Colour and Formalism.

I want to look at colour in the context of the part it inadvertently played in the rapid degeneration of early radical and revolutionary twentieth century modern art through formalism and into contemporary postmodern art.

Colour was one of the last constancies in our perception to be subverted by painting. The so-called ‘laws of constancy’ in perception describe a psychological and physiological imperative through which we see objects as we know them to be and not as they might accidentally seem to appear in external ‘reality’. This is, of course, in part biologically adaptive; it’s as well to assume that an encountered shape is a predator, even if eventually proved wrong. Such an inclination to build up a mental picture of seen objects prior to any external analysis is vividly illustrated by the discarded paper bag in the side of the road which can so quickly develop all of the detailed characteristics of a dead dog. If we remember this conjured image after the event, it is really remarkable to recognise the degree of detail in the eyes, colouring, the ears and so on, that we projected into the inanimate paper bag. Perception is undoubtedly a creative act which has depended on the development of constancies to locate ourselves in an external reality, which in effect is altogether an illusory construct.

The constancy of form was first undermined in the Renaissance by painters who engaged in an apparently ‘scientific’ analysis of perspective. In effect they became more interested in the accidental distortions visited upon objects by the vagaries of perspective than in any real empathy with objects as they really intrinsically knew them to be. The constancy of tone was similarly subverted by analysis through chiaroscuro technique. When in the seventeenth century the Chinese first encountered Western painting which shaded half of the face in a darker tone, it was assumed that this represented a real discolouration in the sitter. The Chinese at this time had not yet learned to ‘see’ in such terms.

It was much later, in our own century, that the constancy of colour perception was attacked by impressionistic painting and by modern art. Impressionism was supposed to have uncovered and analysed the hidden colours in shade, and fauvism seemed to employ an anarchic disregard of any real local characteristic colour. These developments in breaking down the constancies were initiated by unconscious creative processes, but inevitably fell prey to pseudo-scientific experimentation and explanation. Since the Renaissance, therefore, there has been an ongoing analysis through painting of ‘scientific’ Realism, which demanded what might be described as a conceptual stance.

This is significant in respect of changes in art which have contributed to the present postmodern position.Generally, art prior to the Renaissance had very different concerns. With the possible exception of Greek Classicism, upon which Renaissance art was predicated, art for thousands of years throughout Africa, ancient Egypt, the far East and elsewhere, served a functional role, to enable access to a higher psychic plane, and to effect some sort of transformative or healing experience. Western scientific conceptualism, in effect served to bring about the elimination of this hitherto fundamental purpose of art. Early twentieth century modern abstract painting made what amounts to a desperate last ditch attempt to win back this transcendental dimension of art, but the inevitable forces of formalism, cliche and ultimately mannerism in the creative cycle, effectively sealed off such a breakthrough. Colour was central in the decline towards surface decoration and pattern, and in the pseudo-scientific justifications that accompany such a decline. The colour experimentations of such twentieth century painters as Josef Albers, Patrick Heron, Elsworth Kelly or Bridget Riley, whatever there apparent value, are really symptomatic of the denial of unconscious creativity in favour of a more rational, intellectual and conscious determination.

The seeds of the decline of modern painting into surface formalism can be detected in the development of neo-impressionism, as early as the late nineteenth century. The obsessive concern of pointillist painters with the division of colours in ‘optical mixture’ into some sort of scientific spectral arrangement, really underlined an internal psychic necessity to justify unconscious creative innovation through external natural ‘laws’. Impressionism did destroy the constancy of colour perception, which would have precluded earlier painters from recognising the powerful effects that accidental illumination can have on the colour of objects. But the theory of colour division in pointillism is not in any way related to the real known facts of colour vision.

So what I am saying here is that in the act of perception we create our own ‘reality’. There are a whole host of experiments in introspectionist psychology and in gestalt psychology which testify to the fact that in human perception we eliminate any anomalies or distortions which might interfere with our predetermined constant idea of an external object. For example, if we see a white dinner plate on the table, we automatically recognise it as being circular and white, even though it must inevitably present an elliptical shape with shaded off-whites. In our everyday perception we eradiate such distortions in an instant recognition of the objects true constant properties. Such an act of perception involves a highly complex process in which the external image is scrambled up and then matched to our perceptual memory banks to create what has been described as a ‘composite memory image’.

Nineteenth century introspectionist psychologists recognised the innate propensity to create the image. In one example of the type of experiment they set up, a black object was placed in bright sunlight, near to a white object in the shade. To the naked eye, the black object appears very black and the white object very white. However, when they placed a screen in between the viewer and the two objects, with just two holes cut out directly in front of them, it could be seen that in fact they were both the same shade of grey. When the screen was not in place, an internal psychic dynamic compels the viewer to eliminate or ‘repress’ the accidental distortions of bright light or dark shade, and to maintain the constant local colour and tone of the two objects. When the screen is in place, this internal dynamic is not called up.

