Tag Archives: color

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).



Feeling Glaucous

He is surging up from under my pen.
Vladimir Nabokov, Spring in Fialta (298)

IMG_0031The sea, its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucous than grey with waves too sluggish to break into foam. (289)

Glaucous. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s short story Spring in Fialta that made me look it up. Some people prickle when the more obscure words of our language are put to the use they were meant for. But not me. I love my dictionaries and especially, with a mother’s love of the neglected, the recondite words within. Specific words can have complex personal histories of epic proportions to the user or writer: a life that looms like a long shadow behind the letters which readers can never fully make out. Still,  the secret life of the writer’s words breathe and color the sentences. I experience words in a very visceral and visual way. I don’t have synesthesia, as Nabovov did, but I do understand the personal connection.

…but with every new book the tints grew still more dense (299)

However,  glaucous is a problem child. The definition says it is blue-grey. Ah, but it also says it is yellow-green. That is a obfuscation that I can not quite forgive. In the story Nabokov surely intends it to mean blue-grey- his sea is more grey, but the mood is clearly blue. A woman, Nina, comes in and out of Victor’s life, casting a glaucous glaze of love and longing over his life, his story.

And moreover was she not chained to her husband by something stronger than love – the staunch friendship between two convicts? (306)

Nabokov uses color to illustrate what is a story of a story. The way that our remembrances take on a remote quality of literature within our own minds is fascinating: the fugue of color and book beautifully describing memory’s form.

Inspired, I perused (another problem child having -in many dictionaries- duel opposing meanings, in this case I mean skittered through- which is of course the meaning sometimes rejected, but I always root for the underdog) Color: A Natural History by Victoria Finlay. It was fun poking around the history of how the colors we use were and are procured. They all have their own tales of intrigue, blood or murder. I can’t look at my freshly painted red nails now without conjuring up the image of  bloody cochineal beetles farmed from the cactus prickly pear to make true carmine red. The mythical cow piss and mango makings of orange, and the horrors of slow death by (lead) white paint all linger in the technicolor images of my mind.

Each of the side-pillars [of the door] is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex-libris for the book of our two lives. (292)

The Spring of Fialta is a chromatic tale that comes together into a epiphany of white light at the end: the full spectrum moment of clarity in which the admission of unrequited love is made. The “scarlet woman” of his affection has the same problem many pigments throughout history have had- they never “fix.” They fade, or worse turn into completely different colors- white or green turns black, reds become drab browns. The color of love may be unknown or different in each heart, but surely it is color fast?

She kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning (291)

Of course, as Finley tells us, the word scarlet didn’t originally mean the color red. It was rather the cloth itself. A scarlet woman is a woman of the cloth. Oh that’s funny. I love words.

*The Spring of Fialta from The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards