‘Nothingness,’ writes Sartre (1998 : 21) ominously, ‘lies coiled in the heart of being–like a worm.’ His pessimism is pervasive, but mundane. His obsession with nothingness brings us from the edge of the howling abyss to the yawning emptiness of our wallets, but the view from precipice–or that from the lively but friendless café–permits him to trace deep undercurrents through the nature of our being (1998: 6; 9-10; 30). The holes–the gaps–the refusals–the unremarked slipping by of opportunities–can certainly cause us to well up with existential dread. But they also reveal the immense power we can have over our lives, and the immense responsibility we have for the way we live them. For Sartre, this responsibility is a radical freedom so intoxicating and so burdensome it can make us sick; it is also inextricably bound up with even the tiniest eruptions of nothingness that surface in the world.
For we are the originators of nothingness, Sartre (1998: 8; 24) argues; every nothingness lives in our own minds as a sheer fabrication, a mere interpretation of events. Destruction is but a perspective: a city is only destroyed if we view it as such; in purely physical terms its components are merely rearranged. ‘There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else’ (Sartre, 1998: 8). The world surges on like a ruthless, rolling ocean, re-adjusting its parts without regard for the petty values we place on certain arrangements. The very concept of negation comes from the thwarted sense of importance we have arbitrarily placed on something.
Perhaps he first glimpsed this thread in Husserl. In posing a question, says Sartre (1998: 4-5; 23), we thrust a negative element into the world. Inserting nothingness into the world, we make ‘the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things’ (Sartre, 1998: 23). When we ask, we admit space for the answer to be ‘no.’ As Husserl (1973 ) puts it, we invite doubt into the world, we acknowledge that things are not unfolding mechanistically, we entertain other futures. Doubt is thus the flip side of possibility. For something to be possible–not definite–it must be able to waver. It could come off or it might not. Doubt, which seems to undermine our plans and our sense of self, in fact gives the world its luxurious openness. Uncertainty looms ahead of us like a door left ajar, it gives us a foothold, it shows the world to be full of cracks into which we can force ourselves and impose our will, through which we can inflict change on the world, redirect its course.
And so Husserl (1972: 87) sees the world as a kaleidoscopic churning of possibilities, of open questions, of expectations, trembling at its edges. As we stalk those edges with trepidation, they shift and reorient themselves according to our every move. The structure of the world, asserts Husserl (1972: 82-83; 1999 : 45), against the scientific spirit, is horizonal; its horizons are ever just at the edge of our sight, but ever rolling away from it. The view is different from wherever we stand: but from whichever position it remains petulantly ambiguous (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 79, 80; 196).
We only discover this structure, says Heidegger (1993 : 74-75), when things break down. When our equipment falters and shocks us out of our practical unity with them, when our reflective, thinking attention is drawn to their heavy uselessness and suddenly obvious separateness from our own bodies. Or when we discover them not there–the unfortunate lightness of our wallets–we are cast into the solemn and terrible mood that is Angst. The small non-beings bring us face to face with the great nothingness, face to face with ourselves. Where we are ordinarily lost in our doings and projects, merged with the world in practical little acts, our sudden reflective detachment from the world presents us with the unimportance of our little schemes and ushers in a sickening sense of futility. Stripped of its practical significance, the world is bare before us, devoid of meaning, robbed of value (Heidegger, 1993: 185-187).
But it is Sartre who remains gravely optimistic. This Angst is too all-encompassing; it makes the world too precarious, a world which in any case has no meaning. Negation greets us in some form at every turn, and it is not so earth-shattering as Heidegger would have it. The small nothingnesses whisper to us sweetly in their languid triviality, but even in their banality they can give us sharp moments of insight to our own freedom.
These insights cause us anguish, but it is anguish that urges us from the wavering edge of indecision. Anguish is an agony that eats us from the inside. Fear stalks us from outside, when we feel ourselves threatened or cornered, at the mercy of fate. Fear swells in us at the edge of the cliff, as we eye the loose gravel and step timidly on the uneven ground. But fear becomes anguish when the sinister thought enters our mind that we could cast ourselves over the edge (Sartre, 1998: 29). That the car keeps to its steady course on the endless highway because of the gentle guidance of our calm hands, but that a violent, decisive movement would wrench us into the oncoming truck. In that moment, we see that all our impulses are alike, that all are equally in our hands, that we are not cast about at the whim of chance but are shaping our future with every act. That every time we fail to choose (another tiny negation), every time we quietly watch an opportunity politely fade away, we have made as firm a choice as had we grasped it.
