Yellow-bellied coward or the new Duchamp?

Your comments, please, on the Rothko defacement.

This Sunday, an “invaluable” painting by Mark Rothko was tagged in plain view by Vladimir Umanets, a manifesto-writer and co-founder of the mysterious and previously unheard of “Yellowism”. It’s an act that has hit a collective nerve. With a runaway comment thread on the Guardian website, this has got to be the most discussed new story to hit the art world since the fresco fiasco. (Though, I’ll warn you, there are those who suggest they were in it together.)

Hundreds of readers have cast in their thoughts on various news sites. “Selfish”, “shameful”, “self-important” and “dull” are just a few of the things Umanets’ act of vandalism has been called. Others have praised his audacity and the questions he raises about the ever-questionable state of contemporary art. “Let me be the first to say: Good on him,” says Rah90. “After all, what is art anyway?” chips in Glenorglenda, both from the Guardian. “Rothko is overrated don't you think?” says WHYGODWHY on New York Magazine’s website.

In his own defence this morning, Umanets compared his act with the Dadaist absurdism of Duchamp, executed with the panache of Hirst. He told the Guardian:

I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did. I was expecting that the security at Tate Modern would take me straight away, because I was there and I signed the picture in front of a lot of people. I didn't destroy the picture. I did not steal anything. There was a lot of stuff like this before. Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him, or even Damien Hirst.

An article in the Independent has him adding:

I am a Yellowist. I believe what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this. It was like a platform.  It's good people are shocking about what happened, no-one is realising what actually happened, everyone is just posting that the piece has been damaged or destroyed or defaced. But I believe that after a few years they will start looking for it from the right angle. So that's why I did it.

And in his cryptic manifesto (co-written with with Marcin Lodyga), he writes:

Yellowism is not art or anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. There is no evolution of Yellowism, only its expansion.

There you have the facts. For what it’s worth, I’ll throw in my two cents below. But mine is just a voice among many. What do you think? Please participate in the discussion by leaving your thoughts and responses in the comment thread below.

An open letter to Vladimir Umanets

From where I’m sitting, your act reeks of self-congratulation. Well, congratulations Vladimir, you got us talking about Yellowism. But with a website high on nudity and low on lucid, engaging information, I doubt you’ll accrue many new fans. They call yellow the colour of cowards. Sorry to say it, but your act of Yellowism doesn’t feel all that courageous.

The joy of the modern art gallery is that it’s still a reasonably democratic space, usually free from barriers, protective casings or overbearing security guards. The relaxed atmosphere that enabled your act is exactly that sort of luxury that your act will destroy. Art is a shared experience and cherishing its communal value is the reason so many fight to keep galleries accessible for all. The unfortunate legacy of your act is unlikely to be an enlightening debate on the state of art, but rather a big glass plate between us and the paint.

You forget that this painting does not belong to you; it belongs to everyone. Stop hogging it for your personal agenda. If you’ve got a message to spread, go and make some art of your own.

And shouldn’t we always be wary of things that claim to “expand” rather than evolve? Sounds a bit like the blob if you ask me. And no one thought the blob was very clever.

Vandals at work? It all seems so civilized... The Yellowism studio in Cairo, 2010/2011 (PHOTO: Marwan Abd El-Alim)

The writing on the Rothko appears to read: "Vladimir Umanets '12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism." (PHOTO: Tim Wright)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle