Western architecture is paralysed by a fear of colour, argues David Batchelor in this extract from his classic polemic, Chromophobia. Paralysed – and fascinated. Here he unpicks the contradictions inherent in a cultural phenomenon that shuns colour as simultaneously contaminating and cosmetic.
Sometime one summer during the early 1990s, I was invited to a party. The host was an Anglo-American art collector, and the party was in the collector’s house, which was in a city at the southern end of a northern European country. First impressions on arrival at this house: It was big (but then so were the houses around it, so it didn’t appear that big). It was the kind of area – a wealthy area of a rich city – where only small or shabby things looked strange or out of place (like the solitary drunk I saw wrapped in an old yellowish-green overcoat). The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth or early twentieth century, substantial but unostentatious. Inside was different. Inside seemed to have no connection with outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside-out, but I only realised that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptible. There is a difference. Uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptible passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant. The uninterruptible, endless emptiness of this house was impressive, elegant and glamorous in a spare and reductive kind of way, but it was also assertive, emphatic and ostentatious. This was assertive silence, emphatic blankness, the kind of ostentatious emptiness that only the very wealthy and the utterly sophisticated can afford. It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.
Inside this house was a whole world, a very particular kind of world, a very clean, clear and orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, simplicity was also complication, and clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular, it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not got around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, as when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. This wasn’t just a first impression; it wasn’t just the pulling back of the curtain to reveal the unexpected stage set, although there was that too, of course. This was longer-lasting. Inside was a flash that continued.
There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped. Some would hold the architect responsible. He was a man, it is said, who put it about that his work was ‘minimalist’, that his mission was to strip bare and to make pure, architecturally speaking, that his spaces were ‘very direct’ and ‘very clear’, that in them there was ‘no possibility of lying’ because ‘they are just what they are.’ He was lying, of course, telling big white lies, but we will let that pass for the moment. Some would hold this man responsible for the accusatory whiteness that was this great hollow interior, but I suspect that it was the other way around. I suspect that the whiteness was responsible for this architect and for his hollow words.
This great white interior was empty even when it was full, because most of what was in it didn’t belong in it and would soon be purged from it. This was people, mainly, and what they brought with them. Inside this great white interior, few things looked settled, and even fewer looked at home, and those that did look settled also looked like they had been prepared: approved, trained, disciplined, marshalled. Those things that looked at home looked like they had already been purged from within. In a nutshell: those things that stayed had themselves been made either quite white, quite black or quite grey. This world was entirely purged of colour. All the walls, ceilings, floors and fittings were white, all the furniture was black and all the works of art were grey.
Not all whites are as tyrannical as this one was, and this one was less tyrannical than some: “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?”1 Next to the white that was Herman Melville’s great Albino Whale, this white paled. Next to the deathly, obsessive white that insinuated its way into the dark heart of Joseph Conrad’s Captain Marlow, this white was almost innocent. Admittedly, there was some Conradian residue in this shallower white: “Minimalism,” it seemed to say, “is something you arrive at, a development of the sensitivity of the brain. Civilisation started with ornamentation. Look at all that bright colour. The minimalist sensitivity is not the peak of civilisation, but it represents a high level between the earth and sky.” But this wasn’t spoken with the voice of a Marlow; it contained no irony, no terror born of the recognition that whatever appeared before you now had always seen you before it a thousand times already. Rather, this was the voice of one of Conrad’s Empire functionaries, one of those stiff, starched figures whose certainties always protect them from, and thus always propel them remorselessly towards, the certain oblivion that lies just a page or two ahead.
What is it that motivates this fixation with white?
If it started with a short visit to an inside-out interior of a colourless whiteness where clarity was confusion, simplicity was complication, and art was uniformly grey, then it would be comforting to think that it might also end there. After all, there can’t be many places like this interior which was home only to the very few things that had submitted to its harsh regime. And those few things were, in effect, sealed off from the unwanted and uncertain contingencies of the world outside. No exchange, no seepage, no spillage. Rather: isolation, confinement. But this shutting off began to speak more and more about what it excluded than what it contained. What did this great white hollow make me think about? Not, for long, its whiteness. Rather, its colour.
If colour is unimportant, I began to wonder why is it so important to exclude it so forcefully? If colour doesn’t matter, why does its abolition matter so much? In one sense, it doesn’t matter, or it wouldn’t if we could say for certain that this inside really was as self-contained and isolated as it looked. But this house was a very ambitious inside. It was not a retreat, it was not a monastic emptiness. Its ‘voluntary poverty’ – that’s how its architect likes to talk – was altogether more righteous and evangelical. It looked like it wanted to impose its order upon the disorder around it. Like neo-classicism, like the manifestos of Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier, it wanted to rescue a culture and lead it to salvation. In which case, colour does matter. It mattered to Melville and Conrad, and it mattered to Pater and Winkelmann; it mattered to Le Corbusier, and, it turns out, it has mattered to many others for whom, in one way or another, the fate of Western culture has mattered. It mattered because it got in the way. And it still matters because it still does.
