Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Johannes Itten

Johannes Itten's color sphere.                         
Years ago when I taught art in the public schools I used to present what we commonly call the "color wheel" to first grade students (six-year-olds) as a means of introducing the rudiments of color theory. About seven years later, at the junior high level of art instruction, I presented the same color chart to seventh grade students (thirteen-year-olds) as a means of simplifying color theory. I supplimented this with a little paint mixing exercise using tempera whereby the students mixed first white, then black with each primary color to create tints and shades. Following this they did the same having to first mixed the secondary colors. The result was six vertical columns of seven squares each with light pink (for example) at the top, followed by three more graduated intensities of pink (red) with the fourth square down being pure red. From there, gradually adding more and more black, the effort resulted in the bottom square a very deep, dark, shade of red. Not only did the students learn color theory and the delicate art of mixing colors, but refined their painting technique as well learning to control the quantity and wetness of the medium with emphasis on neatness of application.
Johannes Itten's "simplified" color wheel, (1961)
As an art instructor I always used the color wheel to graphically demonstrate and simplify color theory. However, let me be the first last to say that there is nothing simple about the color wheel. Artists, theorists, and lighting directors have been pondering it ever since Noah first stepped of the ark and said, "WOW!" Sir Isaac Newton is often credited with "inventing" it around 1704 (possibly while sitting under an apple tree while waiting for the fruit to bop him on the head). Actually, the Italian Renaissaance artist and architect, Leone Alberti, had written extensively on the subject as early as 1435. Later, Leonardo's writings indicate he had a thing or two to say about it as well. It's unclear whether Newton (who wasn't much of an artist) actually created the first color wheel or simply described it in his writings. In any case, from that point on artists and color theorists took up the cause, literally "reinventing the wheel" again and again for the next couple centuries. Not surprisingly, when that happens, their wheels, and the attached instruction books, gradually got more and more complicated to the point only their inventors (presumably) understood them.
During the early 1700s, Newton's color theories triggered something of a cottage
industry in color charts based upon Newton's wheel.
Chevreul's color wheel. Imagine trying to
explain color without using color.
Out of this ephemeral cloud of circular color diagrams there developed a few color experts, one of the first being the German poet and government minister Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his 1810 treatise Theory of Colours in which he lucidly and eloquently discussed and summarized his personal observations on the subject. Then a few years later, in 1839, the French industrial chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul wrote a much more scientific analysis discussing the ralationships of color from a chemical, as well as an optical point of view. His book was titled: The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast. I'll wait until it come out in paperback. As stilted and technical as Chevreul's tome may have been (and in French too, no less), it found an avid readership--Impressionist artist. It formed the basis of their "scientific color theory" and for the first time in art history color theory had an actual impact on painting.
During the 1800s, there seemed to be a race to see who could create the most convoluted color wheel. Goethe, (lower left corner) tried to simplify the whole genre. At first glance, it would seem he succeeded. At second glance...not so much.
Johannes Itten, 1913,
possibly a self-portrait.
Though other thinkers, theorists, dyers, printers, and painters toyed around with complex peculiarities of color (often making them more complex and peculiar), it wasn't until the 1920s when a former kindergarten teacher named Johannes Itten took up residence teaching at the famed German Bauhaus that much in the way of real progress in the understanding of color took place. Itten published a textbook titled The Art of Color so profound, yet practical, it's still used in colleges today (updated and revised) in teaching about color. It might be going a bit far to call it the "final word" in color theory, but having withstood the test of time it certainly ranks Itten alongside Alberti, Newton, Gothe, and Chevreul as being a color expert who actually knew what he was talking about as to such a scientific, yet highly subjective area of art.
Color wheels of the late 1800s, state of the art until Itten came along.
Johannes Itten was born in Switzerland in 1888. He was an early adherent to the writings and pedagogic teachings of Friedrich Fröbel and Freudian psychoanlysis. Though often referred to as an artist, Itten's formal art training was limited to a couple years at the Geneva Academy of Art. Mostly he was influenced by Ernst Schneider and the Bern-Hofwil Teachers' Academy. Itten adopted Schneider's, practice of not correcting his students' creative work on an individual basis lest it might crush the creative impulse. Instead, he concentrated upon certain common mistakes in correcting the class as a whole. In 1912, Itten returned to Geneva, where he took up abstract painting under the influence of Eugène Gilliard. Later Itten opened his own highly progressive art school in Vienna where he taught "the basics" using a textbook written by Gilliard while also coupling his teaching with gymnastic exercizes designed to relax students for his classes.
Itten's color theories were built upon the work of Adolph Hoelzel.
Itten's school and teaching techniques caught the attention of Walter Gropius at the Wiemar Bauhaus where Itten joined the faculty in 1919 teaching the preliminary courses in art. It was there he published and used as a text his own book, The Art of Color in which he expanded the traditional six-color wheel into a twelve-color sphere (top). Itten resigned from the Bauhaus in 1922 following a rift with Gropius involving Itten's involvement in vegetarianism and Mazdaznan (don't ask, it's a religion way too complex to discuss here). He moved from there to Berlin where he once more established his own school teaching art and architecture. Before, during, and after WW II, Itten held positions as director at several prestigeous art colleges, universities, and museums in Europe. He retired in 1955 to return to painting until his death in 1967. During his lifetime, Itten was influential in the work of Josef Albers, Max Bill, Bridget Riley, and the expressionist works of Wassily Kandinsky--not bad for a kindergarten teacher.

Even Itten's abstract paintings continued to involve color relationships.


No comments:

Post a Comment