Color Discord


The later Victorian poets paved the way for the triumph of the symbol, pushed to its limits into the symbol-mongering of high Modernism. While it is fun stuff, when the symbol becomes a cipher, a stand-in for real experience, I have to draw the line. Yeats is unique to me in that respect, because he danced upon the edge of mythos and symbol. When you fall off the edge, art becomes math.

Continuing to meditate on color today, I stepped back into the symbolist den. Some of the systems that evolved were compelling. I revisited Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In the translator’s preface to the Dover edition, Michael Sadler relates that in genealogical terms, Kandinsky is seen as the heir to Gaugin, while Picasso is heir to Cézanne.

The distinction, as Sadler sees it, is the distinction between the realist and the symbolist. The forgone conclusion is that “realists” cannot be spiritual, and unless a case is made for Cézanne as a religious painter, Picasso cannot stand with Kandinsky as a “prophet of an art of spiritual harmony.” I don’t think that he would want to be grouped with those in search of harmony. Picasso’s universe is dynamic and full of unrest; I find it more “human” and closer to the world as I know it. Mystics are in constant search for a system. Kandinsky saw color as a field to build such a system.

At the outset, he recognizes the futility cataloguing the effects of color:

There are many examples of color working that refuse to be classified. A Dresden doctor relates of one of his patients, whom he designates as “an exceptionally sensitive person,” that could not eat of a certain sauce without tasting “blue,” i.e. without experiencing a feeling of seeing a blue color. It would be possible to suggest, by way of explanation of this, that in highly sensitive people, the way to the soul is so direct and the soul so impressionable, that any impression of taste communicates immediately to the soul, and thence to the other organs of sense (in this case the eyes). This would imply an echo or reverberation, such as occurs sometimes in musical instruments which, without being touched, sound in harmony with some other instrument struck at the moment.

I spent a short period of time playing with color photography. I was always overcome by blue. The distinction between shades was never right, and the film just collapsed the melody that I saw with my eyes. I just gave up on the whole idea. I could train my brain to process what would happen when I recorded something on black and white film, but color film never resonated with the colors I felt in my mind. Perhaps there was just too much feedback going on, reducing everything to a fuzz-tone. I wanted to be true to the blues, and I found it best to do that in black and white.

I like Kandinsky’s concept of color as movement, which he expressed it in a Yeats-like diagram:

As is the case with most of these things, it starts from antitheses. Kandinsky and Yeats both saw absolute white and absolute black as discord. There is concord in their opposition of subjective and objective. There is a similar spinning motion involved. However, Kandinsky sets the motion of blue in an inward direction, concentric, as compared to the external, or ex-centric motion of yellow. Kandinsky cuts to the core of color as both a centrifugal and centripetal force.

Kandinsky also treats color rhetorically, as an “appeal” to either a spectator, or to an internal spiritual state. His distinction heralds a higher version of Modernism and its notion of the value of rhetoric. Yeats described the process of persuasion in typically pithy fashion: “A rhetorician writes to convince others. A poet writes to convince himself.” In Kandinsky’s version, the self is absent. It has been replaced by an abstract spirit, for Kandinsky claims that art should reach to a higher purpose than just the revelation or assertion of self. Like Eliot, Kandinsky seems to propose that in the grand scheme of art, self is unimportant. It’s the spirit that counts.

Of course, there is a spectrum of colors and states involved in Kandinsky’s model of color:

It seems poetic that red would be motion within itself, while green would be spiritually extinguished and motionless. Color takes care of itself, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, I see in color. But I just can’t deal with it as an artist. Maybe I’m just too sensitive to it.

Harmony in perfect proportion is gray; there is no motion. Photography is an attempt to fix things. It seems only natural that it would arise from discord on either side, and result in a gray lack of motion. At least in the case of black and white still photography.

Anything else is not nearly as “spiritual,” at least in my opinion.

But on the other hand, I’m not a symbolist. I’m more of a realist, and while these systems are fun, I’ve got little use for them past intellectual curiosity. I feel spiritually closer to Picasso than I do Kandinsky. Life is more fun when it’s de-ciphered. However, Kandinsky’s view of color is incredibly seductive:

Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

It is evident therefore that colour harmony must rest only on a corresponding vibration in the human soul; and this is one of the guiding principles of the inner need.

People are always looking for good vibrations. Color and music can provide them, but I’m not so sure that’s what photography is all about. I suppose I tend to think of photographs as artifacts and curios, “documents for artists,” as Atget billed them. They are objects of desire rather than saviours of the soul, I suppose, forever connected to the desiring machine.