Saturday, July 12, 2008

Vibrating Light, Stained Glass, and Cathedrals

Literally ten minutes ago, I randomly picked up a book I had bought on a whim back in time, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. Strange how ideas in different books can serendipitously align and correspond, because I almost immediately found myself rereading a passage about -- what else? -- vibrating light and color. (See van Gogh's reference to vibrating light in the previous post.) I'll type a short excerpt from Finlay's thoughts here:

I saw what I understand to be transitional color only once, on a journey to Thailand to undertake a ten-day fast. I was feeling good..., and on day nine I was walking through a garden when suddenly I stopped in amazement. In front of me was a bougainvillea bush covered in pink flowers. Only they were not pink, they were shimmering -- almost as if a heartbeat had been transformed into something visible. I suddenly understood with my eyes and not just my mind how the phenomenon of color is about vibrations and the emission of energy. I must have stood there for five minutes, before I was distracted by a sound. When I looked back the bougainvillea had returned to being flowers, and nature had turned itself the right way round once more....

On the first page of the book, Finlay begins her travelogue of the history of color with an anecdote describing how she was transfixed by light coming through a cathedral window:

It was a sunny afternoon that still sparkled after earlier rain when I first entered Chartres cathedral. I don't remember the architecture, I don't even have a fixed idea of the space I was in that day, but what I do remember is the sense of blue and red lights dancing on white stones. And I remember my father taking me by the hand and telling me that the stained glass had been created nearly eight hundred years ago, "and today we don't know how to make that blue." I was eight years old, and his words knocked my explanation of the world into a tailspin. Up until then I had always believed that the world was getting better and better and more and more clever.

This pulls me sideways over to van Gogh again, because there was a quote of his about cathedrals that I wanted to write down. I'm going to get the volume and type it here. Van Gogh wrote this in a letter to his brother Theo on December 19, 1885:

But I prefer painting people's eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be -- a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a streetwalker, is more interesting to me.

In a September 17, 1888 letter to Theo from Arles, van Gogh describes an "impressionist house" that he read about in a literary supplement to Figaro. This building was obviously not on the grand scale of a cathedral, but one feels the same reverence for color and light:

This house was built with bricks -- as it were like the bottoms of bottles -- of convex glass, violet glass. With the sunshine reflected in it, and the yellow refractions, the effect was incredible. To support these walls of glass bricks, shaped like violet-colored eggs, they had invented a support of black and gilt iron representing the weird branches of Virginia creeper and other climbing plants. This violet house was right in the middle of a garden where all the paths were of bright yellow sand. The ornamental flower borders were of course most unusual in coloring. The house is, if I remember correctly, in Auteuil.

It's a vivid description, a beautiful description. I'm enchanted by the picture in my mind of those "violet-colored eggs," of the vine-like iron supports. I'd love to visit this wild, artistic house, stand there in the late afternoon light, watching it glow. I want to live in it. Of course there is no accompanying photograph or painting in front of me, only van Gogh's words. Then I realize that he was creating the picture in his mind from only the article in the supplement. The description has traveled through the original Figaro author, through van Gogh's eyes, through his penned reaction to Theo, then down through time to the collection of letters, to my meandering reading, and to my mind's welcoming eye, always hungry for color, both real and imagined.

The first excerpt from Color is found on page 6, the second on page 1. The van Gogh quotes are from The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, the first from Volume 2, page 462, the second from Volume 3, page 37. See previous post for more information. The photo was taken 5/11/08 at the NY Botanical Garden.

6 comments:

Pam Hart said...

I love Finlay's book -- and am enjoying your associative work here on color and space. Da Vinci too has some nice thoughts on color and painting in his writings. Thanks for the refreshment!

Christine said...

Thanks, Pam. Yes, the Finlay book is full of odd color facts and adventures in search of answers about pigment. I'll have to look up the Da Vinci writings. I'm sure they are fascinating. Enjoy the rainy Monday.

Vesper de Vil said...

colour and light are so gorgeous and overwhelming. they make my head spin when i look deeply into them....

Christine said...

Thanks for that!

wendy said...

wow. this was really great read & i dug the van gogh post as well. now i have to go buy his letters. i love how your mind works. thanks!

Christine said...

Do buy the letters! Thanks for the kind words, Wendy!