Even these small, offhand acts, lighting a cigarette, raising a coffee to our lips, are the very things that inject value into the world, insists Sartre (1992: 36-38). In taking up this pen, this brush, I affirm that writing, painting, matter to me, ‘without justification and without excuse’ (Sartre, 1992: 39). In painting this picture I affirm myself, I force myself onto the world as a painter, I construct my identity, I project my future, I declare that ‘I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it’ (Sartre, 1998: 32). I make small steps toward that future, laying little seeds of meaning in the world like a trail of shiny coins. I solemnly make appointments with myself in the future, with anguish lurking at my back, agonising at the thought that I might not meet myself there (Sartre, 1998: 36).
Sartre digs up nothingness where others would rather not, but it is because he has seen that possibility implies negation. And where there is possibility one can exert one’s freedom. We must choose at every juncture, continually remake ourselves, examine ourselves at every step, question ourselves, even doubt ourselves (Sartre, 1998: 35). That we might fail is the very condition of possibility: that something is at stake affirms that something matters to us, that we have imposed a pocket of meaning in the world. With anguish hounding us we must seize the burden of responsibility. ‘Only those who can truly give themselves a burden are free.’ (Heidegger, 1995 : §38).
Heidegger, Martin. 1995 . The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University.
Heidegger, Martin. 1993 . Sein und Zeit. 19. edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
Husserl, Edmund. 1999 . Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Husserl, Edmund. 1973 . Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970 . The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans: David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 . Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1998 . Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge.
I was very pleased to contribute an article on Ruprecht von Kaufmann to the Chilean magazine Arte al Limite. Few living painters are working in quite the way von Kaufmann is–with this tight drawing and lavishly experimental paint, and on such a grand scale. Let’s keep the discussion about painting going–philosophically, critically, or otherwise.
This issue is out in print now, and you can also read it online!
Several years ago I visited the prints and drawings room at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and was treated to my own little exhibition starring a lovely Raphael drawing. While it’s nice to get close to such pictures, to take one’s time with them, to meet them as individuals, it is also extremely rewarding to get positively drunk on a rich and steady stream of Raphaels. An undeniable advantage of living in Vienna is that our galleries treat us to exhibitions that are far from modest; our ample imperial collections are embellished but hardly outshone by guest appearances from the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. Such frenzied visual gluttony leaves one with very different impressions of the overall trajectory of Raphael’s work than calm meditation on a single piece.
For one thing, it struck me how important tone is to his compositional strategy. Right from the early preparatory stages (and from his early years), his torsos and legs are offset simply and elegantly by plain slabs of tone. The effect is remarkably spatial: tone really does work, it is by no means a filler. One watches him carve an arched back deep into the picture by means of crude but deliberately-placed tonal contrast. In more complex drawings with many figures, this same simple strategy becomes meaningfully elaborate. Tone relates each figure to every other, especially in terms of depth. Plain, round heads and simple arcs of arms are woven in and out, set back at different distances, and curled gently towards us by rolling rhythms established largely tonally. Gently undulating movements ripple through tranquil and otherwise crisp, idealised figures. The masterful, airy sense of space informs us that we are emerging from the stilted Dark Ages into the spacious, glistening pastures of the Renaissance; it invites us to suck in a deep breath of that heady air.
The force of this tonal organisation carries over into his painting, which is luminous. The brightness of his figures still gleam against the bright jewel-blue landscapes. Rather than dull them to grey, Raphael neutralises them with white, keeping their contrast limited but their colour otherwise pure. Without invoking da Vinci’s atmospheric haze, Raphael offers us sharply-drawn cities that recede by fading to an icy blue; they retreat into the distance but glow as lavishly as the radiant figures.
It is a sheer delight to observe his methodical approach. Seemingly uninterested in the peculiarities of individuals, he treats them with egalitarian lines that harmonise their quirks into balanced lines and forms. Thus subdued, each ideal human becomes a conduit for graceful forces, and Raphael can make them dance, can animate these soft puppets with a living movement that courses through them with the steady and mesmerising will of flowing water. One observes again and again that he often draws whole scenes of nudes: thoroughly inappropriate nudes in solemn religious settings. Drawing is a tool of understanding, and Raphael acquaints himself with every aspect of his figures as he works variations of the picture.
Alongside these careful nudes are painstaking drapery studies. A cloth hangs over a chair, as though it might be wrapped around a waist, and is reproduced faithful to life. Then it is redrawn, less stiff, with more emphasis given to the imagined meaty masses beneath. One sees immediately that he combines these two separate studies, these two firm foundations, into a meaningful amalgam of fabric and flesh–that each enhances the other, describes the other, that they move together. And his draperies are incomparably airy, infused with a lightness that only such sure knowledge of both figure and folds of cloth can achieve. The truly inspired pictures augment his understanding. Air blows up under garments and lifts them lightly, it teasingly curls their hems. The billowing, swelling folds extend the figures into otherworldly forms with a magical presence about them. What Raphael draws is too perfect to be real, and yet so natural as to seduce us into believing it anyway.
