23 January, 2007

Maestro di Color

My mood bobs and dips. The Greek is getting easier; Arizona is not. I tend, at least, to derive a vague intellectual pleasure from the books that swim past my eyes, some leaving a permanent trace, others vanishing into the aether. Not a pleasure in the reading, mind, but a pleasure after the fact. Now and then I am troubled by brief bursts of irrational anger, and moments of envy, as when I chance upon the works of the great erudites. Last week it was Leofranc Holford-Strevens—what a marvelously aristocratic name!—whose book on Aulus Gellius does not hesitate to cite untransliterated mediaeval Arabic. Even Frances Yates drew the line at Arabic! My friend J tells me that Holford-Strevens, a senior editor at OUP, 'has the (well-deserved) reputation of being far more learned than the scholars he edits, no matter what the field'. Reading this sort of stuff plays havoc with my competitive streak.

It doesn't help that I sleep from 8am to 5pm, thus missing the light of day, as if in Norway. I have my worries, too—I grow anxious for the glabrity of my pate, and for the porcinity of my belly—neither are serious yet, still, the one is inevitable, and the other shows few signs of abating in this land of cars and fatty food.

Neither does it help—though it is fun—to learn what my moods look like. This improbable service has been rendered me by the Theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, courtesy of their terrific 1901 book Thought-Forms. The paintings in this book, by 'Mr. John Varley [1850-99, grandson of John Varley], Mr. Prince and Miss Macfarlane', represent the two authors' clairvoyant impressions of emotional states in other men and women.

I was disappointed that vague intellectual pleasure, above, is the dullest-looking of all emotions. I mean really, it's indefensibly boring, isn't it? Worth noting, however, that our theosophists' view of intellectual pleasure anticipates Eliot's arguments about poetic creation:
Such pure intellectual gratification shows itself in a yellow cloud; and the same effect may be produced by delight in musical ingenuity, or the subtleties of argument. A cloud of this nature betokens the entire absence of any personal emotion, for if that were present it would inevitably tinge the yellow with its own appropriate colour.

Luckily, anger and jealousy are a bit more interesting; here they are together. I like the snot-green literalism of jealousy in particular. 'It may be noted that here the jealousy is merely a vague cloud, though interspersed with very definite flashes of anger ready to strike at those by whom it fancies itself to be injured.' Besant and Leadbeater write with a rather amusing moral smugness, and with the stiff propriety that one expects from literature of this period. Our authors also show us the effects of a shipwreck on men of disparate sensibility:

The right-hand shapes demonstrate 'an eruption of the livid grey of fear, rising out of a basis of utter selfishness', a soul 'possessed with blind, frantic terror, and that the overpowering sense of personal danger', although the lower man is somewhat calmed by his 'religious feeling'. The left-hand shape, on the other hand, shows 'splendid strength and decision', 'a powerful, clear-cut and definite thought, obviously full of force and resolution'. The full text is online, although the pictures have been badly scanned, so I reproduce them here from the original book.


Now, we know that Kandinsky was into a bit of Theosophy. His 1912 book On the Spiritual in Art, to which I reacted here, shows the influence clearly. Like Besant and Leadbeater—and indeed like most of the mediaeval West—Kandinsky prizes blue as the colour of heaven. However, he associates yellow not with the intellect, but with superficiality and madness. Also, where Besant separates form and colour, Kandinsky associates the two: thus yellow is suited to triangles. There is an ample treatment of Kandinsky's work in John Gage's recent history of colour, Colour and Culture, which is a must-read. Gage also examines Besant's appreciation of musical synaesthesia, comparing her visual representations of Wagner and Gounod to the use by Kandinsky and Scriabin of light-effects in musical numbers.

But something else occurred to me. Kandinsky's abstract works really begin around 1909 or 1910; this book is almost a decade earlier. Are the paintings of Varley etc. the first completely abstract images in the West?

Were we to suggest this, we would have to discount pure ornament, with its long Western history, and also such works as Whistler's Nocturne or Turner's Light and Colour. Despite their obvious abstraction, the latter two pieces are depictions of the material world, and elements of reality can be glimpsed through the complex layers of paint. The images of Varley et al., on the other hand, have no reference whatsoever to the physical world. They lack, for the most part, the schematism of diagrams. And so in a real sense—in the sense of Rothko, or Barnett Newman—these crude daubs are the first fully abstract paintings in the Western tradition. Sixten Ringbom ('Art in 'The Epoch of the Great Spiritual': Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting', 1966) agrees: 'these colour illustrations can be regarded as the first non-objective representations'.

