is marked by its absence. This absence raises questions that have often been
overlooked in the study of colour: how do writers navigate the invisibility of
colour in text? What aesthetic commitments do certain attitudes to colour
expose? And how, in the face of its absence, do we read colour?
This ambitious and exciting study addresses these questions, analysing the
use of colour language in the work of Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke,
Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler to tease out how these poets
understood poetic production, and how they negotiated the relations between
poem, reader and world. Covering the poetry, prose, translation, literary and art
criticism and theory of these and other writers central to European literature
at the turn of the twentieth century, Reading Colour sheds new light on poetic
practice of the period, but also uses colour to open up an understanding of
how poetic language works, and to ask how we read poetry.
This book was the winner of the 2018 Early Career Researcher Prize in German
Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the
University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.
Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of Abbreviations
- Chapter 1 George and Surfaces
- Chapter 2 Rilke and Balance
- Chapter 3 Kandinsky’s Red Corners: Wandering in the Poem
- Chapter 4 Lasker-Schüler’s Blue Rooms: An Experiment in Reading
- Series Index
George, Rilke, Kandinsky,
Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • New York • Wien
Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the
Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the Library of Congress.
Cover image: Ausschnitt aus dem Südquerhausfenster des Kölner Doms. Entwurf: Gerhard Richter. Ausführung und Foto: Derix Glasstudios, Taunusstein.
Köln, Dom, Südquerhausfenster, Lichtreflexe auf den Wänden des Triforiums © Foto: Derix
Cover design by Peter Lang Ltd.
ISBN 978-1-78874-675-5 (print) • ISBN 978-1-78874-676-2 (ePDF)
ISBN 978-1-78874-677-9 (ePub) • 978-1-78874-678-6 (mobi)
© Peter Lang AG 2019
Published by Peter Lang Ltd, International Academic Publishers,
52 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LU, United Kingdom
Rey Conquer has asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this Work.
All rights reserved.
All parts of this publication are protected by copyright.
Any utilisation outside the strict limits of the copyright law, without
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This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming,
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This publication has been peer reviewed.
Rey Conquer is Stipendiary Lecturer in German at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
About the book
Colour is a problem for poetry, where – unlike in painting, sculpture or film – it is marked by its absence. This absence raises questions that have often been overlooked in the study of colour: how do writers navigate the invisibility of colour in text? What aesthetic commitments do certain attitudes to colour expose? And how, in the face of its absence, do we read colour?
This ambitious and exciting study addresses these questions, analysing the use of colour language in the work of Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler to tease out how these poets understood poetic production, and how they negotiated the relations between poem, reader and world. Covering the poetry, prose, translation, literary and art criticism and theory of these and other writers central to European literature at the turn of the twentieth century, Reading Colour sheds new light on poetic practice of the period, but also uses colour to open up an understanding of how poetic language works, and to ask how we read poetry.
This book was the winner of the 2018 Early Career Researcher Prize in German Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Index←v | vi→ ←vi | vii→
I am grateful to the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Somerville College and The Queen’s College at the University of Oxford; the Arts and Humanities Research Council; the Erasmus Programme and the Friedrich-Schlegel-Graduiertenschule at the Freie Universität, Berlin; and those at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach and at the Stefan George Archiv in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek. Blackfriars, Oxford, provided support of a different kind.
My parents, Carol Lawson and Alistair Conquer, taught me almost everything I know about colour; the rest I learnt from Alec Hinshelwood, Claire Kirwin, Jessie Munton and Milan Terlunen. Tony Phelan set, a good few years ago, the essay question to which this is the answer, and before that modelled a study of literature that was both modest and lively. Charlie Louth supervised the DPhil thesis on which this book is based and has been patient, tactful and encouraging for much longer. I am grateful to my examiners Ben Morgan, Barry Murnane, Ritchie Robertson and particularly Andreas Kramer: having had to defend the less wise directions of the project against such exacting critics has, I hope, made them more acceptable. Karen Leeder also examined the thesis and has, over the years, provided much more than this. My thanks go to Laurel Plapp and Simon Phillimore at Peter Lang, as well as the anonymous reader for the IGS/Peter Lang Early Career Researcher Prize, for all their help in bringing this book to publication.