Raphael’s drawing is perhaps most mesmerising for its delicacy. That simple chalk marks can produce such textural differences between skin and fabric is astounding. A supple arm or face can be as fine and smooth as porcelain, nestled into a rustling bed of hatching that describes those carefully-observed folds. There are some exquisite passages of hatching that run counter to the folds of the fabric, opening it out in a radiating fashion. Such control shows us where his attention lay, and while it might be far from the throbbing muscles of Michelangelo, or from the frenzied swirls of Leonardo, we appreciate that his own emphasis is equally compelling and equally distinct. Raphael delights us with a clarity that rings like crystal, with an enveloping vision of humanity that softens and perfects his figures into more noble and gracious manifestations thereof.
Artists are often called upon to produce endless novelty, to demonstrate their ‘creativity’ by producing something entirely unexpected. Raphael’s tendency toward ideals or universals in his figures suggests a rather an urge to perfect each previous attempt, to take up the idea again and refine it. His inventiveness is the truly inquisitive kind that attends very carefully to its subject, seeking to extract the most pleasing and elegant and finally effortless solution that comes out of deep familiarity with that subject. This genuine inquisitiveness uncovers endless variety on a single theme, as is evident in his Marys. His parameters are tight–circular rhythms, pinks and blues, babies cradled in crescents of arms–but each new iteration probes the possibilities in a breathlessly fresh manner, the glowing and trembling air positively wet with dew.
The Albertina, swarming with visitors, gives one something else to reflect upon, which is the way people fear the art, and the way they talk about it. Whether a tour group or a pair of friends, two roles tend to emerge: one type stands helpless and intimidated before the Raphaels, the other speaks with authority. While one follows in silence, the other puts on her ‘tour voice,’ a dreadful monotone that indicates she doesn’t quite appreciate her listeners to be humans; or talks with adamant certainty about Raphael’s technical aims and his motivations as if they were solid facts. This last, particularly, strikes me: an appeal to the formal properties, but a very arrogant one that seems to impose more on the picture than it extracts from it. Or one overhears an appeal to formal properties that is infuriatingly empty: a teacher solemnly tells his students to come nearer to the drawings, and finally to ‘schauen Sie die Hände und die Füße an, wie die gezeichnet sind,’ (‘Look at the hands and feet, at how they are drawn,’) with no further comment, no indication of particularly successful or unsuccessful strategies, no disappointment that in these instances the hands are rather weakly drawn and clearly not the emphasis of these more compositionally-oriented drawings that incline rather more towards neglecting the details.
My humble artist companion and I enter the gallery with another attitude altogether. We come, admittedly, with our familiarity with certain Raphael paintings, of that single drawing (now on loan to the Albertina), filled with our predilection for Michelangelo, but with our eyes open, ready to greet the pictures as they are. Our conversation–sparse, because of our private absorption in the pictures–is quietly observational, relishing a confident mark, joying in vivid colours, delighting in the judicious variety of the mark-making, in an unexpected and strong row of square knuckles, but also regretting the careless sections, the limp passages that lack conviction. The longer we stay with the pictures and the more we think about his choices, we start to appreciate what makes Raphael distinctive, why Ingres would later strive after his elegant fastidiousness, how classical it feels, yet at the same time coloured with the jewel-like hues of the Middle Ages. We are always sharing, wondering, noticing. If these humble comments can give you some handle on Raphael, give you some way to think about the formal properties in a concrete way, open your eyes to the simple delight a picture can awaken in you, I sincerely hope they might bring you a step closer to genuine appreciation. For as Aristotle opens his Metaphysics: ‘By nature, all men long to know. An indication is their delight in the senses. For these, quite apart from their utility, are intrinsically delightful, and that through the eyes more than the others.’
Aristotle. 2004. The Metaphysics. Trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred. Penguin: London.
Malcolm Budd (2012: 205) is not restrained in his admiration for Richard Wollheim’s (1987) influential book Painting as an Art, but he finds Wollheim’s appeal to a distinctive phenomenology by which we encounter paintings to be rather extravagant. Wollheim’s (1987: 22; 181) account of pictorial representation notoriously avoids language-driven accounts of representation, and turns squarely toward our experience of what it is like to look at a painting. Crucially, finds Wollheim, we exercise a remarkable ability (not exclusive to looking at paintings) to be aware of both the painted surface and of something depicted in it–at the same time. He calls this phenomenologically distinct feat ‘seeing-in.’ Budd (2012: 194) finds seeing-in to be inadequately described and unsupportable. What Wollheim cannot escape, he argues, is that our ability to grasp what a picture represents is inevitably grounded in knowledge. Proposing added visual experiences is a superfluous move when we inevitably need to secure representation by means of knowledge.
