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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Part I
GA 291

1. Colour-Experience (Erlebnis)

6 May 1921, Dornach

Colour, the subject of these three lectures, interests the physicist and — though we shall not speak of it from this aspect today — it interests also — or should do — the psychologist; more than all these, it must interest the artist, the painter. In a survey of the modern idea of the world of colour, we notice that although the psychologist may, admittedly, have something to say about the subjective experience of colour this is nevertheless of no value for the knowledge of the objective nature of the world of colour — a knowledge which really lies only in the province of the physicist. In the first place, Art is not allowed to decide anything at all about the nature of colour and its quality in the objective sense. At the present time people are very far from what Goethe intended in his oft-repeated utterance: “The man to whom Nature begins to reveal her open secret feels an irresistible longing for her most worthy interpreter — Art.”

Any one who, like Goethe, really lives in art, can never doubt that what the artist has to say about the world of colour must be bound up with the nature of colour. In ordinary life colour is dealt with according to the surface of the objects presenting themselves to us as coloured, according to the impressions received through the nature of the coloured object.

We obtain the colour fluctuating, in a sense, varying, as it were, through the well-known prismatic experiment, and we look into, or try to look into the world of colour in many ways. In so doing we have always in mind the idea that we ought to estimate colour according to subjective impressions. For a long time it has been the custom — we might say, the mischievous custom — in some places, to contend that what we perceive as a coloured world really exists only for our senses, whereas in the world outside, objective colour presents nothing but certain undulatory movements of the very finest substance, known as ether. Any one who wishes to form an idea from definitions and explanations such as these is able to make nothing of the concept that what he knows as colour-impressions, his personal experience of colour, has to do with some kind of ether in motion. Yet when people speak of the quality of colour, they really have only the subjective impression in mind, and seek for something objective. They then wander away from colour, however, for in all the vibrations of ether which are thought out, there is really nothing further from the content of our real world of colour. In order to arrive at the objective nature of colour we must try to keep to the world of colour itself and not leave it; then we may hope to fathom its real nature.

Let us try for a while to sink ourselves into something which can be given us from the whole wide, varied world of colour. Then in order to penetrate into the nature of colour, we must experience something in regard to it which raises the whole consideration into our life of feeling. We must try to question our feeling as to what colour is in our surrounding world. In a sense we shall best proceed by means of an inward experiment, so that we may have before us not only the processes which on the whole are difficult to analyze and are not easily seen, but we will proceed at once to the essential thing. Suppose we colour a flat surface green. We shall only sketch this roughly. (see Diagram 1)

If we simply allow the colour to stimulate our feelings, we can experience something in green as such, something which we need not define further. No one will doubt that we can experience the same thing when gazing on the green plant-covering of the earth; we must do so, of course, because it is green. We must disregard everything else offered by the plants, as we only wish to look at the greenness. Let us suppose we have this greenness before our mental eyes.

When painting, we can introduce different colours into this greenness. Let us picture three. We have before us three green surfaces. Into the first we will introduce red; into the second, peach-blossom colour; into the third, blue.

You must admit that the sensation aroused is very different in the three cases, that there is a certain quality of sensation when red, peach-blossom colour, or blue forms are pictured in the green. It is now a question of expressing in some way the content of the sensation thus presented to our soul.

If we wish to express such a thing as this, we must try to characterize it, for extremely little can be attained by abstract definitions. We must try to describe it somehow. Let us try to do so by bringing a little imagination into what we have painted before us. Suppose we really wish to produce the sensation of a green surface in the first place, and in it we paint red figures. Whether we give them red faces and red skin, or whether we paint them entirely red, is immaterial. In the first example we paint red figures; in the second, peach-blossom colour — which would approximate human flesh-colour — and on the third green surface we paint blue figures. We are not copying Nature in this experiment, but placing something before the soul in order to bring a complex of sensation into discussion.

