Wednesday, 1 December 2010

What connects Kandinsky and Turner? A love for Goethe's colour theory

Kandinksy: Cossacks,  1910-11, Tate:
The world outside is covered in a white blanket, so I thought I could provide a splash of colour in blogland. I gave a lecture on Expressionism yesterday and naturally couldn't resist references to the particular interest the Blue Rider group members had in colour and colour theory. There is an abundance of writing by various Blue Riders on colour, and Kandinsky considered Goethe's Theory of Colours an extremely important book (as did Schopenhauer, incidentally). Unlike Turner, who travelled with a copy of Goethe's Theory of Colours in the 1840s and annotated it heavily, he didn't name a painting directly after the treatise, but numerous of his works clearly deal with colour theory in general. Here is one of his most famous works, Cossacks, which even features a very un-Newtonian rainbow. It hangs in Tate Britain, London, where you can also see Turner's Light and Shade(Goethe's Theory). 

Turner: Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory), 1943

Kandinsky incorporated Goethe's Theory in his lectures at Bauhaus School and many drawings exist that give evidence of his fascination with colour theory.

Sketch concerning colour theory  by Kandinsky, 1913

A scholarly book has been written by Barabara Hentschel  on the connection between these two intellectual giants: Kandinsky and Goethe: Über das Geistige in der Kunst in der Tradition Goethescher Naturwissenschaft, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Berlin, 2000.   

Thursday, 11 November 2010

"I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave" - Derek Jarman's BLUE

As part of CineCity 2010, Brighton's own film festival (one of the patron's being 'the other man in black' Nick Cave), there will be a screening of Derek Jarman's last film, BLUE, with a live soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner and a narration by by poet and musician Black Sifichi.

The performance will take place on World Aids Day, 1st December, 6.30 p.m. at the wonderful Duke of York's Picture House.
More details on this event here on the CineCity website, some copied here:

BLUE, Jarman’s most personal and experimental film was made just a year before his death in 1994 from AIDS. By this stage treatments for the virus made him see everything through a blue haze, prolonging his life but destroying his eyesight. Though his final work, the idea of a film inspired by Yves Klein and the colour blue was something Jarman had explored throughout his career.

The viewer is immersed in a field of blue light, pure cobalt blue, to fully focus on the soundtrack as Jarman free associates around the artistic, philosophical and metaphysical meanings of blue — sky, water, flowers, a boy named Blue, sadness, the infinite — connecting them to his life and body of work.

As the blueness of the screen seems to pulse, the evocative sound collage from longtime musical collaborator Simon Fisher Turner — gongs, Berlin techno, footsteps walking on a windswept pebble beach — transports us through the daydreams and reflections of a dying man. The sound design provides the film’s narrative, its pictures and its emotional core. The ending is a beautifully pitched meditation on life’s swift passing:

Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like
Sparks through the stubble
I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.

Jarman's last book was also on the subject of colour, and written around the time the film was made, entitled CHROMA. It is a kaleidoscopic, intelligent and fractured essay on colour(s), highly subjective and resembling an elaborate notebook or a pre-cursor of a blog. I found this fitting quote in it, which might partly explain the film BLUE:

"I've placed no colour photos in this book, as that would be a futile attempt to imprison them. [...] I prefer that the colours should float and take flight in your minds."

Monday, 18 October 2010

"All good colour is in some degree pensive" - Ruskin and the colours of Venice

 Turner's Approach to Venice, 1843 ...

 ... and my approach to Venice in 2010:

I have just returned from a 4-day visit to Venice. Weather, accommodation, transport, food and company were excellent, so I could fully enjoy the beauties of this rich and strange place (with that much water everywhere, you cannot blame me for thinking of 'Full Fathom Five'). My book of choice was Ruskin's Stones of Venice (first published 1851-53) and I spent the days flicking through it, reading bits and pieces about those imposing yet often leaning palazzos and casas, marvelling at the beauty of Ruskin's language, as rich, proud and colourful as the buildings themselves.  I was looking for descriptions of colour in his work and found that he was fascinated with the subject and devoted whole paragraphs to it. Since he almost exclusively describes the exterior of buildings there is no description of this mosaic in the basilica of Torcello, a long vaporetto ride away in the outskirts of the lagoon, now deserted apart from a few pretentious restaurants and hundreds of cats:

The Master of Torcello: The Virgin Mary, mosaic, completed 12th c.

