Even if someone paints a ‘green sun’, I will not say it is wrong. This is because there may be a time when the sun looks that way to me too.– Takamura Kotaro, 1910

AMMAN – In 1910, Takamura Kōtarō a Japanese artist and poet published a manifesto-like essay titled A Green Sun, where he criticized artistic expressions that are devoted to local colour, and expressed the need for the ‘absolute freedom in the art world’. Kōtarō stressed on the importance of artists’ personal identity and individual spirit to be expressed in their work as a means for them to move forward. 

Reflecting on that, what follows is a run through of artists that have used colour as a means to liberate themselves, spread their ideas, portray the beauty of nature and establish new movements in art. 

Colour as Liberation:

Gustav Klimt:

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, Oil and Gold Leaf, 180×180cm, 1907-1908.

An artist whose colour palette marked critical success in his career is Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. His Golden period is believed to be inspired from visual recollections from his childhood and his travels around Europe. Klimt father’s occupation as a goldsmith awakened his taste for the element of gold in his paintings, and his exposure to Byzantine art in Italy decorated with gold details left a mark on his work.

During the period that Klimt finished painting The Kiss in 1908, Vienna was a Bohemian city filled with artistic transformations. The city’s government and traditional art establishments opposed the avant-garde cultural movement that was encouraged by young artists including Klimt. Hence, the use of the colour gold enabled Klimt to express themes like intimacy, human suffering and sexuality, that were rejected at that time, by partially concealing his naked figures with gold. The artist managed to juxtapose colour with subject matter. Gold was recognised by the general public, and was associated with medieval paintings, manuscripts and early mosaics. In the painting, the gold was used to intensify the clash of love and violence between the two depicted figures. Thus, Klimt‘s use of gold could be considered as a conscious re-appropriation of local colour.

Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock at work (biography.com)

In the years following the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism emerged particularly in New York, introducing new directions in art. The movement was linked with individual expression and the freedom of subjectivity, which were deeply held American values at that time.

A member of the movement that encouraged pure thought and emotion, was American painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Pollock used colour dripping techniques as a way to achieve total self expression. The technique involved pouring paint onto a horizontal surfaces without being fixed to an easel, allowing him to view his canvases from all angles. 

Jackson Pollock, Convergence, Oil on Canvas, 237×390cm, 1952.

Pollock‘s oil painting Convergence (1952), is considered one of his most famous works. The work is composed of a wide range of colours, lines and shapes that are splattered directly onto the canvas. Black drops of paint serve as the background; layered with orange, red, yellow and white that converge together to achieve a rebellious and chaotic spirit. The layering of paint colours creates a texture that suggests Pollock‘s subconscious confusion and frustration. Hence, through exercising considerable freedom of technique and intuitive application of colour, Pollock‘s work embodied his liberation of thought.

However, contrary to that mental and spiritual liberation that the painting conveyed, it is believed that during the 1950’s the American CIA was indirectly involved with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, and used their paintings as a propaganda tool against the Soviet Union.  Promoting Abstract Expressionism proved at that time that it was possible to be both culturally significant and anti-communist, where the aggressive mingling of colours became a propaganda used by the government. 

Serwan Baran:

Artist Serwan Baran with The Last Meal, Acrylic on Canvas, 400×500cm, 2019 (via artist’s instagram page)

Born in Baghdad in 1968, Kurdish-Iraqi artist and former soldier now based in Beirut, Serwan Baran has lived through over forty five years of war in his lifetime. The artist stated he was formerly employed to document the victories of the Iraqi army, and drew portraits of soldiers and leaders to glorify war. But, Baran‘s work later on took a different turn, by addressing the reality of history and war in a very direct and honest way.    

For Baran, depicting war is a form of exorcism that he practices through colours and brushstrokes that help him heal and evict memories of war that have possessed him.

My work is a reaction to war, not a chronicle. I am repeating the shock over and over again to get rid of the pain. I do it because I am opening up. -Baran to Ruya Foundation
Serwan Baran, The Last General sculpture on display with view of The Last Meal through the door, 2019, as seen at the 58th Venice Biennale.