Suppose we have before us this landscape: Across a green meadow red, peach-blossom colour or blue figures are passing; in each of the three cases we have an utterly different complex of sensation. If we look at the first we shall say: These red figures in the green meadow enliven the whole of it. The meadow is greener because of them; it becomes still more saturated with green, more vivid because red figures are there, and we ought to be enraged on seeing these red figures. We may say: That is really nonsense, an impossible case. I should really have to make the red figures like lightning, they must be moving. Red figures at rest in a green meadow act disturbingly in their repose, for they are already in motion by reason of their red colour; they produce something in the meadow which it is really impossible to picture at rest. We must come into a very definite complex of feeling if we wish to make such a concept at all.

The second example is harmonious. The peach-blossom coloured figures can stand there indefinitely; if they stand there for an hour it does not trouble us. Our sensation tells us that these peach-blossom coloured figures have really no special conditions; they do not disturb the meadow, they do not enhance its greenness, they are quite neutral. They may stand where they will, it does not trouble us. They suit the meadow everywhere; they have no inner connection with the green meadow.

We pass on to the third; we look at the blue figures in the green meadow. That does not last long, for the blue figures deaden the green meadow to us. The greenness of the meadow is weakened. It does not remain green. Let us try to realize the right imagination of blue figures walking over a green meadow; or blue beings generally, they might be blue spirits. The meadow ceases to be green, it takes on some of the blueness, it becomes itself bluish, it ceases to be green. If the figures stay there long we can no longer picture them at all; we have the idea that there must be somewhere an abyss, and that the blue figures take the meadow from us, carry it away and cast it into the abyss. It becomes impossible; for a green meadow cannot remain if blue figures stand there; they take it away with them.

That is colour-experience. It must be possible to have it, otherwise we shall not understand the world of colour. If we wish to acquaint ourselves with something which finds its most beautiful and significant application in imagination, we must be able to experiment in that sphere. We must be able to ask ourselves: What happens to a green meadow when red figures walk therein? It becomes still greener; it becomes very real in its greenness. The green begins veritably to burn. The red figures bring so much life into the greenness that we cannot think of them in repose. They must really be running about. If we wish to portray it exactly and to paint the true picture of the meadow, we should not paint red figures standing quietly in it; they must be seen dancing in a ring. A ring of red dancers would be permissible in a green meadow.

On the other hand, people clothed not in red but entirely in flesh-colour might stand for all eternity in a green meadow. They are quite neutral to the green; they are absolutely indifferent to the meadow; it remains as it is, not the slightest tint is altered.

In the case of the blue figures, however, they run from us with the meadow, for the entire meadow loses its greenness because of them. We must, of course, speak comparatively when speaking of experiences in colour. We cannot talk like pedants about colour-experiences, for we cannot approach them so. We must speak in analogy — not, indeed, as those who say that one billiard ball pushes another; stags push, also bullocks and buffaloes, but not billiard balls in actual fact. Nevertheless, in Physics we speak of a “thrust” because everywhere we need the support of analogy if we are to begin to speak at all.

Now this makes it possible to see something in the world of colour itself, as such. There is something in that world which we shall have to seek as the nature of colour. Let us take a very characteristic colour, one we have already in mind, the colour which meets us everywhere in summer as the most attractive — green. We find it in plants; we are accustomed to regard it as characteristic of them. There is no other such intimate connection as that of greenness with the plant. We do not feel it as a necessity that certain animals which are green could only be green; we have always the subconscious thought that they might be some other colour; but as regards the plants our idea is that greenness belongs to them, that it is something peculiarly their own. Let us endeavour by means of the plants to penetrate into the objective nature of colour — as a rule the subjective nature alone is sought.

What is the plant, which thus, as it were, presents green to us? We know from Spiritual Science that the plant owes its existence to the fact that it has an etheric body in addition to its physical body. It is this etheric body which really lives in the plant; but the etheric body is not itself green. The element which gives the plant its greenness is, indeed, in its physical body, making green peculiar to the plant, but in reality it cannot be the essential nature of the plant, for that lies in the etheric body. If the plant had no etheric body it would be a mineral. In its mineral nature the plant manifests itself through green. The etheric body is quite a different colour, but it presents itself to us by means of the mineral green of the plant. If we study the plant in relation to its etheric body, if we study its greenness in this connection, we must say: if we set on the one hand the essential nature of the plant, and on the other the greenness, dividing it abstractly, taking the greenness from the plant, it is really as though we simply made an image of something; in the greenness withdrawn from the etheric we have really only an image of the plant, and this image peculiar to it is necessarily green. We really find in greenness the image of the plant. While we ascribe the colour green very positively to the plant, we must ascribe greenness to the image of the plant and must seek in the greenness the special nature of the plant-image.

