Josef Albers, the German artist and educator, is considered the father of modern color theory. He was a leading professor at the cutting edge and prestigious Weimer Bauhaus which was both located in Weimer, later moving to Dreasau, Germany. Albers started working with stained glass, architecture, design and what we refer to today as the Arts and Crafts movement.
When I was in college, oh so many moons ago, I had to take a course in color theory. It was the work of Josef Albers that laid the foundation for the course. However it was his time at the Bauhaus that most intrigued me.
At the time, I was spending my summers in Black Mt, North Carolina as a camp counselor at Camp Merri Mac for girls. One day I will write a post about my time at Merri Mac. I’ve touched on Merri Mac and its importance in my life before when I wrote the post based on what lead me to want to teach. I am grateful for the summers I spent at Merri Mac as my time there helped to mould me, in part, into the person I am today.
The importance today, however, is not my time spent as a camp counselor at Merri-Mac but rather more importantly for the location of the camp, Black Mountain, North Carolina.
Throughout the 1920’s the German Bauhaus was considered a prestigious trade or vocational school. It was what we today refer to as a cutting edge or leading institution in the field of the education for the Arts. The ideas that were being generated at the Bauhaus helped to usher in the modernity of Architecture, Printmaking, Design and much of today’s Arts and Crafts movement. It was this emerging modern take on design which put all these German artists and the Bauhaus on a deadly collision course with Nazi Germany— which in turn would help changed the future of the Arts in the 20th century.
In 1933 Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He was now on a rapid trajectory to take complete control over the physically and ego damaged nation of Germany. The current President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, an old feeble war hero, had unwisely thought that by appointing Adolph Hitler Chancellor– he’d be able to keep his thumb on this young charismatic hot head.
Hindenburg was physically and intellectually incapable of aiding his hurting nation. Germany was in the throws of a severe depression and was still licking its self esteem wounds from the fallout of WWI. Hitler’s National Socialist Workers Party, which morphed into what we all know as the NAZI party, skyrocketed to power along with Hitler. Their thuggish behavior of intimidation and violence, the Nazis were quick to cull any opposition, real or imagined, to its skewed belief system.
Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus had already left the school and fleed to the United States. Many of the remaining artists were forced to flee or face extreme repercussions / persecution as the Nazis came to power. Artwork, the life’s work of many of these artists were either confiscated or destroyed. Those who did not flee, or could not flee, were either imprisoned or sadly no other options but to take their own lives—the tragic fallout form the “State” deeming the art work obscene, grotesque, or in direct opposition to the new direction of Germany. Self expression was no longer acceptable.
Many of those artists and educators, who fled Germany, found their way to many prestigious Universities here in the Untied States such as Yale and Harvard. And yet there existed a vacuum that was to be filled by still many more of the Bauhaus faculty and alumni. The birth of the Black Mountain College, in tiny Black Mt, North Carolina, was a result from the fallout of the stifled art world in Nazi Germany.
It was during my time as a counselor at Merri Mac that I learned of the existence of the defunct Black Mt. College. It had long shuttered its doors by the time I found my way to Black Mt. The grounds of the school were now incorporated into our sister camp for boys, Camp Rockmont.
The following fall term of my senior year, I found myself having to write a paper for a senior level art ed course. I chose as my topic the birth and death of the Black Mountain College. It was a forgotten tale of war, loss, death, art and refuge. The shadows remained hidden in tiny Black Mountain. The quest for information was more rewarding than the paper itself.
Unfortunately this post does not have the capacity for me to explore and expound upon the sinister topic of the art world during Nazi Germany nor of the emergence of such artists here in the US as a direct result of the Nazi occupation of Germany. Names such as Albers, Gropius, Kandinsky, and Klee, to name but a few, became household names during the growing Modern and Post Modern art movements—with a small rural town in the mountains of southern Appalachia playing a key role. Perhaps this post is but to whet your appetite to delve further into this tiny forgotten piece of the history of art here in the United States.
Which all brings me back to the very beginning of this post and of the simple thought of color or colour. Josef Albers tells us that we never perceive what color is physically. Albers’ is an intellectual approach to color and the study of color. The play and pairing of various colors and intensities and what the eye perceives with often optical illusions coming to play. It is a fascinating study and Albers’ books are as popular as ever, even transcending to the new technological world with his work being transformed into cutting edge color Apps.
And yet I must take issue with Mr.Albers’ claim to a lack physical perception of color—my perception of color is much more simplistic than that of Mr Albers. I tend to be very literal in my perceptions of most of life. I look at the pansy in today’s post and I see an explosion of color. A play of violets, yellows, pinks and reds. I look at a pumpkin and I am engulfed with what I know to be pure orange. But what is orange but an equal mix of true red and true yellow. Two primary colors combining to form a secondary color, but to me, it is simply orange.
A granny smith apple is a color all its own. When I say Granny Smith, you visualize a yellow green apple. When I say pumpkin, you visualize orange. When I say brown, you visualize a leaf, dirt, the fur of an animal. When I say purple you visualize a grape….and so it goes. We associate color with physical objects.
So during this time of changing colors, otherwise known as Fall or Autumn, as you marvel in the turning of a green leaf to that of crimson, golden yellow, brilliant orange then to brown–or as you partake in the seasonal ritual of carving an overtly orange pumpkin–think of Josef Albers, the father of modern color theory, think of a tiny town in the mountains of North Carolina that took in the refugees of a tormented nation gone mad, and think of what the world of color brings to your daily world.
As we gaze on the Autumn landscape awash in its seasonal splendor, may we be mindful that perhaps there is more to this color business, we so relish, than we had ever imagined.