Unveiled at the Iraqi Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, The Last Meal (2019) by  Serwan Baran revealed an aerial view of predominantly green and brown tones of brush strokes. The strokes make up the bodies of soldiers killed while eating. The scene incorporates collaged strips of cloth taken from soldiers’ uniforms that were donated to the artist by their families. The artist saw soldiers killed while they were eating in war, and through his aerial view he invites viewers to witness the entire crime scene as well. Sarwan‘s liberation therefore  is achieved on two levels; the personal and the political. He attains this through his fearless approach and expressive use of large scales and intense colours that depict the real horror of war.

Colour as Serenity:

Etel Adnan:

Etel Adnan at work in her Paris studio © Samuel Kirszenbaum

From a deeply felt connection with nature, Etel Adnan‘s clear simple forms and colour compositions enable her to depict memories of pleasure and peace. By choosing to change the colour of the sky, the sun and the moon, the artist expresses the value of freedom that she has acquired to herself through her instinct to move forward.  Unlike her poems, where her political consciousness is revealed through words, Adnan‘s paintings are a vehicle in which she expresses her love for nature; and in a broader sense her philosophy of life.

Growing up, the Lebanese-American poet and visual artist was raised by parents whose lives’ have been shaken by social and political realities. Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon to a Greek mother and a Syrian father who was originally from the Ottoman Empire. By the time Adnan was born, her father was unemployed due to the collapse of the empire, and her mother’s city Smyrna burned to the ground. Hence, growing up with parents who have been through defeat, made her more aware about devastation and the effects of displacement. As opposed to such tragedies, Adnan‘s colour palette instead resembles a peaceful state of mind.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 24.5 × 30.2 cm, 2015 ( www.whitecube.com)

Colour in her paintings overcomes all languages.  Mountain peaks illustrate her childhood in Lebanon, where she saw the sea from everywhere she was, and being constantly at some peak was exhilarating for the artist.  Later on, Mount Tamalpais in California, became her abiding muse that she celebrated in a mass of paintings through discovering new colours.

I feel it kind of saved my life. I never felt alone, I never felt in exile. I think because that mountain was there. Somehow as soon as I saw it, I felt at home. It became a pole around which I turned. Sometimes a person does that to you, but it was really that mountain that was my point of reference and it’s beauty. I found it beautiful. – Adnan to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2018

In a metaphorical sense, the artist herself shares traits with refugees, by escaping restrictions of her childhood to create a new life for her in California, but yet she remained attached to her Arab identity. 

Although I lived in California most of my life, I never had a spell of time where I could forget about the problems of the Middle East. Every morning the newspaper would remind me.- Adnan to Appolo magazine, 2018 

Rich blues, creamy greens and intense reds that are regularly laid with a palette knife do not only resemble the bright colours of California, but the artist’s ability to dream and wish for a better world, and she does that through appreciating the beauty of nature, in its colours and landscapes. 

Colour as Movement:

Mohammed Melehi:

My question was what could we find in Morocco that was an expression of Morocco? –Melehi quoted in The Guardian, 2019
Mohamed Melehi at work (rdnarts.com)

Moroccan painter, designer and cultural activist Mohamed Melehi, has been able to develop a new form of modernism that has contributed to the cultural scene of Post-Independent Morocco, The Casablanca School. Melehi‘s vision was achieved through merging influences of colour field painting and optical art with the rich tradition of abstraction in Berber craft and architecture.

Mohamed Melehi, Flamme, Cellulose paint on wood, 109.5×95.5cm, 1975, Hyperallergic.

In 1964, after gaining his artistic education in Europe and the US, Melehi returned to Morocco and began teaching at the school where he encouraged his students to learn about local visual culture, and to study different artistic disciplines. Rather the mimicking western aesthetics, Melehi wanted to develop a modernism that was inherent in local colours and elements.  In the 1970’s, Melehi started to use materials that were not removed from the working class and was very aware about the political significance of colour as a way to protest. So, he started to use cellulose paint to express his solidarity with Moroccans who were protesting against an autocratic regime.