Wollheim introduces seeing-in between the perceptual experiences of ordinary seeing and illusion. Seeing, on its own, is a wonderfully complex process, but what has been traditionally difficult to account for is that a painting presents us with two very different objects of attention in the one object. The same marks may be seen as marks on a surface or as the scene or person they represent. This adds a layer of complexity to seeing that has proved difficult to reconcile. Ernst Gombrich (1959: 5) champions illusion as the solution, arguing that we do not see both surface and image at the same time, but that we are able to flick between the two visual experiences. When we attend to the image we submit to the illusion. Budd (2012: 187) clarifies that this by no means demands that we hold a false belief; rather, we are able to hover between two different perceptual experiences that have the same representational content. But what he finds unsatisfying about Gombrich’s solution is that it excludes the possibility that we can experience both at the same time.
If we reflect on the experience of looking at paintings (the kind of thing a phenomenologist would do), it would indeed seem that we can attend to both surface and image at once. Gombrich’s insistence that one cannot seems stubbornly at odds with the experience of looking at a painting. Certainly, sometimes we are so caught up in the picture that we concentrate more on its content, but (aside from plausibly-located trompe l’oeils) we are not prone to mistake paintings for the thing that they depict, nor to really forget that they are paintings. Sometimes we are so enamoured of the paint that we neglect the content, but it is difficult to block out the content entirely. Perhaps the best counterargument to Gombrich is the kind of painting that proudly brandishes its physicality, of which countless fine examples abound. Let’s limit our examples to the Viennese painter Carl Moll. His naturalistic portrayals of Viennese interiors and parks and hills are recognisable scenes of breakfast settings and villages among forests. But their dappled marks of all manner of inflection, their tight design and their honest but somehow augmented colours are inescapable reminders that the object of our vision is a painting. The distortion is always just enough that the paint must always be present in our experience, even when contemplating a Wiener Frühstück.
Wollheim (1987: 46) begins to describe such experiences, echoing Leonardo da Vinci’s (2008: 173) example of the battles and landscapes to be found in textured walls by the daydreaming eye, but his appeal to phenomenology goes little further, argues Budd (2012: 194). By Budd’s estimation, the phenomenon remains under-described, and in any case, it is not clear that the step is at all necessary. At least one feature of the experience must be established: Budd (2012: 193) argues that seeing-in must involve distributed attention, a specifically non-focused attention that roams the picture as we take in the picture as a whole, or an attention rather meditatively shared among the many properties of a picture (a theme Bence Nanay (2016: 13; 21, 22) takes up with great enthusiasm). Without distributed attention, the perceptual experience simply lapses back into seeing (in which we see only paint) or gives way to illusion (in which we see only the image).
Rather than pursue the necessity of distributed attention, Budd recasts Wollheim’s earlier and later accounts of representation in terms of his own favoured emphasis on depiction. The choice is significant: depiction frames representation explicitly in terms of a referential relationship. It says that a picture refers to something else in the world which it depicts, for which it is in some way a substitute, without being equivalent, for the thing in the world does not ever depict the picture. This explanation insists that pictures are dependent on the world. Moreover, it operates in a very linguistic way, treating pictures (or their parts) rather like propositions that refer to objects or ideas. I am not too sympathetic to this attitude and neither is Wollheim. His explicit rejection of language-driven explanations makes his unconventional appeal to phenomenology unsurprising. It is clear that Budd persists in the propositional tradition of representation, but we shall examine his criticism nonetheless.
Depiction, he begins, demands an awareness of two things: both the marked surface and what is depicted (Budd, 2012: 186). When we are aware of both, we can correctly determine what a painting depicts. Were we not aware of the surface, we would think we were looking at the real thing. Were we not aware of what is depicted, representation would break down and we would be left with an incomprehensible arrangement of paint. Traditionally, work on representation tries to relate these two kinds of awareness, but the real problem, explains Budd (2012: 186), was always a knowledge-based one. The awareness of what is depicted is comprised of two parts: that we can see that x is depicted, and that we know what an x is in order to recognise it. Representation, when it succeeds, hangs on this knowing what before any concern about perceptual experiences. For a spectator to see a representation of snow, he must first know what snow is, then see that there is snow in the picture, and finally see that the picture is on a surface and is hence a picture and not actually snow.
Wollheim describes his special perceptual capacity, on which seeing-in is based, in two different ways as his theory develops. The early version describes it as two simultaneous experiences; the later version describes it as a single experience with two aspects. Budd treats each version in turn. The early stance states that seeing-in is based on a special perceptual capacity that involves simultaneously seeing two things: one that is present before the eyes and one that is not. The paint (or the rough texture of the wall) is what is directly visually perceived; the snow is also visually perceived but it is not there. Seeing what is not there, by Wollheim’s account, is a ‘cultivated experience,’ and here, argues Budd (2012: 196) lies the gap that Wollheim cannot fill perceptually. Wollheim can see that there is snow, but must bring his knowledge of what snow is to the picture. The what is hidden beneath the that.
