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.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Düsseldorf, Rupprecht Geiger and red lipstick

I have been wandering around the cash-heavy and therefore art-heavy city of Düsseldorf. There is a prized collection of Klee, a history of Beuys and other 20th century giants, any number of art bookshops and an increasing number of minimalist galleries selling contemporary art of varying quality and constistently high prices. At least some of Düsseldorf’s wealth is channeled into museums. Two houses of the Kunstsammlung NRW (new sexy publicity names: K20 and K21) are undergoing major refurbishment and - brace yourself - enlargements.

K20 (Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, get it?)

K21 (Kunst des 21. Jahrhunderts)

To cut a long story short, after a visit to the Ceramics Museum Hetjens) I had time to spare and wandered into one of the largest art bookshops in the museum area and picked up a free art newspaper. In it I found a short note on the death in December 2009 of Rupprecht Geiger at the ripe old age of 101. I cannot say that I am terribly familiar with his work, but I did know that he was to the colour red what Yves Klein is to blue. Similar to Kenneth Noland, who did a few weeks later, Geiger was resolute in his quest for abstraction and throughout his career as painter and lecturer dealt with the relationship between colour and space.

He is quoted as having said that "Red is life, energy, potency, authority, love, warmth, power. Red gets you high". It sounds a little too aggressive and sweeping to me, but one is reminded of Goethe and others attributing moral values to colour back in the early 19th century. I like this anectode about Geiger better than his quote: Apparently he first became fascinated with the colour red when he opened a so-called “care parcel” after WW2 and found amongst its contents a bright red lipstick. He withheld it from his wife and used it as paint. You wonder whether the marriage lasted.
Interestingly he regarded colour an element, alongside fire, water and air.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Notes on Turner's 'The Morning after the Deluge (Goethe's Theory)'

The full title of the painting is 'Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis'.

Its companion piece is called 'Shade and Darkness — the Evening of the Deluge' and is also in the Tate. Both were painted late in Turner's life (around 1842/3) and first exhibited in 1843.

They failed to sell and formed part of the Turner Bequest which was left to the nation in 1856 and is located at Tate Britain. They are not always on display, but you can see them until April 2010 in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, where they form part of a display called "Colour and Line - Turner's Experiments". One object in this exhibition is Turner's own, heavily annotated copy of Goethe's 'Theory of Colours', translated by Charles Eastlake and published in 1840. Since the book is on display I wasn't able to inspect it, but the very helpful archivist of the Clore Gallery dug out the photographs of each individual page for me. The book does not form part of the Turner Bequest; it is in a private collection and on temporary loan.

From the Tate online collection: "Turner opposes cool and warm colours, and their contrasting emotional associations, as described by Goethe in his 'Farbenlehre' (Theory of Colours). Turner has chosen the biblical Deluge as the vehicle for these ideas, returning to the Historical Sublime he had mastered in some of his earliest exhibition pictures. Originally painted and framed as octagons, this pair carries two of Turner's last and most inspired statements of the natural vortex, while the allusion to Goethe adds a gloss of recent science and theory to a lifetime's preoccupation with elemental forces

Here is an interesting interpretation of the deluge painting by the artist Paul Pfeiffer:

More on the pair here:
"Idyllic, dream-like landscape, often of Venice, represented one side of Turner's late style. The other was the increasingly direct expression of the destructiveness of nature, apparent particularly in some of his seapieces. The force of wind and water was conveyed both by his open, vigorous brushwork and, in many cases, by a revolving vortex-like composition. In the unexhibited pictures these forces were treated in their own right, but in most of his exhibited works (the distinction lessened in his later years) they were expressed through appropriate subjects such as the Deluge or the Angel of the Apocalypse. In some of these pictures Turner used a colour symbolism, partly deriving from Goethe's theories, as in the pair of pictures 'Shade and Darkness - The Evenening of the Deluge' and 'Light and Colour - the Morning after the Deluge', exhibited in 1843 with a specific reference to Goethe. These pictures are examples of Turner's experiments with square, octagonal or circular formats in which the vortex composition found its most compact and energetic expression." From "Tate Gallery - An Illlustrated Companion", 1990, by Simon Wilson

Here is another example of one of Turner's vortex pictures, 'The Angel Standing in the Sun', also part of the Turner Bequest, first exhibited 1846:


Saturday, 9 January 2010

Kenneth Noland, colour field painter, dies aged 85

Kenneth Noland: Earthen Bound, 1960. Acrylic on canvas.

A sub-chapter of a chapter of the thesis will deal with circles, orbs, spheres etc in colour theory, so Kenneth Noland deserves to be mentioned. Here is his obituary from today's Guardian:

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Colour and Light (Goethe's Theory) - The Morning after the Deluge

This is my blog on research into colour and colour theory. I don't think it's going to interest many people but it might be a good way of keeping textual and visual notes of my research. The blog is named after a painting by Turner from 1843, now in the collection of Tate Britain.