Until this trip I had not seen many Byzantine mosaics, and my knowledge of them was based on what I overheard and overread at the department of Art History at Sussex University, which has a strong contingent of scholars and researchers of Byzantine art. I was overwhelmed by the shimmering surfaces of the mosaics, the strong and fresh colours, against a glorious gold background. The almost clear windows of this tall church lit up the mosaics and made them sparkle, and I wondered what had taken me so long to become interested in the colours of mosaics. Naturally, I wanted to see more, but I tried in vain to get into St Marco; the queues were just too long. I had to make do with a large scholarly book on St Marco that was in our apartment. Since I have been interested in the depiction of rainbows in art (particularly pre-Newtonian) I wanted to see this mosaic in St Marco:
Basilica di San Marco: Noah and the Rainbow, mosaic, 13th c.
It looks to me as if this rainbow consists of only 4 or 5 colours, possibly omitting indigo.

But to come back to Ruskin and colour, in The Stones of Venice he compares attitudes to colouring and architectural colour in northern european and southern european/oriental buildings. Rather than paraphrase him I have copied extracts from the relevant paragraphs on the topic by him (all from volume two of The Stones of Venice). I am not sure I fully follow his argument about northern and southern archictecture, but I do like the connections he makes between Byzantine colouring and the great Venetian painters of the Renaissance, as well as his observations of colours within colours. The concluding sentence makes me think that I have defintely chosen the right research topic.

One of Ruskin's sketches for
The Stones of Venice

In the same way, whenever the subject of the sculpture was definite, its colour was of necessity definite also; and, in the hands of the Northern builders, it often became, in consequence, rather the means of explaining and animating the stories of their stone-work, than a matter of abstract decorative science. Flowers were painted red, trees green, and faces flesh-colour; the result of the whole being often far more entertaining than beautiful. And also, though in the lines of the mouldings and the decorations of shafts or vaults, a richer and more abstract method of coloring was adopted (aided by the rapid development of the best principles of color in early glass-painting), the vigorous depths of shadow in the Northern sculpture confused the architect's eye, compelling him to use violent colors in the recesses, if these were to be seen as color at all, and thus injured his perception of more delicate color harmonies; so that in innumerable instances it becomes very disputable whether monuments even of the best times were improved by the color bestowed upon them, or the contrary. But, in the South, the flatness and comparatively vague forms of the sculpture, while they appeared to call for color in order to enhance their interest, presented exactly the conditions which would set it off to the greatest advantage; breadth or surface displaying even the most delicate tints in the lights, and faintness of shadow joining with the most delicate and pearly greys of colour harmony; while the subject of the design being in nearly all cases reduced to mere intricacy of ornamental line, might be colored in any way the architect chose without any loss of rationality. Where oak-leaves and roses were carved into fresh relief and perfect bloom, it was necessary to paint the one green and the other red; but in portions of ornamentation where there was nothing which could be definitely construed into either an oak-leaf or a rose, but a mere labyrinth of beautiful lines, becoming here something like a leaf, and there something like a flower, the whole tracery of the sculpture might be left white, and grounded with gold or blue, or treated in any other manner best harmonizing with the colors around it. And as the necessarily feeble character of the sculpture called for and was ready to display the best arrangements of color, so the precious marbles in the architect's hands give him at once the best examples and the best means of color. The best examples, for the tints of all natural stones are as exquisite in quality as endless in change; and the best means, for they are all permanent.

