Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lecture THREE summary

[Two prefatory notes. 1) Last time we discussed the beneficial results of Sir William Jones’ discovery of the kinship of Sanskrit with (most) European languages. The discovery resulted in the founding of the discipline of Indo-European linguistics. 2) The revelation fostered a new approach to mythology on a comparative basis. This approach eliminated the monopoly of Greco-Roman myth, encouraging questions about the function of myth in general. 3) By showing the kinship of Europeans with the Indians, the discovery helped to undermine the ideologies of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and racism.

There may be a downside: the tendency to ignore the specificity of various cultures. Anyone who has visited India knows that there is much to assimilate there that is distinctive. But there was worse for, paradoxically, this reorientation in the world of scholarship served to reinforce a certain type of racism. The root problem is the confusion of language with culture. Consider the cases of the Hungarians and the Basques. Neither is Indo-European in terms of language, but they share the same culture with their neighbors.

At any event, the spread of the idea that there is an Indo-European mentality, helped to foster a parallel idea that there is a Semitic mentality. In other words, language determines culture. Hence the invention, ca. 1880, of the term Anti-Semite. There was also a borrowing of symbolism: the Aryan label and the swastika. Visitors to South Asia are sometimes dismayed to see this emblem publicly displayed. But they had it first. Derived from an expression for “well-being,” it originally connoted a wish for prosperity.

2) We dealt last time with Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. A broader consideration of the philosopher’s entire oeuvre reveals a number of disconcerting features. A Social Darwinist, he believed that life was permeated with a struggle for dominance. Conflict, and even war, were inevitable. Nietzsche was opposed to democracy and socialism, which he viewed as relicts of the ideology of pity inherited from Christianity, which he disliked. An elitist, he dismissed the views of “the herd.” He regarded social stratification as inevitable. He was a misogynist.

With all these deficits why is he is he still read and admired? The recent decline of the left has something to do with it, though Nietzche has his admirers on the left too. Perhaps the attraction boils down to this. Living in an age of uncertainty; we can no longer casually accept any of the old prefabricated world views. In this situation Nietzsche insists that we must embrace the relativism of all values—including his own. Instead of accepting things ready-made, we must attempt the arduous task of c o n s t r u c t i n g our own foundations.]


If decadence is Symbolism’s evil sibling, aestheticism is the gentle one. So much so that the trend was held to lack backbone, and was often the object of satire, as in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Patience.”

The roots of the aesthetic trend lie in the principle of “art for art’s sake,” propagated by Théophile Gautier in France. However, the epicenter was late-Victorian England. Yet connections that ranged as far away as Japan, whose society was regarded as the archetype of the aesthetic approach. Hence the vogue for japonisme.

Aestheticism was more a general tendency than a movement. However, the key ideas can be readily reconstructed. They are as follows. With the proper effort one can achieve a more or less seamless harmony linking one’s personality and life style with one’s clothes and surroundings. The theater for this achievement is the home, sometimes termed the House Beautiful. Domestic surroundings were regarded as a haven from a heartless world. And it was the industrial revolution, with its filth, noise, and pollution that constituted that world. As the industrial revolution had started in Britain, reaching its height—-and nadir--in Dickensian London, it is not surprising that that nation should have created this riposte.

Advocates of social change tended to regard the aesthetic trend as an evasion, a turning away from the urgent task of reform. Aesthetic surroundings indeed provided a refuge for the well to do, but what about the toiling masses? Still, as the career of William Morris (a socialist) shows, it was possible to combine the two: the aesthetic and the socially progressive. Followers of Morris’s arts-and-crafts approach said that they were the advance guard of a campaign for decent surroundings for everyone. They published books and manuscripts showing how even people of modest means could create beautiful furniture and textiles, even whole houses, with their own hands. In this way, they anticipated the “small is beautiful” trend—-and more broadly for the Green Movement.

It is probably fair to say that James Abbott McNeill Whistler did not subscribe this democratic side. Yet he made other contributions. He was a pioneer in the use of Japanese motifs as emblems of the aesthetic life, as seen in “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen" (1864-65; Freer Gallery), showing his kimono-clad companion Jo Heffernan immersed in this eminently cultivated life style.

Thomas Jeckyll, an interior architect, had created the basic structure of the Peacock Room in the London house of the shipping magnate Leyland. Yet it was Whistler who gave the final, decisive touches to this opulent jewel box (now a permanent fixture of the Freer Gallery). While Leyland halved Whistler’s bill, he continued to enjoy the exquisite cage of the Peacock Room, the setting for his elegant dinners. We can imagine these events as the ultimate expression of aesthetic refinement.

