As Hella Jongerius’ fascinating exhibition at the Design Museum proves, it is getting more and more difficult to draw a firm, unyielding line between what we call Design and what we still call Art. This is particularly the case with abstract art, which makes no direct reference to the external world and asks us to look at forms and colours for their own sake, independent of representation. There is much in Jongerius’ show Breathing Colour that could safely be included in a show of what we have learned to call Op Art.
As for comparing it with Minimal Art – dear God how dreary it makes that now fast-fading fashion look.
The real point about the show is its open ended-ness and fluidity of approach. According to Jongerius, a textile designer by profession, colours continually change and shift according to the circumstances in which we see the colour area concerned. What we get is governed by a least three different sets of circumstances, First, the actual materiality of the hue – its existence as a physical entity. A complex colour area may be made up of several different hues, and apparently similar areas achieve density or lack of it according to the nature of the mixture. Which is why, for example, some blacks seem blacker than black.
Second, the kind of light in which we see that area. This can, for example, differ quite widely according to the time of day: morning, noon, afternoon, evening twilight. This is, assuming that we are seeing the area in the open air, by daylight. Things become different again when we see what is presented us indoors, by artificial lighting.
I have a reminder of this on my finger – a ring with a man-made alexandrite, which shifts from pink to green. Pink by daylight, green by certain kinds of artificial light. An amusing time-waster, if one is feeling momentarily bored. The colour shifts according to different lighting conditions that Jungerius illustrates in her show are seldom quite as drastic as this, but they are easily perceptible none the less.
Last, but not least, there is one’s own subjectivity, partly perhaps a matter of things that are purely physical: how one’s eyesight works. But also in large part, I suspect, psychological – the result of one’s emotional, inbuilt reactions to the colour or combination of colours concerned. These may be the result of happenstance – of experiences that are purely personal. Or they may be culturally formed and controlled.
The colour green, for instance, has strongly positive associations in Islam. In the 12th century, it was the dynastic colour of the Shiite Fatimids, and there are several suras in the Quran that refer to it:
‘Reclining on green Cushions and Carpets of beauty.’ – Sura 55, verse 76
‘Upon them will be green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade, and they will be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord will give them to drink of Water Pure and Holy.’ – Sura 76, verse 21
Which brings me back, perhaps, to the fact that Hella Jongerius is a fabric designer.
HELLA JONGERIUS – Breathing Colour, Design Museum Kensington London until 24h September 2017