The notion that colour is bound up with the fate of Western culture sounds odd, and not very likely. But this is what I want to argue: that colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture. For the most part, this prejudice has remained unchecked and passed unnoticed. And yet it is a prejudice that is so all-embracing and generalised that, at one time or another, it has enrolled just about every other prejudice in its service. If its object were a furry animal, it would be protected by international law. But its object is, it is said, almost nothing, even though it is at the same time a part of almost everything and exists almost everywhere. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that, in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalised, reviled, diminished and degraded. Generations of philosophers, artists, art historians and cultural theorists of one stripe or another have kept this prejudice alive, warm, fed and groomed. As with all prejudices, its manifest form, its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable. This loathing of colour, this fear of corruption through colour, needs a name: chromophobia.
Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both. (It is typical of prejudices to conflate the sinister and the superficial.) Either way, colour is routinely excluded from the higher concerns of the Mind. It is other to the higher values of Western culture. Or perhaps culture is other to the higher values of colour. Or colour is the corruption of culture.
Here is a near-perfect example of textbook chromophobia: “The union of design and colour is necessary to beget painting just as is the union of man and woman to beget mankind, but design must maintain its preponderance over colour. Otherwise painting speeds to its ruin: it will fall through colour just as mankind fell through Eve.”2 This passage was written in the last decade of the nineteenth century by the appropriately named Charles Blanc, critic, colour theorist and sometime Director of the Arts in the 1848 Socialist government in France. It is interesting on a number of counts. Blanc identified colour with the ‘feminine’ in art; he asserted the need to subordinate colour to the ‘masculine’ discipline of design or drawing; he exhibited a reaction typical of phobics (a massive overvaluation of the power of that which he feared); and he said nothing particularly original. For Blanc, colour could not simply be ignored or dismissed; it was always there. It had to be contained and subordinated – like a woman. Colour was a permanent internal threat, an ever-present inner other which, if unleashed, would be the ruin of everything, the fall of culture. For our contemporary chromophobic architect, colour also represents a kind of ruination. Colour for him signifies the mythical savage state out of which civilisation, the nobility of the human spirit, slowly, heroically, has lifted itself – but back into which it could always slide. For one, colour was coded in the feminine; for the other, it is coded in the primitive. For both, colour is a corruption, a lapse, a Fall.
There are many different accounts of the fall into colour, and many of these – well, several, enough – take the shape of stories. This chapter is, for the most part, a story of a few of those stories.
There are many ways to fall: head first, feet first; like a leaf or a stone; on a banana skin or off a log; in a blaze of glory or in the darkness of despair. A fall can be trivial or dangerous; falls have a place of honour in comedy, in the circus, in tragedy and in melodrama. A fall may be biblical or farcical or, perhaps, both. Many of the different stories of the descent into colour are stories of a fall from grace. That is to say, they have roughly similar beginnings and ends; we know very generally where they are going to finish up. In that sense, they are not mysteries. But the manner and details of the falls are what’s interesting: the terms used to describe the descent; the stages and locations; the twists and turns; the costumes and props; and, finally, the place where the falling stops, the place of colour.
Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin (misleadingly translated into English as a Grammar of Painting and Engraving), published in 1867, is as good a place as any to begin, in part because his chromophobia is not quite as clear-cut as his Old Testament rhetoric at first suggests. Blanc was, for example, a supporter of Delacroix – “one of the greatest colourists of modern times” – and was indebted to the colour theories of the chemist Eugène Chevreul, as well as to the principles of Newtonian optics. And yet, for all his commitment to an emerging ‘science’ of colour, his theory of painting is expressed in terms of an almost medieval cosmology, a cosmology in which colour has a very particular place. For Blanc, “painting is the art of expressing all the conceptions of the soul, by means of all the realities of nature.”3 That is to say, while painting uses nature, its real value lies beyond nature; it deals in “conceptions of the soul”; it is a “work of the mind”; it is always more than descriptive as the painter “subordinates physical beauty to moral physiognomy.” At the centre of Blanc’s moral universe of painting (more familiar then than now) is the ‘idea’ embodied in human form; the expression of the moral truth of creation requires the ‘correction’ of the various accidents and contingencies of nature. Nevertheless, “the artist will necessarily represent the human figure by its peculiar, even accidental characteristics,” and for this job painting “will be the most fitting art, because it furnishes to expression immense resources, air, space, perspective, landscape, light and shadow, colour.” This list of painting’s “immense resources” was clearly not drawn up at random, and it is no accident that colour comes in at the end, after composition, drawing and chiaroscuro. Nevertheless, for Blanc “colour in painting is an essential, almost indispensable element, since having all Nature to represent, the painter cannot make her speak without borrowing her language.” This is a strange image – colour as the language of nature – but it is crucial, as Blanc goes on to make clear:
Intelligent beings have a language represented by articulate sounds; organised beings, like all animals and vegetables, express themselves by cries or forms, contour or carriage. Inorganic nature has only the language of colour. It is by colour alone that a certain stone tells us it is a sapphire or an emerald... Colour, then, is the peculiar characteristic of the lower forms of nature, while drawing becomes the medium of expression, more and more dominant, the higher we rise in the scale of being.
