Tragedy, ecstasy, doom: Mark Rothko’s paintings in Norway

By Billie Miro Breskin

Børre Høstland / Nasjonalmuseet.

Oslo’s National Museum pioneers with the largest presentation of Rothko’s oeuvre in the Nordics

‘Mark Rothko: Works on Paper’, a new exhibition at the National Museum in Oslo, opened this week to great excitement from the art world. The show, which features nearly 80 pieces, champions the artist’s lesser-known works on paper, exploring his development with new mediums. Museum visitors who are familiar with Rothko’s famed large-scale, colour field paintings will be pleased to discover that the exhibition traces his career through four distinct periods. From 1930s figurative works to surrealist experiments in the '40s, all the way to abstraction in the late '50s and '60s, Rothko’s development as an artist is a central concentration of the exhibition.


Most notably, the show highlights the paintings on paper that Rothko developed late in his life. After suffering a heart attack in 1968, doctors encouraged the artist to work on a smaller scale, as some of his largest pieces measured over two metres tall and were therefore physically strenuous to paint. As a result, Rothko spent the last two years of his life working on a series of smaller paintings on paper, employing acrylic paint for the first time. While these late paintings are often read as manifestations of the artist’s worsening mental and physical health (he died by suicide in 1970), they also represent Rothko’s continued urge to innovate stylistically.

Photo: Børre Høstland / Nasjonalmuseet

Rothko once wrote, “I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on… And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.” Indeed, Rothko’s works are soul-stirring, and the National Museum’s exhibition brings that emotion to the forefront.

Mark Rothko: Paintings on Paper is on view through September 22nd of this year at the National Museum in Oslo.