The following friends and colleagues read drafts, raised objections, made suggestions and offered encouragement: Thea Bradbury, Polly Dickson, Hugh Foley, Nick Gaskill, Maddie Geddes-Barton, William Ghosh, Kristin Grogan, Grace Linden, Michael Minden, Tom Wells, Thos. West, Erica Wickerson, Geoffrey Wildanger, and especially Nicola Thomas, whose friendship has been exemplary, from the seminar rooms of Senate House to the top of Snowdon.←vii | viii→
I am happy to acknowledge permission to quote in full Friedrich Achleitner’s poem ‘rot anstatt rot’, from An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Emmett Williams (New York: Something Else Press, 1967; repr. New York: Primary Information, 2013), and I am grateful to Derix Glasstudios, Atelier Gerhard Richter and the Cologne Cathedral Archive for allowing me to use a photograph of the ‘Richter window’ in the south transept of Cologne Cathedral on the cover.
Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. In translating poems and prose pieces I have erred on the side of literality with the aim of providing something closer to a gloss; I have not, for instance, tried to replicate rhyme, rhythm and so on, nor all of George’s idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, and have tried to keep words in similar places for ease of cross-reference. It is my hope that the reader will be moved by their consequent disagreeableness to pay attention to the German or French wherever possible.←viii | ix→
BfdK Blätter für die Kunst, eds Carl August Klein and Stefan George, 1892–1919.
CW Wassily Kandinsky, Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds Kenneth Clement Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994).
GW Else Lasker-Schüler, Gesammelte Werke in drei Bänden, eds Friedhelm Kemp, Werner Kraft and Margarete Kupper, 3 vols (Munich: Kösel, 1959–62).
KA Rainer Maria Rilke, Werke: Kommentierte Ausgabe in vier Bänden, eds Manfred Engel, Ulrich Fülleborn, Horst Nalewski and August Stahl, 4 vols (Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig: Insel, 1996).
SW Stefan George, Sämtliche Werke in 18 Bänden, eds Georg Peter Landmann and Ute Oelmann, 18 vols (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982–2013).
SWR Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, eds Ernst Zinn and Ruth Sieber-Rilke, 7 vols (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1959).
The central, and most obvious, problem that colour poses for literature – whether for those writing it or those reading – is that it is not there. While there is a history of contention regarding colour and line or form in art, painted or drawn marks always have a colour; poetry, certainly when read aloud, doesn’t. The invisibility of textual colour is precisely why it is worth studying: the work of the historian Michel Pastoureau on the history of colour, and colours, takes as its starting point the fact that ‘[a]ny description, any notation of color is cultural and ideological […]. The very fact of mentioning or not mentioning the color of an object was quite a significant choice reflecting the economic, political, social, or symbolic stakes relevant to a specific context’.1 It is not only what colour a thing, in a written text, is given that is significant; it is that its colour is given at all.
