Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Chromomania: 'a craze for or strong attraction to colour'. Sounds a bit Timmy Mallet to me (left). The milder chromophilia, although seemingly not used in this sense*, is preferable: 'a love of colour'. I wonder why it is that we can find colours so affecting? Chromophilia is indulgent, sensual, even perhaps sometimes quite spiritual.

The other night on the programme Ugly Beauty, Waldemar Januszcak was talking to Anish Kapoor about his use of colour. Januszcak reckoned that with some of Kapoor's works the overwhelming intensity of the colour could induce a feeling of intoxication. Kapoor described them as putting us into a reverie, where time stands still just for a moment. Having seen (and stuck my head into) some of Kapoor's works at the Hayward a few years ago, I have to agree. Drunk on colour: 'chromo-intoxication'.

The fleeting intoxication induced by colour certainly has appeal. It permits an albeit brief escape from the present and from consciousness and self. To lift a quotation from Boswell concerning Dr Johnson (and presented by Brit):
He asserted that the present was never a happy state to any human being; but that, as every part of life, of which we are conscious, was at some point of time a period yet to come, in which felicity was expected, there was some happiness produced by hope. Being pressed upon this subject, and asked if he really was of opinion that though, in general, happiness was very rare in human life, a man was not sometimes happy in the moment that was present, he answered, "Never, but when he is drunk."

'...Sometimes happy in the moment that was present...' when drunk on colour, too. But I think it does have to be a very particular colour experience.

Of course, there's a whole theory of art concerned with colour: Colour Field Theory. But as much as I like some of the Colour Field paintings - I find some Barnett Newmans (below) can be particularly exhilirating - I've never felt drunk in front of them; only slightly tipsy. This may be because it's a lot to expect from a flat surface, to physically overwhelm you with colour. I think you need to feel you're drowning in colour to precipitate the full intoxication. You have to be able to lose yourself in it. That's why Kapoor's huge and concavitous coloured sculptures work so well.

It's also why stained glass windows can be very potent. I remember being in one church in Angouleme - a particularly fine example of the Romanesque - just before evening mass on a late summer evening. The low sun was refracting in the stained glass, pouring pure and vivid colour into the previously shaded recesses of the interior. The swirling smoke of insense was alternately concentrating and dissipating these colours, a peacock blue predominating. It was the first time I understood how an appeal to the senses can aid worship. I felt dizzily certain that I was in the presence of something deeply mysterious. Physics, perhaps.

I'm very familiar with one stained glass window that I know can produce rare feelings of transcendence, but this time in an atmosphere of pale stone and clear light. This is a window designed by Karl Parsons in 1927 and to be found in Bibury's St Mary's Church (two details below). A large part of its beauty, for me, lies in the velvety, limpid blues and the rich blood-red. Almost needless to say, these photos, superb though they are, don't do the window justice. The bottom one, headed 'CARITAS', I find particularly affecting. There's more here.

I wonder whether we're still only scratching the surface of what colour can do for us. Given that its potency is greatest when it's made to surround us or when it's projected across us, there's surely potential to do more with computer screens. We've seen the emergence of iPhone painting. Might we look forward to YouTube videos that project colour across us in a darkened room, for purposes of relaxation, worship, or meditation? (Of course, it may already have happened and I missed it.)

* 'Chromophilic' is a medical term meaning 'easily stained by dyes'.


worm said...

Great post, it's great fun when you explore an idea from various angles like this. Your discussion of pure colour brings to my mind the famous Yves Klein and his blue, a painting of his 'immaterial sensibility' series of which I once saw and which I found mesmerising, I suppose it's the elemental atomic-level simplicity of a colour that can be so beguiling. I just found a passage by Klein that I thought apt:

"After having gone through several periods, my research has led me to paint unified monochrome pictures. No drawing is visible, no variation in hue; there is nothing but the UNITY of a single color. The dominant invades the entire picture, as it were. In this way I seek to individualize the color, because I have come to believe that there is a living world of each color and I express these worlds. My paintings, moreover, represent an idea of absolute unity in perfect serenity; an abstract idea represented abstractly. I think that the color "yellow," for example, is quite sufficient in itself to render an atmosphere and a climate "beyond the thinkable"; what is more, the nuances of yellow are infinite, leaving the possibility to interpret it in many different ways.

For me, each nuance of a color is in some way an individual, a being who is not only from the same race as the base color, but who definitely possesses a distinct character and personal soul.… Nuances can be gentle, evil, violent, majestic, vulgar, calm, etc. In sum, each nuance of each color is definitely a "presence," a living being, an active force which is born and dies after having lived a sort of drama of the life of colors."

worm said...

..and on the same hue, but in a different medium there's also Derek Jarman's 'Blue' that also makes a static colour take on meaning simply by shining at you coldly from a flickering screen as the recorded voices narrate the dying Jarman's life and work. pretentious yet powerful.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, those stained glass windows really are something beautiful. (But is it only me who immediately, although briefly, saw the foot above the Virgin Mary's head as the one from the Monty Python credits??)

Hey Skipper said...

I must admit it is fairly disturbing to read this; now I know how a dog feels when trying to take algorithms on board.

There must be a chromo-word that equates to tone deafness.

Brit said...

Martpol and I once watched Derek Jarman's Blue on a black and white TV.

worm said...

If you watch it in grey it has an entirely different meaning and is actually a hilarious slapstick comedy

Gaw said...

Thanks Worm for the interesting read. Mind you, not all artists are as eloquent. What Barnett Newman had to say about his art was simply bonkers as discussed here at
Fugitive Ink.

Gadjo, an unfortunate crop, it's true. But a large foot did indeed metaphorically stamp on that happy family scene.

Feeding algorithms to dogs sounds a lot more fun, Skipper.

All of it, Brit? If so I can only assume you were enjoying some form of artificial encouragement.

Hey Skipper said...

Feeding algorithms to dogs sounds a lot more fun, Skipper.

Perhaps I was being too tongue-in-cheek.

After carefully reading your very well written post and looking at the pictures I was confronted with two things: a complete inability to get it, and really wishing I could.

Like people who hear perfectly well, but cannot comprehend music, and envy those who can.

Gaw said...

It's funny as I can't imagine not getting it. People are, er, all different.

Reminds me of a friend of mine at Cambridge who was a scientist. He swore that he had no appreciation whatsoever for the buildings and he'd just as well study in cubes of concrete. I couldn't conceive of the idea of Cambridge, as it were, without the architecture. What's more, the buildings for me were one of the very few things the place had in its favour.