So there you have it. Like I said, though, it doesn't make me feel any better.

Update: Bibliodyssey saw this first. I should have guessed.


John B. said...

Congratulations on being selected for Blogs of Note. But, you know, as a regular reader of yours, I note something like this and I say, "Well, duh."
I hope your mood gains some equilibrium.

npro said...

interesting art/cultural history - not sure why it makes you feel bad though. I might even reread it but living in St. Lucia has dulled my reading skills no doubt. An art teacher friend of mine showed me a history of symbols and art that showed the cultural background of many of the shakes we see around us in art everyday... wish I could remember the name - it was first published a long time ago - like somewhere between the 1920's-1940's.


Anonymous said...


Congratulations on your public recognition as a notable and notorious blogger. Many new readers will now have the opportunity to enjoy your insights as I have been doing for the past several months.

P.G. said...

I remember a time when I too slept from around 8 am to 4 pm. I remember thinking I was well on the way to becoming a vampire.

As for moods, I'm sure mine are all the same colour.

sour milk said...

Another reason was that i tot ur blog was cool i added u to my links. now another big thank u to internet for shrinking the world, you're now connected to Kuching, Malaysia.

Languagehat said...

and also of course to my loyal established readership

Oh, sure. You say that now, but in a few weeks, as you're swaggering into yet another fabulous velvet-rope venue with a model on each arm, you'll see us shivering in the gutter, looking on hopelessly, and your eyes will glaze over with that thousand-yard stare that says "I used to know personages of that sort, but those days are behind me," and then the cops will come up to us with a "Move along, folks," and we'll shuffle back to our miserable dens, turning over and over in our minds the brief glimpse we got of the beautiful life.

And when your name comes up, we'll say eagerly "Conrad? Sure, I know him, great guy! He... he used to link to me!" And we'll swallow that green wad of envy, shot through with little red darts, and wonder whether we should, after all, have taken the road more traveled by, all those years ago.

raphaellae said...

well I dont think that intellectuallism is stripped of emotion physics creates an impression and so does emotion

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ha, Steve!

I know I've really hit the big time--I'm getting comment-spam! (Though not always easy to tell what counts as spam.) Now, I appreciate I don't get as much spam as your great self--but there's time, Steve. I'm catching up.

Anonymous said...

So creative...veramente, "mille cose, una confusione nella testa." Spero che domani mi senti meglio. Un po troppo vino, lo sai? Ciao, and congrats on the blog nomination.

Anonymous said...

(Though not always easy to tell what counts as spam.)

Watch out for strange signatures. If they look fishy — especially when pretentiously latinised —, it might be spam.

Keshi said...

yep I came here from that list :)

Good stuff mate!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Now Sutor, if you keep up this sort of subversive malarky I'll have to be escorting you from the premises! (And from the conclusions too.)

A kind welcome to the rest of you.

Anonymous said...

That's sad, but who really knows, anyway, what the wheel of life is preparing for God's creatures?
If risking to be fin-cuffed here, I might stick to some blog where I'm being offered a salary to write my rubbish.

Julia Buckley said...

I came here through 'Blogs of Note' too. Looks like you've got some really interesting posts. I'll certainly be back.

peacay said...

Conrad, although you do my head in at times - that's as much about the web mentality of 'fodder consumption' to which I admit I've become accustomed - I'm glad to see you give this work a fair voice.

I felt a little guilty about my flippant take, itself something of a posturing to the 'fodder consumption' attitude, but at least the post acts as a reminder to try be fair to the material my scrounging uncovers. Some of the guilt has been assuaged too, by having gained permission to include Gounod and Mendelsshon in my little book.

The first abstract art works you say? Wow. I had no idea.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, PK. What 'little book' is this?

peacay said...

This little book!

[note to google: thank you v. much for the comment emailing thingy. It has freed up at least 3 overworked brain cells.]

Conrad H. Roth said...

Cool. How did you wangle Chapman?

peacay said...

See this. It (the foreword) is something that will split the audience I suspect.