The Visible and the Invisible : Color Contrast Phenomena in Space

Abstract: This study deals with the changes in color that arise in space, primarily simultaneous contrast in three dimensions. The typical account of simultaneous contrast is that the contrast phenomenon occurs between two or more color surfaces seen together, thus affecting one another. The overarching question of the study is: How do we perceive the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast in space? The work analyzes how the concept of simultaneous contrast is used historically, and also examines its importance in a cultural context. A theoretical starting point for the study of simultaneous contrast is the French chemist M.E. Chevreul’s (1786–1889) laws governing visual color blending. Three time periods are examined in the dissertation: a) the middle of the 19th century, when Chevreul’s scientific research became well known and began to be put into practice by Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists; b) the time when early modernism manifested aninterest in color contrasts, perception, and a new kind of vision and simultaneity; and c)the present, with a focus on contemporary Swiss architecture, primarily that designed by Gigon/Guyer, Herzog & de Meuron, and Bonnard Woeffray. The study of color contrast phenomena includes color as a material, as well as the visual perception of color, and is based on three philosophical theories, one per chapter. Chapter I is rooted in Merleau-Ponty’s idea of perception as an unreflected experience, applied in the 19th century context. Chapter II investigates how Bergson’s concept of simultaneity has repercussionsin early modernism. Chapter III applies Wittgenstein’s idea of aspect seeing to contemporary Swiss architecture. In addition, via close studies of selected buildings and artworks, the purpose is to follow the changes in color and the way colors appear in architecture. Three separate ways to apply color are observed: a) colors applied in a dot technique; b) colors applied as whole surfaces; and c) colors created as luminous colored light. How one perceives a color or a phenomenon depends, the results show, on a number of factors: how the surfaces are angled, the chemical composition of the color material, illumination, the viewer’s location, the distance between the color and theviewer, and the viewer’s background knowledge and experience. What we see and perceive in and through space is an optical mixture. Systems of small points or dots mix(together) at a distance to form entire surfaces and new colors. When complementary colors are used, juxtaposed in small dots, they cancel each other in the optical mixture to neutral gray hues and muddy tones. On the other hand, when complementary colors are juxtaposed in whole surfaces, they add power to each other and can even be perceived as solid colors. Color in the form of light can be perceived as transparent and luminous; in a small room, a thick light color can alter the contours of the space. The following eleven color phenomena have been noted: the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon of contrast enhancement, the phenomenon of afterimage, the phenomenon of simultaneous transparency, the phenomenon of the moiré effect, the phenomenon of colored space, the phenomenon of chemical aging, the phenomenon of motion, the phenomenon of changeability, the phenomenon of structural color, the phenomenon ofcolored mist. The observer’s active participation in an experience of space is noticed, for example in the Byzantine mosaic rooms, in Sonia Delaunay’s simultaneous contrasts, and in Moholy-Nagy’s simultaneous transparent layers in his stage design. Color is a material regardless of whether it is painted, a construction element, a dyed fabric, or acolored piece of Plexiglas. In the transformation of a contrast phenomenon, the conclusion must be, colors change shape and can instead appear as light. Color thus becomes immaterial. The color manifests an uncertainty in that it can be transformed from a painted layer to immaterial transparency. This inconstancy provides the color with tension and a certain charge.

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