Sunday, January 29, 2017

Red versus Blue

I thought I was finished with colors, but I came across something interesting today in a book by Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I am reading in connection with an article I am writing on Goethe's concept of world literature. In the third chapter, she discusses the rise of Western vernacular languages in the early modern period. Each of these became a "print language" representing a "library" of accumulated knowledge, which was in turn shared among readers of the various vernaculars -- English, French, German, Danish, Italian, etc., etc. Whatever hostilities may have been felt among the various nations, scholarship and scientific discovery did not stop at the borders. Even if they wrote in different languages, the elites of the various nations were "culturally and linguistically kindred." As Mizumura writes, the knowledge shared across borders was "mutually translatable with minimal loss of meaning." This is most evident in modern science, the achievements of which have been a combined undertaking.

At the same time, as she writes, it cannot be denied that, for instance, "bread" in English feels different from the French pain. Still, the difference between bread and pain is nothing to the difference between English "rice" and the Japanese word ine, "the latter having been lyricized and mythicized for well over a millennium in Japanese culture." As she writes, "Japanese emperors still go through the ceremony of planting rice and harvesting it, a tradition said to have begun in the sixth century." Thus, Japan is a world apart from the nations that make up "the West," societies that are "culturally and linguistically kindred." And then she goes on to say, "To put it in terms of colors, if the Japanese language were red, then all European languages would be some shade of blue."

She gives no reason for choosing these color referents, but, to return for a moment to Michel Pastoureau's books on the history of color, red and blue can be regarded as bookends. Red, as Pastoureau writes is “the first color,” the most primordial and symbolic, for thousands of years in the West “the only color worthy of that name.” It is the basic color of all ancient peoples (and still the color preferred by children the world over). It appears in the earliest artistic representations, the cave paintings of hunter-gatherers 30,000–plus years ago. Blood and fire (the domestication of the latter constituting an important human achievement) were always and everywhere represented by the color red. Both were felt to be sources of magical power, and both played a role in human communication with gods via bloody sacrifices. Humans also painted their bodies red, and shells and bones painted red are found in abundance in burials from 15,000 years ago.

Red is not placid: thus, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Army Faction, but today the legacy of ancient social codes is restricted to denoting things forbidden or dangerous. “Red warns, prescribes, prohibits, and punishes”: firefighters and red stop lights, while fire extinguishers are often the only red objects in office buildings.

As I wrote in a previous post, blue began to offer competition to red starting in the 12th century, to the point that it now outdistances red in everyday life and private space. The reversal of red and blue in prestige from the Paleolithic era to the present suggests a pacification of Western sensibilities. Blue has become associated with peace and tolerance (as in the flag of the U.N. and its peacekeeping forces). In Pastoureau’s telling, blue is the color of consensus, of moderation and centrism. It does not shock, offend, disgust, or make waves; even stating a preference for black, red, or green is a declaration of some sort. Blue invites reverie, but it anaesthetizes thinking. Even white has more symbolic potential.

What a shock the U.S. electoral map was to blue sensibilities on the morning of November 9, 2016. Judging from the red baseball caps of Donald Trump’s supporters, the unruly powers represented by the primordial color have not been subdued at all.

Image credit: Deviant Art

Friday, January 27, 2017

Goethe and green 2

Comment on doit chasser et prendre le loup (Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 616, f.55)
I am closing up the subject of Michel Pastoureau's wonderful volumes on the history of various colors (see previous posts), but would like to add a few more comments about Goethe and green, especially as Pastoureau refers frequently to Goethe throughout the volumes.

As I wrote in the last post, green was a color that was late in coming in social codes in the West, but, when it finally became prominent in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was a color associated with huntsmen and their valets. Pastoureau includes a wonderful image from an illuminated manuscript of the Livre de la chasse, ca. 1410, by Gaston Phoebus (Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 616). Pastoureau discusses the green knights of the Middle Ages, who participate in "disturbing nocturnal episodes in which the dead hunt side by side with the living, and infernal creatures with men who have committed grave sins or signed pacts with the Devil." The sources of these nocturnal hunts probably derives, he writes, from Germanic mythologies.

Goethe's poem "Der Erlkönig," writes Pastoureau, is an echo of these dreamlike hunts, which were accompanied by howling dogs. The appearance of the participants, dressed in black or green and hunting obscure game, "was terrifying and the din they caused unbearable." Indeed, it was the duty of the huntsman to make noise in the forest, make his dogs howl, his horses whinny, his hunting horn ring. As illustrated in Livre de la chasse, green is "a color simultaneously enticing and disturbing," qualities certainly evoked in Goethe's poem.

