Sunday, January 4, 2015

Goethe and "Mr. Turner"

From TheoryOfColor.Org (Brendan Ferguson)
I am not crazy about biopics, but who can avoid Mr. Turner, especially when there is evidence that he was familiar with Goethe's Farbenlehre, which appeared in an English translation by Charles Eastlake already in 1840. Turner owned a copy in which he made marginal notes. Two paintings by Turner first exhibited in 1843 have been regarded by scholars as referencing Goethe's optical experiments: Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis and Shade and Darkness — the Evening of the Deluge. According to the blog of Alexandra Loske, the paintings became part of the Turner Bequest after the painter's death. They were paired in an exhibit at the Tate in 2010 as part of a display called "Color and Line: Turner's Experiments," alongside Turner's annotated copy of Goethe's Theory of Colors. Again, according to Loske, the book does not form part of the Bequest, but is in a private collection.

Below is the image of Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. Go here for Shade and Darkness.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory of Colour), Tate Britain
Aside from the fact that I am not a visual artist, I don't feel qualified to comment on the effect of Goethe's theories on artists. (Wikipedia has an article on the Light and Colour painting.) Let me, however, offer the insights of Michael Bockenm├╝hl, author of Turner, regarding Goethe's general influence as well as Turner's response in these two paintings:

"Goethe's theory was the only attempt in Turner's time to formulate a theory of the phenomena of light and colour acknowledging the physical, psychological, and aesthetic conditions and their interrelation. As a concept of an introduction to the phenomenality of colour, it is a kindred spirit to Turner's creative work.

"One of these marginal notes is a direct expression of the extent to which Turner was in accord with Goethe's opinions. At the same time, it shows that Turner was fully aware of the problematic nature, as examined here from various angles, of a pictorial quality aiming at direct experience through the observational act. With regard to the effect of colour structures in a picture, Goethe writes: 'If the totality of colour is presented to the eye from the outside in the form of an object, it will be pleasing to the eye, because it thereby encounters the sum of its own activity as reality,' Turner comments: 'this is the object of Painting.'"

And the movie Mr. Turner? My objection to biopics concerns the "potted" nature of the narrative. For instance, Turner's fall from the height of his acclaim is presented in two episodes lasting about five minutes: Queen Victoria walks with full court (including Prince Albert) into the gallery in which Turner's works are on view and expresses her displeasure, whereupon, in quick succession, various viewers express their agreement with the now common wisdom that Turner has lost it. The next scene is a popular theater stage on which Turner's paintings are ridiculed. Still, all in all, the movie was fun to watch, and the performances leave one in admiration of good actors.

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