Black Square | Brian LewisPosted: October 25, 2016
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)
A public park, a Sunday, a late July afternoon. I am standing at the edge of a path with Angelina D’Roza, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, a fourteen-line script in hers. We have been standing here for several minutes, listening and waiting, for the air to level, the wind to soften and fall, so that we might record her poem, ‘This Sea the Colour’. We can’t direct the wind, nor shelter from it; the tall trees that line the path seem only to amplify the gusts. Nor can anything be done with the voices trailing through the park, human, animal, they start, we stop, we start, they start. The poem is a desert poem. There are no children or dogs in the sonnet, no grass, no trees. No purples, no greens. If there is wind, it is not this wind that banks and twists between script and stereo microphone, chipping the tones, I watch the waveforms buckling, the white peaks. The park is not the desert. It is full – of sound, of weather – and we cannot empty it. We’ve nowhere else to go, and we’re running out of time. Think of a colour. We start again, title, first line, then the next, an orange thread paid out to the end of its spool, wound in, and out again, two takes, two tries. The thread is a measure, it is finite, it marks each difference in weight and tone, the poem’s elsewhere and its end. Somehow, in this managed, peopled place, a clipped corner of south-west Sheffield, we close in on the sonnet’s colour space, cadmium orange, soaking blue light, salt, sand and snow, a world of flakes and grains. It is ‘nearer and farther’, a speck made smaller, blown into air, land and sea. We listen to the fade.
The path lies within the Porter Valley Parkway, a sequence of green spaces laid out along the line of the Porter Brook, six miles of woods and water linking the Peak District to Sheffield city centre. We’re somewhere in the middle of this course, perhaps 50 metres from Shepherd Wheel, an ancient dam and grinding workshop, looking west towards Whiteley Woods. I’ve been here before, the thought comes, four summers back, four Julys ago, living on Cherry Street, close to the Porter and its confluence with the River Sheaf, the iron-rich brook trickling into brick conduits, a dark river made darker still. Four summers back, late evening, putting the house in order, the city behind me, finding the river at Pear Street, an embankment, a drop, the water hardly tinting the stones, and the walled greens of the General Cemetery to the south, railed offices and care homes to the north, then a schoolyard, a blank, grey quad and four sprayed walls, high contrast, purple overwriting red, yellow buffing into blue. Spent cans, squeezed tubes. The path climbing to Sharrow Vale Road, the Porter low, a brownout in culverts and bridges, everywhere and nowhere, the dry bright overground mix, residential and commercial, Porter Cottage, Porter Pizza, Porter Pets, the name spelled out in every colour, the lightless river. At the turning circle of Hunters Bar, the course untangles, a clear profile, the water making its own way through Endcliffe Park, close to the entrance, and I go to it, my west to its east. As the park narrows, the river widens, then straightens: a reflective strip, two streets out, bits of broken lamplight, I am reading it backwards. I run out of green, and into another roundabout, spinning off to Whiteley Woods, the next link in the municipal chain. Within a few hundred metres, the sides steepen, the tall trees close in, the streets and their electrics fall away. The park desaturates. If there is a moon, I don’t see it. I raise my right hand before me, but can’t place it. I have hearing, and touch, and I know that I am still with the path, and that the river is still with me. The word that comes is pitch, the wrong word, I know that this cannot be pitch, solid black in a suburban park, I know that the eyes can make adjustments. I pause, not quite stopping, and spin slowly. I wait for a reference tone, a stimulus, one bead of light, absolute threshold. The adjustments don’t happen. No shadow, no movement, no form. Not a speck. Only my spinning, which I stop. I take a few moments to find my bearings from the sound of water. I expect to feel fear, but there is nothing to feed it, the mind is flat, the dark is not disturbed. I stare straight ahead. There is no line, no plane, no vanishing point. I walk into it, the body aware, I realise that the arms are projecting, perhaps for balance, I find that I am disinclined to run. I walk, sounding each step, a thread spooling at my back, until the trees break down, and bits of orange sodium get in. The measures return, the bounds return. Sounds of a road in the south, interrupting the park, then the road itself, yellow on yellow. The mood turns. The park continues, the darkness is restored, and something snaps in the thin corridor, a thread, a thought, and I turn back, at the edge of Hallam Moors, near the Derbyshire border, a mile or so from Rud Hill, where the Porter rises from blanket bog, Redmires to the north, White Stones to the west.
