Apologies, firstly, to any artists reading this who know what I’m talking about more than I do. This August I saw two exhibitions, three days and five hundred years apart, that made me feel I have finally learned something quite profound about visual art. On Tuesday I went to see Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in London, featuring Hella Jongerius. It got me noticing and thinking in a whole new way. I saw a great Raphael exhibition once (not to be confused with any more recent artistic namesake) so on Friday I went to see Drawings by Raphael at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Colour and Line
You’d think these works by Hella of Holland and Raphael of Urbino might have little in common. One is all about colour and experiments with colour, the other about experiments with line and features only pen and ink, brown or red chalk or charcoal drawings, but I found them deeply connected. Hella Jongerius creates ‘colour catchers’ , like this:
They are objects with intricate folds made of paper or card, in a single colour, but the shaping, folding and positioning next to other coloured objects gives rise to many subtly different shades. Like this:
She calls them her canvases, and explains that while we’ve got used to the ‘flat’ industrial palette of colours, in life colour isn’t like that as it is always being affected by changing light according to the time of day, proximity to other colours (metamerism), by shadows, and by our own vision. I came out gazing at objects on the street and seeing how everything was, in its own way, full of shadows changing flat colours into rich three dimensional objects. This is surely obvious to any trained artist now, but centuries ago there were plenty of artistic styles that didn’t use shadow. In Peckham Rye Park I noticed the grass wasn’t just green, and the earth wasn’t just brown. They were greens plus light and shadow, or browns plus light and shadow, like this (the industrial palette of pixels of course gives only an approximation).
At the Ashmolean, I found I was looking at the Raphael drawings with shadows in mind – shadows on bodies, and shadows in faces. Here’s one of the earliest works in the show. It’s possibly a self portrait, and possibly from 1500 when he would have been 17.
There’s some shadow, but not a lot. Here’s a much later drawing from his final years, in 1519 or 1520.
Raphael uses light and shadow as much as Hella Jongerius, and while her work experiments with colour and perception, Raphael’s explores light and shadow as they reveal human emotion through bodily expression. It was extraordinary going round the exhibition to see how he developed his techniques, repositioning faces and people to get different effects. Each drawing got me looking to see what direction the light was coming from. Like a musician who always knows where the beat is, Raphael always knows where the light is, and he knows how faces and bodies cast their own intimate shadows, like any object with intricate folds. Hella of Holland’s light is northern European, and that’s most obvious in her sequence of textile hangings that take you through from dawn to night. Raphael’s was a stronger Mediterranean light and his scenes usually outdoors. I liked the twisty, wriggly babies too. His sketches for Madonna and Child paintings experiment with positions – babies who look at their mothers and ones who don’t, relaxed babies, escaping babies, babies more interested in other children. One drawing, ‘Charity’, shows three infants grabbing at the same woman. If any of these were life drawings his studio must have been a riot.
Oak gall ink and Mosul
I found a surprising link with Mosul at the Raphael exhibition. The ink he used was made from oak galls. Iron gall ink was in common use throughout Europe for writing and drawing from the 5th to the 20th centuries. Sarah Shield’s study of Mosul’s trade before the creation of Iraq as a nation state, Mosul Before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells, describes how gall nuts were collected from the mountainous Kurdish regions around the city to supply the tanning industry, because leather working and tanning were Mosul’s most important commercial activities. Oak galls, sometimes called oak apples (formed by parasites on oak trees) were used for dyes and inks.
Most of the leather was used for making shoes. The most traditional and cheapest style was a backless slipper, in red, yellow or black. When I remember my grandmother from Mosul, I can recall her backless black slippers. They stuck in my mind as a child because they were unlike any other shoes I’d seen.
There were between 30 and 40 dye houses in Mosul at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Shields, synthetic chemical dyes were brought to Mosul by German merchants in 1909. My grandfather’s chemist shop must have traded in dyestuffs. At his suggestion my father started to import and export dye from London after WW2 when everything was scarce. Magenta was my favourite word when I was very young as it was so unusual, and I still think it’s an amazing colour. Schooled by Hella Jongerius, who called her book ‘I don’t have a favourite colour‘, I won’t say it’s still my favourite colour though I’ve used it for the heading above.
Both exhibitions are on until September if you get a chance to see them. Highly recommended, and amazingly for London in August, the Design Museum had no queues or crowds.