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
I 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).