The Color Symbolism of Philosophers

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In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil uses color symbolism to explain the Creation of Man which as a mythological model had been documented by Plato.Musil had chosen to symbolize the contrasting antipodes Male and Female by color pairs blue and yellow, which had been applied as antipodes by Goethe as well.Musil however also considers red and green as antipodes whereas purple and violet represent synthesis.Musil's description in chapter 25 The Siamese Twins may be compared to existing color theories. One of these theories seems to match Musil's model: Ewald Hering's color wheel (1874).In contrast Goethe based his antipodes Blue and Yellow on his own analysis. Purple-red is to be included as an extra, fundamental color symbol. According to Miranda's diary records the colors blue, yellow, red in three South-American flags seem to have been chosen on the base of Goethe's discussion with de Miranda.

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  • The Color Symbolism of Philosophersjwr47

    Ewald Hering Colors von Grafik selbst erstellt. Tilo Hauke - Eigenes Werk. Lizenziert unter Public domain ber Wikimedia Commons -

    IntroIn The Man without Qualities Robert Musil uses color symbolism to explain the Creation of Manwhich as a mythological model had been documented by Plato.

    Musil had chosen to symbolize the contrasting antipodes Male and Female by color pairs blue andyellow, which had been applied as antipodes by Goethe as well.

    Musil however also considers red and green as antipodes whereas purple and violet representsynthesis.

    Musil's description in chapter 25 The Siamese Twins may be compared to existing colortheories. One of these theories seems to match Musil's model: Ewald Hering's color wheel (1874).

    In contrast Goethe based his antipodes Blue and Yellow on his own analysis. Purple-red is to beincluded as an extra, fundamental color symbol.

    According to Miranda's diary records the colors blue, yellow, red in three South-American flagsseem to have been chosen on the base of Goethe's discussion with de Miranda.

    This symbolism may now be compared to the three of four primary colors, red, white, blue andpurple, which in the Bible have been specified as divine commands for the architecture of thetemple.

    Fig. 1: Ewald Hering Colors (1874)

  • 1932: Robert Musil's color symbolismIn Man without qualities there is a quotation of antipodal color symbolism, which I tried todecipher.

    Musil must have considered yellow and blue as the complementary color pairs, as well as red andgreen, whereas he considered the mixture of antipodes violet or purple:

    We might dress ourselves in an opposite pattern, Agathe delightedly responded. Yellowone of us, and the other blue, or red opposite to green. And our hair might be coloredviolet or purple1.

    The quotation does not meet Goethe's nor Newton's theory. However searching the web I identifiedthe four color system of Ewald Hering, explaining Musil's expression. The 4 color system also hasbeen applied to setup the Natural Color System (NCS).

    1874: Ewald Hering's Color wheelThe Natural Color System (NCS) is a proprietary perceptual color model published by theScandinavian Colour Institute (Skandinaviska Frginstitutet AB) of Stockholm, Sweden. It is basedon the color opponency description of color vision, first proposed by German physiologist EwaldHering.[1] The system is usually used for matching colors (using printed reference cards), ratherthan mixing colors.

    NCSThe NCS is based on the six elementary color percepts of human visionthe psychologicalprimariesas described by color opponencywhite, black, red, yellow, green, and blue.2

    Note also that, under normal viewing circumstances, there is no hue that must be described as amixture of opponent hues; that is, as a hue looking "redgreen" or "yellowblue" (see note in thecolor opponents article).

    The opponents yellow blue, respectively red & green are exactly what had been defined asopposite patters in Musil's quotation. We also know Musil had studied color theory and 1906 evencompleted the design of a color wheel3.

    PurplePurple in this system must be interpreted as a mixture of red and blue. Purple is a special casebecause it is the only color, which does not exist in the spectral system for (normal4) human beings.

    In the 4-segmented color circle the antipodal element to purple (yellow-green) is located at thecenter of the rainbow's spectrum.