Observe, it is not now the question whether our Northern cathedrals are better with color or without. Perhaps the great monotone gray of Nature and of Time is a better color than any that the human hand can give; but that is nothing to our present business. The simple fact is, that the builders of those cathedrals laid upon them the brightest colors they could obtain, and that there is not, as far as I am aware, in Europe, any monument of a truly noble school which has not been either painted all over, or vigorously touched with paint, mosaic, and gilding in its prominent parts. Thus far Egyptians, Greeks, Goths, Arabs, and mediaeval Christians all agree: none of them, when in their right senses, ever think of doing without paint; and, therefore, when I said above that the Venetians were the only people who had thoroughly sympathized with the Arabs in this respect, I referred, first, to their intense love of color, which led them to lavish the most expensive decorations on ordinary dwelling-houses; and, secondly, to that perfection of the color-instinct in them, which enabled them to render whatever they did, in this kind, as just in principle as it was gorgeous in appliance. It is this principle of theirs, as distinguished from that of the Northern builders, which we have finally to examine.
From descriptions of the exterior of St Marco: The balls in the archivolt project considerably, and the interstices between their interwoven bands of marble are filled with colours like the illuminations of a manuscript; violet, crimson, blue, gold, and green alternately: but no green is ever used without an intermixture of blue pieces in the mosaic, nor any blue without a little centre of pale green; sometimes only a single piece of glass a quarter of an inch square, so subtle was the feeling for colour which was thus to be satisfied. No two tesserae of the glass are exactly of the same tint, the greens being all varied with blues, the blues of different depths, the reds of different clearness, so that the effect of each mass of colour is full of variety, like the stippled colour of a fruit piece..
The principal circumstance which marks the seriousness of the early Venetian mind is perhaps the last in which the reader would suppose it was traceable;—that love of bright and pure colour which, in a modified form, was afterwards the root of all the triumph of the Venetian schools of painting, but which, in its utmost simplicity, was characteristic of the Byzantine period only; and of which, therefore, in the close of our review of that period, it will be well that we should truly estimate the significance. The fact is, we none of us enough appreciate the nobleness and sacredness of colour. ... The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. We speak rashly of gay colour, and sad colour, for colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good colour is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Blue Monday in Berlin - Colour in the Gedächtniskirche (1957-1963)

A brief post while on a tour of Germany.
I dropped into the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a building I had seen a thousand times from the outside, but never from the inside.

Image copyright
Now, with my Basil Spence Meeting House project under way I wanted to look at the coloured glass windows, which here also form one of the main design elements in both buildings. There are other similarities: the round shape (well, octagonal in the Berlin church), the religious symbolism, the time-frame and historical and political circumstances under which they were built. Like Spence in Coventry the architect Egon Eiermann integrated some of the ruins of the original building (destroyed in an air raid in 1943) into an unflinchingly modern and minimalist building complex. In 1987 one of the Coventry Crosses of Nails, forged from large medieval nails found in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, was given to the Gedächtniskirche as a symbol peace and reconciliation.

But, about colour. There is little on the outside. In fact, the aged and weathered greyness of the 1960s concrete structure in a busy city centre betrays the beauty within. Unless daylight has gone and the building is lit from within this is an entirely monochrome and unappealing exterior. In contrast, the concrete exterior of Spence's Meeting House has been given an off-white coat of paint and also benefits from water features and old trees surrounding it.

Inside however, Eiermann's church is overwhelming, beautiful and moving, from the overall effect of the blue glass surrounding the visitor to simple and elegant details, such as the circular floor tiles that subtly mirror the coloured glass in lower saturation. The more than 21,000 glass windows in the concrete honeycomb facade are the work of Gabriel Loire from Chartres, whose main inspiration were the stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral. The calm and soothing atmosphere of the main church building stands in stark contrast to the noisy and chaotic city life outside, and I personally give most credit of this instant dose of peace and quiet to the coloured glass, in combination with other architectural features. The dominant colour is blue, and this is blue on a very large scale: not just one window but an entire facade, a honeycomb pattern of blue framing a space that can sit more than 1000 people. There are no other decorative features of the same weight, apart from a large figure of Christ on the cross, a later addition which replaced a much simpler earlier cross, so the coloured glass does all the work.

