The existence of colour

Text by dr. emeritus Øystein Hjort


Storstrøm museum of fine arts - Hjørring museum of fine arts and Kunsthaus Lübeck

The classic challenge of travel distances one from the commonplace and through that distancing a new view which can mean both clarity and development appears. It is an experience from which Pia Andersen builds her artistic universe. Colour, from the earlier geometrical, constructive compositions´ understated colourism, has become more and more important in her work. Above all else, it is the life of the colour and its rich potential that interests the artist. In this connection, it is often stressed that in her many trips to Latin America that hasve inspired her to use stronger more intense colours. Other places and other colours! You move from place to place, and as you do so, your appreciation of colour moves too. But, you cannot move colour, just like that, end of story! A few colours brought back from Mexico, some years before, seemed shrill and loud in a Danish setting. These local colours didn´t travel well. Pia Andersen does not paint much on her travels but rather sketches, takes photographs, absorbs the experience and charges her artistic batteries. All her paintings is done back home in Denmark, armed with her sharpened sensibilities resulting from her travels.

One thing is clear, for the artist, the journeys and the contact with another milieu, are also travels into the great domain that is colour, started along ago but far from complete. In the constant interaction between near and far, that is a certain pattern, we can see a consistent exploration of the character of the colours and their properties, which make us experience new and unexpected sides of the nature.

In his early abstract painting, Kandinsky distinguished between form and colour. Form alone has an independent existence, he maintained, as the representation of an object or as pure abstract demarcation of space or plane. Colour on the other hand does not have this independence. If you want, for example, to give a red colour a material form, as occurs in the painting, it, first, has to possess a particular tone, chosen from an infinite number of red tones, then, the red tone has to be defined on the plane in that it must exist independently of the other colours which necessarily also exists there.

This relationship between form and colour, a cardinal point in his “On the Spiritual in Art” often seems in Pia Andersen´ s new paintings to be reversed. It is the colour which exists independently. The geometric compositional “form” is merely a mechanism for the colour. It is decided in advance, well thought out and calculated. The life of the colour on the plane of the painting is on the other hand, spontaneous and asserts expression on the creative process itself. The very colour creates the space and the dimensions. The colour lends the paintings its innate ability to grow.

“The Stone Paintings” done at “Skejten” in 1992 were dominated by a form taken from nature, purely and simply, a stone, resting in the painting´ s composition, with its own volume and weight, but permeated and rent by the colour which is not its own. It becomes weightless and flattens out. The colour is created through its texture and density. It is the colour that is in control.

The problem with the “Stone Paintings”, was that their natural form, their imprecise contours in the constructivist assemblage that is the painting. The new paintings introduce a form which is developed by the stone, but which pushes the composition outwards toward its frame. There are no reference to nature. The painting represents nothing but itself. It rests in a self-appointed order of planes and abstract forms which shift and displace one another, really a kind of world devoid of material but full of texture and substance. A “poetic constructivism” is the artist´ s own description of her work. The design subjugates the colour. The form has surrendered its dictate.

Kandinsky in “On the Spiritual in Art”, touches upon colour´ s materialism which he reflects upon. He asserts that colour touches other senses than the merely visual. Some colours appear to be rough and pasty, whilst others are smooth and silky, where the temptation is to run your hand over them (e.g.
dark ultramarine, chromiumoxide green, crimson). Some are soft (crimson) or hard (cobalt green, blue-greenoxide), in fact so hard, they almost seem dry when squeezed from the tube.

In Pia Andersen´ s new paintings, colour has won the right to stand alone, not due to its having any particular tone as Kandinsky demanded, but due to material quality; a presence which almost makes us feel it is tangible. We think we can touch it, and (Kandinsky again) that it will feel hard as earth or soft and smooth like silk.

There are, however, feelings which do not apply to certain colours (crimson or cobalt green). The colours are difficult to pin down and do not fit into their normal register. Blue is normally regarded as a cold colour but in Pia Andersen´ s paintings its temperature varies. All in all, her colours are hard to put a single definition on, and to pin to the everyday standards of same.

The relationship is explained by their technicality, the colours´ base is not the canvas alone, but also assorted bits of paper attached to the canvas, acting as a relief and contributing to the sensation of space and depth further extended by the colour. The implication is there, layer by layer. A closer look reveals a yellow base under cinnabar. A stronger red and cadmium are added before being finished off in blue. A half dry colour gets some filler and there are splits and cracks of gold in blue. Microscopic dots of red seem to hover over the whole surface. A crayon makes a lightly veiled track over the painting and suggests a transparent covering through which the underlying colours seem to permeate at the same time as hinting at a space in between. The design´ s traces in the colours´ ground is a testing of the ways and means available, a trial limiting of one area on top of another, of one texture on top of another.

Shortly before his death, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein contemplated the possibilities of conceiving, describing and defining colour. He noted “Runge says there are transparent and opaque colours. That does not mean, however, that one would use different colours of green in order to reproduce a piece of green glass or green cloth in the painting”.

Is that correct? Would a painter not, in the great tradition of painting, of the type envisaged by Wittgenstein, choose different shades of green to represent glass, cloth, stone or grass? For certain. But  in case of Pia Andersen´ s paintings the colour does not define, it IS.

Is it history or convention that make us differentiate sharply between form and colour? Is not Kandinsky´ s exact distinction of the two, due to, in reality, the old contrast between Florentine painters´ carefully designed compositions and the Venezian painters´ sensual and direct relationship to colour? Design and colour as expressions for the two schools and two attitudes to artistic expression? In this relationship, concept and intellect take priority over sense and feeling. Pia Andersen has turned this relationship on its head. In her paintings, colours exist, satiated by all that life has to offer. Colour takes first place!


Øystein Hjort, professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen