Umberto Eco Would Have Made a Bad Fauve


"The eye altering, alters all."
- Blake

2In his essay "How Culture Conditions the Colours We See," Umberto Eco claims that chromatic perception is determined by language. Regarding language as the primary modeling system, Eco argues for linguistic predominance over visual experience: ". . . the puzzle we are faced with is neither a psychological one nor an aesthetic one: it is a cultural one, and as such is filtered through a linguistic system" (159). Eco goes on to explain that he is 'very confused' about chromatic effect, and his arguments do a fine job of illustrating that confusion. To Eco's claim that color perception is determined by language, one can readily point out that both babies and animals, sans language, experience--and respond to--color perception. How then can color be only a cultural matter?

3Eco attempts to make a connection between the "negative concept" of a geopolitical unit (e.g., Holland or Italy defined by what is not Holland or Italy) and a chromatic system in which "units are defined not in themselves but in terms of opposition and position in relation to other units" (171). Culture, however, is not the only determinant in the opposition that defines certain colors: It is a physiological phenomenon that the eye, after staring at one color (for example, red) for a long time, will see that color's complement, its opposite (green), on a white background.

4Language is a frustrating tool when discussing color: languages throughout the world have only a limited number of words for the myriad color-sensations experienced by the average eye. Though language training and tradition have an undoubtedly profound effect on our color sense, our words for color constitute only one part of the color expression and not always the most important one. In his Remarks on Colour (1950-51), Wittgenstein observed: 'When we're asked 'What do the words 'red', 'blue', 'black', 'white' mean?' we can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colours,--but our ability to explain the meanings of these words goes no further!' (I-68). We can never say with complete certainly that what this writer meant by this color (we are already in trouble) is understood by this reader (the woods are now officially burning).

5A brief foray into the world of color perception discloses that, first and foremost, a physiological process, not a cultural one, takes place when a person sees colors. In his lively Art & Physics (1991), Leonard Shlain observes that "Color is the subjective perception in our brains of an objective feature of light's specific wavelengths. Each aspect is inseparable from the other" (170). In his 1898 play To Damascus I, August Strindberg indicated specifically in a stage direction that the Mourners and Pallbearers were to be dressed in brown, while allowing the characters to defy what the audience saw and claim that they were wearing black. In what may well be the first instance of such dramatic toying with an audience's perception, Strindberg forces us to ask where colors exist: In the subject's eye or in the perceived object?

6In no other feature of the world does such an interplay exist between subject and object. Shlain notes that color "is both a subjective opinion and an objective feature of the world and is both an energy and an entity" (171). In the science of imaging (the transfer of one color digital image from one technology to another) recent research has suggested that human vision may be the best model for this process. Human vision is spatial: it views colors also as sensations involving relationships within an entire image. This phenomenon is part of the process of seeing and unique to the way humans see.

7In some ways color terms illustrate Roland Barthes's arguments (in S/Z) that connotation actually precedes denotation in language--possibly even produces what we normally consider a word's denotation. Barthes refers to denotation as 'the last of connotations' (9). Look up 'red' in the American Heritage Dictionary and the first definition you find is a comparison to 'blood.' Blood carries with it (or the reader brings to it) a number of connotations that have long inspired a tradition of associating red with life, sex, energy, etc. Perhaps the closest objective denotation for red is the mention of 'the long wavelength end of the spectrum,' which basically tells us nothing about experiencing the color red. Instead, the connotations of red, many of them based on previous perceptual experience, constitute our first encounter with the word 'red.' I would not be so inclined to apply Barthes's connotational hierarchy when one sees red in, say, a painting--an experience in which some of the subjectivity one brings to a color is more limited by the actual physical appearance of the hue chosen by the artist.

8Also, though Barthes talks about linguistic associations, colors are more inclined to inspire emotional associations which sometimes cannot be expressed in language. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement: 'The word blue designates, but it does not render' (162). Still, the 'pluralism' Barthes argues for in reading seems particularly present in the reader's encounter with color terms and their constant play of objectivity/subjectivity.

9In painting color was first released from the confines of form by the Post-Impressionists Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh, who allowed the color of the paint, the very marks on the canvas, to carry the power of expression. Following their lead, the French Fauve painters, under the auspices of Matisse, took the power of color another step further. Perhaps the greatest colorist of the twentieth century, Matisse understood that colors possess a harmony all their own--that colors call out for their complements; he used this knowledge to paint some of the most harmonious canvases in the history of art. 'I use the simplest colors,' Matisse wrote in 'The Path of Color' (1947). 'I don't transform them myself, it is the relationships that take care of that' (178). When he painted the Red Studio, for example, the real walls were actually a blue-gray; he later said that he 'felt red' in the room--and so he painted red (what he felt), leaving the observer to see red (what she feels). Other than its descriptive function, what does language have to do with any of this? It is a matter of perception and emotion.

10At a 1998 Seattle art gallery exhibit of predominantly monochromatic sculptures featuring icy white glass objects, I asked the artist why he had employed so little color in his work (there were two small pieces in colored glass and they were not as successful). He replied that "color has a tendency to get away from you," and so he had avoided it as much as possible. The fact that color has a power all its own, that the effects of chromaticism depend partially on how colors function beyond the associations applied to them, has long been acknowledged by more expressionistic artists. Writing to Emile Bernard in 1888, van Gogh proclaimed: 'I couldn't care less what the colors are in reality.'

11The pieces of the color puzzle which Umberto Eco wishes to dismiss, the psychological and the aesthetic, actually serve as the thrust of most pictorial and literary uses of color spaces. Toward the end of his essay, Eco bows to Klee, Mondrian, and Kandinsky (including even the poetry of Virgil) and their "artistic activity," which he views as working "against social codes and collective categorization" (175). Perhaps these artists and writers retrieved color from the deadening and sometimes restrictive effects of culture. Committed to the notion that the main function of color is expression, Matisse liberated color to abolish the sense of distance between the observer and the painting. His innovations are still baffling theorists: In Reconfiguring Modernism: Exploring the Relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature, Daniel R. Schwarz bemoans the difficulty in viewing Matisse's decorative productions in 'hermeneutical patterns' (149). Like Eco, Schwarz wants to replace perception and emotion with language and narrativity.

12Language may determine how we express the experience of color, but Eco places the cart before the horse if he actually believes that language 'determines' chromatic experience. Eco is not alone: the Cambridge linguist John Lyons, observing that color is 'not grammaticalised across the languages of the world as fully or centrally as shape, size, space, time' (223), concludes that colors are the product of language under the influence of culture. One is reminded of Goethe's remark that "the ox becomes furious if a red cloth is shown to him; but the philosopher, who speaks of color only in a general way, begins to rave" (xli).