Much can be said about blue in religious contexts. Most commonly it is symbolic of heaven, but it can also symbolize truth. Here the effect of the deep blue is even more important than its symbolic value. It has an instant calming effect; it - forgive the platitude of speech - is simply mesmerising. I sat down, not surprising given all the bags I was lugging around, but so did everybody else who entered the room, including the fractious 3-year old child I had with me. And everybody sat and looked at the colour blue, until we realised that there wasn't just blue. The sections of emerald greens, ruby reds and sunflower yellows in the windows are ever so subtle but still manage to break-up the monotony of a single colour. The eyes have to get accustomed to the light and colour in the room first before they can be appreciated. I hadn't brought my camera, so decided to leave after a few minutes to come back the following day. My child however wanted to go back 'into the lovely dark blue room' after a few yards and sat and stared once more. Interestingly it doesn't seem to be easy to capture this large scale blue space in pictures. I have trawled the web and looked at the two publications available, but none of photographs come close to the intensity of the real experience of being surrounded by blue in the Gedächtniskirche.

The individual cells of the honeycomb structure are fractured, making the glass look as if it had been blown out and put back together using the broken pieces. I was wondering whether this was on Eiermann's or Loire's mind. Even if the symbolism is accidental, the fractured nature of the windows is surely a reflection of the shattered outside world this building rose from. The calm and beauty of the interior must have been particularly poignant for visitors in the early 1960s, who still had to walk past many a ruin to get to this daring new building.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

200 years since Goethe published his Theory of Colours (Farbenlehre)

It has been quiet on this blog, despite a half-finished post on a fascinating talk on colour by Julian Bell and Frances Spalding at Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and friends. I made notes for the blog, managed to have brief chats with both authors and then had to rush to the next event: a perfect evening at Glyndebourne Opera House with a mutual friend of mine and Julian Bell's. A week later he was dead, stopping everything it its tracks for a while, and the next time I saw the erudite Julian Bell was at our friend's funeral.

The post will be completed, but for now a few words on a couple of exhibitions on the 200th anniversary of the first complete edition of Goethe's 1400 page strong Farbenlehre. Two exhibitions are currently celebrating this event (there might be others, please let me know if you hear of others). I have not been to either but will try and go to the one in Weimar. Judging by their web-presence they both look well worth a visit. The first one is at the Goethe Nationalmuseum in Weimar and focuses on original material, such as drawings and objects made or used by Goethe and followers. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be an exhibition catalogue accompanying this.

There aren't many images on the official website, but a pdf file with more information can be downloaded (in German). Some images can be seen here as part of a review in the FAZ (with thanks to Jochen Menge for pointing this out to me). Here is an example:

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: »Zwei Skizzen von Prisma und Linse«, 1796/1806
© Klassik Stiftung Weimar
The second exhibition that has come to my attention is this one at the Goetheanum near Basel and seems to focus more on the applicability of Goethe's work on colour. It looks, as its titles says, experimental and playful, with the aim to give a first impression of Goethe's writings on colour. This exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, published in Switzerland and as yet not easy to get hold of. However, the website says that the exhibition will travel (there is hope for me yet), so hopefully the catalogue will as well. Both exhibitions clearly aim to appeal to a younger audience, offering events and talks for children as well as adults. The Basel exhibition also has a Facebook page.

Installation illustrating coloured shadows.
Photo: Johannes Onneken (from the Facebook group "Experiment Farbe")

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Tie-dye, or: How to dress the part(y)

I realise I am running the risk of being a blog-bore, but I cannot resist mentioning the ties of the leaders of the UK's main political parties. They almost managed to colour-coordinate them in the first live Election Debate on 15 April 2010, with Brown (nice name, shame about the tie), not going for the full-blown Labour shade of red but for a pale pink instead. You wonder how much the PR teams actually think about the issue of tie colours. As Peter Sissons knows better than most people, the shade of your tie can be of enormous importance. In 2002 he failed to wear a black tie when announcing the death of the Queen Mother on national TV and unleashed a media storm.

But to continue with serious talk about the symbolic significance of colour, I was much delighted to read this article in The Guardian earlier this week. Dr Navickas talks about those ties seen in the picture above, but somehow also manages to bring in Lady Georgiana Cavendish, who, in the late 18th century liked to dress in Whig party's colours yellow and blue (or "buff and blue") in order to show her support for the opposition. Caricaturists of the time had a field day, as you can see here:

The lady on the left inThomas Rowlandson's print is Georgiana's friend Mrs Crewe, who made a famous toast to the Whig politicians in 1784:"Buff and blue and all of you."

