A colorful art history of red, blue and yellow.
Primary colors can be combined in different ways to produce every other color. Embedded in their absolute simplicity, then, is a latent complexity—a potential for extrapolation and manipulation.
Take, for example, the art of Alexander Rodchenko. In 1921, the pioneering Russian artist joined four of his constructivist movement compatriots in an exhibition in Moscow. Rodchenko was bold, as always, and his contribution to the show was a triptych: Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color and Pure Blue Color. The three canvases—each covered in a primary pigment—were modern art’s first non-figurative monochromes. He didn’t describe his work as an homage to painting, or frame it as the concentrated essence of all color and thus a celebration of the art form’s material genesis. Instead, Rodchenko used the very nature of his chosen colors to explain his intention as the complete opposite: “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow,” he said. “I affirmed: it’s all over.”
It wasn’t over, of course. Painting continued and the primaries have persisted—even taking on symbolic resonance and political significance. Around the time that Rodchenko was declaring them to be harbingers of The End, Dutch painters Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian saw in those three hues a utopian vision of universal human harmony. They perceived the primary colors as fundamental to their new cultural movement—De Stijl, or “the style” in Dutch—which was dedicated both to countering the decorative excesses of art deco, the period’s dominant aesthetic, and to rebuilding society through art in the devastating aftermath of World War I. Its practitioners emphasized the idea of absolute essentials, favoring reductive abstractions and simple visual elements like geometric forms, often represented in red, yellow and blue. It was in the most basic things, they suggested through their work, that the world’s people could find common ground and come together.
The primaries found their place in the Bauhaus, too. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, widely considered one of the fathers of modernist architecture, believed that the movement should generate designs that were simple, rational and, above all, accessible—again tapping into the clear, communicative power of red, yellow and blue.
Today, they have been seized upon by Bordeaux’s Museum of Decorative Arts and Design for its current exhibition, Oh Couleurs! Design Through the Lens of Color. Curated by museum director Constance Rubini, the show tackles the historic relationship between objects and color, a dynamic that has been both complex and liberating. “Primary colors are straightforward and direct—that is why they are sometimes chosen to transmit their identification to objects,” says Rubini. “The hue then loses its own nature and is instead conflated with its function: the yellow mailboxes in France, or the red telephone booths in England. Sometimes the primary color is pure presence; it then seeks to escape from any predefined symbolic value. It is the color that gives life and energy to objects.”
There is perhaps no one who more actively acknowledged the subjective expressionism of color than the German-born American artist, poet and printmaker Josef Albers. From 1963 until his death in 1976, Albers devoted himself to the subject with an all-consuming, methodical attention, exploring the art, physics and psychology of color as a scientific field rather than a theoretical one. “In visual perception, a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is,” he wrote in his seminal 1971 text, The Interaction of Color. “This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”
Artwork:Pierre Charpin, collection of vases Torno Subito, 1998–2001