Wollheim’s later account simply buries the problem even deeper, Budd (2012: 199) continues. In merging the two experiences into a single perceptual experience, twofoldness, with two aspects, a configurational and a recognitional aspect, Wollheim neglects to explain from whence this recognition arises, if not from some prior knowledge. The gap, the epistemic blank, reemerges in this subordinate part of the unified perceptual experience.
Let us examine this knowledge gap. For Wollheim (1987: 44; 89), it is crucial that all the resources that a spectator needs to engage with a painting are contained within that painting. This is because he wants to locate the meaning of a painting within itself, rather than use the painting as a tool for getting at the meaning of the world. The latter kind of position, held by proponents of symbol-driven theories like Nelson Goodman (1977: 241; 260; 265), see the painting and its elements as substitutions for concepts or objects in the world, as something that must always be interpreted in relation to the world. To ascribe a painting this kind of placeholder-status is to treat it propositionally: like language. Wollheim knows that we bring our own preconceptions to a painting, and he does not utterly discredit this type of meaning. But, he argues, it is not the most illuminating nor the primary type of meaning that paintings can have (Wollheim, 1987: 22). Indeed, we can engage meaningfully with a painting in spite of a lack in our knowledge.
Consider a painter, perhaps from Australia, who has never seen snow. She has, however, seen paintings of snow, and has heard a few things about it. Everything she knows about snow has been gained from second-hand sources. Nevertheless, she may go on to convincingly paint a snowy picture that conveys the unmistakable airy softness of thick, freshly-fallen snow, its icy sparkle in the sun, its mellow blueness in the shade. This knowledge of what snow is seems very mysterious for it was gained through knowledge that certain pictures represent snow. Budd’s knowledge requirement is not as primary as he claims. The same might be argued for mythical creatures, of which we become acquainted through fabricated pictures. Importantly, it seems that this knowledge stems from perception in one way or another: sometimes perception of the world, of snow itself; sometimes perception of other pictures.
Nanay (2016: 51) directs us back to perception for an explanation of this knowledge gap. He adds some nuance to Wollheim’s twofoldness by extending it into ‘threefoldness’ (Nanay, 2016: 48). Not unlike Budd, he distinguishes between three aspects, with the crucial difference that he considers each of them to be accessed by a perceptual experience. He lists them thus:
A: the two-dimensional picture surface
B: the three-dimensional object the picture surface visually encodes
C: the three-dimensional depicted object
Like Budd, Nanay distinguishes between the that and the what: B is the painted snow, and C is snow in the world, or the village of Nußdorf itself, to return to Carl Moll. For representation to succeed, by Nanay’s (2016: 58) account, we only need to perceive A and B, not A and C. The unfortunate Australian painter who has never seen snow, and those unfamiliar with Vienna’s delightful circle of wine-producing hills, can still successfully identify these in pictures. But more than this: without any idea where Nußdorf is or what it looks like, a spectator can still see a well-defined if anonymous village replete with church spire in the picture. The picture is not wholly without meaning simply because the spectator cannot put a name to it or connect it to a referent in the world. Similarly, a picture of a person can be recognised as such and even quite arresting even if that person remains anonymous to us.
Nanay (2016: 55) describes this knowledge-deficiency in terms of perception. To the spectator uninitiated in the wine- and wandering-oriented recreation offered by the Viennese hills, C (Nußdorf itself) remains both unperceived and unrepresented. For the Viennese who does recognise those particular hills, Nußdorf is represented, though not immediately before his eyes. The final step, explains Nanay (2016: 55) is this: while gazing upon the hushed horizon of the painting, Nußdorf itself is ‘quasi-perceptually represented.’ The two experiences of seeing (one of what is there: the paint; one of what is not there: Nußdorf) comprise two simultaneous perceptual states and their overlap, says Nanay (2016: 57), is what the distinct phenomenology of recognising what a picture represents amounts to. Recognition is not necessary for representation to succeed, but when it does occur Nanay argues that it is possible to account for it perceptually.
Not so for Budd (2012: 204), who insists that ‘whatever a picture depicts, you would not see it as a depiction of that thing if you were unaware of what that thing looks like from the point of view from which it has been depicted.’ Representation completely falls apart for him when the unlucky spectator has a particular gap in his knowledge. And yet, the hazy scene through Nußdorf and Heiligenstadt and on to the hills retains its representational charm, not dissolving entirely into a completely impenetrable textured abstraction. Representation proves more robust than this.
Indeed, should the uninitiated spectator succumb to the lure of the hills that Moll irresistibly conveys and travel to Vienna, he might gaze out at the real thing and note with some amazement that the hills do in fact possess certain qualities that he gathered from the paintings. That sometimes they are a deep, violet-blue with crisp edges, and other times they dissolve, pale and silvery, into a husky purple sky. Something of the sleepy wine-drenched atmosphere soaks the pictures in a way that is more honest than the real thing, and not entirely absent from the real thing.