These are the relevant passages lifted from the article:
Dr Katrina Navickas, a history lecturer at Hertfordshire University, has compared the big three parties' use of colour in their manifestos this year with that of historical elections, as depicted by paintings, cartoons and historical rosettes and clothing on display at the British Museum. Her findings reveal an interesting disparity between modern-day political colours and their predecessors.
Navickas explains: "In the past, political colours were hugely popular. People without the suffrage, such as the poor, would wear rosettes or ribbons in their hair to show their political allegiance, while aristocratic ladies would plan their wardrobes appropriately.
"Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, used to wear whole outfits in the yellow and light blue colours of the Whig opposition. Ordinary people really cared about politics, even women and the working classes, who didn't have the vote, and they made an effort to make a political statement through clothing."
Today Navickas believes that colour symbolism has been watered down – she points out that even Brown wore a pink rather than a traditionally red tie at his first TV debate appearance. "And although red is in Labour's manifesto, it's not the main colour, yellow dominates the cover. The party is still attempting to distance itself from the socialist associations of red in the early 20th century. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats use the colour yellow today even though they don't really have much in common with the 18th-century liberals who first adopted orange. They are trying to invent a long heritage."
But the Tories have retained greatest colour continuity, Navickas says. "Their manifesto is a really dark blue, just like that used in the 18th century. They seem to be harping back to their blue-veined aristocratic roots – they've even adopted the oak tree, very much a symbol of the old Tories." She adds that green is the most transformed colour. "Originally green was a radical colour – it was used in the campaign for suffrage, for example. Now the Tories are fighting with the other parties to claim green as their colour, because, obviously, it's bound up with environmental issues."
You can read the full article here.
Closer to home and my studies, it has been suggested by some researchers that George IV, in his youth a Whig supporter, painted the Brighton Pavilion, in its first incarnation designed by Henry Holland (1787), in the Whig colours blue and buff (buff rendering and blue shutters):
For more on this topic see Mike Jones's excellent book: Set for a King: 200 Years of Gardening at the Royal Pavilion (2006).

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Les parapluies de Angleterre: Coloured shadows or coloured light?

Last Saturday the theme of the Guardian's "Your Pictures" was COLOUR. I didn't see the theme announced, otherwise I might have been tempted to submit something (a shot of a shelf of books in the Colour Reference Library perhaps?). This shot came third and impressed me most, simply because it is a very nice photograph and it relates to my research:

Photograph: David Bond, published in The Guardian, 10 April 2010

The strong shadow of a child holding a multi-coloured transparent umbrella. It triggered a train of thought on one of Goethe's most discussed aspects of colour theory: coloured shadows and after-images (see: Farbenlehre, Didaktischer Teil. 1. Abteilung, 6. 62-80 - Farbige Schatten). But looking closely, it is not as simple. When white light shines through a transparent material, in this case plastic), are we not effectively looking at coloured light? Or a combination of coloured light and the shadow of a transparent material? The presence of the "real" shadow of the person holding the umbrella makes it tempting to define the umbrella's shape on the ground as the umbrella's shadow, whereas strictly speaking only the outline is a real shadow. I guess the question of the materiality of transparent materials needs to be discussed, which might make one look at stained glass windows in a different light (pun intended). In comparison, here is my own (vastly inferior) shot of the same subject, minus the person, but with a nice British single yellow line thrown in, which matches the edges of my daughter's pink umbrella.

Flora's umbrella in the sun. Photograph: Alexandra Loske

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Jasper Blue through the ages

Tray of Jasper Trials, 1773. The Wedgwood Museum Collection
Epsiode 5 of the BBC's Seven Ages of Britain, my current fast food TV programme of choice, saw David Dimbleby not only admiring the Angelica Kauffman roundels at the RA I mentioned in an earlier post, but also playing with Josiah Wedgwood's ceramic colour samples (see above). They are in a drawer at the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Not only do they have an abstract beauty one comes across frequently in colour charts, palettes etc., they are also a wonderful example of the subtleties of colur shades and Wedgwood's determination to find the perfect shade of blue. His Jasper ware was introduced in 1775, after years of experimenting. It is best known, and perhaps most popular, in a pale, unglazed blue. It was also produced as a darker shade of blue, as well as lilac, black, yellow, and sage green, often decorated with white neo-classical figures, most of them designed by John Flaxman and William Hackwood.

