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Some Meanings for Yellow

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Wassily Kandinsky - Yellow, Red, Blue

Yellow has many meanings. It is the colour of the sun, and of wheat, and candle light. For some, it is the colour of cowards and xenophobes, of disease, of growing old. It has been the colour of terror, of madness and of kings.  In one or two countries, the yellow joke is adult, as are yellow movies. In others, it is divine, holy, the earth and the sun and everything.

In physics, strange to say, yellow is simply the colour of a light with wavelengths of between 570 and 590 nanometres. Light like this excites the medium and long wave cone cells of the retina. Indigo blue – for reasons of the length of its own wave – is yellow’s perfect compliment. Fully fledged tritanopes are blind to both yellow and blue. If this means nearly nothing, then be at peace. Just know that your brain is a very clever thing indeed.

For Vincent van Gogh, yellow was the colour of hope. Van Gogh lived in a yellow house. Yellow is everywhere in his work. There have been number of theories as to why. Digitalis is one. Van Gogh was prescribed digitalis for his mania. Highly toxic, one side effect of digitalis is its propensity for producing yellow tinged hallucinations in users. Suspected glaucoma is another (theory).  More (bio)physics: glaucoma is a disease of the eye; if you get it, your cornea swells and light sources are perceived as being surrounded by halos – a bit like those that sometimes surround the moon.

Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait

Whatever the truth (and there is no evidence for either), Van Gogh clearly felt yellow more keenly than most. Wassily Kandinsky would have sympathised.’ Kandinsky heard his yellows. Literally.  And Kandinsky wasn’t mad. Or sick. Or addicted to drugs. He understood yellow as the noise of warmth, of fire, even. Yellow, he said, is ‘terrestrial’, violent, a colour both ‘painful and aggressive’, which – like hope sucked of warmth – describes perfectly Van Gogh’s own private yellow hell.

Actually, we’re misrepresenting Kandinsky. He did not think yellow the colour for madness. He called it eccentric, by which he meant off-centre, in the same way that engineers or mathematicians speak about off-centre wheels and circles. He was a synesthete. Yellow, like the sound of a violin, soars, is strident, calms, punches holes in compositions – hence its capacity for warmth and for violence. Like the sun. Like humans.

staging of Wassily Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound


Written by FreeState

February 7, 2012 at 12:45 pm