Looking through different eyes

It’s difficult to realise when you’re suffering from depression just how much it’s affecting you at the time. The world closes in on you and it’s almost impossible to take a step out of yourself to see what’s happening. I can only see myself clearly when I’ve come through a bad period. It can still surprise me how low I must have been but didn’t fully realise it at the time.

Depression is a rollercoaster ride and sometimes just the ups and downs are enough to make me lose my way and become disorientated. Thankfully the more ups and downs I have, the easier it is to just allow myself to go with the flow. I’ve been down so much that being there no longer scares me – I know I’ll be able to pick myself up again.

My favourite painter also suffered from depression, taking his own life at the age of 66. Rothko’s later works were much darker and more dramatic than his earlier ones, yet I never saw depression in them. Instead I was drawn in, mesmerised in an almost meditative way, enclosed within the painting itself, not merely viewing the image on its surface.

One of my favourite things to do in London has always been to sit in Tate Modern’s Rothko Room, soaking up the dark burgundies in the darkened room. The summer I was managing English courses, a stressful and tiring job, I was grateful to be able to nip out, cross the road, run into the Tate Modern and sit in the Rothko Room for a few peaceful moments to recharge my battery.

I looked forward to seeing the large Rothko exhibition Tate Modern had at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. I expected the paintings to soothe my damaged soul, for it to be a relaxing and peaceful experience.

This time, though, I felt I was looking at his art through his eyes, his depressed eyes. And it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Instead of feeling drawn in, I felt I was being sucked in, trapped within each painting. It disturbed me and I wondered why other people didn’t seem to be having the same reaction.

Whereas once I lingered over each canvas, savouring every new depth of colour I came across, I now felt I could barely look at them. The last room of the exhibition had his last major series; I could merely glance at them as I walked through. They all had a white margin around the edge of the canvas framing the painting, but for me it was a sharply defined edge that imprisoned the viewer. Rothko’s previous works had colour going to the edge, extending beyond the canvas, but this was like being trapped inside his depressed mind, his world closing in on mine.

“The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.. the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”

~ Mark Rothko (1903-1970)


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