More on the history of Jasper ware here. Apart from creating most the dreamy shades of blue, I admire Wedgwood for having made a political statement with pottery: In 1787 he produced a Jasper Slave Medallion to awaken the public's awareness of the injustice of the slave trade. He sent one to Benjamin Franklin as well:

Wedgwood's Slave Medallion, 1787. Image from the official Wedgwood website.

250 years on the Wedgwood factory is still in existence and produces very fine and very expensive ceramics, including the classic Portland Vase (£9,000, if you have some small change).
A few years ago you could have picked up a piece of blue Jasper ware for free at the V&A. In 2006 the wonderful installation artist Clare Twomey flooded the Cast Courts of the V&A with 4000 Jasper Blue birds and encouraged visitors to take them away. Appropriately, the exhibition/installation was called "Trophy". Below are some images of "Trophy", all from Clare Twomey's official website. The installation was magical, beautiful, full of humour and respect for the history of Jasper ware. I didn't get one of the birds but really wish I had. I might have to trail Ebay. More on "Trophy" here and here, the latter link including a short video clip.

Friday, 5 March 2010

A Goethe toolkit

The Klassik Stiftung Weimar has made me very happy by publishing (producing?) a toolkit based on Goethe's experiments on colour. The last time I got so excited about a new toy was when I was 10 and my grandmother gave me a rather good microscope.
At first glance this box may look like a gimmick but is actually very well produced, designed and commented. It contains a facsimile reprint of Goethe's first proper publication on colour (Beiträge zur Optik, 1791), a very nice booklet on Goethe's involvement with colour theory (written by Gisela Maul), a set of "playing cards" copying the set made and used by Goethe, separate tables to illustrate his experiments and, to top it all, a real prism. I haven't started "playing" properly with the prism and the cards yet, but the booklet alone is worth the price of the box (around £22). Since most of the original drawings and items relating to Goethe's colour studies are in the archives of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar the illustrations are of the highest quality and, luckily for me, come with detailed references and descriptions. I am planning a research trip to Weimar in the near future to look at the originals.

You probably won't find this on Amazon any time soon (despite it having an ISBN 978-3-938753-03-3) but my local bookseller in Germany ordered it for me within a few days.

Some of the cards from a set of 27.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Non sine sole iris - No rainbow without sun

The Rainbow Portrait Queen Elizabeth, attributed to Isaac Olivier, c. 1600-1602, oil on canvas, collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Salisbury

An addendum to my last post on rainbows in art. I guess the number of examples of the use of the rainbow in art must be endless, but it is also endlessly fascinating. I was lounging on the sofa on Sunday night, indulging in David Dimbleby's Seven Ages of Britain part 3, The DimbleBee brought my attention to this spectacular portrait of Queen Elizabeth holding a rainbow in her right hand. The rainbow bears the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' ('No rainbow without the sun'). In 1972 René Graziani wrote an article on the portrait for the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in which he disects the symbolism of the painting with particular focus on the rainbow. He explains that "the rainbow makes Elizabeth a peace-bringer". Graziani makes a strong case for a religious/biblical interpretation. The biblical allusion to God's covenant with Noah first comes to mind, but he also mentions Revelation 4, 2-3 (both see below). Bearing the Latin inscription in mind I understand this to mean that there is a covenant between Elizabeth and her people ("I am married to England.") and that Elizabeth = the sun = God. Or at least it assigns godlike qualities to her, as the saviour and protector of England, bringing prosperity and peace.
Genesis 9:12-17
And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the
clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."
So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth."

