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.

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