Friday, January 6, 2017

The blue-green Goethe

M.s Sehnsuchtsbild by Guntram Erbe

Michel Pastoureau, French scholar of the Middle Ages, has produced some very lovely and also scholarly volumes on the history of colors, beginning with Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton UP, 2001). It was followed (in English translation) by Black (2008) and Green (2014), both subtitled "the history of a color" and also published by Princeton. I have just received Red (also Princeton UP; publication date is Valentine's Day), which I am reviewing for a national magazine. In preparation I have the pleasant task of going through the preceding volumes, beginning with Blue.

Not surprisingly, Blue includes a section on Goethe, both on his theory of colors as well as on the significance of Werther's blue-and-yellow outfit. According to Professor Pastoureau, Goethe gave his hero a blue coat because blue was in style in Germany in the 1770s. The novel, however, because of its popularity reinforced the fashion for blue, causing the color to leap from the realm of dress -- serving as the favored color of the French kings since the beginning of the 18th century and, in turn, of the nobility and the well-off bourgeoisie -- into the arts of painting, engraving, and porcelain.

Goethe's color circle
Pastoureau is very sympathetic to Goethe's color theory, even if he concedes that the discussion of physics and the chemistry of colors in the Farbenlehre is "flawed." As he writes: “Instead of creating a work based on his remarkable poetic intuition and his feeling that color always has an important anthropological dimension, he wished to write a learned treatise that would be recognized as such.” In his view,  the most original chapter of the didactic section of the Farbenlehre is the one on “physiological” colors, “in which Goethe argues forcefully for the subjective and cultural nature of perception, an idea that was almost completely novel at the time.” Challenging the Newtonians, Goethe was “the first to reintroduce the human being into the problems of color and to dare to declare that a color that no one sees is a color that does not exist.”

Since this is a book on blue, the Farbenlehre is of interest to Pastoureau because of the important place Goethe accords to that color, “which along with yellow is one of the poles of Goethe's color system. He saw in the juxtaposition (or the fusion) of these two colors the absolute form of chromatic harmony.” The lovely painting above by Guntram Erbe immediately made me think of Goethe's color preferences.

Blue Flower (Homage to Novalis) by H.H. Miyakawa (2011)
Alongside Goethe, Pastoreau cites Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen and the poet's search for the "little blue flower" as contributing to blue's status as "the world's most popular color," solidifying it as the color of love, melancholy, and dreams. (See my earlier post.) Yet, as can be gleaned from Blue, Goethe's embrace of blue has a long historical background.

It turns out that the rise of blue as a color preference was a very late emerging Western phenomenon. As Pastoreau writes in Blue, red, white, and black were the basic colors of all cultures from time immemorial, and all social codes and systems of representation were organized around these three. Blue, on the other hand, had no symbolic value, and it even seems that the ancients could not even "see" blue. In the ancient Greek language, for instance, blue was never used to describe the sky or the sea. The term glaukos, much used by Homer, could refer to gray, blue, and sometimes even yellow or brown. Eventually the Romans took their color terminology from Germanic and Arabic words: blavus and azureus. For the Romans blue appears to have had a negative value: it was associated with the underworld, while blue eyes were considered a deformity or a sign of bad character, not to forget that blue was the color of the eyes of the Germanic barbarians.

In the Carolingian period, the emperors and nobles followed the Roman custom, wearing red, white, and purple, while blue was worn only by those of low rank. A change occurred in the 12th century, with the creation of blue stained glass, but otherwise blue was essentially absent from Christian worship, with white being the supreme Christological color (innocence, purity) and black denoting abstinence, penance, and suffering. Red, of course, was the blood spilled by Christ, his passion, sacrifice, martyrdom, divine love. There developed by the 12th century a split between "chromophiles" and "chromophobes," represented, on the one hand, by the abbots of Cluny and, on the other, by the Cistercians. In the churches of the former blue and gold were united to evoke the splendor of God's creation, while the Cistercians were opposed to luxury in all forms, including color.

Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XV as 5-year-old (detail)
The rise of the cult of the Virgin in the 12th century and also the adoption by French kings of blue in their coat of arms lent prestige to blue, while progress in dyeing techniques also assisted its success. French and German cities (including in Thuringia) were sustained by their dyeing industries. Saint Louis and Henry III began wearing blue, a custom not known among earlier kings. Naturally, their entourages followed suit. Even King Arthur was depicted in blue.

And then came the Reformation, which was already preceded by moralizing trends. The Reformists sought to cleanse churches of color, especially of red, which stood not for Christ's blood and passion but for folly and, in Luther's eyes, the papacy. The polychromy on church statues suggested idolotry, and the vestments of priests and the rituals of the mass were "a theater of color" distracting from the more crucial purpose of saving one's soul. For the Reformers, good Christians should wear sober colors, thus the rise of black in art. Pastoreau mentions Rembrandt, from Calvinist Holland, whose "color asceticism [was] based on a limited palette of dark and discreet tones." Rome, with the Counter-Reformation, responded in kind: thus, the blazing glory of Baroque and Jesuit art.

Perhaps because of its long absence from historical and theoretical reflection, blue was not affected by the "chromoclasm" of the Reformers. Indeed, according to Pastoreau, it became "the only honest color worthy of a good Christian." Thus, the great Reformers were portrayed as austerely dressed in black, set against a bright blue background suggesting heaven, to which they all aspired. Among French landscapists influenced by Jansenism, brown and indigo wash drawings of the 17th century created dream-like distant backgrounds that seemed to reach to infinity.

Newton's spectrum experiment
In 1666 Newton discovered the spectrum, an order of color that contained neither black nor white, which (for an Anglican like Newton) confirmed Protestant moral practices. The spectrum unended the ancient and medieval color hierarchy, in which red had resided dominantly. The center was now occupied by blue and green, and "colormetry" began to invade the arts and sciences. In being mastered, however, color lost much of its mastery. Here is where Goethe enters the picture.

Pastoreau mentions that Goethe's "personal taste" distanced him from red, but by the mid 1770s blue had become the favorite color of European society. (Can we imagine Werther wearing a red vest?) By the 18th century, slavery in the Americas lowered the cost of indigo production, and a variety of dark and solid blues could be produced that were resistant to sunlight and soap. Chemistry also began to play a role: it was in the early 18th century that "Prussian blue" was discovered in Berlin, which aided painters in producing strong or translucent tones, and numerous learned societies sponsored competitions to find solutions for obtaining more vivid and less costly blues and greens than those achieved by indigo.

Here is Werther speaking about his blue coat: “It cost me much to part with the blue coat which I wore the first time I danced with Charlotte. But I could not possibly wear it any longer. But I have ordered a new one, precisely similar, even to the collar and sleeves, as well as a new waistcoat and pantaloons. But it does not produce the same effect upon me. I know not how it is, but I hope in time I shall like it better.”

Picture credit: Guntram Erbe; Hikaru H. Miyakawa; Colour Management

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