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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Part III
GA 291

3. Colours as Revelations of the Psychic in the World

18 May 1923, Oslo

If one regards the psychic in all movements and life, the varied and manifold world of colour becomes one whole world. One gradually takes one's place in what I should like to call an astral apprehension of the world. Then all visible colour becomes a revelation of the psychic in the world.

Let us look at the green of the plant. When a plant puts on its green we cannot regard the green colour as something subjective and see vibrations in the plant as the physicists do. After all, we no longer have the plant if we think only of the vibrations in the trees which are supposed to cause the colour. These are merely abstractions. In reality we cannot imagine the plant without its green, if we use our living imagination. The plant creates its green out of itself. But how?

Now, lifeless substances are incorporated in the plant, but these lifeless substances are made to live. In the plant are iron, carbon and some silicic acid. There are all kinds of substances which are found also in the Mineral Kingdom: and in seeing how life penetrates through the lifeless, and makes for itself an image by means of the lifeless, i.e. the image of the plant, we get the feeling of green as the lifeless image of life.

Everywhere we look out upon our green surroundings. We know that the lifeless substances of the earth live plants. Life itself we do not perceive. We perceive plants because they contain the lifeless substances. And because of this they are green. The green is the lifeless image of the life that exists on earth.

Now let us look at the green, since in a way we have in it a kind of world-word which tells us how life in the plant weaves and flows.

Then let us look at men. If we examine nature we find the colour that most resembles the healthy human complexion to be the fresh peach-blossom in spring. No other colour in nature is like it. But we feel that the inner health of man is expressed also in this peach-coloured time. We learn from the flesh-colour to know the living health of man which is really endowed by the soul. And we feel that when the colour of the skin becomes green, the man is ill and soul cannot find the right way into the physical body. On the other hand if the soul occupies the physical body too markedly in an egoistical way, as e.g. with avarice, the man becomes pale; as also is the case in fear.

Between paleness and greenness lies the healthy human colour with the suggestion of peach. And as we feel in the plant's green the lifeless image of life, we feel in the characteristic flesh-colour of a sound person the living image of the soul.

You see the world is beginning now to come alive in colours. The living forms itself through the lifeless into the image of green. The psychic forms the human skin into the image of peach or flesh-colour.

Let us look further. The sun appears to us whitish, which we feel to be closely related to light. If we awake at night in darkness we feel that it is not our real human environment in which we can fully feel our ego. For this we need light between us and other objects. We need light between ourselves and the wall so that the wall can have its effect on us from the distance. Our ego-feeling lights up in us if we wake up in light. In the darkness we feel ourselves strange in the world.

I say, light: but I could also take other sense-perceptions. And you will notice an apparent contradiction, because a person born blind never sees light. But it is not a question of seeing light directly, but of how one is organized. Man, even if born blind, is organized for light. And the limitation of ego-energy which is present in the blind, is there because of the absence of light.

Whiteness is related to light. If we feel whiteness in this way, as we feel the ego stimulated in a room by whiteness to its inner strength, we can say, making the thought living and not abstract: Whiteness is the psychic appearance of the spirit. For this reason we always feel, when we see white in pictures, yes, that is meant to be the spirit.

Take, on the other hand, black. When you see black, when we use black somewhere, it can most easily be used to represent the spiritual image of the lifeless, just as we feel ourselves killed, lamed, when our spirit has to find its place on awakening in black darkness. So one can feel black as the spiritual image of the lifeless.

And think now how one can live in colours! We experience the world as colour and light, when we experience green as the lifeless image of life, peach and flesh-colour as the living image of the soul, white as the psychic image of the spirit and black as the spiritual image of the lifeless.

I have really completed a circle by saying this, for observe how I had to describe green as the lifeless image of life; I stopped at life. Peach and flesh-colour = living image of the soul. I stopped at the soul. White = the psychic image of the spirit. I stopped at the soul and go up to the spirit. Black = the spiritual image of the lifeless. I stopped at the spiritual, proceeded to the lifeless, but came back again, since the green was the lifeless image of life. I have completed the circle. Thereby this living participation in colour becomes a real, artistic experience of the astral element in the world.

And if one has this artistic experience, death, life, soul and spirit present themselves as in a wheel of life, for from death one returns to death through the life of the psychic and spiritual; if they present themselves also through light and colour, as I have just described them, one knows one must go outside space, one cannot remain in space, the riddle of space must be solved on a surface.

And one loses the idea of space; as a sculptor has lost the habit of thinking with the head, so we lose now the idea of space. Everything presses on one as light and colour; one becomes a painter. The source of painting is opened of its own accord by means of such a view. And one gets the great inward pleasure of putting on this or that colour and setting the other colour next to it. For then colours become a living revelation of the living, of the lifeless, of the spiritual and of the psychic.

Thus, having passed beyond dead thought, one really arrives at the point of feeling oneself driven no longer to speak in words, no longer to think in ideas, and no longer even to create forms, but to reproduce in colour and light, the reflections of life and death, spirit and soul as they appear in the world.

