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Arts & Life

See Red In A New Light: Imperial China Meets Mark Rothko In D.C. Exhibition

The Sackler Gallery's Ming dynasty dish dates back to 1430 China.
The Sackler Gallery's Ming dynasty dish dates back to 1430 China.

This holiday season, the color red is the focus of a small exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian show finds links between a 15th-century Ming dynasty dish and a 20th-century painting by Mark Rothko.

The dish was made for an emperor in 1430, and it's rare — there are only about 35 of them left. It has simple lines and a rich color (red, of course). Curator Jan Stuart fell in love with the dish and set about adding it to her gallery's collection. She showed it to experts, the gallery's board and members of the National Commission of Fine Arts. According to Stuart, several had the same reaction: "Oh, I get it. It's like Rothko."

The gallery bought the dish, and a concept was born: Put it on view with a luminous Mark Rothko painting — one that layers tones of red into two vertical rectangles — borrowed from the National Gallery of Art. The result is a mini-show brought together by color.

The Ming dish is the color of crushed raspberries. To get that hue, imperial potters mixed a tiny amount of finely ground copper oxide into their glaze. Back then, getting the right red was tricky: too much copper and you get a liver color; too little and it totally disappears in the firing. "It is the single hardest color to control in the kiln," Stuart says.

Mark Rothko originally made this untitled red painting for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.
Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc./ National Gallery of Art / Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Mark Rothko originally made this untitled red painting for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.

The colors also change as the piece cools, depending on where it sat in the kiln. The Sackler Gallery dish has two tones of red: dark, dark orange on the bottom and crimson on the sides. The result had to be perfect — nothing but perfection for the emperor. (Stuart says hundreds of imperfect dishes were destroyed.)

The ruler used the dish in his prayers. "He would have filled it with probably fruit and put it on an altar during ceremonies to the sun," Stuart says. Eventually, imperial potters stopped making the red dishes. Then, in the 18th century, the court tried to revive them — with no luck. According to one apocryphal story, one potter sacrificed himself in an effort to achieve the perfect dish: He threw himself into the kiln in hopes that the secret of the right red would be revealed for him to pass on to living potters.

Suicide is also a tragic connection between the Ming and Rothko reds. Known for contemplative color shapes that vibrate, the American painter ended his own life in 1970. But years before, Mark Rothko made 34 murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. The red painting on display at the Sackler Gallery is one of those commissions. Stuart describes it as magnetic. "You're being pulled in. One red seems warmer and happier; one red seems very somber. So it's trying, I think, through the movement of the colors and the shapes, to make you feel a range of emotion."

You almost weep with beauty of red.

Rothko eventually withdrew from the project. He felt a busy restaurant wasn't the place for artistic contemplation; his theory about the power of colors couldn't flourish there — but they do flourish at the Sackler, next to the Ming dish.

"There is a kind of beauty of red," Stuart says. "You almost weep with beauty of red. I feel it equally in both: color, texture, mood, emotion."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 21, 2016 at 10:00 PM MST
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we state that Mark Rothko withdrew from a project after learning his paintings would be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. In fact, he knew all along that the works would be used in the restaurant but changed his mind about having them displayed there.
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