Budd considers it an unjustifiable extravagance to turn to phenomenology and posit a new species of seeing. As we have considered, his account of representation remains rooted in language, and reexamining the experience of looking at a painting is an attractive alternative if one finds this kind of substitution-based interpretive meaning inadequate when it comes to painting. I would suggest that Wollheim’s move is far from extravagant, and could be extended further. Looking at a painting, at its variegated surface and its carefully conceived relationships, is very different from looking at whatever it ‘depicts,’ and not only because of the mysteriousness of seeing the three-dimensional in the two-dimensional. It is as though one is granted access to the perceptual experience of another, the artist. The artist is able to show far more about her perceptual experience by her deliberate selection, construction, augmentation and handling of the what. She is able to show something of how she experiences the hills, tinged with memory and longing, spiked with intense heat or blistering cold, as a solitary thinker or basking in delightful company. Painting, by its very nature, offers us perceptual experiences far beyond our ordinary visual encounters, specifically by merging it with the horizonal structures encountered by others: painters.
Budd, Malcolm. 2012. Aesthetic Essays. Oxford University: Oxford.
Gombrich, Ernst. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.
Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Hackett: Indianapolis.
Nanay, Bence. 2016. Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception. Oxford University: Oxford.
Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an art. Thames and Hudson: London.
Da Vinci, Leonardo. 2008 . Notebooks. Oxford: Oxford.
The connection between colour and geometry demands some attention. Richard Heinrich (2014: 41) argues that ‘there is always a tension between … colour space and the geometry of colour,’ that conceptualising colour in terms of space is not as simple as unearthing the underlying geometric principles that will take care of everything. He is, of course, correct in this. There are many rich and nuanced ways of conceiving of colour spatially, from Aristotle’s delightfully plain string of colours, which Newton (1672) eventually closed into a circle, which has been expanded both theoretically and experimentally into various three-dimensional schema that are as idealised or roughly-hewn as their methods dictate (Briggs, 2017). A geometric conception of colour space, like that of Philipp Otto Runge (1810), approaches colour from a purely theoretical side, permitting us the sharp analytical divisions of conceptual midpoints and the elegant polish of a sphere as the theoretical limit. The reality of colour, both for the physicist and the painter, is much rougher at the edges, much more irregular, much grittier. But this does not mean that some abstracted principles, deliberately divorced from the messy realities of light and pigment, cannot be united with the practice in an instructive way. Indeed, such conceptual clarity can help the practicing colourist organise her approach to colour, while still allowing the flexibility to adapt those principles to experience.
But this is not really the disjunction that Heinrich is getting at. Rather, he is concerned that a geometric model for colour tries to explain both our perceptual experience and our concept of colour, and that this uneasy compromise tends to destroy our concept of colour (Heinrich, 2014: 41-42). We establish a working web of relations, but relations between possibly infinite coordinates of hue-value-chroma, none of which bear any greater significance over any other such that they attract the familiar and seemingly meaningful titles of ‘red’ or ‘yellow.’ This is true, but it points to the greater underlying problem that our concept of colour is desperately flawed. That we conceive of colour so misguidedly despite our firmer scientific grasp on it has only negative implications for painters. Most pressingly, there is a pervasive and false belief that colour cannot really be taught, which lends it a certain mysticism both in philosophy and in art schools. This mysticism is only compounded by the fact that colour is persistently mistaught on the basis of our flawed conception of it. We need to reconfigure our concept of colour or, if that is too extreme, to at least separate out a working theory of colour that practitioners–painters–can rely on from a more experiential understanding of it. This, I think, is not so outlandish: physicists operate with a different set of primary colours without threatening our habitual perceptual ideas about colour. What needs to be teased out is the psychological conception of colour, dearly-held but quite unrelated to the models most useful to artists and physicists.
The primary colours are a good place to start, especially given Heinrich’s justified criticism of Runge’s development of the colour sphere (Farbenkugel). Runge moves deftly from a triangle (picking out red, yellow and blue) to a star which incorporates orange, green and purple, smooths them into a familiar colour-wheel and fleshes the whole thing out into a ball. The dubious move (which Heinrich (2014: 38) does not let him get away with) is that he begins with certain geometric parameters but quietly dissolves them along the way. The triangle is made of points, marking out the primary colours, which are connected by lines, which signify the gradations between them. The triangle says that conceptually, we grasp the idea of a ‘pure’ red–it tends neither towards yellow nor blue, it is not in the least orange or purple, it holds a privileged status as a colour (hue) that every orangish red and purplish red does not. It says that while there are many oranges, there is only one pure red.