Here we come to something very important. Anyone entering the portrait gallery of some ancient castle — such as may still frequently be seen — will not fail to say that the portraits are only the portraits of the ancestors, not the ancestors themselves. As a rule, the ancestors are not there, only their portraits are to be found. In the same way, we no more have the entity of the plant in the green than we have the ancestors in the portraits. Now let us reflect that the greenness is characteristic of the plant, and that of all beings the plant is the being of life. The animal possesses a soul; man has both spirit and soul. The mineral has no life. The plant is a being of which life is the special characteristic. The animal has, in addition, a soul. The mineral has as yet no soul. Man has, in addition to the soul, a spirit. We cannot say of man, of the animal or of the mineral, that its peculiar feature is life; it is something else. In the case of the plant its characteristic is life. The green colour is the image. Thus we remain entirely within the world of objective fact in saying that green represents the lifeless image of life.

We have now — we will proceed inductively, if we wish to express ourselves in a scholarly way — we have now gained something by means of which we can place this colour objectively in the world. When I receive a photograph I can say that it is a portrait of Mr. N. In the same way we can say that green is the lifeless image of life. We do not now think merely of the subjective impression, but we realize that green is the lifeless image of life.

Let us now take peach-blossom colour. More exactly, let us call it the colour of the human skin; of course, it is not the same for all people, but this colour, speaking generally, is that of the human skin. Let us endeavour to arrive at its essential nature. As a rule we see this human skin-colour only from outside. The question now arises as to whether a consciousness of it, a knowledge of it, can be gained from within, as we did in relation to the green of the plant. It can, indeed, be done in the following way.

If a man really tries to imagine himself inwardly ensouled, and thinks of this ensouling as passing into his physical bodily form, he can imagine that in some way that which ensouls him flows into this form. He expresses himself by pouring his soul-nature into his form in the flesh-colour. What this means can best be realized by looking at a man in whom the psychic nature is withdrawn somewhat and does not ensoul the outer form. What colour does he then become? Green; he becomes green. Life is there, but he becomes green. We speak of green men; we know the peculiar green of the complexion when the soul is withdrawn; we can see this very well by the colour of the complexion. On the other hand, the more a person assumes the special florid tint, the more we shall notice his experience of this tint. If you observe the constitutional humour in a green person and in one who has a really fresh flesh-colour, you will see that the soul experiences itself in the flesh-colour. That which rays outwards in the colour of the skin is none other than the man's self-experience. We may say that in flesh-colour we have before us the image of the soul, really the image of the soul. If, however, we go far into the world around, we must select the lifeless peach-blossom colour for that which appears as human flesh-colour. We do not really find it in external objects. What appears as human flesh-colour we can only attain by various tricks of painting. It is the image of the soul-nature, but it is not the soul itself; there can be no doubt about that. It is the living image of the soul. The soul experiences itself in flesh-colour. It is not lifeless like the green of the plant, for if a man withdraws his soul more and more he becomes green. He can become a corpse. In flesh-colour we have the living. Thus peach-blossom colour represents the living image of the soul.

We have now passed on to another colour. We endeavour to keep objectively to the colour, not merely to reflect upon the subjective impression and then to invent some kind of undulations which are then supposed to be objective. It is palpable that it is an absurdity to separate human experience from flesh-colour. The experience in the body is quite different when the colour of the flesh is ruddy and when it is greenish. There is an inward entity which really presents itself in the colour.