    1 Own translation from German to English - Page 904-905 in Rowohlt's Gesammelte Werke von Robert Musil (1978)- Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften Teil 3 Ins tausendjhrige Reich (chapter 25, The Siamese Twins).

    Original: Wir knnen uns ja auch gerade entgegengesetzt kleiden entgegnete Agathe belustigt. Gelb der eine, wenn der andere blau ist, oder rot neben grn, und das Haar knnen wir violett oder purpurn frben, und ich mache mir einen Buckel und du dir einen Bauch: und trotzdem sind wir Zwillinge! (904-905) Kapitel 25 - Projekt Gutenberg-DE - SPIEGEL ONLINE

    2 Natural Color System ( NCS )3 Musilscher Farbkreisel4 Of course the

  • 1810: Goethe5

    Goethe expresses his antipodal system in the contrast based on darkness (blue) and light (yellow)6:

    Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

    Much earlier, in 1774, however Goethe already write a novel The Sorrows of Young Werther inwhich his clothes had been based on the colors yellow and blue.

    Goethe's main symbol Red (and its antipodal symbol green)If the edge of a white figure is displaced over a dark boundary by viewing through a prism, he says(Paragraph 204), a narrow blue edge appears next to this boundary, and a broader blue-red borderappears next to the blue edge; but if the edge of a black figure is displaced in the same way over thelight boundary, a. narrow yellow edge appears next to the boundary and a broader yellow-red borderappears next to the yellow edge.

    Both types of border colors thus tend toward purple-red7, which is, for Goethe, the most powerfuland intense of all colors8.

    1810: The chromatic circle"The chromatic circle... [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order...for the colors diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those whichreciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange[demands] blue; purple-red [demands] green; and vice versa: thus... all intermediategradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler color demanding the compound,and vice versa ([23] paragraph #50).

    5 Source Theory of Colours - The first edition of the Farbenlehre was printed at the Cottaschen Verlagsbuchhandlung on May 16, 1810

    6 Goethe, Johann (1810). Theory of Colors, paragraph #502. 7 Goethe uses the word Purple, but he refers to Red8 Goethe's Theory of Colours

    Fig. 2: Goethe's circle Fig. 3: Goethe's circleexplained

    (horizontally flipped)

  • In the same way that light and dark spectra yielded green from the mixture of blue and yellow Goethe completed his color wheel by recognizing the importance of non-spectral (extra-spectral)colors "For Newton, only spectral colors could count as fundamental. By contrast, Goethe's moreempirical approach led him to recognize the essential role of (non-spectral) magenta in a completecolor circle, a role that it still has in all modern color systems."

  • 1785: Francisco de MirandaDuring a party in Weimar in the winter of 1785, Goethe had a late-night conversation on his theoryof primary colors with the South American revolutionary Francisco de Miranda. This conversationinspired Miranda, as he later recounted, in his designing the yellow, blue and red flag of GranColombia, from which the present national flags of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador arederived.9 .

    Bandera de Venezuela 1811 by HansenBCN - Own workLicensed under Creative Commons Attribution-

    Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

    9 See Flag of Colombia#History

    Fig. 4: Flag of Venezuela (1811)

  • Miranda's reports10

    Miranda gave at least two sources of inspiration for his flag. In a letter written to Count SemyonVorontsov in 1792, Miranda stated that the colors were based on a theory of primary colors given tohim by Goethe.

    Miranda described a late-night conversation he had with Goethe at a party in Weimar during thewinter of 1785. Fascinated with Miranda's account of his exploits in the United StatesRevolutionary War and his travels throughout the Americas and Europe, Goethe told him that,

    "Your destiny is to create in your land a place where primary colors are not distorted.

    He proceeded to clarify what he meant by this:

    First he explained to me the way the iris transforms light into the three primary colors[] then he proved to me why yellow is the most warm, noble and closest to [white]light; why blue is that mix of excitement and serenity, a distance that evokes shadows;and why red is the exaltation of yellow and blue, the synthesis, the vanishing of lightinto shadow.

