Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Spirituality of Color

In college, I read "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" By Wassily Kandinsky.  The title appealed to my modern and spiritual sentiments, and the book did not disappoint.  Kandinsky had lofty goals of creating a universal language through painting, functioning the way that music does.  He believed color, specifically, carried universal and spiritual meanings - which again was very appealing to me.   Although, I now feel a bit disillusioned by Kandinsky's idealism, I still adore this book for its idealism. In fact, I cannot deny how much it has shaped me. I certainly don't deny the communicative or the spiritual qualities of color (or painting), but mostly I see that language can rarely be universally understood.

Michael T.H. Sadler says in his introduction:
"If Kandinsky ever attains his ideal—for he is the first to admit that he has not yet reached his goal—if he ever succeeds in finding a common language of colour and line which shall stand alone as the language of sound and beat stands alone, without recourse to natural form or representation, he will on all hands be hailed as a great innovator, as a champion of the freedom of art. Until such time, it is the duty of those to whom his work has spoken, to bear their testimony. Otherwise he may be condemned as one who has invented a shorthand of his own, and who paints pictures which cannot be understood by those who have not the key of the cipher."

I do believe, perhaps naively, that much of the power of visual communication is affective on an unconscious level, meaning the viewer might never realize the impact or any particular message, however, it may still have an affect. Kandinsky says, color "is a power which directly influences the soul.” (page 25) Color functions in another way, best not described as language.  Perhaps it is better experienced as the quality of air you breath, or water you drink, sometimes labored, sometimes clean, sometimes heavy, sometimes thin. Kandinsky calls this communication a "vibration."

As long as this breath, this vibration exists, then this form of painting is still valid. Perhaps I think of myself as a colour-musician more than I'd like to admit? 

But, back to color.  

Kandinsky first discusses the psychic affect of color, which is to some degree, commonly experienced by humans: i.e. red resembles blood and the associations that come with it: blood, death, fire, pain, passion.  Nevertheless, too many variables make this type of association far from universal, as yellow might incite warm sunshine or sour lemons.  

Secondly, Kandinsky discusses the movements of color, and the more spiritual meanings.  Warm colors move out, while cool colors draw in; light moves out, while dark draws in.  He ascribes moods to each color, paraphrased here:

yellow: agressive lunacy
blue: heavenly rest, increasing as it grows darker, decreasing as it gets lighter
blue-black: heavenly grief
green: earthly contentment
white: nothingness, pregnant silence, joy
black: dead silence, grief
gray: motionless
warm red: earthly strength, determination, triumph, sharpness, deepened by browns
cool red: deep, inward glow
light red: fleshy, femininity
orange: outward strength, confidence
violet: physical and spiritual, sadness

He went on to say much more about the movements of color and the specifics of certain pigments, so that anyone who mixes color or is familiar with cadmium or vermillian, ultramarine and pthalo, would soak it in appreciatively.

However, now I want to turn my attention to another source of color theory.  Byzantine iconography, where I discovered mandorlas, consistently use color to represent certain ideas.  For instance, red is a color of earthly life, and blue the color of divine life.  Thus Christ is depicted wearing red and blue as a sign of his humanity and divinity.  Similarly, Mary the Theotokos is shown wearing a red outer garment with blue underneath - a sign that she carried divinity within her humanity.  

Many images of the Theotokos paint her red garment as a deep purple-red like this image of the Vladimir Theotokos of the Tender Mercy type.  Here she is shown cheek to cheek with the Christ child, expressing the deep love between God and humanity.  However, the sadness in her eyes is also quite evident.  The grief, the "sword that shall pierce even her own soul," for all that her child will suffer is eternally present.  The heavy purple contrasted with the vibrant gold embodies the "bright sadness" of the Christian faith.  The joy mingled with grief.

White is used to depict holiness and divine light, but sometimes black is shown in the center of the mandorla, as the mystery of the divine light.  Grey and pink are ambiguous, fleshly colors incapable of the transcendence of iconography, and are thus not included.  

This use of color in iconography was well established over 1000 years before Kandinsky wrote about his color theory. Certainly the iconography uses it in a more literally symbolic way, while Kandinsky uses it more fluidly.  One might suggest that he, as a Russian, was influenced by Russian iconography.  But one might also argue that these colors somehow inherently possess these meanings and movements, that they are ever present and affecting us. 

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