Why do poets use colour? Perhaps because it is here, in negotiating this absence, feeling around the edges of what cannot be put on the page, that they allow us to see most clearly what can be. Colour points to the gaps between different kinds of making, between different ways of mediating or manufacturing experience. It is for this reason that poetry is often opposed to the visual arts, both by its makers and by critics such as Jacques Le Rider, who writes, ‘when faced with colour, language experiences its own impotence. Poets can dream of being equal to musicians. What they cannot do, however, is paint; and colour’s victory heralds the defeat of words. […] To measure oneself up against the visual arts is, for a writer, the supreme test of the limits of language.’2 It is certainly the case in the poets I look at, and←1 | 2→ many of their contemporaries, that poetry was seen to have much to learn from painting.3 Even, however, in the absence of more explicit engagement with visual art, colour tests poets and writers who attempt to depict visual experience in words. We could – following Pastoureau (‘the very fact of mentioning …’) – describe the role of colour words in poetry, as opposed to painting, or film, architecture, theatre, illustration, as a form of ‘mention’ as opposed to ‘use’: a quotation from a sort of experience not to be found on the page. This is not to say that colour words do not do things, rather, that if they have significance or effects they are of a different sort to what coloured paints or lights or textiles might do. In the usual application of the use-mention distinction (‘Berlin is a beautiful city’ as opposed to ‘“Berlin” has six letters’) – which, I should add, is hardly uncontested – it is words that are ‘mentioned’ and not ‘used’ that are more materially present, referring not to concepts or things but ‘typographical or phonetic shapes’ to which they are identical.4 We might then initially think that here the opposite is the case, that colour words are pure semantic value, with no connection to visible or tangible things, whereas coloured paint or dye is a kind of stuff. However, as I will argue, by referring to an absent kind of material, colour words point to the idea of materiality, the idea that visual art is corporeal, sensual. Even in cases where colour words in poetry seem most innocuous, and simply descriptive, the fact that they are intended to evoke a visual experience gestures back to the material condition of literature as a particularly abstracted form of visual experience, forming an unspoken←2 | 3→ lament for the unfortunate rift between the page and the world. It is for this reason that all colour words (and not just certain individual hues, as has sometimes been claimed) can be seen as ‘poetological’; reflecting, that is, on the art of making that is poetry.5
If colour poses a problem for language, then it poses a problem, too, for those using words as a medium. The artist David Batchelor puts it well: ‘colour can become something of an embarrassment, and an embarrassment to language in particular. The difficulty we encounter when putting colour experiences into words is a constant reminder of the limits of language and, as such, colour is an awkward presence that can make me inarticulate or render me mute.’6 But when making, rather than describing, colour experiences, we find new problems. What colour language and coloured stuff seem to share is a certain elusiveness with respect to meaning; both colour words and the colours of lights, pigments, cloth and so on seem to oscillate between semantic richness and emptiness or indifference. We regularly exploit the fact that colours have no fixed meanings or hierarchy when, for instance, we colour code our notes; colour categories seem like empty vessels waiting for us to fill them with provisional, but discrete, meanings or associations. But this is dependent on viewing the colours of things as themselves provisional or arbitrary: if I have one notebook that is blue, I write everything in it; if I have two notebooks, one which is blue and one which is red, it seems appropriate to categorise my writing (by subject, or by mode or form). But if I have a blue and a red pen, the question of which to write in seems suddenly freighted with the prior and wider cultural significance of blue pens and red ink and of the colours blue and red, and even of certain seemingly objective facts about these colours and, say, their legibility. (Similarly, if I were colouring in a picture the question of which colour I choose for the sea would not purely be answered by reference to the hope of distinguishing←3 | 4→ one form from another; and if one of my subjects were ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ it would seem slightly perverse to use the blue notebook).7 This banal example shows, I hope, the sorts of problems we might have when thinking of more rarefied forms of deliberate colour choice, such as painting; literature is not unique in having to negotiate colour’s semantic porousness, or leakiness, although it can, unlike painting, choose to avoid it altogether.
‘Absolutely proper and endlessly displaced’: What do we mean by ‘colour’?
What, then, is colour? And how, if we want to answer this question, do we get a handle on the subject, which has seemed to many disciplinarily, if not also ontologically, slippery? According to James Gibson, ‘[t]he meaning of the term color is one of the worst muddles in the history of science’, and yet one of the greatest confusions seems to stem from an appearance of unquestionability: Larry Hardin points out the ‘brute factuality’ and ‘paradigmatic […] unanalyzability’ of colour as it has seemed to the history of philosophy.8 ‘Colors’, as←4 | 5→ Nicholas Gaskill nicely puts it, ‘come to us with the shine of self-evidence’.9 Literary studies, it is often claimed, ‘does not have an easy time when it comes to colour’,10 a difficulty that has then, as Susan Harrow has suggested, been framed as a kind of disciplinary decorum: ‘Bound by the monochrome world of the printed word, literary researchers appear prismatically indifferent, judging color as a referent somehow not proper to their domain, viewing color as improper even.’11 Colour, according to the art historian Stephen Melville, is ‘subjective and objective, physically fixed and culturally constructed, absolutely proper and endlessly displaced’; it ‘can appear as an unthinkable scandal.’12 This scandalous behaviour – ‘neither fish nor fowl, color is anarchic, spreading across categories and disrupting them’13 – might seem to make of colour an unpromising area of study, but the opposite has seemed true, not least to deconstruction, as Melville’s essay shows.
