The Enchantment of Colour

AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre (A set of colour discs, scales, wheels) (1917-1919) OA10.1969.a-i
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre (A set of colour discs, scales, wheels) (1917-1919) OA10.1969.a-i
Note:

Zoe Alderton is a lecturer and tutor in the Writing Hub at the University of Sydney.

Zoe Alderton is a lecturer and tutor in the Writing Hub at the University of Sydney. Her PhD is in Studies in Religion, where she completed a thesis on New Zealand painter Colin McCahon. Her subsequent monograph on McCahon's relationship with New Zealand religiosity will be published in early-2015.

Zoe has published on a range of topics concerning modern art including The Blake Prize and blasphemy, Outsider Art, Theosophy and Abstraction, and the sacred dimensions of Te Papa. She is currently writing a monograph on the aesthetics of self-harm.

Colour in the Australian Collection

Why do so many of our early Australian modernists celebrate the use of colour? What makes colour so powerful, and what does it teach us about the world?

In this ArtSet, I will show you a range of important artworks that employ colour as a means of creating social transformation. Drawing from the ideas of Theosophy and Anthroposophy, these artists celebrate the power of colour, harmony, and shape.

AGNSW collection Grace Cossington Smith Wonga Wonga Street, Turramurra (circa 1930) WA2.1967
AGNSW collection Grace Cossington Smith Wonga Wonga Street, Turramurra (circa 1930) WA2.1967

Many of our pioneering Australian modernists studied and painted together. Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington-Smith, and Roy de Maistre were close friends when they painted the artworks you see here. What similarities can you see in their use of shape and colour?

AGNSW collection Godfrey Miller Study for 'Landscape with orange cliffs' (circa 1949-circa 1953) 195.2002
AGNSW collection Godfrey Miller Study for 'Landscape with orange cliffs' (circa 1949-circa 1953) 195.2002
Note:

Zoe Alderton is a lecturer and tutor in the Writing Hub at the University of Sydney. Her PhD is in Studies in Religion, where she completed a thesis on New Zealand painter Colin McCahon. Her subsequent monograph on McCahon's relationship with New Zealand religiosity will be published in early-2015.

Zoe has published on a range of topics concerning modern art including The Blake Prize and blasphemy, Outsider Art, Theosophy and Abstraction, and the sacred dimensions of Te Papa. She is currently writing a monograph on the aesthetics of self-harm.

AGNSW collection Roland Wakelin Causeway, Tuggerah (1919) OA21.1967
AGNSW collection Roland Wakelin Causeway, Tuggerah (1919) OA21.1967
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) OA17.1960
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) OA17.1960

Many of the artworks here have an emphasis on movement and progression. Theosophy and Anthroposophy espouse the development of the human spirit. Many artists used these philosophies in their own work via meaningful arrangements of colour and shape.

You may notice the presence of bridges or gradients in many of these images.

AGNSW collection Frank Hinder Cigarette still life (1935) 148.1980
AGNSW collection Frank Hinder Cigarette still life (1935) 148.1980

Frank Hinder and Cossington-Smith were both taught by Anthony Dattilo Rubbo who had a strong interest in colour theory. He would read his students a letter by Van Gogh in which he celebrated the act of painting a bedroom in order to bring out its harmony of colour.

AGNSW collection Roger Kemp Movement into space I (circa 1945-circa 1955) 27.1994
AGNSW collection Roger Kemp Movement into space I (circa 1945-circa 1955) 27.1994
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Colour keyboard (circa 1919) OA9.1969
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Colour keyboard (circa 1919) OA9.1969
AGNSW collection Wassily Kandinsky Study for 'Painting with white border' (1913) 147.1982
AGNSW collection Wassily Kandinsky Study for 'Painting with white border' (1913) 147.1982

Allusions to space or higher dimensions are often subtle, but important to the meaning of these works. For example, de Maistre's "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow Green Minor" contains a musical pathway towards a great yellow light. This symbol of enlightenment lies at the end of your journey through the artwork.

Similarly, Cossington-Smith and Wakelin offer bridges and roads to distant spaces. On one level, these are simply images of Tuggerah and Turramurra. You may even recognise these landscapes. But the artists also hoped to evoke a spiritual journey in which their colour and form uplifts the human spirit.

Around the World

These spiritual and artistic movements were not limited to Australia. You can see the impact of Theosophy and Anthroposophy in the works of Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and many more.

Australia had a huge role to play in the development of enchanted colour. Come visit some of our major artworks in the gallery and explore the power of tone, harmony, and bridges to higher realms.

Ideas presented in this art set are derived from Zoe Alderton, "Colour, Shape, and Music: The Presence of Thought Forms in Abstract Art," Literature & Aesthetics 21:1 (2011).