Saturday, March 04, 2006

Contemporary sunset

Sunset from our bedroom window

Mark Rothko denied his abstract paintings were in any way supposed to be landscapes, although he is reported to have said at the 1964 Turner show in New York “that chap Turner learned a lot from me.” That year there was a New Yorker cartoon with a modish couple staring out at a sunset over the sea, the view resembling a Rothko painting, the caption: “Now, there’s a nice contemporary sunset.” The cartoon reminds me of comments on Turner in Oscar Wilde's The Decay of Lying (1889):
“Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised.”
The question this raises in relation to Rothko is over the extent to which our aesthetic response to landscapes is now affected by the form of Rothko’s paintings, even though Rothko himself was engaged in abstract expressionism. And whether this in turn leads artists to adopt Rothko-like compositions for their landscapes, as in Andreas Gursky’s Rhein (1996).

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