Philip Webb’s Red House at Bexley Heath near London represented an even more complete realization of the aesthetic ideal—a whole building with all its furnishings. The house was built for William Morris and his wife Jane. Their pre-Raphaelite friends pitched in to create the furnishings. Unfortunately, these were later sold off, and the house is still (I understand) undergoing restoration. The building itself, blending Gothic and Renaissance features, is an example of the Vernacular Trend, exploiting all that was best in Olde England. Note the nationalist touch. The industrial revolution had important consequences, some deleterious, but as we learn in 1066 and All That, Britain was still Top Nation.


Today many extol colors as the key to personality assessment and a major asset in controlling behavior. In my view, however, such endeavors are unrealistic. The associations of colors are extremely variable, sometimes volatile. Fifty years ago a red was a leftist or Communist, now it is dweller in the “red states” of the heartland, probably conservative. The meanings of color are culturally determined.

We turn now to attitudes to color among the Symbolists, and during the later 19th century more generally. For Paul Verlaine, who showed little response to the visual arts, colors are to be avoided (“Pas de couleur”), for music is the thing. Colors interfere with our quest for the nuance. For this reason we must prefer the chanson grise.

Be that as it may, we might think that “off shades” would be the characteristic color preference of the late 19th century. As such terms as violet, lilac, and lavender suggest, these shades project a decadent aura. Yet these color intermediates, generally residing in the red to purple range, are less salient in the period than one might think.

In 1858 the English chemist William Perkin invented a stable dye producing the color mauve from coal tar. The fashion industry took up the new shade almost immediately, precipitating a fad known as “mauve measles.” Not an enthusiast, Whistler remarked: “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple.” At all events, the fashion was slow to reach America, so that the 1890s are sometimes known as our Mauve Decade.

On the whole designers and artists preferred standard hues, chosen from the basic six of the standard color wheel, plus the “counter-colors” black and white.

Baudelaire claimed that “Perfumes, sounds, and colors respond to one another.” But which to which? Rimbaud’s sonnet of the vowels provided an answer, attempting to stipulate connections. Generally speaking, though, each of the favored hues attracted favor for its own sake.

Black: This was the color of Des Esseintes’ dinner party. Black was also associated with Satanism (with its black mass) and Anarchism (since 1834). Writers like Balzac and Baudelaire complained about the increasing dominance of black clothes for men. “We look as if we are always in mourning.” Gender contrasts appear in many paintings of the time (e.g. Renoir, “Dance at Bougival,” 1883), with the woman in white, the man in black. In this way, what was assumed to be the “natural complementarity” of male and female was pointed up. There was also a class distinction. Black was the power color of successful men, setting them off from workmen (who tended to wear blue and other hues).

Yet the bichromatic convention was violated by John Singer Sargent’s sensational “Madame X,” actually a portrait of Virginie Gautreau, who had been born in Louisiana. Her pose is at once provocative and reticent. The painting seemed to have touched off a minor fashion flurry (though most costume historians believe that it was not until Coco Chanel revived the fashion in the 1920s that the “little black dress” became a standard of women’s attire). In the 1930s Marlene Dietrich could still shock by appearing with top hat, coat and tails.

Looking back in history, the first great wave of black garments was in Spain, as seen in the grandees in El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz.” Ostensibly this fashion was set by Charles the V, the most powerful monarch of his time. The underlying concept is that only upstarts, like England’s uncouth Henry VIII, need show off their flashy garments. The truly powerful individual practices a version of “less is more,” eschewing any unnecessary gaudiness. Power is inherent, and not to be enhanced by such superficial accoutrements as clothing. In short, if you’ve got it, you needn’t flaunt it.

Sticking to the Spanish theme, towards the end of his life Francisco Goya is thought to have created fourteen black paintings on the walls of his country house, la Quinta del Sordo. Recently, the Spanish art historian Juan José Junquera has expressed doubts about their authenticity, basing his conclusions on a series of original documents. Whoever painted them (and it is hard to dismiss the idea that they are in fact by the master himself), these powerful works are wonderful attestations of the “power of blackness.” One black painting represents “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On closer inspection the boy seems too old, since Saturn is supposed to have eaten the babies right after they were born. It may be that Goya, a close student of folklore, was a pioneer in the flexible interpretation of classical mythology we have ascribed to the Symbolists.

For a long time Odilon Redon restricted himself to chiaroscuro designs, either drawings or lithographs. The lithographs were generally released in sets (6-10), contributing to his renown. One set, dedicated to the memory of Goya, is a free set of variations with little direct connection to the Spanish artist—what is probably a more sincere form of homage. The one shown in class, the “Marsh-Flower,” reflects Redon’s fascination with aberrant biological forms, in this case a plant that is giving rise to human faces. A similarity to Lucian’s “True History” was noted.

