The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. It’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really. it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed.

All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence may have been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, supposedly ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and is also the setting of almost daily mass shootings, quite apart from the fact that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 dead on D-Day. Gray’s point is homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive liberal nirvana.

More to Gray’s point, most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I may think that these leaders are not going to provide the meaning and security they promise, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives.

Our lives are demonstrably in the grip of umpteen impersonal suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that they’re fighting back at them, the nameless forces which seem to control us.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years give us a deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s main themes is a brief and allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the blare about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves. We don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seem so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, alongside trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. To foment small wars around the world in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were cyclical not progressive, based on the rhythm of the seasons plus astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. They have, in fact, been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and the past and so had ‘progressed’ and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war… and on and on it goes, the roll call of atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies, if you put your mind to it.

As a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Grays approach – it is easy-peasy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us a really entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all of it goes to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


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