We can, however, conceive of a middle-orange, one that appears equally red and yellow, and a green that is no more yellow than it is blue, and likewise a perfectly balanced purple. Runge (1810) thus bisects each line and places each of these so-called secondary colours at the midpoints, forming a small inverted triangle. Perhaps what starts to go awry here is that the lines from green to orange, from orange to purple, from purple to green, do not really signify anything–just a gradation of muddy browns. Runge expands this second triangle without explanation, presenting us with two triangles which we could not, on geometric terms, distinguish, though they represent vastly different ideas: the hierarchy is dissolved. To gloss over this fact, Runge removes the points altogether, and it is this that Heinrich (2014: 40) particularly objects to. The model abandons its initial claims about the significance of some colours above others and drops into a fluid mass of relations.
Runge’s move is questionable, but the result is perhaps not so catastrophic. This is not only because in practice, one can navigate colour more nimbly and efficiently when one thinks only in terms of relations rather than absolutes (for example, recognising that this mix should be bluer than that mix, rather than trying to match a particular fixed shade on a colour chip). But also because our attachment to the primary colours might be unjustified. Runge’s initial choice of red, yellow and blue–even as conceptual ideals–could be as arbitrary as his model ultimately suggests.
As David Briggs (2017) describes, the concept of a primary colour is itself somewhat muddy. We generally bring to it the idea of an ‘unmixed,’ ‘pure,’ or ‘primitive’ colour. But these intuitions bring various assumptions, mostly derived from paint, which are simply nonsensical when we describe colour in terms of light. In light, common colours compound the reflectance: green does not ‘defile’ red, but their shared components yield yellow and their differing components cleanly cancel out. Another enduring sense of ‘primary colour’ is a colour from which all others can be derived. This would already force us to branch colour into two separate realms, one of paint and one of light, which revolve around different base colours: subtractive and additive primaries, respectively. Briggs (2017) assiduously notes that this formulation brings conceptual dangers of its own, particularly that ‘it is a small and slippery step from the observation that all hues can be made from three primary colours, to the assumption that all hues are made of those three colours,’ which would be another paint-oriented bias.
To further complicate the idea of a primary colour, Briggs (2017) rightly points out that in fact we cannot derive all colours from just three. For the painter, purple is notoriously elusive because red pigment is still too yellow, thus the mixture of red and blue tends to result in an unsavoury brown. Painters resort to other pigments such as a rose (suspiciously magenta-like) or to outright purple pigments. Perhaps even more shatteringly, the additive primaries are no more certain, they do not correspond to any specific red or green or blue wavelengths; rather, Briggs describes them as optimal ranges of wavelengths. Defining primary colours at all turns out to be a hazardous and imprecise enterprise; at the very least this should cause us to question what reason we have to insist on points in our geometric model of colour.
That reason might have something to do with our perception. Ewald Hering (1878) describes another set of primaries: the four psychological primary colours of red, yellow, green and blue. These four colours are privileged for having a ‘mentally unmixed’ status, while all other colours seem, to our minds, to be gradations between adjacent colours. This is why an orange can satisfactorily be described as a yellowish red, but we feel uncomfortable to describe a green as a yellowish blue. This seems to be the unrelinquishable ‘grammar of colour’ that Heinrich (2014: 41) particularly wants to hold onto: the sense, based in our experience of colour, that these colours are distinct and in this way primitive. This stance seems as arbitrary and as defensible as any: green is rigid and present in our experience in a way that orange is not. Or as Heinrich (2014: 41) puts it, ‘we will have to admit that green lies between blue and yellow in a fundamentally different sense as orange between yellow and red.’ But for the painter, green remains a mixture of yellow and blue, just as red may be a mixture of rose and yellow, depending on her pigments. And for the physicist, green is the absence of blue and red, while orange is a more complex array of light. Our mental divisions–what we project onto the world and how we break it down–do not correspond to the ‘input into our visual system’ and the stimulation of our rods and cones (Briggs, 2017); nor do they correspond to the pigments that happen to be available to painters. And that might be just fine.
What I propose is to keep these three types of colour systems distinct, while acknowledging their intersections. Runge’s colour sphere perfectly captures the fluid conceptual relations between hues and their values and chroma for the painter. Since it is advantageous to think relationally rather than in absolutes when trying to establish a harmonious colour context in a painting, an idealised, geometric model of three-dimensional colour space proves a useful tool for the painter. Such a tool, being relatively simple, yet rich and adaptable to any situation, empowers the painter both to organise her observations and translate them into paint, and to teach a coherent and systematic approach to colour to her students.
Physicists, meanwhile, may continue to measure wavelengths, discuss energy, and optimise their additive primaries of red, green and blue. Since the physicist is concerned with describing what light information enters the eye, his measurements do not undermine or contradict the relational model of the painter’s pigments. Rather, the two conceptions intersect unexpectedly beautifully: the complementaries of the additive primaries (red, green and blue) are cyan, magenta and yellow. These last three are used in printing to achieve the maximum range of mixed colours, and can be shown to yield a broader gamut of colours in paint than red, yellow and blue. This elegant inversion, identified by Helmholtz (1852a), perhaps gives us a firmer reason to fix cyan, magenta and yellow as the optimal subtractive primaries, if indeed we would rather retain points in our geometric model of colour space. At the very least, we might revise our pedagogical practices and stop teaching painters colour theory based on the psychological primaries rather than on the actual properties of light and pigments.
