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Events & Reports
Transcript of the 2nd Dennis Rosen Memorial Lecture
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Question 2
It seems to me that one of the crucial things at the heart of this debate is a confusion between art and life and perceptions of reality. How one functions as an artist. I am a painter and I do a crash course in colour teaching amongst which is the notion of memory. One of the things which is quite interesting is the instigation of colour. Not necessarily the response to colour. For example, Professor Gregory has asked us to look at a colour to see if the memory survives from a perception.

What is interesting is to get students to close their eyes and to try to evoke a colour without an initial instigation. For example, if you were to close your eyes now and I said to you try and get orange in your head. People who have suffered brain injury very often, I may be wrong here, but the part of the brain were colour is evoked is also the part of the brain where memory is stored. So there is a connection between memory and colour. My experience of working with students with colour is that I would never dream of giving them any sort of codification of colour practice. The fact of the matter is that, particularly for students just starting on a foundation course, they are almost totally unaware of the notion of the function of value for example, in colour. I have a student who has no colour vision at all. Her whole world is black and white and shades of grey but she is very, very sophisticated in the use of tonality of colour, like this famous case in America where he had to make paintings from what colour was said on the label.

LISA JARDINE
Questions not statements please. But, as I said right at the beginning, I will use this to come back to memory. I think that is our trigger. The relationship between colour and memory for you.

HOWARD HODGKIN
To questioner. Well think of closing eyes and thinking of orange. You just think of a piece of fruit. It’s all very simple really. That’s not what you meant. Do tell us what you meant?
Question 3
What you seem to be talking about seems to me to be hue, the wavelength of the light. You haven’t talked very much about intensity of the light. That I would have thought is very important to a painter and of course everybody else. Is that perhaps part of what you see as the memory effect. Is the intensity of the light, the intensity of the colour important?
RICHARD GREGORY
Oh yes. There is a famous experiment where on a screen they projected a picture of a banana and they made it fainter and fainter and fainter until it was unclear whether one was seeing it or imagining it. This bears on your question really. You never seem to get that vividness for very faint things. But of course, like music the modulation, surely the modulation of the brightness of the colour, is extremely important, is it not? It is in normal life. We weren’t really talking in detail technically, were we, about the nature of colour or its complexities, deliberately or indeed about the way the brain handles it and so on. We are trying to get at more general points. Take it as read that it’s not just the wavelength of a colour or wavelengths making a compound or complicated colour but also the brightness and the texture. In painting is not the texture extremely important which may be one reason why you didn’t like me putting your pictures up on the screen?

HOWARD HODGKIN
No, I just thought that they were completely irrelevant.
RICHARD GREGORY
How can your work be irrelevant to you?
HOWARD HODGKIN
It’s irrelevant to what we’re talking about.
RICHARD GREGORY
Really? Oh OK.
HOWARD HODGKIN
The texture of colour is very important because the texture can often affect how much light is reflected by the piece of colour in the picture. So that a very matt texture might reflect less light than one for example you mentioned lapis lazuli a while ago. This thing about lapis and one of the amazing reasons why it was so brilliant a colour blue is that real lapis is very hard to grind finely enough to make a smooth surface of the kind we’re all used to. So what you have that you can see easily with the naked eye in a 15th century manuscript illumination is thousands of tiny little bits of lapis, each one of which reflects the light and that of course makes an immense difference and that’s what happens in all sorts of paintings using different kinds of pigment for different purposes. But I think that this is getting much too technical.
RICHARD GREGORY
Can I just interject a little bit? It seems to me that when you’re looking at a painting or particularly at an object, it is not just the surface colours you’re really experiencing – it is the object. You’re experiencing glass, and that you can put things in it, or wood. Actually the painter is not simply giving patches of colour. He is evoking the knowledge of objects, as you see solid objects, although in another bit of your brain you know it’s a bunch of patterns. It’s a duality of patterns to the object that seems to me to be so exciting and interesting about art. It’s got this double reality, with a sort of tension between these two going on.
HOWARD HODGKIN
It can.
RICHARD GREGORY
It can. I’m not sure it always does. You’re not such a representational painter in that sense. A representational painter is very much playing with that, surely. You represent motion rather than objects realistically I meant.
HOWARD HODGKIN
Yup.
RICHARD GREGORY
Yes, generally speaking. But you’ve got this marvellous freedom to do as you want here. You could bring out that sort of conflict or tension between the surface and colours and textures, and then what the object is, by making it more or less abstract.
HOWARD HODGKIN
The object is actually the painting and what is fascinating going on from what you’re saying and trying not to be too technical but if you look at for example there is at this moment an extraordinary exhibition of Vermeer’s paintings. Well, if you look at lesser 17th century Dutch painters’ work, particularly very Trompe l’Oeil-ish if I can say something so imprecisely. If you look at them in tiny little details, they are little tiny totally abstract pictures because, and this is an absolute donné of representational painting, that it never works unless you tell the spectator first it’s a fraud. Hence, all those paintings of Trompe l’Oeil, all sorts of gamebirds and there was a fascinating exhibition of game birds hanging up on a piece of wood. There was a fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery of probably the greatest of all Trompe l’Oeil artists who was urbane whose name I’ve forgotten. You always have to tell the spectator that here is a flat surface, here is a picture plane. Then you can start telling lies.