Since the 1960’s, the motif of the wave frequently appeared in his work.  Melehi relied on creating colour transitions and clean lines to incorporate the element of movement in his work. He reconfigured the waves, by turning them vertically to become flames, or cutting across the canvas on an angle. Melehi‘s waves have been linked to the waves on the beaches of Asilah, his hometown, Arabic calligraphy, cosmic relations between the planets, and the relationship between the sun and the horizon. The repetition of colourful stripes of red, yellow, orange, pink, green and blue achieved a vibrant effect that conveyed a form of psychedelic freedom in his paintings.

Mohamed Melehi, Untitled, Cellulose paint on wood, 110x95cm, 1975, via Hyperallergic.

Melehi‘s colour palette not only enabled him to create a modern local aesthetic, but also embodied the cosmopolitan lifestyle that urges one to move between different cultural reminders and references. His overflowing colour variations reflected his perception of living between two regions. The artist told Gulf news about the ‘international artists’ saying they live between two heritages: “the Arab-Islamic cultural heritage that has a psychological aspect, carried inside the artist until his death, and his global inheritance and the influence of the universal civilisation. Personally, I belong to the two heritages”.

Samia Halaby:

If Arab art and Palestine is in some paintings, that’s because it’s part of my past and will come through as part of my experiences in the real world. But if I’m a painter, I should be a painter trying to do paintings that are the most advanced possible. – Halaby to My Olive Roots, 2018
Halaby posing with her paintings.

An artist whose work emphasises on establishing aesthetic theories through scientifically informed experiments is Palestinian artist, scholar and art historian Samia Halaby (1936) who is based in New York. 

Central to Halaby‘s artistic practice are attempts to communicate the physical properties of matter, like the interplay of light and colour, numbers and rhythms, finding new ways to portray the world around her.

When I see something beautiful, I always stop and memorise it… I watch things change relative to each other in shape, size, and colour and these memories become the subject of my paintings. -Halaby as quoted by Ayyam Gallery, 2013
Samia Halaby during a Kinetic Painting performance in the 1980’s, via the artist’s instagram and a gif sample of Halaby’s Kinetic Painting work.

In the 1980’s, Halaby began carrying out experiments that merged art with technology and that had a deep impact on her use of colour and concept of painting. Using computer programming, the artist produced kinetic paintings that inspired her to paint the way things sound and move, collaborating with a variety of musicians, dancers, poets, and storytellers, and also creating multi-media performances. Together with visionary musician Kevin Nathaniel and multi-instrumentalist Hasan Bakr, Halaby formed the Kinetic Painting Group. 

Samia Halaby, Brass Women 1 and 2, Computer Program, 1989, (art.net).

In the 1980’s,  Halaby dedicated a series of computer-generated paintings to Black and Latino women to praise their assertiveness against oppression. Brass Women (1989), was performed with percussionists and was inspired by the rhythm on the streets of New York that came from its working class shoppers and political demonstrators. Through the intuitive overlapping of bright contrasting circular shapes and lines, Halaby did not only demonstrate the potential of electronic art forms to develop new styles of painting, but the ability to create a total work of art. 

Samia Halaby, Essence of Arab, Acrylic on Canvas ,152.2×203 cm, 2007 via gulfnews.

In her later works, Halaby continued to create colour abstractions that created a relatable type of art.  In Essence of Arab (2007), the artist depicted the desert, woven patterns and colours of the night through brightly coloured dots, circles and brush strokes of shades of purple, orange and blue. The artist felt that the painting gave an essence of something Arab to her, which inspired its title. 

Altogether, Halaby‘s way of portraying nature allows people from different backgrounds, regions and experiences to locate themselves and their memories in her abstract representations of reality, making her art universal.  

Read more from Aseel Bokai.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.