Pastoureau also notes the gradual ascendance of green among the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, which can be seen in Goethe's Treatise on Color. Pastoureau writes that Goethe associated each color with a social category, making green the color of the bourgeois and merchants, and notes that Goethe's treatise had an influence on dress and fashions in Germany "before being roundly rejected in the second half of the 19th century. Further, "Goethe sees green as a soothing color and recommends its use for decorating places of rest and conviviality. In his home in Weimar, his bedroom had dark green hangings." Pastoureau seems to be taken by what Dr. Vogel reported to be Goethe's last words -- "Mehr Licht!" -- although it has been pointed out that Vogel was not actually in the room when Goethe died.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Goethe and green

Mr. Knightly in blue Werther coat
In connection with my previous post on "the blue-green Goethe," I came across a short book by Angelika Overath, Das andere Blau: Zur Poetik einer Farbe im modernen Gedicht. The first chapter concerns "The Symbolism of Blue circa 1800," in which Overath discusses the representation of blue in Goethe's Dornburg poem beginning "Früh, wenn Tal, Gebirg und Garten/ Nebelschleiern sich enthüllen." I wrote about Goethe's Dornburg poems ages ago (go here), and Overath's discussion reminded me anew of how the poem, written in 1829, replicates the syntax of Werther's May 10 letter, written in the 1770s.

For Overath, the syntactic "dynamism" (the textual movement of the wenn/dann verse structuring) of the Dornburg poem reflects Goethe's view that colors are entities that the eye, so to speak, activates, brings into being: the one does not exist without the other. As Goethe writes in another connection:

Wär nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Die Sonne könnt' es nie erblicken;
Läg nicht in uns des Gottes eigne Kraft,
Wie könnt uns Göttliches entzücken?

(Were not the eye sunlike
It could never see the sun
Were not within us God's own force
How could we delight in anything divine?)

Even if The Sorrows of Young Werther contributed to the rage for blue in the late 18th century, Goethe found that the color, by itself, was cold. As he writes in Theory of Colors: "Blue gives an impression of coldness and also reminds us of shadows. We have already remarked on its affinity with black" (782). Further, "Rooms hung with pure blue appear to some degree larger, but are actually empty and cold" (783) and "Objects seen through a blue glass appear gloomy and melancholy" (784). These also seem to be "Romantic" associations with blue, as in Novalis's "blue flower."

Because of this coldness, Goethe thought that a bit of green (on the "plus" side of his color circle) would alleviate the "negative" aspects of blue. In particular: "Sea green is a rather pleasing [liebliche] color" (785).

Goethe's associations of blue with the sky and the sea with green are modern.

Michel Pastoureau, as I mentioned in my last post on his new book Red: The History of a Color, blue was a color that was seemingly absent in the consciousness of the earliest humans, with a meager presence in the ancient world, Egypt excepted, poorly adapted to transmitting ideas or evoking emotional or aesthetic responses. Blue was so unrepresented in Ancient Greek that even the sky and the sea were textually associated with other colors. The Latin terms, blavus and azureus, were imported from the Germanic languages and Arabic. It was only in the 12th century, with the creation of blue stained glass, that it began to achieve artistic existence. The Virgin, in earlier centuries portrayed in dark colors, became the first person in the West to be clothed in blue, if still in tones indicating mourning. The sky finally appeared as blue in illuminated manuscripts.

Something similar was the case with green, according to Pastoureau. Although ubiquitous in the plant world, a green pigment was made and mastered late and with difficulty. The Romans had a good word for it (viridis) — it was Nero’s favorite color (emeralds) — but it long remained a minor color, playing little role in social life, and its symbolic power was limited. Its rise accompanied that of blue in the Middle Ages, as the emblematic color of the plant world and the color of hope in life eternal among liturgical colors. (Since the 12th century, as Arabs distinguished themselves from Crusaders, green has been the sacred color of Islam.) It was the favorite color of “solitary walkers” in the late 18th century, associated with health and freedom. In the dark 19th century, urban dwellers longed for green spaces. In the 1880s, with the invention of artificial paints, available in tubes, artists left their studios for the outdoors, transforming landscape painting anew. In the new millennium green has replaced red as an ideological marker. It has become “the messianic color,” according to Pastoureau: “Long unnoticed, disliked, or rejected, now it is entrusted with the impossible mission of saving the planet.”

And, for many, Goethe has become a "Green."

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