Thursday, April 16, 2009

Goethe's Color Theory and Modern Artists

There is currently an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1969. As the exhibition brochure has it, the exhibition "traces how Asian art, literature, and philosophy were transmitted and transformed within American cultural and intellectual currents, influencing the articulation of new visual and conceptual languages." (I love that word "articulation," which has found its way into postmodern conceptual vocabulary. Actually I use it a lot myself these days.)

Yesterday I had a little time, 45 minutes, which allowed me to pop in at the Guggenheim. (Am I lucky to live in Manhattan, or what?) A description of the works in the rotunda would be somewhat banal, so I recommend going to the Guggenheim's website and looking at the interactive show. It focuses on the happenings, performance art, and multimedia and interactive installations -- "process art." One is called "human carriage," by Ann Hamilton ("invited," so the brochure, by the museum to offer a site-specific installation). It is a mechanism composed of "book weights" made from thousands of cut-up books that ascend and descend the heights of the museum's rotunda via a pulley system, and a pair of Tibetan cymbals encased in a white silk "bell carriage" that cascades down the balustrade along the rotunda spiral. The effect? "Its purifying ring awakens visitors with random chimes."

Inevitably, exhibits in the "Buddhism and the Neo-Avant Garde" section -- featuring John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg -- look amateur by comparison. I am not being cynical. Installations like that by Hamilton are really lots of fun, and perhaps that is the purpose of art in an affluent age. The museum was packed.

I made my way up the rotunda to one of the side rooms. It contained works by the usual suspects -- James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt -- as well as by Arthur Dow and Georgia O'Keeffee. Yes, one sees the affinities these artists had with Japanese art. Clearly Cassatt learned a lot from Japanese printmakers.

My favorite in this room was by an artist I had not heard of before, Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), cofounder in 1913 of what was called the Synchromist movement. The painting at the top of the post, called "Dragon Trail," is from the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

I think Goethe would have liked the idea (if not the resulting art) of the Synchromist movement: since color and sound are similar phenomena, the colors in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony. The idea was to paint in color scales, thereby evoking musical sensations. I have discovered that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a MacDonald-Wright painting, Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, from 1920 (at the right).

A few years earlier Wassily Kandinsky, in his small treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, had advanced similar ideas about the spiritual qualities of abstract art. When I was still teaching the "Great Books," I loved introducing students to this small book. The Guggenheim has a number of works by Kandinsky. Kandinsky was certainly correct about the spiritual effects of color. In any case, I have always been drawn me to his colorful canvases, which in turn drew me yesterday to MacDonald-Wright's painting.

According to the Wikipedia entry on MacDonald-Wright, he didn't get interested in Japanese art until after World War II, so it seems more the case that Synchromy emerged from the artistic milieu around Kandinsky. It is well known that J.M.W. Turner traveled with a copy of Goethe's Farbenlehre, but early-20th-century artists must also have known of Goethe's color theories. Undoubtedly this is a subject that has been well mined, and when I have time (!), I will look into it.


Brendan Lovering said...

I wil, certainly look forward to reading what you find out about the relationship between Goethe and the early 20th century artists. In the mean time, we can all travel with a copy of Goethe's work on colour with it avalable here: One can even listen to it in audiobook format of they so wish.

Thanks for the wonderful blog.

Goethe Girl said...

Gosh, how have I missed your wonderful website?

Brendan Ferguson said...

We have only has a strong internet presence for about a year, and in the beginning, we crashes our host and got banned from our server, so part of that time we were offline :) It may be of intret to you that the website is a collaborative community, so you are welcome to further the work on while writing your articles or what not.