We now pass on to the third colour, blue, and say: We cannot in the first place find a being to which blue is peculiar as green is to the plant. Nor can we speak of blue as we have spoken of the peach-blossom-like flesh-colour of man. In the case of animals we do not find a colour as innate to the animal as green is to the plant and flesh-colour to man. We cannot in this way start from blue in regard to Nature. We nevertheless wish to go forward; we will see whether we can proceed still further in our search into the essential nature of colour. We cannot continue by way of blue, but it is possible to proceed first of all to the light colours; we shall, however, progress more easily and quickly if we take the colour known as white. We cannot say that white is peculiar to any being in the outer world. We might turn to the mineral kingdom, but we will try in another way to form an objective idea of white. If we have white before us and expose it to the light, if we simply throw light upon it, we feel that it has a certain relationship to light. At first this remains a feeling. It will at once become more than a feeling if we turn to the sun, which appears tinged quite distinctly in the direction of white, and to which we must trace back all the natural illumination of our world.

We might say that what appears to us as sun, what manifests itself as white — which at the same time shows an inner relationship to light — has the peculiarity that of itself it does not appear to us at all in the same way as an external colour. An external colour appears to us upon the object. Such a thing as the white of the sun, which for us represents light, does not appear to us directly on objects. Later on we shall consider the kind of colour which we may call the white of paper, chalk and the like, but to do this we shall have to enter upon a bypath. To being with, if we venture to approach white, we must say that we are led by white first of all to light as such. In order fully to develop this feeling, we need do no more than say to ourselves that the polar opposite of white is black. That black is darkness, we no longer doubt; so we can very easily identify white with brightness, with light as such. In short, if we raise the whole consideration into feeling, we shall find the inner connection between white and light. We shall go more fully into this question later.

If we reflect upon light itself, and are not tempted to cling to the Newtonian fallacy; if we observe these things without prejudice, we shall say to ourselves that we actually see colours.

Between white, which appears as colour, and light there must be a special relation. We will therefore first of all exclude true white. We know of light as such, not in the same way as other colours. Do we really perceive light? We should not perceive colours at all if we were not in an illuminated space. Light makes colours perceptible to us, but we cannot say we perceive light just as we do colours. Light is indeed, in the space where we perceive a colour, but it is in the nature of light to make the colours perceptible. We do not see light as we see red, yellow, blue, etc. Light is everywhere where it is bright, but we do not see it. Light must be fixed to something if we are to perceive it. It must be caught and reflected. Colour is on the surface of objects; but we cannot say that light belongs to something, it is wholly fluctuating. We ourselves, however, on awakening in the morning when the light streams upon us and through us, feel ourselves in our true being; we feel an inner relationship between the light and our essential being. At night, if we awake in dense darkness, we feel we cannot reach our real being; we are then, indeed, in a sense withdrawn into ourselves, but through the conditions we have become something which does not feel in its element. We know, too, that what we have from the light is a “coming to ourselves.” That the blind do not have it, is no contradiction; they are organized for this, and the organization is the essential point. We bear to the light the same relationship as that of our ego to the world, yet, again, not the same; for we cannot say that when the light fills us we gain the ego. Nevertheless, for us to gain this ego, light is essential, if we are beings which see.

What underlies this fact? In light we have what is represented in white — we have yet to learn the inner connection — we have in light what really fills us with spirit, brings to us our own spirit. Our ego, that is, our spiritual entity, is connected with this condition of illumination. If we consider this feeling — all that lives in light and colour must first be grasped as feeling — if we consider this feeling we shall say: There is a distinction between light and that which manifests itself as spirit in the ego, in the “I.” Nevertheless, the light gives us something of our own spirit. We shall have an experience through the light in such a way that by means of the light the ego really experiences itself inwardly.

If we sum up all this, we cannot but say that the ego is spiritual and must experience itself in the soul; this it does when it feels itself filled with light. Reduced to a formula, it may be expressed in the words: White or light represents the psychic image of the spirit.

It is natural that we should have to construct this third stage from pure feeling; but if you try to sink yourselves deeply into the matter according to these formulae, you will see that a great deal is contained in them:

Green represents the lifeless image of Life.

Peach-blossom colour represents the living image of the Soul.

White or Light represents the psychic image of the Spirit.