Revelation 4:2-3 "Immediately I was in the spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald"

Friday, 12 February 2010


Angelica Kauffman, R.A.,: Colour, ca. 1778-1780
Oil on canvas, 1300 X 1503 mm © The Royal Academy, London

I have been busy preparing a lecture on Angelica Kauffman and have therefore had little time for blogging, but this is an opportunity to mention her visualisation of the occupation of painting. This is one of four allegorical ceiling paintings she created for Somerset House (the first building to house Royal Academy) in 1778-80, now in Burlington House, The Royal Academy, London. is sometimes entitled "Painting", at other times "Self-portrait as Painter", "Colour" or, as in the case of the Bartolozzi print "Colouring". Like many other painters of the late 18th and early 19th century she referred to the rainbow in relation to colour. Newton's influence was clearly still very strong.
The rainbow is, of course, also a suitably picturesque element in an allegorical painting. Kauffman's painter dips cheekily into the colours of the rainbow to use them on her palette (we'll just forget about subtractive and additive colours for the moment, shall we?). I must admit, it is a lovely image. I wouldn't mind having a nice copy of it on my wall, though the effect of the rainbow is naturally lost in the un-coloured stipple engraving by Bartolozzi 1787:

By coincidence I found this use of the rainbow-inspired visualisation of colour, light and shade by George Field from 1845. Considerably later than Kauffman, but Field wrote and published on colour theory since the very early 1800s. Poor quality, could no use flash with this book:

What is perhaps more relevant is one of the first colour circles (1793) painted by Kauffman's personal friend Johann W. von Goethe, comprising Newton's rainbow colours:

He also used the image of the rainbow in 1827 to illustrate this handwritten version of one of his poems:

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Power, Corruption and Lies: New Order of Colour

Earlier this month the Royal Mail issued a delightful set of 10 stamps celebrating classic album design from the 1960s onward. Each stamp features a vinyl (!) disc which appears outside the die-cut of the stamp. This greatly excited a dear old friend of mine, Dieter Göhre, and I got hold of a presentation pack for him.

I was was surprised that the Beatles didn’t feature in the selection, and slightly annoyed that of all the Pink Floyd covers they didn’t choose the iconic Dark Side of the Moon from 1973, which features a prism breaking white light into Newtonian colours, but The Division Bell from 1994. 
The leaflet explains that it wasn’t chosen because it was deemed too simple in comparison to others. It might also have been (pun accidental) too dark. The Royal Mail team explained that “some albums could not be included for operational reasons, for instance, designs that were too dark”.
However, I was greatly excited to see New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies in the set. I had almost forgotten about this album, partly because I don't have it. While I respect the album as highly accomplished and influential I can’t say that I ever enjoyed listening to it. Now as in 1983 when it was released, I was much more intrigued by Peter Saville’s formidable cover design. It juxtaposes the image of a flower still life by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour ‘A Basket of Roses' painted in 1890, with a block colour system representing the band’s name and album time. This detail was used for a re-issue on CD and seems to contain additional information on the colour strip (perhaps "with bonus CD"?)

The colour system could be decoded by consulting the back of the sleeve. I haven't got a copy of the album at the moment and can therefore not say much about the system, but it seems to be based on the alphabet, perhaps producing mixed shades for whole words. Apart from the stark contrast of modern typographic elements and a romanticised painting of flowers I also remember someone explaining to me once that the connection between the two elements was the colours themselves, with the New Order colour code comprising only colours present in Fantin-Latour’s painting. I wish I could remember who told me this or where I read it. Can anyone help?

I am also trying to find verification for the story of the origin of the album’s title, which itself is a link to colour and colour theory. Wikipedia notes that “The title of the album was chosen by Bernard Sumner from a 1981 conceptual art exhibition in Cologne, Germany. On the opening night of the exhibition the artist Gerhard Richter vandalized the exterior of the Kunsthalle by spray painting the text, "Power, Corruption, and Lies".”What a wonderful coincidence that years later Richter would himself use digitally arranged block colours for his design of the stained glass window in Cologne’s medieval cathedral, another juxtaposition of old and new, this time Gothic and abstract. More about coloured glass in churches later.

