Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love)

The number of colors is infinite, yet every two opposite colors contain elements, the full possibility, of all the others. – Arthur Schopenhauer, On Vision and Colors

ImageI have to admit, I may have skimmed a few paragraphs of Schopenhauer’s On Vision and Color – it was too painful. After keeping me enthralled with his passionate explanation of his theory of the subjectivity of color, he spent a few pages lambasting and taunting all the idiots of the world who disagreed with him. Of Scherffer, for example, he writes:

He reaches for all kinds of wretched and absurd hypotheses, wriggles pathetically, and in the end lets the issue rest (84).

Ouch. They would be harsh words had Schopenhauer been correct. But the fact that he is mostly wrong makes it quite uncomfortable to read. I say “mostly” because there is an interesting truth to his ideas when we consider Copernicus’s words (which Schopenhauer quotes) “compare, when allowed, small things with great.”

This explains their striking, every other color combination surpassing harmony, the power with which they call for each other and bring each other about, and the outstanding beauty that we confer on each of them by itself and even more so on both together (66).

To what is he referring? None other than the par excellent purity of red and green. “They call for each other,” I love that. He uses words like, “marriage,” “intimate union,” “affinities,” and “attractions.” He mathematically computes the amount of…love between colors and speaks to the impossibility of separation:

Therefore, chromatically we may not speak at all of individual colors, but only of color pairs: each pair represents the totality of the activity of the retina divided by two halves (70).

It’s a love story. Clearly.

Schopenhauer’s theory (which in the book I read is followed by Philip Otto Runge’s Color Sphere) rests on his idea that color is wholly subjective- an activity of the retina in which the the retina divides and then intellectually perceives colors rather than the objective color wave theory. So he got it wrong. But the beauty of his prose, the philosophy and artistry of his thinking was not lost on all. According to the introduction by Georg Stahl, Gerrit Rietveld (of the De Stijl group) was particularly influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory. Klee was equally enamored with Runge’s Color Sphere and used it in his teaching at the Bauhaus. Although Runge’s spheres are beautiful he pulls back from the romance of Schopanhauer’s prose a bit:

All five elements to each other – through their differences and affinities – form a perfect sphere, the surface of which contains all the elements and those mixtures that produced through a friendly mutual affinity of the qualities for each other (131). – Runge, Color Sphere

From lovers to friends, oh well.

Everyone must therefore carry within them a norm, an ideal, an Epicurean anticipation, about yellow and every color, independent of experience, with which they compare each actual color (69).

“An Epicurean anticipation” is a fabulous use of language. And the discussion of ideals in music and colors that Schopenhauer goes into relates so nicely to Semir Zeki’s book (which is of course the reason I read Goethe’s Theory of Color and On Vision and Color in the first place). Politely disregarding Schopenhauer’s hubris and considering the time in which he lived, where an invention such as the Daguerreotype might encourage him to draw false conclusions:

[reproducing] in its purely objective way, everything visible about bodies, but not color (97). (emphasis mine)

one can, at the very least, appreciate the philosophy of subjectivity that, I think, has some merit. After all, just yesterday I forwarded, to a pink-loathing friend of mine, an article which showed that pink does not actually exist as a color. It is merely our minds (groping for closure) filling in the gap left by the color waves that the human eye can not perceive. It seems to me one must be taken with the other, after all.

There can be no object without subject and no subject without object, since perceptions are defined by both (17).




18 responses to “Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love)

  1. Thanks for flagging yet another worthy book I’ll never get round to reading. I listen a lot to music, and hear a lot of people discussing what it is and what it does; like colour it is a wave, and I think that is part of its appeal. We cannot put it into a box, or cut it into bite size pieces, so it is forever mysterious and out of reach to us.

  2. I’m going to have to get this somehow and have a ”look-see”. 🙂 And amount of red with the same amount of green on one picture plane can be quite disturbing, yet in the right relationship (jeez, it does sound like a love affair) to each other in balance will then be harmonious. I’m going to have to disagree about the pink. I unfortunately painted an enormous pink flower once. Never again. The psychology of colour and the influence on our psyches are real.

    • Yes, but Red and Green are the colors that are the maximum distance from white and black and equally so, therefore their…intensity as colors is most sublime, at least to Schopenhauer.
      Regarding pink- as a color wave it does not exist…the enormous pink flowers (oh dear) on the other hand are all too scarring – hahah

      • Well, if pink doesn’t exist in a colour wave maybe I should be grateful. I saw a small abstract painting (some time ago), don’t remember the title or artist, with equal divisions of green and red. It disturbed my vision so much I had to turn away from it and look at something else that was restful. Equally and maximum distance from white and black (which in some schools of thought isn’t really colour) on opposite ends of the spectrum will give tonal values or space between these two complimentaries that doesn’t disturb. Put together in equal values is a serious clash.

      • Schopenhauer did not consider white or black colors. Just starting points to come up with his fractions of intensity: “Every color has a point of maximum purity and freedom from all white and black” (65). Something about the use of the word “freedom” there appeals to me – when one looks at intense orange and intense blue you can really feel the contrast, but it is different with red and green – we are culturally assaulted by the red and green combination, that’s true, but side by side there is something deeply in harmony with the two colors..but as Runge showed so nicely, any color we identify with one name really has infinitesimal gradations, so it really depends on the “purity and freedom” of each hue.

      • Schopenhauer and Runge is going on my To Read list. Thanks for introducing the text.

      • My pleasure, thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    • Colour has a big effect on our moods. I used to know a woman who worked in a care home, where they had residents changing rooms weekly. they found everyone who slept in the yellow room had disturbed sleep and other problems. A lot of people seem to have trouble with yellow, and refuse to wear it or paint their house that colour. Strange.

      • Interesting, Schopenhauer described yellow as being the most energetic of colors.

      • It’s also interesting how the colour of girls has always been blue, (presumably the colour of the virgin mary) but some time – I think in the early 20th century, it changed to pink. Has that had a wider impact on people and genders?

      • Seems a distinction of unknown origin, but one possibility relating to the relatively cheap (to make) pink, and more expensive blue dyes may explain the “lesser” hue going to the girls.

      • The schools of thought and theories about colour and its effect on our psyches are endless. While living in Johannesburg, RSA, an art initiative ‘painted the town red’. Huge murals went onto sides of buildings, all to do with red. They had to stop as red is regarded as a dangerous or aggressive colour, or could be, in huge quantities.

      • I think I remember reading once how prison cells were painted pink in an effort to calm the inmates, but it made them lose their minds instead (you can probably corroborate that- haha- the pink, not the prison. I hope).

      • The pink. I can’t even have a fuscia in my garden now on account of the stupid, huge pink flower I painted. I was in a hurry to finish an assignment for a course in painting and grabbed the first thing, which happened to be a pink flower growing outside my window. I made it big, about 1m by 1.2m, wanting to do something like Georgia O’Keefe and at the end of all this pink I felt positively ill. And the reaction of the lecturers are not to be talked about. I had no idea I disliked pink so much until then. I still use it now, mainly to mix with other colours to create a certain hue but on its own – never again!

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