    It is not that the world is made of yellows, blues and reds; it is that in this manner, as ifin an infinite combination of these three colors, we human beings see it. [] A country[Goethe concluded] starts out from a name and a flag, and it then becomes them, just asa man fulfils his destiny.

    The Flag of the Burgers' Guard of Hamburg11 In his military diary, Miranda gave another source of inspiration: the yellow, blue and red standardof the Burgers' Guard (Brgerwache) of Hamburg, which he also saw during his travels inGermany.

    10 Source: Venezuelan flag11 Source: Venezuelan flag

  • Biblical Color Symbolism12

    September 2012 I was lucky to discover some sources for color symbolism. First of all I foundFrederick Solomon's Critique of Modern Art13 in which the background of ancient symbolism isexplained. Only a few samples will be listed here from my analysis: The Symbolism of the ColorsPurple, White, Red (Uploaded 09/05/12).

    Solomon refers to some interesting historical examples including:

    The symbolic value of colors, its message for every symbol has a message can only beunderstood if its meaning is known. The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna for instance cannotbe understood unless one knows, that is, he as heard and learned what they stand for. Evenfor the uninitiated such art may be beautiful and full of atmosphere, indeed complete as toits artistic value; but only if one knows that blue means charity and red means love will hebe able to read the paintings and understand their message (page 211)

    The symbols were put there to be understood, and that was not even difficult as theirmeaning was handed down from generation to generation (page 211).

    Colors in Oriental Carpets have a definite meaning only for the initiate (page 217)

    In Critique of Modern Art14 Frederick Solomon also quotes Josephus (37 c. 100AD), whoexplained the ancient biblical color symbols of the temple at Jerusalem as a symbol of the universein his work: The Wars Of The Jews15, Book V - Chapter 5. Section 4 in: A Description Of TheTemple:

    But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance ofthe outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before thesedoors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroideredwith blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful.Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of theuniverse; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine white (?)flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors thefoundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for thatfoundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroideredupon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing livingcreatures.

    Another reference is given in the description of Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness, for which theBible prescribes the use of four elementary colors: blue, scarlet, purple and white. HoweverJosephus does not explain these colors yet, although these are the same colors which have beendocumented for the temple:

    HEREUPON the Israelites rejoiced at what they had seen and heard of their conductor, andwere not wanting in diligence according to their ability; for they brought silver, and gold,and brass, and of the best sorts of wood, and such as would not at all decay by putrefaction;camels' hair also, and sheep-skins, some of them dyed of a blue color, and some of a scarlet;some brought the flower for the purple color, and others for white, with wool dyed by theflowers aforementioned; and fine linen and precious stones, which those that use costlyornaments set in ouches of gold; they brought also a great quantity of spices; for of thesematerials did Moses build the tabernacle, which did not at all differ from a movable andambulatory temple.

    12 The Symbolism of the Colors Purple, White, Red and Blue 13 Critique of Modern Art by Frederick Solomon (1970)14 Critique of Modern Art by Frederick Solomon (1970)15 The History Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem

  • These four basic color symbols red, blue, purple and white have been found in many templedecorations, tomb decorations, medieval bible illustration, sacred paintings, religious garments, aswell as in coat of arms and flags.

    The four colors represented the four elements air, fire, sea and earth. Although their symbolismmay have been extended and altered since Josephus, the color symbolism generally formed thefundamental base for sacred paintings.

    Basically the color scheme is fourfold and includes white, which often is referred to as fine linen.The description notes the absence of the figures of animals

    Now on each side of the gates there stood three pillars, which were inserted into the concavebases of the gates, and were suited to them; and round them was drawn a curtain of finelinen; but to the gates themselves, which were twenty cubits in extent, and five in height, thecurtain was composed of purple, and scarlet, and blue, and fine linen, and embroidered withmany and divers sorts of figures, excepting the figures of animals.

    ...

    But at the front, where the entrance was made, they placed pillars of gold, that stood onbases of brass, in number seven; but then they spread over the tabernacle veils of fine linenand purple, and blue, and scarlet colors, embroidered.

