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 2, project 3, exercise 2: Colour relationships – successive contrast

Updated on 27 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

16 May 2016. When writing my last post I came across an old but well-written website on colour relationships, and by coincidence found it would be a very good addition to this exercise as well (Perron, n.d.). If you go to that page, scroll right down to the bright yellow caution sign, stare at it for a while, then shift your gaze to the white area to the right of it, the violet complementary field will appear and stay for a while. What I also think I can see at the same time is another, though much weaker, yellow field above and in response to the violet, but this may be an optical illusion. The effect of such successive contrast on the perception of other colours can also be seen in an example (Miyapuram, 2008), where the staring at the red and green pair of discs will influence the perception of the identical yellow pait of discs below. For a while the yellow discs will appear as if their hues were different, because each is modulated by the respective complementary after-image of the pair above. The effect is transient, however, and will need to be “reloaded” after fading. Following instructions in the study guide I painted a square using my most vivid pigment, again primary yellow. After the brightness of the computer-generated examples of yellow this colour is much softer on the eye, but works just as well (Fig. 1):

1_Yellow_square_16052016
Figure 1. Investigating successive contrast. Complementary violet appears right of the yellow square on gaze shift.

I find it extremely hard to focus my gaze (getting distracted by all the things going on around the point of interest) and so most of my complementary colour experience is random, but by being attentive, the effect is noticeable in a great number of everyday situations. To me, a never-failing fascinating experience is the accidental looking into a bright light bulb. While the eye recovers from the shock, the complementary after-image appears with a visible filament.
Thinking about the effect successive contrast has in paintings I think it is necessary to carefully consider the relative positions of the colours influencing each other. The whole idea makes my head swim with images and after-images and I know that I need to learn stepwise by vigilance and spending a lot of time experimenting.

Resources:

  1. Perron, C. (n.d.) Colour Choices on Web Pages: Contrast vs Readability [online]. Carin Perron Colour Theory and Practice. Available at: http://www.writer2001.com/colwebcontrast.htm [Accessed 16 May 2016]
  2. Miyapuram, K.P. (2008) Successice contrast [online image]. K. P. Miyapuram. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrast_effect#/media/File:Successive_contrast.svg [Accessed 16 May 2016]