JMW Turner: “Colour Beginning”.

Colour Beginnings by JMW Tuner, 1820. Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery, London.
Colour Beginnings by JMW Tuner, 1820.
Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery, London.

Colour Beginning’ is hardly one of Turner’s finer works. It is a view of what most people think to be the depiction of a beach scene. The painting – such as it isn’t – is merely blue and brown. Natural enough for the casual observer to think of it as a beach scene.

Only when I first saw it, a few questions sprang to mind: why are there areas of pale colour in the blue, looking as if they are rays, pointing upwards? I can imagine the art historian thinking that this is a quirk: merely an effect that Turner wanted to achieve, the kind of thing that leads people to suggest that Turner had wandered inadvertently into the abstract (and thereby, unknowable). After all, it’s not the job of an art historian to dig into the mind of the painter, is it?

But it is what I do.

Which is why the painting puzzled me, because it didn’t make sense. And if there is one thing a great painter has in abundance, it is sense. Turner, expressionist and inadvertent abstractionist is no exception. So why paint something that to an enquiring mind throws up so many questions?

Looking For The Not-So-Obvious.

When I got home from my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Enschede, where the exhibition was held, I did a quick internet search on the pigments. Now whilst Turner painted for posterity – his attitude to the pigments he employed for this purpose overlooked the issue of permanence. Turner used the right pigment for the right job – colour-wise at least. That they weren’t colour-fast wasn’t something to bother the choleric, energetic Turner: he got on with the job. In this instance, Turner had employed cochineal, which gives a wonderful red.

The point I want to make here is that Turner wasn’t an abstractionist. Such things only really arrived after 1900, and Turner was long dead by that time. It was my internet search that told me what Turner was really up to, because the colour cochineal, whilst not being light-fast, changes to a sandy shade when left in the light. So we have the first clue in ‘decoding’ what Turner really was trying to do with that watercolour.

As is usual, when something has been misinterpreted, one really has to look for concrete evidence in order to understand what was intended.

Turner will have understood the concreteness of the evidence I am thinking of, but that is for later. Suffice it to say that Turner understood Goethe’s Farbenlehre, Goethe’s Theory of Colour. This is quite a different understanding of colour from that of Newton, in that it speaks of two processes forming the rainbow, namely light darkened and darkness lightened (1). Quite how deep Turner actually took this will be discussed in my next post on Turner; suffice it to say that light darkened is the spectrum from yellow to red. Darkness lightened is the blue to violet spectrum.

In one of my customary diversions, I want to discuss something that can be seen by all. Look at the sun in summer – well, put better, don’t, but imagine it in mid-heaven – it is pure white as white can be. The sun is at its most powerful and the light pouring from it is intense, intense enough to blind us, which is why I added my warning. As evening comes, the fierce brightness is dimmed by the atmosphere to turn it first yellow, then gold, and if the atmosphere is dusty enough, to orange, scarlet and then the deepest of reds.

The one thing that won’t happen is that the light of the sun will turn blue or violet – this is assuming a clear day and without any interference from the weather save the unclouded atmosphere.

On that same summer’s day, where the sun is so bright, the sky will be a pale blue. By evening this will have turned to a darker blue – and assuming the purest of atmospheres without any clouds, the sky will become violet and then eventually black after the sun has long set and can lighten the sky no longer.

The point of this is that this is something we can all see. We can all witness these things, yet the scientist can dismiss them with ease because they are subjective. Now it has to be made clear that there are people who say that emotions and feelings are subjective and not ‘objective’ in the way physical evidence is. However, that does not mean the subjective is any less real, nor is it any less consistent. Indeed, it is the more so in that it is shared by all human beings, not only that, it is shared in the same way. It is merely a case of being confident enough to accept one’s own subjectivity and in doing so, be able to accept emotion as a reality – rather than imagine it to be illusory.

Upside Down: Sky And Sea, Not Sea And Beach.

Here we have the sun setting over the sea on a summer’s day.
Here we have the sun setting over the sea on a summer’s day.

So, in the brief research I did on this topic – and a good deal of rumination, it is now July and the exhibition closed in March means that this has not been an easy post to write! What clinched the core message of this post was to turn the picture upside down, as I did yesterday. Taking the washed out, almost white rays to be the faintest of reds, these will now become the last rays of a fading summer sun.

Of course, it could just have been a doodle…



(Please note that my attempt to add on-page links are removed by WordPress software in an attempt to show their kindness to my readers. They do this by making life a little harder because you cannot click on the number and arrive at its corresponding footnote. I will speak of this kind of anti-economic behaviour in a forthcoming post about the brain-dead intellectual and their approach to business).

(1) And if you want to get technical, this should include an ‘interference’ effect that produces green.



Tom Thomson Meets The Muse.

Tom Thomson: Winter Thaw In The Woods, 1917

The art of Tom Thomson is, at its best, truly exquisite. He was active in his late thirties around a hundred years ago in Canada. He wasn’t a trained artist as such, he was a graphic artist which is to say the craftsman level of art*. That however didn’t stop him putting raw talent to use, and this was encouraged by Grip, his Toronto employers.

Read more…



Conversation In Goethe’s Time And Ours.

Goethe lived at a time when, according to Rudolf Steiner, most people thought in the manner of Aristotle. That is to say, broad brush strokes that today would be scorned as generalities. Indeed, were someone to speak with Goethe today, they would be frustrated with his unwillingness to be specific. But then, such a person would find his own contemporaries just as frustrating because the way in which they were specific did not accord with their own.

Read more…


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