Monday, January 12, 2009

Goethe and Colors

"Can you lend me the Theory of Colors for a few weeks? It is an important work. His last things are insipid." So, Ludwig van Beethoven, in 1820 (Converation Book), on Die Farbenlehre by Goethe, published in 1810. Like many Goethe scholars, I know basically two things about Goethe's work on color and optics generally: that he got the physics wrong and that he considered his work on the subject more important than his literary work. Or so he told Eckermann.

As a young man, even after the success of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe thought he might become an artist. It was in Rome (in 1786-88), after working very hard to improve his craft skills, that he gave up that idea, but he became intrigued by the aesthetic effect produced by colors in art. Neither painters nor, later, physicists could give him a satisfactory explanation. About 1790, with limited knowledge of Newton's work on optics, he looked through the prism the way one might look through a magnifying glass (instead of projecting an image of the spectrum on a wall or screen). Obviously he did not see what Newton had seen with his experiments and decided Newton was wrong. In his autobiography Goethe mentions the revulsion he had felt in his youth toward the mechanistic philosophy of Holbach; later he spent time with Romantic writers and philosophers in Jena, who also had an an extreme bias against mechanical science. Thus, his animus against Newton and solely material explanations of phenomena was of long standing. The measurement of physical phenomena by instruments could tell us nothing about the aesthetic and moral (sittlich) effect of colors. Goethe's concern was how we perceive color in various situations.

If the scientists declared Goethe wrong, artists were drawn to his work on color. Early on it was studied by the English painter J.M.W. Turner, who even made reference to it in his paintings. Clearly, Wassily Kandinsky was influenced by it. 
Because of Goethe I tend now to see his influence on painters who may or may not have known of his work, as in this painting by Emil Nolde (1867-1956). As in so many ways, Goethe anticipated everything!

The supposed moral effect of colors is something I have not thought much about. What can one say, for instance, about the fact that black is the New York "color"? Black has never had much charm for me, which may be why I have never felt like a New Yorker, even after living here 25 years. Again, Kandinsky, in a small treatise called On the Spiritual in Art, did discourse on this subject. While waiting in a doctor's office recently, I found among the 1000-year-old magazines an article discussing the subject of "emergenetics." It is a tool by which a profile of a person's behavioral and thinking characteristics can be drawn.
The "theory" behind emergenetics is that these characteristics are innate, but can be modified by environment and society. (This reminds me of what I learned in high school psychology: nature and nurture, all over again.) In case you are interested, the emergenetics self-assessment questionnaire will give you a picture of your thinking and behavioral traits. The result looks a bit like Goethe's color wheel. Goethe could have improved on this rather rudimentary scheme. I think he might have been delighted by the colors of the ice sculptures (click to enlarge) this winter in Harbin, China.

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