Kandinsky's dubb teachings - contrasting sounds

Like many of Kandinsky's paintings, this one titled Accent in Pink is an ecosystem of colors, shapes and special fx. Or it might be the result of an alchemical process. This episode of Kandinsky's dubb teachings is about color, but before we talk about Kandinsky's colors let's see what is going on Accent in Pink in terms of 3D effects.

If you'd look at a bigger reproduction of this painting and let your eyes travel over the surface you'd notice one of the basic games Kandinsky often plays in abstract paintings: you can't really say from what angle you're looking at the objects in the painting. From above or below? Left or right? It's like he says catch me if you can or like spatial hide-and-seek, or like M.C. Escher's impossible spaces...

Kandinsky's spatial warps are not as obvious as the ones Escher uses here, but if you can't see them you're missing a lot. This game of ambiguous 3D space in a painting is not unlike the ambient special effects in dub: warped echoes, reverbs in reverbs etc.

Now let's go back to the use of color, which is also an important feature of Kandinsky's painting styles. If you compare painting to music, a certain palette of colors is to a painting what a certain tuning or scale or harmonic relation is to music. This parallel works in more than one way. On a basic level a musical scale is a bunch of notes that have certain pitches (frequencies) but on a more musical level a certain scale sets a certain mood. Perhaps the most obvious example is the difference between major and minor scales but of course there are many more variations and nuances.

It's the same thing with colors. While a rational person might think of a certain color as some measurable thing that can be defined as a combination of hue, brightness and saturation, it is undeniable that certain combinations of colors have a certain emotional effect that can be compared to the effect of a melody or harmony in a certain musical scale or the use of certain ratios. The effects are very diverse and unpredictable, but obvious at the same time. For example, the mood of a certain palette can be in your face or subtle.

Degas - Dancers in pink

Whistler - Symphony in White No.1, The white girl

It can be 15 seconds of hype or timeless art

Marilyn Monroed

Van Gogh - Self portrait

Both scientists and artists are fascinated with the correspondences between sound and color. It's obvious that there's some kind of relation but it's also clear that it's mostly subjective. Fred Collopy's website Rhythmic Light.com has a nice history of experiments and thoughts about color/sound correspondences. The 'color scales' of Newton, Von Helmholtz, Scriabin and many others, linking hue to pitch, are over here.

The most striking element of Kandinsky's painting Accent in Pink is the luminous pink accent. It's almost over the top in the same way that dub fx can be over the top. This works so well because the rest of the painting has a relative sense of understatement. Basically it's all about contrast, as the title suggests.

"Colour is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically."
Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky is known for his unusual palettes, his color sensitivity and his deep (or extravagant) theories. The basic premise of his color theory is the idea that color has an external side and an internal side. The external side of color is what you see, the internal side is the emotional effect of color. As the internal aspect of color is felt, not seen, it's invisible. Actually, some evolutionary biologists now say that the emotional quality of color was important for the evolution of social life. They think it's the reason we have all these birds with beautiful feathers, and so on.

In the previous episode i said that 'abstraction' is a vague and slippery concept. It's the same thing with color because it's very hard to analyse how it works. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that "the logic of the concept of color is just as much more complicated as it might seem". I think Kandinsky's ideas about the internal and the external side of color show why the concept of color is so elusive.

Philosophers, architects, fashion designers, graphic designers and of course painters have always struggled with the elusiveness of colors. For example it's simply impossible to paint a blue sky on a canvas that gives the same color-impression as the sky above your head. You can try real hard to capture it on a canvas or even on a photo but it will always look like a flat second hand imitation. Kandinsky would make this point when he defended his abstract painting style.

OK, so for a scientist color is very difficult. But it's just as hard to make vibrant colors work in a painting. Artists have tried all kinds of solutions to enhance or tame the effects of colors but it seems that only a few painters who have a strong intuitive sense of color can handle its full power without making it look contrived.

Matisse - Odalisque in red trousers

Although the ordered spectrum of pure rainbow colors suggests that a systematic approach or some kind of 'color management' might work, art history shows that a rigorous color system doesn't help a painter at all. Take the American Synchromists or the Delaunays from Paris. Although they had their colors on a theoretical leash they sometimes have a tendency to jump all over the canvas like a bunch of puppies.

Robert Delaunay - Nudes with ibises

Stanton Macdonald-Wright - Conception synchromy

Kandinsky has a lot more to say about color and there are more interesting parallels with music besides scales and tunings. For example, he researched how pure color can be used in paintings the same way musicians/producers use acoustics for spatial effects. I'll save that for the next episode (or two).