    ...

    It (the priests' vestment) is embroidered with flowers of scarlet, and purple, and blue, andfine twined linen, but the warp was nothing but fine linen.

  • AnalysisIn textiles twining had been considered as a symbol for stabilizing social patterns. The symbolismmay have been based on intertwining red & blue o purple (magenta as a mixture of 50% red and50% blue).

    In the Bible, purple, red and blue are a color triad which had been prescribed as a divine commandin the temple's architecture and may have been derived from the rainbow's border colors red & blue.As a mixture of red & blue purple cannot be identified as a singular component within the rainbow'sspectrum. Therefore red and blue are to be considered as opponents and purple as a synthesissymbol.

    Goethe's color circle consists of 6 colors, starting at the bottom with green, which is surrounded bythe primary colors yellow and blue. Further north we find the transit colors yellow-red (orange) andblue-red (magenta) which culminate at the top color-element red.

    Ewald Hering's color circle (1874) had been based on two antipodal pairs yellow& blue,respectively red & green, which normally will not produce a mix hue.

    Purple (magenta) has been considered a divine or imperial symbol which may have been derivedfrom weaving the border colors of the rainbow. Green may be woven from yellow and blue, but incontrast to magenta green is a spectral component of the rainbow's spectrum.

    Musil, Goethe and Ewald Hering's color circle use yellow and blue as antipodes. Musil and EwaldHering's color circle use red and green as antipodes.

    Complexity, which may even be complicated by unknown further color systems allowed to considernearly any combination of primary colors as antipodes respectively synthesis-symbol, for instance:

    Antipodal couple Synthesis-SymbolGoethe Yellow & Blue Red (or to be more precise: Purple-red)Musil Yellow & Blue

    Blue & RedViolet (?)Purple (as 50% Red + 50% Blue)

    Bible Rood & Blue Magenta (50% Red + 50% Blue)Ewald Hering Yellow & Blue

    Blue & Red-

  • Appendix: Complementary color16

    Ancient complementary color pairsThe pairs of Complementary color vary depending upon the color model, and how the color ismade. In painting, which uses subtractive colors, the traditional primarysecondary complementarycolor pairs, described since at least the early 18th century, were redgreen, yellowviolet, and blueorange.

    Modern complementary color pairsIn the more accurate RGB color model, used to make colors on computer and television displays,red, green and blue light are combined at various intensities to make all the other colors. In thissystem, using additive colors, the complementary pairs are redcyan, greenmagenta, and blueyellow. In color printing, another system of subtractive colors, the colors cyan, magenta, yellow and blackare used to produce all printed colors; the CMYK-system complementary pairs are the same as inthe RGB system: redcyan, greenmagenta, and blueyellow.

    ContentsIntro..................................................................................................................................................11932: Robert Musil's color symbolism............................................................................................2

    1874: Ewald Hering's Color wheel............................................................................................2NCS.............................................................................................................................................2Purple..........................................................................................................................................2

    1810: Goethe....................................................................................................................................3Goethe's main symbol Red (and its antipodal symbol green).....................................................31810: The chromatic circle..........................................................................................................3

    1785: Francisco de Miranda............................................................................................................5Miranda's reports.........................................................................................................................6The Flag of the Burgers' Guard of Hamburg ............................................................................6

    Biblical Color Symbolism...............................................................................................................7Analysis...........................................................................................................................................9Appendix: Complementary color ..................................................................................................10

    Ancient complementary color pairs..........................................................................................10Modern complementary color pairs..........................................................................................10

    16 Source: Complementary color

    Intro1932: Robert Musil's color symbolism1874: Ewald Hering's Color wheelNCSPurple

    1810: Goethe5Goethe's main symbol Red (and its antipodal symbol green)1810: The chromatic circle

    1785: Francisco de MirandaMiranda's reports10The Flag of the Burgers' Guard of Hamburg11

    Biblical Color Symbolism12AnalysisAppendix: Complementary color16Ancient complementary color pairsModern complementary color pairs

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