Nicolai Poliakoff (Coco the Clown) was born there – as was Joseph Rosen, described as the Talmudic genius of his time. In 1903 Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz was also born in the same city, Daugavpils in eastern Latvia.
We know him rather better as Mark Rothko, one of the greatest artists of the postwar period, whose colour-field paintings have become touchstones of heroic art. When his large sunset-coloured 1961 canvas “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold at Christie’s New York in 2012 for $86.9m (£53.8m), it set the price record for any work of contemporary art.
Now, 110 years after Rothko was born here, and 100 years after he left for Portland, Oregon, with his mother, he has come home to Daugavpils in the form of the Mark Rothko Art Center.
Driving down to the city from Riga, I passed Russian Orthodox churches with golden domes, what looked like a Soviet-style palace of culture, an unending line of birch trees, storks’ nests on telegraph wires – and, punctuating the 250km route, memorials of the execution grounds where the Nazis murdered the country’s Jewish inhabitants.
Latvia was once one of the dark places of the earth and it is still a complex place, suffering badly in the 2008 crash and still beset by major economic problems.
It is this world that the Mark Rothko Center joined on Wednesday. The Rothko family has made a generous long-term loan of six works, soon to be supplemented by a further two paintings from the National Gallery in Washington. The opening is more than a sentimental homecoming, though. It is a historic occasion – the centre looses Rothko’s work into eastern Europe for the first time. No one can fully predict the effects of the centre on the region’s cultural scene and artists, or on the local tourist economy, but the authorities certainly have high hopes.
The name Daugavpils would have meant nothing to the young Marcus Rothkowitz. For him the city was known as Dvinsk, part of the Russian Empire and a centre of Jewish thought. At least 50 per cent of its population was Jewish, and there were 48 synagogues. Rothko’s family was cultured, his father a pharmacist.
History later had its ugly way with the city and its Jewish population – the Russian pogroms began in 1910, and later, catastrophically, the Nazis occupied Latvia. Only 12,000 of the Jewish population of 55,000 survived the occupation. Later still it was part of the Soviet Union. Now there are only around 400 people of Jewish descent living there.
Farida Zaletilo, 57, quiet and small, is to the Mark Rothko Art Center what Sam Wanamaker was to Shakespeare’s Globe in London – an irresistibly determined force and probably downright nuisance who has made sure that the centre opened. Zaletilo is a resident of the city and now a Latvian. But her Muslim family were St Petersburg residents until carted off by the Nazis – her grandfather died in the camps.
When Zaletilo was working at the Daugavpils City Museum of Regional Studies in the 1990s, someone mentioned that Mark Rothko had been born there. “I had not heard of him,” Zaletilo tells me. “I could find no relevant books and catalogues – there was no internet café then in Daugavpils.”
She could not even find material in St Petersburg. On Dalí, de Kooning, and Chagall, yes – but not on Rothko. She made a study-visit to the Hague State archives, immersed herself in Rothko, saw an important exhibition of the artist in 2001 at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel – and became an unstoppable advocate of the art centre.
It has not been easy. It took Zaletilo two years to find her way to the Rothko family; and when she began to petition in Riga, the Latvian capital, for some commemoration of one of the country’s most famous sons, one initial response was: “No one will be interested in an American Jew around here.”
Both of Mark Rothko’s children – Kate Rothko Prizel, 62, and her brother Christopher, now 48 – were at the opening. It was Kate – Christopher was only six when his father killed himself in his studio, in 1970 – who took on and defeated their father’s executors and the formidable might of the Marlborough Gallery in a lengthy legal struggle over the family’s ownership of some of his works (which were already then, as now, extraordinarily valuable).
Both Kate and Christopher have not only loaned works to the centre but have restored a Daugavpils synagogue – as much a soup kitchen as a place of worship, Christopher tells me, in a measured tone, matching his rather formal suit and tie. He recalls his and his sister’s own first visit to the city in 2003, to mark his father’s centennial celebration. When they arrived, they were greeted by children in traditional garb and offered beer and pretzel. Then as they drove through the city, they passed the old prison, where they could hear inmates shouting.
Daugavpils, like the rest of Latvia, was then (and probably still is) in transition. The country became a sovereign nation again in 1991, with all the problems that sudden liberation brought. Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city, is still very much “Russian” – more than 50 per cent of its residents have Russian as their first language – but it is also a border town, close to Belarus and Lithuania, as well as Russia. The Mark Rothko Art Center is confirmation of its cosmopolitan history and a promise that the place will become so again.
Kate, more ebullient than her brother, tells me that, “honestly, I do not know how my father would have felt about the homecoming but I think he would have been excited”. His memories of the place were good, she says. “He would show it to me on the map, say it was part of the tsarist empire. He talked of ice-skating on the river” – but thinks that was probably apocryphal. After all, he was no one’s idea of a sportsman.
There’s no doubt that Zaletilo and Kate and Christopher Rothko all hope that the centre can act as an engine of cultural change. “The past can’t be erased,” Kate tells me, but there is a chance that the centre can be a culture space for the wider region – for Lithuania and Belarus as well as Latvia. “My father’s reputation is sufficiently secure not to need another Rothko museum,” says Christopher. So what attracted them to this project was that the centre would also be a home for symposia, conferences, an artist-in-residence programme, other international exhibitions and recitals.
The fortress that has been transformed into the centre was set up under Tsar Nicolas I in 1833 as an ammunition depot and became a military barracks for cadets in the Soviet era. It’s a large, two-storey, yellow-painted building, with some 2,500 sq metres of exhibition space.
The Rothko paintings themselves take up only a single gallery – although that is partly a matter of money (only one gallery has the right climate control conditions). The six Rothko works include a startling 1940 “Mother and Child”, with two nude figures enclosed in a space where the walls look eerily like the Seagram Murals he would paint later; a rather beautiful 1948 painting of “Multiforms” in which the viewer might lose himself; as well as “No 10 (Brown, Black, Siena Dark Wine)” of 1963, one of those glowing colour-field paintings most associated with the painter.
The rest of the centre is a potpourri: there is a Silence Room next to the Rothko Gallery for contemplation; projections of Rothko family photographs and of the artist’s works. Upstairs galleries are given over to the work of an important Latvian ceramicist, Peters Martinsons, and a print exhibition of British painter Peter Griffin, its current artist-in-residence. There are plans for a creative industries club, and space for conferences and seminars. The centre hopes the single but compelling Rothko room will promote culture in the region.
Daugavpils may be a long way from Margate in England (home to the Turner Contemporary gallery) or Washington, but these places are all counting on culture to drive regeneration. The Mark Rothko Art Center is 85 per cent funded by the EU’s Structural Fund (as well as by the local authority) as part of the EU’s efforts to help Latvia “modernise”.
On Wednesday – spring came late this year, with one-metre thick ice melting suddenly and overflowing river banks – it was hard not to be borne along by the optimism. Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests gave a benediction to the building, a Finnish accordion superstar played a gig in the courtyard outside and the Rothko art community from Basel to New York was present, as well as a high-ranking member of the Latvian government. And at the end of a long arched corridor are the Mark Rothko paintings, a quiet and commanding presence among the noise and celebrations. They are the still point of this particular turning world.