The Space Between Van Gogh’s Repetitions

Gus Heagerty, assistant director at Shakespeare Theatre Company, guest blogs today about the upcoming staged reading of Vincent in Brixton at the Phillips on Jan. 9 at 6 pm.

Berceuse comparison

Left: Vincent van Gogh, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 28 5/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding; Right: Vincent van Gogh, Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago

After visiting the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition at the Phillips, I am filling in the blanks between each “repetition.” What was happening to Vincent between each pass at a portrait, or landscape? What spurs an artist to return to a figure or subject, over and over? We repeat to practice. We repeat to perfect. Perhaps we repeat because we feel we’ve grasped a greater understanding of the figure or landscape. Our repetitions refine our point of view. What is van Gogh attempting to refine in his repetitions?

Vincent in Brixton

Vincent in Brixton performed at the Old Globe in 2005

The many letters we are left with, and Nicholas Wright’s play Vincent in Brixton, acquaint us with a man straddling hemispheres of choice. At its core, the play imagines Vincent as he defines the difference between living life as an artist, and life as a man lead by his faith.

The play spans three years, each scene taking place around a “big wooden table, functional, and unusual.” Vincent will revisit this table, again and again, throughout the play. There is a force, sometimes known and sometimes unknown to him, drawing him back to the table. What he gathers at the table is the seed of what grows into a magnificent life as an artist.

Gus Heagerty, assistant director at Shakespeare Theatre Company

The Shape of Things: Prep List

Next week, Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things (2001) becomes the latest in a line of staged readings to grace the Phillips’s narrow but noble stage. Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Alan Paul directs this one-night-only art-world drama in an art-world context. Here is our cheat sheet to prepare for the program (other than, ahem, reserve your tickets):

1. Ask yourself soul-searching questions, like “what would I do for love?” and “how far would I go for art?”

2. Visit a college art museum. In D.C. you might choose AU’s Katzen Arts Center or GW’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. Can you imagine a chilling saga of seduction and manipulation unfolding here?

3. Read up on art projects that involve transformations of the human body–the play made us think about ORLAN especially.

4. Watch the 2003 movie (or take a shortcut with the trailer below), starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz. LaBute directs the original cast with whom he had premiered the play at London’s Almeida Theatre two years earlier.

5. Listen to some Elvis Costello. The Grammy Award-winning English singer-songwriter wrote the brooding, abrasive soundtrack for the 2003 film.

See you at the theater!

In the Rothko Room, You Might Burst Into Tears

Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann is author of  The Essential Mark Rothko. He’ll share his insights on the artist in a lecture tomorrow evening. Rothko is getting the spotlight in D.C. this season with John Logan’s Tony® Award winning play Red at Arena Stage. In anticipation, Klaus recently sat down with Phillips Communications Director Ann Greer to talk all things Rothko. The interview will be published in Arena Stage’s program book. Read a preview here.

Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo (c) Robert Lautman

Ann:  Why do you think Mark Rothko looms so large in the ranks of 20th century artists?

Klaus:  He was a unique artist in the way he dealt with color. He was very deeply involved in philosophy, religion, and he had an unusual ability to make his paintings communicate with the public. It was a well-known fact that people used to burst out in tears in front of his paintings, many times. I think he had a very emotional and very deep effect on the viewer – one very few artists have been able to have.

Ann:  How do you think that sort of “alchemy”–if I can use that word–how does that happen?

Klaus:  Well, of course, it didn’t happen overnight, he developed slowly into it. But, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was deeply religious, he was very philosophical. It had to do with the fact that he very strongly believed that his paintings should communicate–that there was a dialogue going on. It has also to do with his background in theater, he always wanted to become an actor, and he believed his works to be plays, he believed his works were created to be emotional conversations with the viewer–similar to what a play can do . . .

. . . he kept thinking about the three dimensional space. That’s something I think is very important. It’s very clear to me when I sit in the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection.

Ann:  Of course, Klaus is talking about the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, which was actually the first public space devoted exclusively to work by Rothko. Rothko was very involved with Duncan Phillips in planning the dimensions, the light levels, the bench.

Klaus:  There you are very close to the paintings, there are four paintings, one on each wall of the room, you are surrounded by them. You sit on the bench that Rothko put in the room, and you can feel the presence of the paintings. It’s not just an optical, visual presence, but an emotional presence. This is what he always wanted. He wanted the paint to come out and almost hover in the space in front of you and to touch you. So, he was always thinking of this three dimensional space like a stage. In a way, the Rothko Room is almost like a stage with four sides–you are in it and a part of it, and you are interacting with the other actors; you become part of that emotional play that he created. So, he never gave up that idea; the theater was always there, and it was always the framework that he used to conceptualize and make his art. To me, that’s very, very important.