Reading Ardeelee's blog today, I felt an immediate thrill at someone else enthusing about Rothko and Chagall, two of my favourite 20th century artists.
Let's take Chagall first. When I was doing my A-levels we had a trip planned to London to go and view a major retrospective of Renoir at the Hayward Gallery. We were all very excited. We pretty much didn't take much notice that in the afternoon we were scheduled to visit the Royal Academy to see another major retrospective: Chagall. We all trundled down on a rainy day. It was already fairly depressing before we got to the Hayward: walking in there, we felt we had entered hell. Although there were probably a handful of the art crowd who were a little more stylistically adventurous, most of us had limited experience of modern (20th century) art. So the Renoir had promised to be a treat. Bleurgh. What a let down.
The place was full of tourists for Impressionism, herded through narrow walkways too close to properly see anything of what Renoir may have intended. Some of the images were still beautiful: The Swing seemed especially entrancing, with its dappled light. But having to navigate past wittering swooners when we were trying to be on a study visit was just a 'mare.
And then we hit the final room...
Seeing reproductions of some of Renoir's late bathers paintings doesn't do them justice (and I so do not mean that in a good way). It's not the size of the women - several of my friends over the years have also had Rubenesque figures and look great with it: it was the way in which he painted them...
And so over 'the human scale' that, crowded into the ridiculously small rooms that the Hayward had opted for, the images became nauseatingly overpowering. Several of the group actually went to throw up on exiting the show. We felt like we had been barfed at in an enclosed space by the colours...
Anyway, it was with disappointed and heavy hearts that we travelled across London to the RA for Chagall, a painter we knew far less about and I would say at that stage had little interest in.
WHAT a contrast. For a start, less people (blockbusters shows can be awful, and though the Renoir was probably on the cusp of when such shows took over the artworld, it was indicative of what was to come). And the images: breathtaking didn't get close to describing them.
The Green Fiddler
I and the Village
And of course the stained glass... (see another example here)
Overall, we came out stunned and thrilled. I never forgot that revelatory day. And whenever I think of Chagll, I think of Howard and Theresa and me and the rest of 6th form art class crew coming home by train buzzing with excitement.
So what about Rothko?
I have to admit that it was a little while after I had finished my A levels when I got into Rothko. It was courtesy of the aforementioned friend Howard who I had loved from afar in art class, and who briefly kept in touch with me when we had left 6th form (something I was jolly pleased with I can tell you). He went to art college in London, and wrote one Christmas about how he had planned to do a project based on Rossetti. Now we had both been keen Pre-Raphaelite admirers at 6th form, but as you do when you grow up you can end up putting such childish things away (I still love them though, as viewers of this may know). Howard wrote enthusing that once he had let go of Rossetti and found Rothko he discovered a deeper meaning to life and art. Wow. Well that sold me.
Next visit I took to London I immersed myself in the Rothko room of the Tate Collection and let the blacks, the reds, the purples, the fading pinks and the lines of colour blur and swim, focus in and out... and I did truly feel alive and yet aware of death simultaneously. It knocked me sideways. (See here for some key examples)
What I loved about the images was though for me tied to the setting - the old Tate building's white walls and the relatively enclosed space. You couldn't enter the room except intentionally, and its contents were not visible from passing visitors.
At Tate Modern, that has - at least every time I have gone - been absent. Instead the room is a thoroughfare for visitors en rote to elsewhere in the gallery. It has entrances that make it impossible to not have people wander past your contemplative eyeline and that bugs the hell out of me. It's a shame because the grey walls and the lighting there ARE much more in tune with the images (though I have heard it argued that it makes the response you are likely to have much more directed by the setting than the images, which DOES disappoint me).
Still, all in all very good works, and thanks to Ardeelee for her reminder that prompted this lengthy post.