This example is described by the important theorist Anton Ehrenzweig in his book: The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, first published in 1953. What Ehrenzweig crucially recognised was that the painter, when involved in a genuine intuitive and unconscious creative engagement, simulates and reactivates these innate dynamic psychic imperatives within the painting and induces within the viewer the corresponding undeniable psychic responses. In other words, the painter might actually introduce distortion and anomaly into painted objects in order to trick the viewer into unconsciously calling up the internal psychic dynamic which will seek to repress accidental aberrations in favour of re-establishing the constancies. Painters might, for example, use a vague, superimposed, indefinite outline to delineate a figure or an object. Now it would be perhaps logically considered that a strong definite outline would be most effective in conferring a strong presence. But in fact, a definite black outline only serves to create a flat figure. Paradoxically, it is the vague outline which produces a strong figural presence. This is simply because the inexact and unfocused outline, induces the dynamic psychological reaction to eliminate the lack of definition, and as a result of the psychic tension generated, the figure or object develops a plasticity and vividness entirely the result of inner psychic projection.

This induced psychic reaction holds as true for colour as it does for form. What the colourists and formalists of late modern art failed to understand, was that in trying to rationalise and consciously intellectualise aesthetics, they denied the unconscious structure of abstract painting, which in fact mirrored those dynamic internal processes through which we actually build up and locate ‘external reality’. In effect, surface form became dissociated from its unconscious motivation and justification, becoming just ornament and pattern. To a degree, this conceptual approach contributed to the development of the postmodern condition where the sign is defined as being isolated and divorced from any unconscious signification.

In effect, such an approach tended to deal with aesthetics as a purely conscious phenomenon whereby the painter could juxtapose various colour arrangements in order to achieve certain emotional responses. Such a relation with the aesthetic has conjunctions with that of the aesthete and the pursuit of an objective ‘beauty’, both miss the fundamental unconscious aesthetic dynamic embedded in the medical use of the word anaesthetic. Just as the medical anaesthetic is a response demanded by the threat of pain, so too is the artistic aesthetic a response in fact induced by the threat of anxiety, and oddly enough, by ugliness. Following Nietzsche, Ehrenzweig again crucially understood this paradox: that the aesthetic response is not a response to some form of developed external beauty, such as the golden section or colour harmony, but by a psychic imperative to contain an unconscious threat of irrationality, disharmony and raw ugliness. Aesthetic response, like perception, is determined by an inner psychic dynamic.

It is this enigma which formed the unconscious motivation of the radical modern painter. Often it was in fact the use of unconscious, wild, impure, contaminated and ‘dirty’ colour which demanded the sublime aesthetic reaction, whereas the painstaking juxtaposition of colour harmonies and tones all too often resulted in an academic and bland painting which only elicited a response of boredom. It is the case that if we try to look objectively at a well known modern work, as if for the first time, the perceived overall syncretistic effect of harmonious and sublime colour harmony, is in contradiction really m ade up from discordant, ugly colour arrangements which would appear not to have been very carefully thought out.

Why should this be the case and what is its relevance? Why should raw, unpreconceived, uncompromising work evoke a greater emotional and aesthetic response? Psychoanalytic theory in relation to child development explains that it is in fact anxiety and guilt in infancy which provokes our initial attempts at symbolisation, in order to displace and transfer such persecutory feelings. The seeds of adult schizophrenia and psychosis can be sewn in the infant who suffers too much persecutory anxiety, and is immobilised in fear and unable to initiate the first tentative steps towards a personal process of symbolisation. It is the therapeutic dimension of painting that can help the infant, or the adult, to work through, or rework, such developmental phases and to overcome blocks. Painting is a parallel universe where the early fragmented and apparently threatening painterly marks can represent some of our deepest and earliest anxieties.

The aesthetic response is altogether an innate reaction to this unconsciously perceived threat and cannot be consciously evoked by organised surface mannerisms. The function of this aesthetic response to negotiate anxiety and to organise emotion is clearly illustrated in much psychotic art. It has been recognised that psychotic painting has often been saturated with sweet colours and decorative ornamental mannerisms in a desperate struggle to contradict the underlying pain suffered by the schizophrenic. However, it is because the psychotic artist often cannot openly face the fragmented and threatening nature of the early creative process, that such decorative elements may be deliberately preconceived from the outset. It is for this reason arguably, that much psychotic painting shows little developmental change and does not engage with art’s transmutative possibilities.

This has fundamental consequences for culture as a whole. Just as art can offer the individual the potential to access a transformative, transcendental dimension, so can it fulfil this potential for the culture as a whole. As I indicated earlier, archaic civlisations for centuries prior to the Renaissance understood this crucial role of art in culture. The degeneration of modern art into a formalism concerned only with surface colour and aesthetics of style, underpinned the postmodern project which set out to parody and ironise such facile concerns.

Colour, like music, has the power to embody some of our deepest emotion. However, it is also paradoxically most vulnerable to the pitfalls of cliche, decorative effect and surface mannerism. Contemporary postmodern art with its ideological and conceptual stance often now seems to have a monopoly on subversive and radical ideas. However, from a historical perspective the postmodern era may well be perceived as being a phase of vociferous mannerism, which so often follows on from radical and revolutionary creativity. Conceptual art is based on the original ideas of Marcel Duchamp, who considered abstract painting to be a vacuous, unintellectual excercise in the surface optical and the retinal. In fact he missed radical abstract painting’s whole unconscious and transformative dimension.

It is the misuse of colour that in part has motivated the call for art to be more intellectual and ideologically relevant as a preconception, and for it to satirise and parody genuine creativity through a banal simulation of authentic art. This has resulted in some contemporary art which according to critics such as Donald Kuspit, is a schizophrenic art reflecting a schizophrenic society. If the unconscious creative dimension of painting in particular is denied, then such an extreme claim does have some validity.

Stephen Newton, 1998.