In 1915, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd, as part of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. It was the first of four identically titled oil paintings that Malevich would produce; the subsequent versions, executed between 1923 and 1930, vary in size, but all recreate the arrangement of the original, a square of black pigment in an off-white border. Malevich conceived the first Black Square as a foundation stone of Suprematism, a short-lived art movement with an emphasis on basic geometric forms and a restricted palette; a ‘grammar’ in the service of ‘pure feeling’, and in stated opposition to the language of objects, objectivity, and representation. On encountering the work today, what is immediately apparent is that none of the versions are geometrically perfect. All four squares are lopsided, skewing into the borders. The present condition of the 1915 Black Square helps to explain why Malevich remade the piece for later exhibitions: even in reproduction, we see the acute deterioration of the flat plane (a process that was reportedly observed within a few years of the Petrograd exhibition, and exacerbated by decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities, decaying in archival darkness), oxidized, flaking, a distressed surface. Light and air have got to the oil, weakening the bond, the white ground exposed by the cracks. Recent X-rays of the painting show not one, but two, earlier compositions; the first of these is Cubo-Futurist, while the second, directly below the Black Square, is proto-Suprematist. Both of the overpainted works display rich, variegated tones, a field that now rises from the darkness, a field into which the Black Square decomposes. What was black is now midnight blue. The object is unstable, in both a physical and a phenomenological sense; the work that exists is no longer the work that was intended, and invites a form of cognitive dissonance when we attempt to reconcile the painting with its title. Malevich declared both the 1915 painting and the Suprematist movement as the birth of ‘a liberated nothing’, an achromatic ‘zero of form’ (though he would make use of colour in contemporary and later works, it’s interesting to consider this statement from 1920: ‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum.’). This ‘zero’ is, in Malevich’s view, both empty and full, a ‘desert’ (to which he also likens the painting on several occasions) in which ‘nothing is real except feeling’. It is, perhaps, the idea of the black square that outlives its moment, an idea that persists through the later variations, an idea that, above all, is preserved in the title itself.
Black does not feature among the colours matched to the four temperaments in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram of 1798, though it is present in the four humours of Hippocratic medicine (as black bile, or melaina chole) from which their Rose of Temperaments is distantly derived (and is that dark, irregular blot at the centre of the colour wheel, the shade of dried blood, edging towards blackness?). It is also present, as a trace, in the poems by Chris Jones, Alistair Noon, Geraldine Monk and Helen Mort that comprise two-thirds of our new Rose of Temperaments (the first two poems, by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed here). Each of the four sonnets is flecked with ‘black’ or ‘dark’. In Chris Jones‘s ‘Green’, it is the human eye, the organ of light perception and colour differentiation, in which the eponymous hue is located: a ‘pale green’, ‘born of black and yellow melanin’ (melanin, unsurprisingly, shares a root with melancholia: melas, ‘black, dark’). The apparent simplicity and certitude of the poem’s opening lines, which offer pigment as proof of heritage (‘pincered out to mark the Irish in him’), gives way to the speaker’s preoccupation with a greater exactitude, the iris distilled from mineral and vegetal shades, always between one green and the next, the light shifting with each refocusing. Here, many of the objects that mediate an idea of green are on the threshold of diffuse (rough) and specular (smooth) reflection: ‘oxidised copper’, ‘heavy bottle glass’, the ‘greenish blue’ of rippling water, a ‘jade porcelain’ bowl. They refine and refract. Alistair Noon‘s reworking of the sonnet foregrounds the dubiety of colour perception from the outset: firstly, by adopting a rhetorical strategy that calls into question the premise of the original poem (‘Sure? I thought they were brown, his eyes’); and secondly, in unpicking its light green stitching and introducing a darker thread. The shade ‘born of black and yellow’ is now ‘greenish brown’, a ‘muddier’ pigment that nudges the sonnet, by some degrees, towards red, the province of Noon’s own Rose of Temperaments poem. In ‘[red]‘, it ramifies outward, a season (summer) and a continent (Europe) taking the colour; and, at the edge of its range, a human subject, ‘lips and gums’ sensitized and ‘enstrawberized’, contemplating each sweep of the ‘radar-hard Med’. Chris Jones’s response to the poem takes the form of an indirect intervention, a parallel text; the body of the sonnet is left intact, but is tagged with footnotes, in which each reference to red is challenged or critiqued, a fourteen-point argument for ‘a greener tinge’ in every line (‘Surely ‘radar’s emerald’?’). As with Noon’s version of Jones’s poem, the opposition of the two colours is both dialectical and literal, to the extent that they threaten to negate or absorb each other. One is a viridescent portrait darkened by a crimson wash; the other is a red canvas in a green frame.