Let us now pass on to black or darkness. We see that we can speak of white or light, brightness, in connection with the relation which exists between darkness and blackness. Let us now take black, and try to connect something with a black darkness. We can do so. Certainly black is easy to find as a characteristic of something even in Nature, just as green is an essential peculiarity of the plants. We need only look at carbon. In order to represent more clearly that black has something to do with carbon, let us realize that carbon can also be quite clear and transparent; but then it is a diamond. Black, however, is so characteristic of carbon that if it were not black, if it were white and transparent, it would be a diamond. Black is so integral a part of carbon that the latter really owed its whole existence to the blackness. Thus carbon owes its dark, black, carbon-existence to the dark blackness in which it appears; just as the plant has its image somehow in green, so carbon has its image in black.

Let us place ourselves in blackness, absolute black around us, black darkness — in black darkness no physical being can do anything. Life is driven out of the plants when they become charcoal, carbon or coal. Thus black shows itself to be foreign in life, hostile to life. We see this in carbon, for when plants are carbonized they turn black; Life, then, can do nothing in blackness. Soul — the soul slips away from us when awful blackness is within us. The spirit, however, flourishes; the spirit can penetrate the blackness and make its influence felt within it. We may therefore say that in blackness — and if we endeavour to investigate the art of black and white, light and shade on a surface — we shall return to this later — then, by drawing with black on a white surface we bring spirit into the white surface by means of the black strokes; in the black surface the white is spiritualized. The spirit can be brought into the black. It is, however, the only thing that can be brought into black. Therefore we obtain the formula:

Black represents the spiritual image of the lifeless.

We have now obtained a remarkable circle respecting the objective nature of colour. In this circle we have in each colour an image of something. In all circumstances colour is not a reality, it is an image. In one case we have the image of the lifeless, in another the image of life, in another the image of the soul, and the image of the spirit (see Diagram 2). As we go around the circle, we have black, the image of the lifeless; green, the image of life; peach-blossom colour, the image of the soul; white, the image of the spirit. If we wish to have the adjective, we must start from the previous, thus: Black is the spiritual image of the lifeless; Green is the lifeless image of life; Peach-blossom colour is the living image of the soul; White is the psychic image of the spirit.

In this circle we can indicate certain fundamental colours, Black, White, Green and Peach-blossom colour, while always the previous word indicates the adjective for the next one; Black is the spiritual image of the Lifeless; Green is the lifeless image of the Living; Peach-blossom colour is the living image of the Soul; White is the psychic image of the Spirit.

If we take the kingdoms of Nature in this way — the lifeless kingdom, the living kingdom, the ensouled kingdom, the spiritual kingdom, we ascent — precisely as we ascend from the lifeless to the living, to the ensouled, to that possessing spirit — from black to green, to peach-blossom colour, white. As truly as I can ascend from the lifeless, through the living, to the psychic, to the spiritual as truly as I have there the world which surrounds me, so truly have I the world around me in its images when I ascend from black to green, peach-blossom colour, white. As truly as Constantine, Ferdinand, Felix, etc. are the real ancestors, and I can ascend through this ancestral line, so truly can I go through these portraits and have the portraits of this line of ancestry. I have before me a world; the mineral, plant, animal and spiritual kingdom — in as far as man is the spiritual. I ascent through the realities; but Nature gives me only the images of these realities. Nature is reflected. The world of colour is not a reality; even in nature itself it is only image; the image of the lifeless is black; that of the living is green; that of the psychic, peach-blossom colour; and the image of the spirit is white.

This leads us to the objective nature of colour. This we had to set forth today, since we wish to penetrate further into the nature, the peculiar feature of colour; for it avails us nothing to say that colour is a subjective impression. That is a matter of absolute indifference to colour. To green it is immaterial whether we pass by and stare at it; but it is not a matter of indifference that, if the living gives itself its own colour, if it is not tinged by the mineral and appears coloured in the flower, etc., if the living appear in its own colour, it must image itself outwardly as green. That is something objective. Whether or not we gaze at it, it is entirely subjective. The living, however, if it appear as a living being, must appear green, it must image itself in green; that is something objective.