I find it intriguing that when they chose colour themes for their album designs both New Order and Pink Floyd decided to not include any written information on the cover. Prince did the same in 1987 when he released his Black Album in a completely black sleeve without any reference to its title, artist or production credits. Similarly, The Beatles' so-called White Album from 1968 has no printed information on its white sleeve apart from the band's name. There is surely a thesis in the analysis of the synaesthetic relationship between colour, music and sleeve design.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Words fail us: More on A.S. Byatt and colour, plus van Gogh and Frank Stella

Red Scramble, 1977, Frank Stella (1936- ), Oil on canvas. On display at Brighton Museum
Copyright, The Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton & Hove

I have been skimming 'Colour Codes - Modern Theories of Colour' by Charles A. Riley II. (The cover of the current pb edition features a Frank Stella, very similar to the one we have at The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery). It features a short chapter on Byatt's "Victorian palette". He discusses her novel 'Still Life' from 1985. I read this in a former life and, sadly, do not remember much of it, but Riley makes a few interesting points, so re-reading it might be on the cards. He notes that colour theory is alluded to by way of references to van Gogh and Wittgenstein. Leaving Wittgenstein aside for a moment (not sure I can cope with him on a Friday afternoon), Byatt once wrote an essay on van Gogh's letter and Riley quotes this passage from it:
Our perception of colour, like our language, like our power to make representations, is something that is purely human. We know now that other creatures see different wavelengths... We know that we live in a flow of light and lights, as we live in a flow of air and sounds, of which we apprehend a part, and make sense of it as best we can. The pigments on van Gogh's palette... are as much part of this perceived flow as the trees and the variable sky. We relate them to each other, and to ourselves, from where we are. It seems to me that at the height of his passion of work van Gogh was able to hold all thesethings in a kind of creative or poetic balance which is always threatened by forces from inside and outside itself. ('Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings', 1992)
I am losing her in the last sentence, but in 'Still Life' she makes various attempts to describe van Gogh's palette and weave it into her fictional structure. I agree with Riley that one of the hardest thing (whether in fiction or non-fiction) is to represent and describe colour in words. More often than not Byatt, like many other writers, resorts to object words ("the colours of flowers, mauve, lilac, cobalt, citron, white-gold, sulphur, chrome..."). I am faced with the same problem with regard to my thesis, but I am hoping to avoid the problem by referring to given colour names in my primary sources, i.e. the colour names used by the artists and designers involved with the Royal Pavilion. I will, however, write a short chapter about the problem as such.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Self Portrait as an Artist', January 1888.
Oil on Canvas, copyright Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
Since we are talking van Gogh, it might be worth mentioning the van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. An art historian friend went to a private view of it yesterday and was impressed. Incidentally, the exhibition uses van Gogh's letters as a starting point, investigating the relation between his own descriptions of future works on canvas and the completed paintings.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Readings and writings on colour

Gerhard Richter: 1025 Colours, 1974 Private collection © Gerhard Richter

I spent some of the snowed-in period catching up with hand-written correspondence (yes, some people still write in ink and on paper) and making small-ish online purchases. For me this usually means books. Having been away for a few days the orders are now flooding in and I am very excited about my new pile of books on my fragile desk. Among them are A.S.Byatt's The Children's Book, which is set in the V&A and features a ceramicist.

Earlier today I was trying to get my new undergraduate students excited about ceramics and was later talking with an art historian specialising in ceramics about the vibrancy, brilliance and permanence of colours used in and on ceramics. Byatt wrote a very nice piece on ceramics in The Guardian a while ago, coinciding with the opening of the new Ceramics Galleries at the V&A. I can highly recommend it:

So now I am looking forward to the novel. Fiction has become a bit of a wrench for me, I wonder whether this will capture me.

Fritware bowl, probably from Iznik, c1530. Photograph: V&A Images

The other book on colour that is waiting to be read is the catalogue of an exhibition I couldn't visit (too far away, not relevant enough for my research), COLOUR CHART: Reinventing Colour 1950 to Today, at Tate Liverpool last year. I was impressed with the website accompanying the exhibition, but it could be argued that it is relatively easy to create visually stunning web-based images and designs if the theme is colour and abstraction. Some of the 19th century items I am going to look at next Monday at the Colour Reference Library of the Royal College of Art in London were on loan to this exhibition, suggesting the curators made the effort to provide an historical background.