Of course in treating of things artistic, I must refer not to the abstract understanding, but to artistic feeling. What is artistic must be understood artistically. Therefore I cannot here point out to you by means of some concept-illustration, how green, peach-colour, white and black give one the desire to have an enclosed image. One wants to have a contour and the circumscribed picture inside it. Then these four colours always contain something of shadow. White is the lightest shadow, for it is shadowed light. Black is the darkest. Green and peach-colour are images, that is, self-contained surfaces, which give to the surface something of a shadowy nature.

Thus in these four colours we have image-colours or shadow-colours, and we want to feel them as such.

The case is quite different when we go on to other colours. These other colours are, if I take three nuances of them, red, yellow and blue. With these we have not the desire, if we rely on our purely artistic sensibility, to have them in a circumscribed contour, but we feel the need for the surface to shine in these colours, so that the radiation of the red comes forth from the surface to meet us, or that the mattness of the blue has a calming effect on us, or that the gleam of the yellow shines out form the surface towards us.

And so one can call the four colours, flesh-colour, and green, black and white, the image or shadow-colours; and on the other hand blue, yellow, and red the luster-colours which shine forth from the image of the shadowy.

And when we follow with our sensibility how the world becomes luminous with the three colours, red, yellow and blue, we say again to ourselves, that in the lustrousness of red we want preferably to see the living; the living wants to reveal itself to us in active red; so that we may call red the luster of the living.

If the spirit wants to reveal itself to us not merely in its abstract equality as white, but to speak to us inwardly and intensively—that is to our soul—it will shine yellow. Yellow is the luster of the spirit.

If the soul desires to remain truly inward and this state is to be expressed artistically in colour, then the soul will withdraw itself from outer phenomena and remain, as it were, sealed. This give the soft luminosity of blue, which is thus the luster of the soul.

In this way we live in colour; we understand it with our sensibility and our feeling if we realize everywhere how a world forms itself out of the four image-colours and the three luster-colours. And if one in this manner lives in the luster and the image-character of the world of colour, one becomes a painter, who paints with his inner soul, for one learns to live in the colour.

One learns, for example, what each colour wishes to say to us. Blue is the luster of the psychic. When we paint a surface blue, we are satisfied only if we paint it strong at the edged and weaker in the center.

On the other hand, if we want yellow's message we make it thicker in the middle and lighter towards the edge. The colour itself demands it, and thus what lives in the colour reveals itself gradually. We come to produce the form out of the colour, that is, to paint out of the world of colour itself, through our feeling.

If we experience the world as colour in this way, it will not occur to us if we want, for instance, to represent a figure in a picture as a gleaming white figure, a figure that lives in the spirit, to reveal it in any other colour, but in a yellow, lighter at the edges. It will not occur to use to paint the soul element in a picture otherwise than by using blue shaded off inwards to a softer blue even if it is only in the garment.

If you appreciate from this standpoint the painters of the Renaissance, Raphael, Michelangelo, and even Leonardo, you will find in all of them that at the time they really lived in this way in colour.

And, above all, there was present something else. In the painting which has practically died out in our time, but was still to be found echoed in the Renaissance painting, there was that inner perspective of the picture which lives in the colour. A man who feels the luster of red properly will always feel how the red comes forward out of the picture, how it brings the object it represents near to us; while blue takes the object it represents into the distance. We paint colour-perspective as inner perspective. It is the perspective which still lived in the psychic-spiritual.

It was in the materialistic age—a fact often over-looked—that space-perspective first appeared, the perspective that deals with spatial measurement, so that distance did not become blue, but smaller, the foreground not red, but larger. This perspective is a side-product of the materialistic age which, living in the material element in space, wanted to paint in it also.

We are today again at a time when we must find our way back again to the natural element in painting. For the surface belongs also to the materials of a painter, for he works upon it. But an artist must before all things have a feeling for his material. For instance, if he wants to carve a plastic figure out of wood, he must carve, for example, the man's eyes out of the wood. Whatever is concave he must see with his artist's eye and hollow out. The wood-sculptor hollows out the wood.

The sculptor in marble or some other hard stone does not bother about how the eye goes in. He does not hollow out, but he notices how the brow emerges from the eye. He applies; he keeps the convex in mind. The marble-worker, even if he has made his model in plasticine or clay, must think in terms of his material. He must live in it, so that it speaks to him.

It must always also be the same with colour; one must reckon with the fact that the painter's material is the surface. And the surface can only be felt in this way if the third dimension of space is ignored. It is ignored when one has what is qualitative one the surface as the expression of the third dimension; when one feels blue as a retiring and red as an advancing colour, when, in short, the third dimension is inherent in the colour. Then one really releases matter, whereas in space-perspective matter is only imitated.

I am, of course, not saying anything against spatial perspective; it was natural and self-evident in the middle of the fifteenth century, and indeed added something powerful to the old aesthetics of painting. But the important thing is that after passing through materialism artistically for a time, as expressed in space-perspective, we can return to a more spiritual interpretation of painting also, so that we come back one more to colour-perspective.

In talking about Art, one cannot theorize; one must remain always in the medium of Art itself and the thing that can be of service to us in talking about Art must be artistic sensibility. One cannot speak about Mathematics or Mechanics or Physics from artistic sensibility, but from reason and understanding, by the light of which one can in no wise consider Art, though this is what was done by the aestheticists of the nineteenth century.