointment. I imagine you may be wondering why it had been of such importance for me to see these paintings. Afterall, I was barely aware they had entered my consciousness a great deal since I had visited all those many years ago. However, a few days prior I had discovered this couldn’t be true.
Rothko's atmospheric art had clearly been hidden deep in my unconscious. I was somewhat surprised to discover this in my first session (post assessment) of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), a type of therapy which is used to help people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was nervous about starting the processing and feared what may come up and whether I would be able to cope, or that somehow I would just get it wrong. However, nerves soon turned to amazement and curiosity at all that was to emerge as I allowed my mind to roam freely, while quickly moving me eyes back and forth. Although, inevitably, my thoughts took me to some very disturbing places (which I won’t share with you), it was no time at all before I found myself looking at and then inside one of the very Rothko paintings I have described. I was wandering, lost, in a world of darkness. I remember feeling a sense of intense fear, similar to that which I often experience when I have flashbacks, or dissociate. I was wandering in a world that was strange and no longer made any sense.
However, in this world, which my mind had conjured, there was also light, which emanated from gaping puddles on the ground. Puddles which appeared to display different ‘parallel’ worlds that seemed more familiar. I promptly jumped into one of these puddles and found myself in another painting; this time I was inside Dali's 'The Persistence of Memory’, surrounded by a surreal, barren landscape inhabited mainly with seemingly melting clocks. This is another painting which I am very familiar with, but am not aware of consciously thinking about for quite some time and yet here it was making itself readily available, unbidden.
‘The Persistence of Memory’. 1931. Salvador Dali.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was so struck by how apposite and wise my unconscious mind was. It was offering me an understanding of my trauma through a language that, as an artist, is least threatening and has most meaning for me. In Rothko I had acknowledged the darkness, fear and sense of abandonment which I experience in my daily life, because of the traumatic experiences I have had. In Dali, I was offered the understanding that time has a fluidity. What was in the past, can feel so real and present. As has so often been the case in my life, it seemed like art was coming to my rescue.
So, it is no wonder I was keen to find Rothko. I wanted to be physically present with the paintings, as it seemed they held a key (perhaps to one of those darkened doorways?) and I would learn more. Or, perhaps if I, once again, stepped into one of those paintings I might find the people I long to see again; but then what would happen? Would I be able to step back out, or once again, dive into a puddle and back into the ‘real’ world, or would I be stuck?
As I write this, I realise it may seem like quite a bizarre read and I apologise if none of this makes much sense. I had just wanted to share with you my experience of approaching my trauma, through therapy and the richness of the inner world, which is wise and seeks to take care of us, if we pay enough attention. After talking about my experience with a friend and telling her about my frustrating day at the Tates, she suggested that perhaps there was indeed purpose to my journey, as it confirmed what I already knew and already had. I do not need to follow Rothko around the world because I have those paintings and what they mean to me inside me already. As is the case with Dali; I hold that wisdom too. So, although there remains plenty of inevitable doubt and considerable anxiety about where this therapeutic process will end, I feel assured that I am fully equipped to make the journey and potentially heal. I can't readily imagine what that will look like, but somewhere inside me, there is the knowledge.
So, at the end of this revelatory therapy session, as is much needed and happens each week; I was taken to my ‘safe place‘. This is somewhere I can revisit whenever things get too much, it is always there for me. Dungeness with its big blue sky, the assurance of the sea, as the tide ebbs and flows. Where I am on top of the world and as tiny as a speck of sand. The cool, hard edges of the pebbles beneath my feet and the creativity of the inspirational Derek Jarman, his garden and his home; Prospect Cottage. A seemingly barren and inhospitable landscape to some perhaps, but so welcoming to outtsiders, misfits and creatives. A place which I am also keeping alive through my art and where I feel truly at home. It can be hard to believe that when the world seems terrifying and life has taught you that there is a bear around every corner, that there is a place of refuge existing in each of us, if we look hard enough. Where there is darkness, there also must be light. I have done my best to revsist Dungeness through the week, gently tapping my arms and installing it into my psyche, although I still experience a lot of resistance. However, in doing so, I seek to resource myself for the next step of my therapeutic journey. To be honest, maybe this sounds a bit weird, but amidst my understandable nervousness, I also feel quite excited!
‘Derek Jarman’s Sculpture Garden, Dungeness’. 2023. Silkscreen mono-print, with stencil.
A barren and inhospitable landscape. ‘Dungeness Nuclear Power Stations’. 2022. Silkscreen mono-print with stencil.
’Prospect Cottage’, Dungeness. Derek Jarman’s home And safe place. 2023. Silkscreen mono-print with stencils.
By Naomi Elfred-Ross.