Thursday, August 17, 2006

Line and color

An old adage has it that there are no lines in nature. This generalization may not be literally true—-think of the veins in leaves and the brief trajectory of a shooting star as it passes in the heavens—-but line are nonetheless vastly more common in art than they are in the world around us. The prominence of lines is therefore a token of the imposition of culture on nature’s flux.

Around 1800 linear approaches became prominent in the art of John Flaxman and others. This approach received a major push from the study of newly excavated Greek vases, which rely on lines for contours and for internal divisions of figures. The approach became part of the armory of neo-classical art in general. J. A. D. Ingres produced many bravura examples in his drawings, using a technique emulated by Pablo Picasso in the twentieth century.

Implicitly, the use of lines takes one away from simple imitation of nature, because the lines impose boundaries that are not there, at least not clearly so, in the motifs. In abstraction lines are particularly significant in the work of the De Stijl group, who produced work generally emblematic of the hard edge approach.

Sixteenth-century Italy saw the contest of disegno and colore. The word disegno, which means both drawing and design, may be said to represent the linear element in art. Color was long regarded as a secondary, even subversive aspect of art; it was even connected with prostitutes. Many recognized, sometimes grudgingly that the Venetian school owed its special excellence to the subtle use of color, though it was not generally considered as belonging to the same rank as the Florentine and Roman schools, which relied on disegno, or drawing.

In the wake of this theorizing for a long time disegno ranked as superior. In the late seventeenth century, however, supporters of Peter Paul Rubens counterattacked, asserting the importance, even superiority of color. After the neo-Classic interlude, color returned in triumph with Delacroix, and this tradition passed on to the Impressionists. In a different, sometimes more somber way, the coloristic trend appears in the work of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, two arch-Symbolists. Effusive color returned with the Fauves and the Orphic painters, headed by Robert Delaunay.

In looking back over this history, the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin and others have regarded the shift to painterly art in the seventeenth century as crucial. Even those with little concern with theory have noted that Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez excelled in "brushy" art. The daub-like disorder the surfaces present on close inspection fuses at a distance into a shimmering vision of reality. Such effects may occur even when colors are not particularly bright.

Edouard Manet and others resuscitated this trend in the middle of the nineteenth century. But it was left to later critics to apply these insights into a program for avant-garde art itself. In order to promote advanced art Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935) created the journal Pan. Deeply impressed by the personality of Toulouse-Lautrec, he settled in Paris, where he was active as a journalist and dealer, joining forces with the Japanophile Samuel Bing, who also became identified with the art nouveau. Meier-Graefe began to seek more and more the sources of this art in a tradition that led him through Delacroix back to Rubens and Titian. A series of papers concentrating on nineteenth-century art coalesced into his major survey, Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann, 1904), the history of the development of modern art. Basically, he traces modern art to the tradition of color with its fountainhead in Venice, as against Florentine disegno. In this work he saw the flat color of Manet as the decisive turning point, initiating the still-prevalent idea of that artist as the pivotal modern figure.

In the work of the old masters brushy effects are more likely to be salient in sketches, rather than finished works. The oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens are even more painterly than his full-scale works. For this reason the interest in painterly effects mingles with the aesthetics of the sketch.

Immanuel Kant's observations about art in the Critique of Judgment (1790), mix traditional views with startling flashes of innovative insight. On the one hand, the "formative arts" of architecture, painting, and sculpture are, unsurprisingly, dominated by the element of design. Yet in a different category he posited a kind of pure art of color alongside music. Perhaps the German philosopher had in mind something like the color organs that existed in his own time. If so, he would have anticipated something like abstract painting, a phenomenon which (significantly) he links to music.

At all events with the emergence of the Romantic movement much of the stigma formerly attaching to color dissipated. Still, it was held, color is a potentially subversive element if used without restraint; to function properly, it had to be subjugated to the discipline of a system. John Gage has traced much of the proliferation of theories of color harmony in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among the most assiduous of these theoreticians was Vassily Kandinsky. His early abstractions are the starting point of the whole twentieth-century gestural trend.

REFERENCES. John Gage, Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction, Boston: Bulfinch, 1993; idem, Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; C. L. Hardin and Luisa Maffi, eds, Color Categories in Thought and Language, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993; Heinrich Wölfflin, The Principles of Art History, London: Bell, 1932 (first published in German, 1915).

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