Book review: “Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

6 February 2017. This review is something I have been planning to write since last summer. My tutor recommended the book “Colour. Documents of Contemporary Art”, edited by David Batchelor. The book contains what the editor calls a broadly chronological collage of texts on colour written by famous artists and thinkers starting in the mid 19th century (Batchelor, 2008, p. 17).
This is no book for casual reading. Whichever text I chose, I noticed how deeply every author felt about colour: Each has their very own personal approach and experience with colour, so no text is like any other. What is shared among most of them, however, and which I did not feel too comfortable about, was most authors’ conviction of being in the possession of some ultimate truth. I was amazed that a seemingly gentle subject like this, colour (!) of all things, could raise such fierce argument, ruthless praising of one’s own position simultaneously with the cruel damnation of others. I suspect that the argument is not about colour at all, but about sailing under different colours, so to speak. The latter is a matter of territory. As in any field which has not yet revealed all its secrets and the contributors have not yet arrived at a common solution, there is a natural tendency for each to put forward and defend their own position, since appearing in the right of course  often comes along with an increase in social rank, influence and material wealth.

7 February 2017. It is futile to try to concoct a summary or essence from the texts contained in this book. They shed light on too many different aspects of colour and its position in art and human life in general. To me it serves as a great source of ad hoc inspiration. It has been lying on my bedside table for most of last year and I keep opening it at random. In order to illustrate the effect, I did just that three times for this review and tried to write short accounts reflecting spontaneously their respective influence on me:

p. 142 Claude Lévi-Strauss (Philosophers.co.uk, 2012): The Raw and The Cooked (1964)

The main argument put forward by the author of this essay, famous French structuralist philosopher and anthropologist, is a rejection of the common, but in his eyes inadequate equation of musical sound with colour in painting. Since musical notes have no equivalent in nature, while colour is all around us available for imitation, he rates the achievements of music higher than those of the visual arts.
8 February 2017. While I can follow his idea in principle, any such attempt at placing one field of art above the other for its degree of inventiveness appears to me as deficient in rigour. If just summarizing the most superficial of arguments, I find among them many upon which I could rest a reversal of “hierarchy” between colour and sound: Working with colour is greatly amenable to the resource of simultaneity, which for reasons I have no clear understanding of, has strict limitations in music: There is only a very limited number of sounds you can hear at the same time before you would classify them as noise, but there is no limit to the simultaneous perception of, say, the number of greens present in a landscape. There also, in my eyes, appears to be nothing in colour which would be an equivalent to the perceived effect of dissonance in sound. Graphical arts are also of course developed way beyond the mere copying of colour in nature. Even only for the above reasons I see no point in raising an argument between these two fields of art. They should best be made use of and enjoyed for their respective merits.

p. 194 Stephen Melville (The Ohio State University, n.d.): Colour Has Not Yet Been Named (1993)

Melville is an outstanding American art historian. I have to admit that I had to concentrate hard to be able to even make sense of his sentences and I suspect that he lost me on the way. If I understand correctly he addresses in this account a phenomenon how colour, despite having been extensively researched and quite fully described regarding its physical and psychological qualities, is an entity much larger than what we find within the boundaries (physical and mental frames, so to speak) set by the workings of the human mind. I hope that this is what he means when saying: “[… ] Colour is then no longer simply contained within the painting but is also that which, within the painting, assigns it its frame, even as it conceals itself as the source of that assignment. In so far as colour is and is not the historical bearer of a certain truth of painting that is and is not the truth of the frame in which it is contained, colour bids to pass beyond itself.”
I know why I will never be an art historian.

p. 62 Oswald Spengler (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010): The Decline of the West (1918)

German historian Spengler wrote at a time, when it apparently was still acceptable and convenient not to question, to split the world into the civilized part (the educated West, where he belonged) and the other, savage and sensuous, historical as well as contemporary rest. In his own world, blue and green are the good, the spiritual, non-sensuous colours, and they rightfully dominate oil-painting. Red and yellow on the other hand reflect the basic elements of the unreflected, raw “point-existence” life of the “crowds, children, women and savages” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010), in that order. Spengler even appears to have concluded, from the reintroduction of the colours of the savage, red and yellow, into painting (God forbid!), that “the West had already passed through the creative stage of “culture” into that of reflection and material comfort (“civilization” proper, in his terminology) and that the future could only be a period of irreversible decline.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010). Although I know that the above was by no means thought up by Spengler alone and I have come across several such accounts before, it still makes me feel very uncomfortable to read such preoccupied nonsense, to say the least.

