Rothko in The Last Days of Pompeii

The current exhibition The Last Days of Pompeii is a multi-faceted look at one of the most infamous natural disasters in human history. Since the eighteenth-century discovery of the buried sites in the Bay of Naples, western culture has been obsessed with how and why this Roman city met its demise. The Last Days of Pompeii is broken down into three parts – decadence, apocalypse, and resurrection. Decadence illustrates Pompeii as an extravagant, gluttonous, highly sexualized society—a place that was doomed by fate because of its excesses. Apocalypse focuses on mankind’s intrigue with destruction and death. Resurrection explores the efforts to find and recreate this ancient city. These three themes cover centuries of different artists and styles, but here we focus on the room of Mark Rothko murals and how this artist and his abstract paintings are connected to Pompeii.

Rothko in Pompeii installation

In 1958 Mark Rothko was commissioned by the Four Seasons in New York CIty to paint a series of murals for their restaurant on the top floor of the newly constructed Seagram Building.

Rothko in Pompeii installation

Rothko’s influence by Roman wall painting was already well documented, but a trip to Pompeii mid-way through painting the murals further strengthened the connection he felt with the ancient city. The murals he saw on the walls of Pompeii had similar aspects to his own paintings – they recreated the space, challenging the depth of the flat wall. The color schemes were also similar – reds, maroons, oranges – which can’t help but invoke apocalyptic thoughts of fire, lava, smoke and blood.

Rothko in Pompeii installation

Rothko, like many other artists before him, drew from the perceived indulgence and demise of Pompeii to comment of the decadence of his day. He was disgusted by the elite crowd at Four Seasons and their extravagant lifestyle. Rothko wanted to create a suffocating environment in the restaurant – a place where the guests felt trapped. He set out “to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” as he hold a Harper’s Magazine reporter.

Rothko in Pompeii installation

Rothko finally withdrew from the project in 1960, not wanting his work to be considered “decoration” in addition to feeling “anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a picture of mine.” With about forty completed Seagram murals, Rothko later agreed to give a small group of them to the Tate Modern in London. The murals arrived at the Tate on the same day that Rothko committed suicide in 1970. The Seagram murals seem to embody their own modern day story of decadence, apocalypse and resurrection.

—Therese Conway


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