"Even though Mitchell does not set off from a predetermined or shared code, her colours carry their own significance for the viewer. As in the illuminated letters of medieval manuscripts, where the decorations both exalt and hide the alphabet, her use of colour seems to enhance or conceal a skeletal script. No such alphabet, of course, exists, but our tendency to read, to seek significant signs in all artistic creations, transforms her bursts of color, in our eyes, into iconographic texts on the verge of meaning.
Far away on the island of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wrote in 1891: 'Since colour itself is mysterious in the sensation it gives, we can logically enjoy it mysteriously... not as drawing, but as a source of... sensations proceeding from its own nature, from its inner, mysterious, enigmatic force.' This force can be nameless: the poet Miguel Hernández, writing about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, attempted to describe through unnamed colours the war's ghastly spectrum: 'Painted and not empty, painted is the house,/ The colour of all great passions and misfortunes.”
And yet, we can hardly distinguish that we cannot name. While all languages carry distinctions of light and dark, and most languages have words to denote the primary and secondary colours, not every language is colour-specific. The Tarahumara language of northern Mexico does not have separate words for green and blue; consequently, the Tarahumaras’ capacity to distinguish shades between these two colors is far less developed than that of an English or a Spanish speaker.
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A Tarahumara reading of a painting in blue and green would necessarily be altered by the viewer's linguistic capabilities. The American psychologist William James, writing in 1890, suggested that colours can be felt only in contrast with other colours; if we cannot identify the contrast, we cannot have a real sense of its opposite or its complement. 'Black can only be felt by contrast to white,' he noted, ‘and in like manner a smell, a taste, a touch, only, so to speak, in statu nascendi, whilst, when the stimulus continues, all sensation disappears.'
What the example of the Tarahumara people seems to suggest is that up to a point, what we see will be determined neither by the reality on the canvas nor by our intelligence and emotion as viewers but by distinctions provided by the language itself, in all its arbitrary majesty. Since every colour is recognized in words (whether individually, 'green' or 'blue', or in groups, 'green and blue'), no colour, no sign, is innocent. We lend colours both a physical and a symbolic reality, or (as medieval scholars would have it) a representation of itself and a manifestation of the divinity. In other words, colours are physically pleasing in themselves (that is to say, in our perception), but they are also emblems of our emotional relationship to the world through which we intuit the numinous.
The Middle Ages codified several times the chromatic spectrum, attributing symbolic values to the different recognized colours. Though these attributions varied greatly, blue was often considered the colour of the Virgin Mary, the colour of the sky after the clouds of ignorance have dispelled; the grey of ashes symbolized mourning and humility and became the colour of Christ's mantle in depictions of the Last Judgment; green, the colour of resurrection, which for the illustrious theologian Hugh de St. Victor was 'the most beautiful of all colours,' was attributed to John the Baptist, while John the Evangelist was often clad in red, the colour of blood and fire, to suggest his love of action.
According to the medieval Talmudic commentator, the four principal colours were red, black, white, and green, the colours of the dust out of which man was created: red for the blood, black for the bowels, white for the bones and green for the pale skin. A short Irish tract from the sixth century, preserved in the encyclopedic Liber Flavus Feregusiorum, defines eight colours, said to be used in ancient priestly vestments, according to their mystical significance. The religious treatise De sacro altaris mysterio, written in 1193 by the future Pope Innocent III, lists colours according to their liturgical significance: white for Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas, Easter, and other feasts of life and light; red for apostles, martyrs, feasts of the Cross and All Saints; black for Advent and the period from Septuagesima to Holy Saturday; and green for all other holidays.
The Renaissance developed yet other chromatic value systems. The many-talented Leon Battista Alberti, prototype of the Renaissance man, imagined a colour scheme based on the elements: red for fire, blue for air, green for water and grey for earth; other codes relied on alchemy or mythology, and the Marquis of Ferrara, Lionello d'Este, even dressed according to an astrological colour code that dictated what hue was favorable on that day. The eighteenth century shifted the spectrum to the realm of science, putting forward systems according to Newton, Diderot, Goethe, and Locke. In the early twentieth century, the colour code became determined by physical characteristics such as hue and chroma, dependent on wavelength, brightness and purity, as categorized by the American physicist Albert Munsell (1913) and the Russian-German chemist Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1915).
In our time, when traditional symbolic vocabularies have been largely forgotten or replaced by the superficial and transitory jargon of commercial and political advertising, certain atavistic notions remain attached to the colour spectrum. Red, not withstanding its banal political connotation, still retains its meaning of danger and blood; green, beyond ecological publicity, still signifies renewal and safety; blue, in spite of military uniforms, still stands for truth and probity. Colour psychologists probe these ancestral associations, and their findings are routinely used not only by advertisers, but also by architects, cooks, interior designers and transport authorities to choose the colours of schools and hospitals, food combinations, living spaces, cars, and planes. A coloured wall or instrument conveys a message of security or warning, a sense of calm or of excitement.
Unlike a patch of colour, a white space, however, seems to demand filling, tempts us with intrusion. The emptiness created by a frame presents itself to us in the past tense, suggesting to us that it is about to become something else, that it will acquire an identity through a stroke of ink or a dab of colour, that it will jot remain blank forever. The blank page, in front of which Mallarmé felt the horror of the void, contains or convinces us that it holds implicit the lines that will justify its existence.
Mitchell associated this primordial white, visible in the background of her Two Pianos, with the deafness of her mother. ‘I think of white as silent,' she said. ‘I often tried to imagine what kind of silence must be inside a deaf person.' All these different codes (or their vestiges), all these emotional responses to color, all these personal preferences or dislikes lend the illusion or promise that canvases such as those of Joan Mitchell can be deciphered or read.
Two Pianos was painted in Province, months after her twenty-five-year-long relationship with Riopelle had ended. She tried to overcome her unhappiness by working, painting canvases such as the ironically titled La vie en rose, a triptych with black strokes almost entirely obliterating pink. It is tempting (and perhaps naïve) to see the burst of yellow light in Two Pianos an effort to overcome the darkness behind it, an attempt to find, through colour, a way out of depression, dejection, and the foreshadowing of an illness that would soon overwhelm her (she was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw four years later).
It is equally tempting to associate the wheat-like yellow and brooding black with similar wild colour strokes in one of her favorite pictures, Van Gogh's Wheat Fields with Crows, painted days before his death in 1890. In Van Gogh's painting, the darkness of the sky, seemingly shredding itself into a flock of crow, weighs down on the burst of yellow wheat that leaps upward from the ground. In Two Pianos the darkness lies below and behind the yellow surge, and seems to be overcome by it, while the lilac strokes appear carefully distilled or plucked from the faintly purple shades that follow, in the very center of Van Gogh's painting, the streaks of brown-red earth.
Both these elements- Mitchell's mood and her admiration for Van Gogh's picture- belong to the circumstances of the painting's creation and are, as it were, part of its history. But how far should these circumstances affect our reading of Two Pianos? If the facts of her biography are to be considered, what of the biographies of those who surrounded her? What of the history of the places in which she lived? What of the trends and movements and changes that affected the world during, and even after, her lifep? Are they all an integral part of the picture we are meant to see? And if they are, if the circumstantial evidence surrounding any act of creation is part of that act, can any reading ever be said to be final, even if not conclusive? Can a picture ever be seen in its contextual entirety? And if it can't, is our position the same of that of Samuel Beckett's reader who must respect the credo found in Malloy, that 'there could be no thing but nameless things, no names but thingless names?""
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