Finding Nelson Mandela’s Creon in Mark Rothko’s Antigone

Painted sometime between 1938 and 1941, a work of Rothko’s so-called ‘mythic’ period, before his ‘classic’ work of the 1950s, Antigone depicts a tangle of torsos, rising from a rectangular blue box of feet and other strange objects, coalescing into a series of four (or five) heads – two red-faced males, one with curly hair and one bearded (on the left) and two females, one with a red scowl and the other dripping a yellow secretion from a large eye (on the right), with each set of faces looking in opposite directions, with a confusing array of arms and hands – three of them I think, pointing across, down and another possibly clenched in a yellow fist. This strange figure – if it can even be called a figure – has been interpreted by art historians as offering a representation of several protagonists in Sophocles’ play.The two male faces belong to the Theban king Creon (with the beard) and his son Haemon (with curly hair), who was betrothed to Antigone (scowling) next, who is followed by her sister, Ismene, oozing yellow (Ismene amancaes?). But what do we make of the purplish space between Creon and Antigone? Is that tuft of curly hair one of Creon’s side-burns or that of someone else? Could Antigone’s ringlet of hair, perhaps be part of someone else? If a figure is emerging here between these turned heads, who could it be? Polynices, the dead brother or slaughtered insurgent at the centre of this tragic conflict? Any attempt to give a face to this space between Antigone and Creon is left frustrated. Unless, in this space we see the conflict itself. If so, it is there I want to insert Nelson Mandela, who died today, but who, in the 1960s, during his imprisonment in Robben Island, played a part in a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone. Here is the account of this performance he gives in his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:

I performed in only a few dramas, but I had one memorable role: that of Creon, the king of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone. I had read some of the classic Greek plays in prison, and found them enormously elevating. What I took out of them was that character was measured by facing up to difficult situations and that a hero was a man who would not break down even under the most trying circumstances. When Antigone was chosen as the play I volunteered my services, and was asked to play Creon, an elderly king fighting a civil war over the throne of his beloved city-state. At the outset, Creon is sincere and patriotic, and there is wisdom in his early speeches when he suggests that experience is the foundation of leadership and that obligations to the people take precedence over loyalty to an individual.

Of course you cannot know a man completely, his character, his
principles, sense of judgement, not till he’s shown his colours, ruling the
people, making laws. Experience, there’s the test.

But Creon deals with his enemies mercilessly. He has decreed that the body of Polynices, Antigone’s brother, who had rebelled against the city, does not deserve a proper burial. Antigone rebels, on the grounds that there is a higher law than that of the state. Creon will not listen to Antigone, neither does he listen to anyone but his own inner demons. His inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the ground that it was unjust.

It is Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), who played both Creon and Antigone, was both freedom fighter for and leader of South Africa, who I find peering out through the gap within, and who represents the conflict at the heart of, Rothko’s Antigone

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