Rothko vandalised, and my writing dilemma

There’s been all kinds of outrage in the British press this week after a man scribbled on a Mark Rothko painting in the Tate Modern in London. I thought it was a stupid, arrogant and disrespectful thing to do, but on a more personal level, the act leaves me with a writing dilemma.

My husband asked me to marry him in the Rothko room at the Tate (well, he’d already asked me on a beach in Norfolk, but with a pretend ring – the Tate was the ‘official’ proposal). We sat on a bench, possibly in front of the very same painting that has been defaced (Black on Maroon), and turned the ring this way and that to watch it sparkle under the dimmed lights. There’s a lovely peaceful calm in that room, even when it’s full of visitors. At 7.30pm on a weeknight we were almost the only people in there, so it felt very special.

When I started to plan my YA novel (before the marriage proposal), I knew that Chloe, the 15 year-old main character, would have a thing for Rothko. The opening chapter of my first draft is set in that room in the Tate, and her art project on Rothko runs through the book. A poster of Black on Maroon hangs at the end of her bed. One of the book’s themes is truth, and things not appearing at first to be what they really are. Related to that is the theme of ethnicity, and what we mean when we describe skin colour as ‘black’, or ‘brown’ or ‘white’.  Chloe spends a lot of time looking at her Rothko prints and seeing new colours within them. Early on in their relationship, she describes Rothko to Asif, who has never heard of the artist:

“… he doesn’t really paint things, he paints colours. Blocks of colour. Sometimes you think it’s one colour but when you look closely you realise there’s lots of different shades; sometimes he paints two different colours on top of each other with one colour sort of running into the other. Like, the one I’ve got in front of me looks like it’s orange and yellow but it’s more than that – there’s brown in there and cream, and even some red.”

So the question is, seeing as Rothko plays a large supporting and metaphorical role in my book, do I acknowledge what has happened this week or not? If the book is ever published, it may not be in bookshops for a couple of years or more, in which case the painting will probably have been restored and the whole incident forgotten about. The young adults reading my book will have been too young to remember what happened in October 2012. On the other hand, if I ignore it, does that make my writing somehow less authentic, as someone astute (or well read on art history) might wonder why I’ve not mentioned something which could have had real significance. Maybe I could also work it into the book somehow, as another metaphor?

What do you think I should do?

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10 thoughts on “Rothko vandalised, and my writing dilemma

  1. Include it – it’s an intriguing incident, it adds versimilitude and it doesn’t matter if people remember it or not, if they want to find out more, there’s always google…

  2. I think you should allow Chloe to be led by her heart ( …or yours).
    Rothko is one of those artists that, If one likes his work, gets under one’s skin and into one’s soul. Of course, my point of view here is purely personal – having metaphorically met Rothko when I was in the Upper 6th at school, I fell in love with him and he’s stayed with me ever since (and I’m about to be 63). Whenever I’m at the Tate I pop in to see him and nuture my spirit.
    My reaction ( ?as opposed to yours or Chloe’s?) would be not to give the vandal extra publicity…Instead let him and the whole business fade away and ensure that neither achieve immortality through your work. x.

  3. Work it in – your intense truth-to-self is part of the texture of the book. See what themes you can make it talk about, what it can tell us about the heroine, how she feels and thinks about it, and whether you can a work in and use that exquisite phrase, “a potential piece of yellowism”. You could treat it as something that happened a year or two ago, part of the picture’s narrative, not a crackling living now, or thread it into the events and let it dolce some plot problems. You already had Rothko, so it’s hardly shoe-horning!

  4. I definitely won’t thread it into events – I don’t want it to be a defining action in the book. But using it as part of the picture’s narrative, I like that possibility. I don’t think I need to worry about publicity Lesley, unless publication was a dead cert, and I had the profile of JK Rowling!

  5. I don’t really understand why you feel the need to include it. Would it definitely be something that has impinges on Chloe? It could depend on the timeframe of the novel, but I imagine it will be forgotten about by most people before long. The idea of revising a novel to fit in with an act of vandalism seems wrong somehow. Obviously it’s your decision, but I certainly don’t see why it would make the writing any less authentic.

  6. Is the event relevant to your narrative? or would it add anything to your character? I would include it only if it were going to mean something in the story. I see how this event has unsettled you (and many others including myself as a fan of art and Rothko) but you need to stay true to your story and your characters.

  7. I’d say see how you feel at the end of a first draft! It could be a tiny detail, but one that throws up interesting thematic explorations, or you may end up feeling that it’s just crow-barred in and irrelevant. (Personally, I think it’s the type of detail that would lend great authenticity to your novel. Readers would love spotting the reference, if they’re aware enough!) Love your blog, by the way.

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