One way to narrow down our subject might be to follow Michael Sheringham in making a distinction between writers whose interest is in individual colours and those whose interest is in colour as part of a relational system; writers, that is, who ‘valorise[ ]’ ‘the pure experience of a single colour, a unified experience of one colour at a time, or, on the other hand, the contrastive nature of colour, the harmonies and resonances which colours can achieve in combination’.14 Yet this presupposes that colours←5 | 6→ are already treated as plural; we might also think of those – for instance Walter Benjamin in his early notes on colour experience and perception, or, later, Barthes writing on Cy Twombly – whose interest is in colour per se, not yet broken down into separate hues.15 While there have been useful monographs on individual colours – in answer, as it were, to Rilke’s suggestion that someone write a ‘monograph of blue’16 – by considering hues singly and ignoring writing on colours as part of a system, or colour as a whole, the authors of these studies have often risked undermining their own conclusions.17 As Pastoureau points out, ‘A color never occurs alone;←6 | 7→ it only takes on meaning, only fully “functions” from the social, artistic, and symbolic perspectives, insofar as it is associated with or opposed to one or many other colors. By the same token, it is impossible to consider a color in isolation. To speak of black […] is also – necessarily – to speak of white, red, brown, purple, and even of blue.’18 To talk sensibly about colours, we must bear in mind not only what they are or seem to be, but also what they are not, or could not be.
While we might follow Melville in suggesting that colour has often ‘seem[ed] bottomlessly resistant to nomination’, colours can properly only be thought of as a product of that nomination.19 Pastoureau is insistent on the inseparability of the naming of colours and the colours themselves: ‘The name of a colour is also a fact of colour. It is perhaps the element that conditions most forcefully our taste in, and choices to do with, colour. When it comes to colour, we are prisoners of language and of lexical facts’.20 What we believe about a colour, how we feel when we look at it, what we think about its ontological make-up, is dependent on how we have named it, and we might go so far as to say, as Richard Cronin has put it in his study of colour in nineteenth-century poetry, that ‘[c]olours, as opposed to colour, exist only in the process of being named’.21←7 | 8→
In an earlier study of colour in Symbolist poetry, Françoise Meltzer looks to this aspect of colour to suggest that an approach via art history is misguided: ‘The consistent comparison of color on the page with that on the canvas is ultimately ineffectual in the elucidation of textual color semiology. Thus the attempt to use art history as a method of literary research in this field has failed as much as the purely scientific methods of the previous century.’22 For this reason, others studying colour in literature have often looked rather to linguistics to understand the field within which they are working. Cronin is one of these, calling on Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s idea of ‘basic colour terms’ to remind readers that recourse to complex models of colour perception is inappropriate when looking at literature, which deals with words, their availability and how they are used – rather than consult colour charts, ‘[w]e can find out how many colours there are by counting the words we have to describe them’.23 Toni Bernhart’s study of colour in the work of Hans Henny Jahnn, starting from the principle that ‘the use of colour words in literature is a construction of art’, also takes from Berlin and Kay the idea of ‘basic colour terms’ but modifies these with the help of German linguists for the context of Jahnn, as the starting point for a quantitative approach in which thirteen ‘colour etyma’ are counted and their frequency, combinations and modifications analysed.24 Bernhart←8 | 9→ insists on the linguistic nature of the body of work to be studied, regardless of the topic: ‘colours can only be found there, in black and white, in the midst of words.’25 It is for this reason that he sees it only proper to separate out text-based scholarship from other forms of colour research, whether psychological, cognitive or cultural and historical.
- X, 274
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2019 (July)
- colour poetry Rey Conquer Stefan George German literature German poetry German studies Wassily Kandinsky Else Lasker-Schüler Rainer Maria Rilke poetics
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 274 pp.