Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
From ‘Lamia’ (1819), John Keats
Not long ago I was sitting in the beer garden of a pub in High Bradfield, near Sheffield, with A.B. Jackson, one of the six poets who have been kind enough to lend their creativity to this project. It was a beautiful warm summer’s evening and we were both sitting comfortably as we watched the sun descend and light fade from the scene. The colours, initially consisting of bright, intense, early summer sap and Hooker’s greens, slowly becoming muted as the photoreceptive cone-cells in our eyes became gradually less stimulated. The view becoming earthier and less saturated in hue, apart from the last few strafing beams of vivid green, which soon disappeared into a deep, grainy discolouration. Eventually the scene became one of inky blackness, lit only by a few starry lights from farmhouses and passing cars, suspended against the hillside of Broomhead Moor…
This project – The Rose of Temperaments: Colour and Poetry – has developed from Structural Colour, my artist’s residency project within the University of Sheffield Department of Physics. The residency is taking place over a period of nine months during Sheffield’s Year of Making 2016 and involves working in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London, and global paint manufacturer Akzo Nobel (Dulux). During this time, I have been researching and experimenting alongside leading physicists to develop new art works interrogating the concept of ‘Structural Colour’: colours generated by microscopic biological structures rather than through pigments or projected light.
Outputs from this residency will lead to a series of physical and digital art forms, including brightly coloured 3D printouts of massively enlarged ‘nanostructures’ from butterfly wings, and an immersive, interactive 3D environment that can be explored with the aid of the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset.
Early in this residency I began thinking about various colour models, what they mean and what they might offer in terms of our understanding. Physics teaches us about the subtractive model, where pigments absorb selective wavelengths of light, emitting only (in the case of a bright red, for example) those wavelengths that escape from the process of chemical absorption. The additive model, by contrast, is what operates when the Red Green and Blue (RGB) coloured light combines on our TV or computer screens to create the illusion of naturalistic colour. All three colours might merge to form the impression of white – similar to the sunlight that Newton directed into the prism, where it famously split into ‘corpuscles’ of light, particles travelling at different speeds, representing all the colours of the rainbow.
This is colour defined as wavelengths, measurable… ultimately, colour as maths; rarefied, transcendent…
But then I began thinking about poetry – how language might be another model through which we perceive sensations of colour? Colour not only as words – red, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange – but colour as both a means and a form of communication; conveying raw emotion, or projecting transient, delicate images or sensations onto the mind’s eye. Words, or word-images, have a strange form of projective effect onto the internal screen of the mind. This essay’s opening paragraph is an attempt at a ‘thick description’ of how changing light affects our ocular experiences – in this case, of a scene from nature projected onto my retina. Sitting as we were, in ‘The Gods’, there was something remarkably cinematic about the whole experience.
The idea of projection has featured strongly throughout this residency. In ‘Questions of Colour’, a talk at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries presented earlier this year by myself, Professor Richard Jones and Dr Andrew Parnell of The University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics, we became acutely aware of the limitations of RGB colour projections. This first became apparent when attempting to project images of the CIE colour space chromaticity diagram by the disappointingly anaemic representation compared to the version that we had first seen on our backlit computer screens; and in our surprising discovery that it is impossible to project a black PowerPoint slide using a standard ‘beamer’. These limitations of accurate colour representation do not, however, apply to poetic language. Colour words assert their power through hints and allusion. Without a violet out there to compare with the ‘violet irises’ that Helen Mort refers to in her purple sonnet (note that she is referring to eye colour) we are left to rely on our own imaginations.
Examine that mental image for a moment – are those beautiful eyes that you imagine the same colour that I would imagine them to be?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, writing in his Philosophical Investigations of 1945-49, says: ‘something red can be destroyed, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of red is independent of the existence of a red thing… But don’t we say the red is vanishing?’ Or, as in the sunset recalled in the opening paragraph, we might say that the green is disappearing as the darkness encroaches.
This persistence of vision, expressed in language, is perhaps what makes colour in poetry so intriguing. In poetry we refer to memories of colour, faded sense data, shared experiences… but context is also important, as are the other poetic elements: metre, rhythm and the materiality of sound all combine to create the affective experience of reading or listening to a poem.
In Chris Jones’s green sonnet we are reminded of the primacy of genetics and family. Colour here is used as a signifier of intimacy:
William is charmed with pale green eyes.
They’re born of black and yellow melanin,
a trail of genes, some down-the-sofa prize
pincered out to mark the Irish in him.
He leaves us with a sense of wonder, a lingering thought, and a legacy:
But nothing is precise enough. You wonder
at his eyes, their pigments, textures. Dream again.
Geraldine Monk brings her amazing verbal energy, acute intelligence and playful wit to bear on the colour yellow:
When springtime sunbeams stream on
soft boiled yolks we know we are between
green and orange.
The bold and well-researched litany of pigments that follows is both fascinating and disquieting, and doesn’t shrink back from the abject or downright queasy. As she reminds us:
Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.
In her purple sonnet Helen Mort uses words to create a beautiful, and painfully tender, evocation of memory and empathy:
The colour of imaginary rain
falling forever on your old address.
The lilac tint of someone else’s pain.
And echoes Jones’ reference to eye colour:
Her black hair, violet irises
But here the dual reference to irises, both human eyes and symbolic flowers, plays out like a portmanteau image in the mind – overlapping, complimentary.
A.B. Jackson uses the colour blue to combine folklore and biology in a thoughtful and creative collision of ancient and modern:
The fishing boat crew
enjoy a hullabaloo:
their catch, a blue lobster.
in fishermen’s lore,
a lobster of such indigo
Whilst Alistair Noon, writing from Berlin, shakes us out of our complacency and introversion, and reminds us that the world is burning.
Seasonal ritual, the radar’s red
inflames the continent.
Finally, in Angelina D’Roza’s poem we find a logical end point, an antidote to loneliness and an intimation of infinite space traversed by colour and light …
It’s no consolation, this sea the colour of fire and light, and if she wants to leave, she can. But what if all this empty space isn’t so bad, isn’t even empty.
The Rose of Temperaments is named after the Temperamenten-Rose, a diagram compiled by the writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the poet, philosopher, historian and playwright Friedrich Schiller in 1798 (Goethe’s thoughts on colour are summarized in Theory of Colours (1810)). The diagram matches twelve colours to human occupations or their character traits, grouped in the four temperaments:
choleric (red / orange / yellow): tyrants, heroes, adventurers;
sanguine (yellow / green / cyan): hedonists, lovers, poets;
phlegmatic (cyan / blue / violet): public speakers, historians, teachers;
melancholic (violet / magenta/ red): philosophers, pedants, rulers.
Paul Evans is an artist based in Sheffield. His practice includes close collaboration with creative writers, academics and graphic designers. Other projects co-curated by Evans include Call & Response (2012) and All Things Bright & Beautiful (2012); his solo exhibitions The Paper Museum (2014) and Between Water and Stone (2015) include poems by several of the writers commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Website: www.pkevans.co.uk