Red protects itself. No colour is as territorial as red. It stakes a claim, it is on the alert against the spectrum. (Derek Jarman)
Seeing Red is Hamish Morrison Galerie’s final exhibition in the space on Heidestrasse. We are very pleased indeed to present on this occasion the long-planned group exhibition on the theme of the colour red in art.
From the gallery’s very beginning, in addition to working continuously with a stable circle of artists, Hamish Morrison has always been interested in introducing to the Berlin public works by artists who are rarely or never shown in this city. For Seeing Red, he has succeeded once again in bringing to Berlin the works of artists like the painters Daan van Golden and JCJ van der Heyden, who are very established in the Netherlands, as well as the pop artist Billy Apple from New Zealand, whose debut show in 1963 in London had the title Apple Sees Red.
Red is said to be the first colour to which humans gave a name, the oldest colour designation in the world’s languages. There is even the theory that ages ago, it may have been the only colour the human eye could perceive. That may have been due to the red colour of blood, or the necessity to distinguish ripe from unripe fruit. However that may be, the colour red was used early on for cultic purposes, and since time immemorial an almost magical effect has been attributed to it.
Adam could not resist the red apple, Esau wanted to eat the red meal, Parsifal fought for a red suit of armour. Karen risked her soul for the red shoes, the wolf lusted after the girl with the red riding hood. And it was a red hood on a red raincoat which Donald Sutherland followed in the unforgettable film Don’t Look Now, and which lured him to his horrible bloody death. There are countless stories that could serve as examples for the fatal fascination the colour red can exude.
For a long time, especially in European culture, wearing red clothes was reserved for the rich and powerful. Whatever powers have been ascribed to the colour red in the cultural history of humanity, its meaning in various cultures ranges from wealth, happiness, femininity and strength all the way to grief in some African countries. They are almost exclusively unambiguous and axiomatic positions. Red does not seem to tolerate any objections, neither in a positive nor a negative sense, neither in cold nor in warm temperatures.
In Christian art of the Middle Ages, red was the colour of martyrdom, of Christ’s sufferings, and thus reserved for the depiction of Biblical scenes, dignitaries of the Church and the aristocracy, but it was also the colour of wickedness and sin. Martyrdom and sin are the two red poles of the world of medieval Europe.
The newly powerful and wealthy bourgeoisie of the Renaissance was eager to underline its claim to equality with the aristocracy, and was portrayed frequently wearing red clothes.
With the growing independence of artists from their patrons, the use of colours became more individualized. The use of shades of red initially imitated those shades actually found in the chosen motif. Matisse finally spoke of ‘a colour’s very own beauty that should be preserved, just as in music timbre should be preserved’. He was convinced that ‘colour exists in and of itself’, and elsewhere he said, ‘I’ve used colour to express an emotion’.
For Kandinsky, form can exist independently, but not colour. ‘Colour cannot be spread boundlessly. We can only imagine or see a boundless red in the mind. … But when red needs to be given a material form (such as in painting), then it must firstly have a particular shade from the endless series of different reds, and secondly be limited by the surface of the painting.’ Kandinsky maintained that the value and character of certain colours are emphasised by certain shapes, and he assigned red to the shape of the square.
‘If there were only one truth, we would not keep having to create new images all the time.’ What Picasso says about truth seems to also apply to the effect and role of colour in art as a whole, and thus also to the colour red. Whether we let ourselves be captured by the shades of red in a painting by Frank Badur, inspired by his numerous trips to Asia, or expose ourselves to the screaming red on a huge painting by Ronald de Bloeme, whether we ponder the changes red is subjected to as soon as it is confronted with black, as in the large-format paintings by Judy Millar, or engage with the existential roots of the red-and-white Polka Dots by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the impressions and associations of the colour red remain fascinatingly complex and mysterious.
The exhibition Seeing Red now invites us to make our own observations. All the art works shown use the colour red. The beholder is here given the rare opportunity to reflect on a colour in art about which so much has been said already, but which nonetheless carefully guards the secret of its fascination. Only one thing can be said with absolutely certainty: it doesn’t leave anybody cold.