In some respects, red and purple are close neighbours. However, purple was not among the colours of the rainbow identified by Newton, or, for that matter, among those named in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. It is a composite of red and blue (unlike violet, which is also between red and blue, but occupies its own wavelength of light, and is thus designated a ‘spectral colour’). In her ‘Purple’ sonnet, Helen Mort assigns it a complex value: it speaks of intimacy and estrangement, presence and absence, and of deferred, displaced pain (‘although you’re sure you never fell’), spreading and darkening through the poem, a memory that bruises from lilac to black. The effect is that of an eerie suspension, between unreflecting, abyssal wells (‘too deep and never deep enough’) and the still, shallow irises that stare out from the cover of a children’s book. The irises are violet, a symptom of ocular albinism, in which a lack of pigment in the pupil causes the iris to become translucent and reflect light back. The poem ends with a vision of these eyes: eyes that can only be ‘met’ in the act of closing one’s own, in darkness, in dreams. Geraldine Monk, representing purple (or violet)’s ‘complementary’ hue, restricts its influence to three lines of the octave in her version of Mort’s poem, in which the skin takes the burden: here, the bruise is ‘yellowing’, the epidermis ‘jaundiced’. The yellow of bruising and jaundice is attributable to an excess of bilirubin, which, in turn, refers us to the ‘yellow bile’, or choleric imbalance, hypothesised in the four humours, and which survives in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. Their colour wheel places yellow on the cusp of the choleric and the sanguine, a state of division that Monk’s ‘Yellow’ acknowledges, ‘harmony and warning / wrapped into one everlasting opposition.’ The poem itself is, appropriately, between states: it is an eighteen-line sonnet, a form that dates to the 16th century (John Donne’s ‘The Token’ is an early example). Monk departs from the alternative rhymed quatrains usually found in the ‘heroic sonnet’, but retains its heroic couplet, by which the poem is summarized and concluded:
Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.
In Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, the traits and occupations associated with choleric and sanguine temperaments are, respectively, ‘tyrants, heroes and adventurers’ and ‘hedonists, lovers and poets’. Well-marked characters, in other words, demanding attention, as does this colour, above all others: ‘we pick you out yelling the origin of your name’. Etymologically, ‘yellow’ has the same root as ‘gold’ and ‘yell’: gleaming, crying out. Monk alludes to the status of yellow in ancient Egypt, and the belief that the skin and bones of the gods were made of gold. In this setting, they are ‘yellowing with eternity’: an ‘undying dying’. She also considers more recent (and notorious) cultural significations; in particular, the mandatory ‘badges of persecution’ that marked out the Jewish populations of Nazi Europe (a practice first introduced in the early Islamic world, and perpetuated through medieval and early modern Europe). This, the brightest of colours, the shade of ‘springtime sunbeams’, is steeped in sickness, too, and is always tilting towards opacity; as Goethe reminds us, it is ‘a light which has been dampened by darkness’.
A hotel lounge, a Thursday, a late September afternoon. I am sitting at a low table with Geraldine Monk, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, an eighteen-line script in hers. After some minutes surveying and testing the acoustics of the reception spaces of the Mercure Sheffield – the lobby, the long corridor parallel to the administration wing, the waiting area adjacent to the spa – we have settled into a padded nook, and are preparing to record her ‘Yellow’ poem. Sounds from the cafe terrace pass through the open doors: squeaking pushchairs, rattling china, and, under it all, the cascades of the Peace Gardens, embodying Sheffield’s rivers and molten steel, encircling the fountain, the white point. We make a first take, of which we are uncertain. We make another. Five lines into the sonnet, the town hall clock sounds its bells, a chime that travels to the end of the poem. We listen to the fade, then look up, for a moment, and look down again, at the small table, its black square, the small vase, its yellow flowers.
The development of The Rose of Temperaments, and the sonnets by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed in ‘White Point’, an earlier blog post. Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Listen to Geraldine Monk reading her ‘Yellow’ poem at the Mercure Sheffield:
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.