A painter does not need to understand the physics of light in order to manipulate paint. The systems remain conceptually distinct. But I think it would be correct to say that not only is the painter’s system inversely related to the physicist’s; it is also subordinate to it in the sense that after the pigments are applied, a painting, too, is simply an object reflecting wavelengths of various frequencies into the rods and cones in our eyes. In this sense, as Briggs (2017) argues, the painter works with light. He offers a particularly nice example that bridges the two systems in the practice of painting. A painter can drag paint roughly over dry paint of another colour such that the colour underneath sparkles through the gaps, or lay small strokes of different colours next to each other as the Impressionists did. The eye mixes these physically unmixed colours in an additive manner. Scientifically, it would be called ‘additive averaging mixing;’ painters call it ‘optical mixing’ and use it knowledgeably to great effect. Briggs (2017) further argues that the painter works with perception, and that what the spectator perceives remains largely geared around the four psychological colours, by which he makes sense of the painting.
And so we return to the ‘concept of colour’ that Heinrich is reluctant to dissolve into the more sophisticated systems. Drawing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, he relates it to a ‘grammar of colour,’ which modestly and openly captures something but not all of our experience of colour (Heinrich, 2014: 41). This is the key: none of the systems of colour we have discussed capture everything of our experience of colour; each operates in its realm without excluding or invalidating the others. An artist might comfortably talk of a ‘blueish yellow’: her vivid cadmium yellow paint is redder than the mental ideal of yellow; she can physically add blue to it to make it more yellow. But for the spectator, who now sees an ideal yellow in the painting, no feat of mental dexterity seems to allow him to imagine a blueish yellow. The slightest introduction of blue slides the colour irrevocably into the lush spectrum of greens. That is simply the mental category of green. And since, mentally, green is opposed to red, our brains cannot grasp a red that leans towards green, or a green that leans towards red. The curious thing is that yellow and blue, though they complement as strikingly as red and green, merge effortlessly into a pleasing colour. This says very little about how light or pigments operate, but it says a great deal about what we project onto what we see. Perhaps a phenomenology of colour would treat of questions like these.
In any case, as spectators with firm mental categories for colour, the are things we can say about colour, and things that we cannot. Wittgenstein (LWL, 8) is not so facetious to suggest that certain models of colour–such as his favoured colour octahedron–are ‘really a part of grammar… It tells us what we can do: we can speak of a greenish blue but not of a greenish red etc. … Grammar is not entirely a matter of arbitrary choice.’ Grammar has its role, and need not be threatened by geometrical schema designed to help the painter navigate colour space, any more than it should be threatened by physics. A grammar of colour seems to attempt to describe our intuitions about colour based on how we perceive it, just as the grammar of a natural language attempts to explain how we structure our expressions, even though it may consist more in explaining exceptions than syntactic regularities (Chomsky, 1965: 5). Perhaps the intersection between a geometric colour space and a grammar grounded in a phenomenology of colour would reveal yet more rewarding insights, perhaps as beautifully connected as light and paint have proved to be.
Briggs, David. 2017. The Dimensions of Colour: Modern Colour Theory for Traditional and Digital Painting Media. Accessed November 2017, <www.huevaluechroma.com>.
Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
Heinrich, Richard. 2014. ‘Green and Orange – Colour and Space in Wittgenstein.’ In: Frederik Gierlinger, Stefan Riegelnik (Eds), Wittgenstein on Colour. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.
Helmholtz, H. 1852a. ‘On the Theory of Compound Colours’. Philosophical Magazine, Fourth Series, 4(4): 519-34.
Hering, Ewald. 1878. Zur Lehre Vom Lichtsinne. Wien: Gerolds Sohn.
Newton, Isaac. 1672. A Letter of Mr Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colours: Sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, Febr. 6. 1671/72; In Order to Be Communicated to the R. Society. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 6, 3075,8.
Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1980. (LWL) Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge, 1930-32, from the Notes of John King and Desmond Lee. Lee, Desmond (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
I’m pleased to announce a little Vernissage with Stephanie Rappl at Der Greißler in Vienna in two weeks! Stephanie and I are showing some colourful small pieces among the organic fruit and vegetables in this sweet little shop. Evgenia Pavlova will charm us with her violin while we sip on seasonal drinks. It doesn’t get more wholesome than that.
Our pictures will be there for three months, so you can come and have a coffee and enjoy them at your leisure if you can’t make it to the opening. But come and say servus if you can!
18 November 2017
Albertgasse 19, 1080 Vienna