The above three accounts are only tiny snippets from an immense field of research, which can serve both as a source of inspiration as well as desperation. For me, however, the reading of theoretical texts about colour, no matter how hot-blooded the argument and fluid the writing, feels like watching colour on a palette dry up. At the risk of being accused of leading a woman’s point-existence I would rather use the paint ;o).

References:

Batchelor, D. ed. (2008) Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and Cambrige: The MIT Press.

Philosophers.co.uk (2012) Claude Levi-Strauss [online]. Philosophers.co.uk, London. Available at: http://www.philosophers.co.uk/claude-levi-strauss.html [Accessed 6 February 2017]

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2010) Oswald Spengler [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica, London, 13 January. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oswald-Spengler [Accessed 6 February 2017].

The Ohio State University (n.d.) Department of History of Art. Stephen Melville [online]. The Ohio State University, Columbus. Available at: https://history-of-art.osu.edu/people/melville.3 [Accessed 6 February 2017]

Part 1, project 2, exercise 4: Monochrome studies

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

6 March, 2016. I am not sure why, but I found it very hard to make sense of the instructions to this exercise. Looking at the respective work of some of my student colleagues did not help either: In both paintings the ground can be a wash and in both I paint over that with a predominantly opaque layer. In both sheets, opaque and transparent paint need to work together. The only difference I can see is that in one case it is the background, which remains transparent if I choose this approach, in the other it is the tree. In particular I am unsure what to make of the sentences “Mix up a light grey and apply this to the shapes formed by branches … Modulate this grey as you move away … “. I guess that this instruction is meant to apply to both paintings, but if I paint over either the positive or negative representation of the tree, it will mean to cover up the only real difference between the two. Since I understood the goal of this exercise to compare opaque and transparent approaches to painting a tree, I decided to – for the moment – ignore the above instruction and wait for tutor feedback. I got ready choosing two sheets of acrylic paper and mixing a dark wintery colour by combining primary magenta, gold ochre and bluegreen, with white or water to be added where required.

7 March, 2016. Finished the two paintings today, having decided to paint the apricot tree in our garden, which is getting ready to grow its buds.
Here are the results. On top is the “positive” tree, which I decided to paint with relative coarse brush strokes on top of the light grey opaque ground in order to make visible the bark characteristic of this species (Fig. 1).

1_Winter_tree_positive
Figure 1. “Positive” tree: solid mix on top of opaque light grey ground

The dark wash prepared for the second part of the exercise I had to produce in two layers, otherwise it would not have been dark enough to compare to the solid colour in the first painting. I quite liked the brush strokes and decided to set them diagonally in order to emphasize the relative direction of growth of the tree (Fig. 2). Despite the help of charcoal it was not easy to reproduce the negative spaces correctly and I had to literally talk myself through the exercise. In a few places I painted over a twig, but most of it seems more or less correct.

2_Winter_tree_negative
Figure 2. “Negative” tree: negative spaces painted with solid mix of light grey on dark semitransparent wash

I am unhappy with both paintings for the coarse approach to the subject, but again it may have been me misinterpreting the instructions.
Asked to assess the strengths and limitations of each technique I would – cautiously – assume that painting a positive object on a prepared ground will produce a more realistic feeling of space (object in front of background). The greater transparency of a background wash will most likely produce a more credible feeling of air, while a completely opaque background will suggest a dull day, probably in stifling weather. Also, I found that an object as complex as a tree is by far easier to paint positively. However, I like the effect produced by painting the negative spaces better. Probably due to my lack of practice in doing so the tree is more alive and seems to physically make contact with the air surrounding it. Since both paintings are silhouettes only, I am so far not able to compare the respective strengths of the two approaches regarding credible representations of trees.

What I also learned in this exercise was to be wary using acrylic paper. The “professional” paper I had bought rolls up in the most unfashionable way and is almost impossible to reshape. I had therefore to place a glass plate over the sheets in order to take the required photos and unfortunately could not get rid of all the reflections. Also, the colour is not quite correct and the brush strokes are hard to see. I will retake the photos if I am instructed to have another go at this exercise.