White Christmas

Untitled 1, 1969 - Mark Rothko (1903-1970).jpg

Summer christmas is a southern hemisphere event. No bundling up to build snowmen. Rather, Australians strip down to as little as is legal and hop into the sea. Not Noble Firs, but Barbecue's alight to grill prawns and Moreten Bay bugs. Choirs sing carols of silent and holy nights alongside those of green gullies, cool streams and brown paddocks. However, although you'd think that sun, sand and surf would not make for a white Christmas, I awoke this year to the Australian equivalent. An overcast sky, mist, and humidity diffused the intense light of dawn into a singular seascape. It made me think of Rothko paintings, especially "Untitled 1, 1969." Some years ago I heard a rather odd art critic summarise Rothko's work as follows:  

I’m not afraid you won’t think this Mark Rothko beautiful, but what I am afraid, a little, somebody might think it’s just beautiful. Lovely colors. No meaning. But meaning is what he was all about, and he would have been furiously angry if anyone thought that, and told you so in suitably salty language. It was subject matter that mattered most to him. And the subject matter was the emotions. Not small, personal emotions – up today, down tomorrow – but the great timeless emotions. How we feel about death, and courage, and ecstacy. He was convinced that if you would just encounter his paintings, that emotion would be communicated to you with absolute clarity. So to achieve this he painted very large. Because in a small painting – big you, little painting – you can control it. But with a large painting, it controls you. You’re taken into it. Unless of course you look at it from a distance, that killing, assessing look. So to combat that, he insisted that always the light be very dim, so you couldn’t actually see the thing until you were right up against it. And then something does begin to happen. He painted with very thin mists of paint, feathering it on, breathing it on. And you are taken up, out of yourself, into something greater, something transcendent and majestic. If you can think of a religious painting without religion, this is what you experience here. It’s so timeless, that when I’ve had this encounter, I feel to return to the world of time, I have to shake my head and bring myself down to earth again.
— Sister Wendy Beckett, "The Story of Painting" - http://bit.ly/Wacno2

I've always thought that such an oceanside morning likely inspired the timeless transcendence of this painting. It seems the Pace Gallery in London had the same idea, juxtaposing Rothko's work with Hiroshi Sugimoto's photos in an exhibition, "Dark Paintings and Seascapes." So too, apropos christmas, Rothko's work aspired to the religious beyond religion. This is a trick theologians of late have been keen to emulate, and the trend goes back to earlier romantics such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, who wrote about our "sense and taste for the infinite" in his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. In any case, my ghosts of christmas past haunt me here, if only to remind me that there are many ways to celebrate the beauty and mystery of the season.

timothywstanley@me.com