LISA JARDINE
Wonderful idea. Lady in the front here.
Question 4
It seems to me that you look as if you’re opposed to each other but I can see a very strong link between what you’re saying and I don’t think that the showing of your paintings was irrelevant at all. To me it was extremely relevant. I can’t believe that when an artist is painting a picture that they start thinking about the history of art. He may be interested in the history of art as it shows how paintings have been painted in the past. But I can’t believe that when you’ve got your bare canvas in front of you that you’’ll suddenly think right now back to previous times. I feel that you must be painting something that evokes some sort of deep emotion in you and I feel that that’s what your paintings indicated. In fact there was an awful lot of red in them and I thought he must be passionately aroused every time he picks up the paintbrush. So I do think that there is a link because I think that you’re looking at the psychology of it and that’s where I think the link is. That in the painter there is something in his/her psychology that causes them to paint in a particular way. It may be an astrological link – I don’t know but I think that’s where the link is.
HOWARD HODGKIN
Can I answer what I think is an actual question in what you’re saying and that is of course you don’t think, or I don’t think about the whole history of art but what I was trying to explain and which I am absolutely sure is the fact is that all the pictures that have been painted affect how we see a picture or an object and it doesn’t matter if you’re Van Gogh or Vermeer or Jackson Pollock. What happens in and on the object that you’re making is affected for you and for all the spectators by what you already know and it doesn’t mean anything as grandiose, I was only using that as a control pap, as the history of art might suggest but there is a pictorial language which we all respond to and that’s why we’re not opposed, as far as I’m concerned.
LISA JARDINE
Now I have a problem which is that we’re going to stop prompt at nine as Susan Greenfield is looking at me very fiercely and I’ve known her long enough to know that she’s very fierce in these circumstances. A question from the gentlemen with a beard very patient up there in the balcony. I’m afraid I’m going to ignore the man down here because I do believe that we should take one token question from the gallery. I’ve forgotten to look up and there are about a dozen up there. You couldn’t confer amongst yourselves could you and nominate a spokesman? There’s a gentleman here who has had his hand up for a long time I’ve suddenly realised. So we’re going to take the one up there and then that gentleman in the front up there and then the lady in the very front and that will be it. Please can you keep your question short.

Question 5
This is a very short question. You mentioned occasion and context earlier. Does this not include references to different cultures – how different cultures respond to different colours. To either speaker.
RICHARD GREGORY
I have to bring up my question mark, because the experiments on this are not really very good, in my humble opinion.
Question 6
Were you joking when you said that colour doesn’t exist, because surely humans exist and most humans perceive colour. The subject of scientific experiment what is true surely is that you can say that it is not an inherent property of a particular section of the electromagnetic spectrum but it exists because human brains are real brains and they perceive it and operate and dissect it in a sense so surely it’s not true to say that it
doesn’t exist.
RICHARD GREGORY
It depends on what you mean by exist. Well it really does. The argument goes like this. If there were no eyes and no brains, there would be no colour in the world; but on the other hand we do believe that things will be heavy, solid, round or square. Colour is special in this way because it depends on brains and eyes to exist. Now it exists in us because we exist. If we didn’t exist it wouldn’t exist, and that’s the difference between what Locke called primary and secondary characteristics. It’s a secondary characteristic, not a primary quality as you get in physics but of course it’s evoked by physical wavelengths of light – but they are not coloured.
LISA JARDINE
There is a corollary to that which I can’t resist putting to Howard that means that no painting exist in that trend. They are, as you explained, illusions created, however realistic, they are illusions created by the application of colour to a flat surface and therefore doesn’t that follow. He says that paint exists, the frame exists, the piece of wood exists, the canvas exists.

HOWARD HODGKIN
Yes
LISA JARDINE
All paintings are illusions.

HOWARD HODGKIN
No. All paintings are not illusions.
LISA JARDINE
In his sense of existence.

HOWARD HODGKIN
I didn’t think you were saying that.
RICHARD GREGORY
I’d say the significance of the painting depends on brains and eyes and intelligence. The significance of the painting would not be there without us.

HOWARD HODGKIN
Yes, Yes.
LISA JARDINE
So the painting wouldn’t be there without us?
RICHARD GREGORY
It depends what you mean by painting. As a physical object with primary qualities like hardness, weight, but not its significance.
LISA JARDINE
Final question
Question 7
When you’ve got a picture and everything is more or less as expected but there is a bit of colour in it which is totally unexpected. What happens in your eye or in your brain which gives you a sort of zitheryness?
LISA JARDINE
Great question.
HOWARD HODGKIN
I think that’s a very good question. Before Richard answers it, which he certainly should, I should like to know why so many 17th, 18th and 19th century landscape painters loved to add a little touch of red.

RICHARD GREGORY
I will make one very general comment, if I may, as I am not expert in the way you are, to answer that specific question. What does matter in perception is surprise – that we tool along without noticing what we are doing until something surprising happens. When you are driving along, and a pedestrian starts to move into the road, you are immediately aware of it and highly conscious of it. I think this little dab of colour may be evoking surprise, which you then switch your attention onto it, and process it more fully. Surprise is equal to information. The more surprising something is technically, the more information it conveys. It also attracts our attention. I think this is the kind of answer I would give.

HOWARD HODGKIN
I think that’s brilliant.
LISA JARDINE
I think there has been a lot of very interesting movement in the conversation. To have Howard say that he thinks that what Richard says is brilliant. Richard Gregory, Howard Hodgkin thank you both very much indeed.
Continued 2 3 4 5 6

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