Colour, then, is not only low down the hierarchy of a painter’s skills and resources, as it had been in Academic training from the start; it is down there because that position corresponds to colour’s lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe.
Later, in a substantial chapter devoted to colour, Blanc questions the idea, “repeated everyday,” that “one learns to be a draughtsman but one is born a colourist.” Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues: the whole point about colour is that it is “under fixed laws” and is fundamentally “easier to learn than drawing.” Here Blanc could be alluding to Chevreul’s systematic research into colour-mixture or to Newton’s earlier experiments with the prismatic division of light, or even to Goethe’s experiments in colour psychology. But that is not how it comes across. Rather, it is God who allows us access to the laws of colour while, at the same time, keeping us guessing about the eternal laws of form:
...the perfect form that is issued from the hand of God is unknown to us; remains always veiled from our eyes. It is not so with colour, and it would seem as if the eternal colourist had been less jealous of the secret than the eternal designer, for he has shown us the ideal of colour in the rainbow, in which we see, in sympathetic gradation, but also in mysterious promiscuity, the mother tints that engender the universal harmony of colours.
It is here, in the figure of the rainbow, that Blanc’s creation theory meets modern colour theory, that God meets Newton. It is science that has allowed us to gain access to the mind of God, or at least to a small, relatively minor part of it, and through science, colour can be made finally to ‘conform’ to the higher requirements of the Idea.
Blanc had another problem with colour: the Chinese problem. He needed to prove that colouring was easier than drawing; that way, it didn’t matter so much that ‘oriental artists’ were better colourists than Western ones. He conceded:
From time immemorial the Chinese have known and fixed the laws of colour, and the tradition of those fixed laws, transmitted from generation to generation down to our own days, spread throughout Asia, and perpetuated itself so well that all oriental artists are infallible colourists, since we never find a false note in the web of their colours.
But, he continued, “...would this infallibility be possible if it were not engendered by certain and invariable principles?” – principles that had been rationally analysed in the West. Even now that colourists could “charm us by means that science has discovered,” one had to remain on guard, for
the taste for colour, when it predominates absolutely, costs many sacrifices; often it turns the mind from its course, changes the sentiment, swallows up the thought. The impassioned colourist invents his form for his colour, everything is subordinated to the brilliancy of his tints. Not only the drawing bends to it, but the composition is dominated, restrained, forced by the colour. To introduce a tint that shall heighten another, a perhaps useless accessory is introduced... To reconcile contraries after having heightened them, to bring together similar after having lowered or broken them, he indulges in all sorts of licence, seeks pretexts for colour, introduces brilliant objects; furniture, bits of stuff, fragments of music, arms, carpets, vases, flights of steps, walls, animals with furs, birds of gaudy plumage; thus, little by little, the lower strata of nature take the first place instead of human beings which alone ought to occupy the pinnacle of art, because they alone represent the loftiest expression of life, which is thought.
And where does that leave us? Fallen. From a lofty place tantalisingly close to God, we have fallen down flights of steps, past furry animals and gaudy birds, through a tangle of stuff and oriental knick-knacks – “cushions, slippers, narghilehs, turbans, burnous, caftans, mats, parasols” – and ended up face down among the lower forms of nature.
For Blanc, there were only two ways to avoid the Fall: abandoning colour altogether or controlling it. Both had their risks. He is a little vague about the first option; at times, colour is “essential” to painting, but in the same breath it might be only “almost indispensable.” Blanc appears to have been genuinely uncertain about colour; it shifts from being essential to being dispensable, from being low in the order of nature and representation to being the very essence and uniqueness of painting as an art. But for the most part, Blanc accepted that colour cannot be willed away; the job therefore is to master it by learning its laws and harnessing its unpredictable power: “...let the colourist choose in the harmonies of colour those that seem to conform to his thought.”
Conform, subordinate, control: we are back with Adam and Eve, back in a universe populated entirely by unequal opposites: male and female, mind and heart, reason and emotion, order and disorder, absolute and relative, structure and appearance, depth and surface, high and low, occident and orient, line and colour.
David Batchelor is a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, whose new campus will be in White City. Chromophobia is published by Reaktion Books. Photo at top by Michael Levine-Clark and on the homepage by Max Sang.
Our In Colour series explores the elusive and surprising phenomenon of colour in cities, with artists Craig and Karl as guest editors. Meanwhile the pair are working on a secret commission to transform one of White City's unloved spaces.
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