In three separate series Redon took up Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. The two slides shown follow the text fairly closely. After Flaubert’s death in 1880, the book became a cult item among the Symbolists (Khnopf also illustrated it). The book itself is a vast panorama of religions, from Isis, Oannes, and Mani to the historical Buddha (not to mention the classical deities), reflecting the new comparative approach to mythology. Long before, of course, Hieronymus Bosch had provided the archetypal rendering of the saint’s tribulations in art.

White: The other “counter-color,” white also found much favor among late-19th century artists. The title of Whistler’s “Symphony in White” suggests a synaesthetic motive. Yet Khnopf’s portrait of his sister is probably a more consummate work. Minor artists, like Henri Le Sidaner (“Sunday,” 1898) came into play. The Revue Blanche (cover by Pierre Bonnard) was the key literary review of the Parisian ‘nineties.

However, the real triumph of white occurred after the turn of the century. In his Glasgow lunchrooms, Charles Rennie MacIntosh seems to have been the first major architect to adopt the color. A little later Le Corbusier made gleaming white surfaces the hallmark of his mature architecture (though he also executed a few houses in pastel colors). Le Corbusier’s white preferences were echoed by other architects of the International Style, so that it became usual that buildings “avoid color” (that is, be mainly white). It is only with postmodernism in architecture that other colors have made a comeback.

In painting Malevich’s “White on White” is a touchstone, though most of his work uses other colors. Today Robert Ryman prefers to paint only in shades of white, and so does (very largely) Cy Twombly. Rachel Whiteread’s monumental works tend to be in white plaster.

Blue. The history of blue reveals a remarkable ascent, a kind of rags-to-riches story. Little regarded in classical antiquity (where it could even be used to represent death), the color gained traction in the Middle Ages, when it was associated with the Virgin Mary. Today majorities in many countries affirm that blue is their favorite color. (For the fortunes of blue through the centuries, see the beautiful book by Michel Pastoureau, Blue: The History of a Color, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Whistler made brilliant use of blue, sometimes in association with other colors. As previously noted, Edvard Munch picked up the fever. After the turn of the century Picasso entered his Blue Period, to be succeeded by a preference for pink (the so-called Rose Period).

Yellow: Historically, this hue has been burdened with an unsavory reputation. According to Herman Pleij: “Yellow was the color of sorrow, covetousness, hunger, and death.” Leaves turn yellow in fall (decline); jaundice (hepatitis) makes the eyes yellow (sickness). Yellow also drew some stigma as a cheap stand-in for gold, that truly noble color. Medieval aristocrats wore yellow as a sign of defiance.

Some of this yellow-negativity clung to the English ‘nineties, consorting with a new fashionability. The signature periodical was The Yellow Book, 1894-97. Ostensibly Aubrey Beardsley adopted the hue from the covers of French novels (as seen in several paintings by Van Gogh, an avid consumer of such texts). Why French publishers preferred this color is unclear. Perhaps it was to increase the shelf life of books on poor paper, which were bound to turn yellow anyway. (Late 19th century American publishing forged a more plebeian connection. The “yellow press” was what we would now call tabloids, exploiting popular interest in gossip and scandal.)

All in all, the idea of the ‘nineties as the “yellow decade” was largely limited to England. Still there were some Continental analogues. Even though the original Breton crucifix cited by Gauguin in his 1889 painting was ivory-colored, he chose to make it yellow. This change corresponds to the preference of many painters at the time for “pure hues” taken straight from the tube. A year later Ranson imitated Gauguin’s form in his “Christ and Buddha.” Buddha, looming in the foreground, is blue

Dislike of yellow has not been universal. In imperial China the color was considered auspicious, and reserved for the emperor. Today, the negativity has largely faded, and yellow adorns taxis, school buses, and the raincoats of traffic guards. Evidently the intention is to make them noticeable, thereby reducing the likelihood of accidents. Yet the pejorative connotations of yellow did not entirely disappear, as seen in the yellow star the Nazis imposed on the Jews. We still term a cowardly person “yellow.”

CONCLUDING NOTE. Not inappropriately, most studies of color in art deal with the physical means (pigments) and with the optical processes triggered by our perception of colors. Recently, a discussion has developed concerning the cross-cultural terminology of color (the so-called Kay-Berlin controversy), with possibly important consequences regarding the universality of concepts..

Out concern is different: it is with the aura of associations summoned by color. In this realm one may consult two volumes by John Gage: Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (Little, Brown, 1993) and Color and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (U. of California Press, 1999). These works of synthesis make valuable points. Yet they seem relatively weak on the late-19th century connotative values of individual hues that have been our theme in the above discussion.


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