Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Like it or not, appearances matter. As indifferent current-day interviewers may wish to seem, or first date candidates, judgments are inevitably made about the clothes we wear, and how we wear them. Threat not, however, as dressing well need not be a stressful endeavour. On the contrary, in fact. The world of tailored menswear, as old hat as it may seem, is perhaps traditional in its ideology, but undeniably complex (to the participant’s benefit). My column endeavours to present, dissect, and endorse the phenomenon of dressing well, whilst concurrently, I hope, providing entertaining literature for all to enjoy.
Hilma of Klint: The Ten Largest
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish abstract artist who took her inspiration from mysticism, the occult, and her own spiritual experiences, in which spirit guides instructed her to depict her visions. She worked in the early 1900s, creating huge abstract masterpieces decades before artists like Kandinsky, Klee, and Kupka to whom we credit the invention of abstraction.
Installation view of the Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 12 June – 19 September 2021. Photo: Jenni Carter © AGNSW
Her body of work is expansive, ranging from huge geometric mathematically inspired pieces to watery images of creation, to colourful tableaus involving astrology, science, and nature. One of her most famous series, The Ten Largest, are monumental paintings; spirit guides instructed her to make ‘ten paradisaically beautiful paintings’ that would ‘give the world a glimpse’ of the stages of life. Each painting was completed in about four days and are colour-coded to show the growth of the individual. Why did she pick the colours she did? What is she telling us?
Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest (Childhood No. 1 and No. 2), 1907, tempera on paper,
328x240 cm each
Starting with childhood, Klint selects blue as the background for her pieces. The paintings themselves are full of floral imagery and pinks, oranges, and yellows. Klint once said “first, I want to understand the flowers of the earth,” and this interest in flora before anything else takes precedence in her rendering of the earliest phase of life. The colour palette is slanted towards pastel warmth, with the blue acting as a contrasting unifier. Blue was seen by the Bauhaus as a colour of changeability, echoing the fluidity of water and the ephemerality of the shifting sky. Childhood, too, is a time of changeability and vulnerability. The pastel blue is a delicate colour recalling innocence and purity, but the darker blue holds more weight. Children ask to be taken seriously, for their curiosity and optimism to be treated with respect. The Childhood paintings echo those desires, featuring curiosity in the natural world, desire for beauty and delicacy, but a solid grounding in the same sober values of respect and care that we all need.
Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest (Youth No. 3 and No. 4), 1907, tempera on paper,
328x240 cm each
In youth, the floral forms give way to geometric designs, and the fluid blue is exchanged for a bold, solid orange. An interest in spirals and proportions govern these paintings, representing the search for meaning and logic that guides youth. Orange is a bright, warm colour, seen by Buddhists as the colour of purity and fire. Youthfulness itself is a fiery time, full of self-determination and righteous outrage at the old guard’s institutions. Klint uses orange to bring out the yellows, pinks, and blues of childhood, but introduces black, red, and a rainbow colour palette too. Her paintings show exploration, division, and growth. By placing her solid, organic forms on this lurid background, Klint depicts the passion and strength of youth.
Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest (Adulthood No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8), 1907, tempera on paper, 328x240 cm each
Adulthood holds four paintings exploring the complexity and stability of adulthood. The background is undulating shades of lilac, temperate and sensitive to the yellows and whites of the foreground. These paintings feature more complex designs, combining the floral with the geometric and the diagrammatic. Klint continues her interests from youth and childhood, not abandoning them for the sake of maturity, but integrating them into the more varied compositions, and metaphorically, adulthood. Lilac has its floral connotations, and purple itself has long been associated with the kind of wisdom and spirituality that came to Klint in her adulthood. The pastel purple is a softer version of the deep purple reserved for royalty and mystics, and Klint uses her more watered-down shade to represent the wisdom of adulthood and her own connection to something larger.
Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest (Old Age No. 9 and No. 10), 1907, tempera on paper,
328x240 cm each
Hilma af Klint dedicates the last two paintings to old age. These are the most delicate, quiet works in the series, set with pastel peach and coral backgrounds. They are fairly symmetrical works, with empty compositions that lead the viewer to focus on what there is not, rather than what there is. With the soft warmth of the pink and the slightly fleshy rendering of the red, these works focus on the quiet decay of old age. It is not a sad process - these have all the beauty of the life stages that come before, when people are said to be ‘in their prime’, but these last two possess a delicacy mirrored only in the youth paintings. The winding floral swirls of pink float on pale backgrounds, barely distinguished from their surroundings. They have seen the world and chosen what they love most. As the pink fades into a textured red towards the bottom of the page, the decay of the body and the mind seems scary, but is rendered gracefully. There is a tenderness to these, Klint having not experienced this stage yet. They are anticipatory - Klint anticipating old age, and the elderly anticipating death.
Klint’s life cycle uses bright colours to colour-code the forms in her paintings and imbue both the foreground and the background with meaning. Being an abstract rather than realist artist requires her to consider colour in a different way - as a medium holding its own weight and symbolism, rather than a superficial quality. Through Klint’s understanding of colour and life, The Ten Largest proves effective and moving, much like the rest of her body of work.
Faith Ringgold: Black Light Series
Ad Reinhardt once defined colour “in its purest sense as multiple possibilities of black”. Black itself can be suffocating, and overpowering, swallowing up the eye where the fields of non-colour lay, but black can also be used as a conduit for colour and for light.
Faith Ringgold’s Black Light series, consisting of twelve paintings made from 1967 to 1969, exemplified her desire to use black as an illuminator. Being a Black woman and a coloured woman simultaneously, her art was inspired by ideas about race and the Black identity. She understood how the Black label and the black colour can both be limiting, and noticed the bias towards lighter colours in joyful, happy Western art that depicted white joy in all the pastels of the rainbow. Ringgold made her own oil paints, using burnt umber as a base instead of the traditional white base. She wanted to better represent dark skin tones and allow them to be better observed and admired by, as Ringgold herself said, “placing equally dark colours directly adjacent to one another, the various hues… stand out as independent and assertive tones, emphasising their contrast and idiosyncrasy.”
Faith Ringgold, #11: US America Black, 1969, oil on canvas.
Ringgold’s eleventh painting in this series, US America Black, 1969, shows her colour theory in action. The eight-way portrait of Black Americans features a variety of blue and brown tones adjacent to each other, varying in hue but each staying a deep and rich tone. The shadows on each portrait are rendered in the same ultramarine blue, unifying the disjointed composition. The blue is placed alongside equally dark browns and oranges, pushing the viewer to focus solely on the difference in hues. Ringgold is using these dark colours to paint rich, warm portraits of Black Americans, and using the paint’s darkness to allow us to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of these tones.
Faith Ringgold, #7: Ego Painting, 1969, oil on canvas.
In #7: Ego Painting, 1969, colour disrupts the geometric symmetry of the piece. The colour-coded pinwheel is unevenly red, blue, and black, colours vital to the Black American identity. The black of skin and of reputation, the blue of blues music and of bruises, the red of blood, these colours provoke visceral reactions and hold symbolic weight in the Black community. The text on the painting honours the multifaceted artistic culture of African Americans; Ringgold is using fine art to nod to literature and lyrical music. The colour coding allows us to read the nonlinear piece, with ‘BLACK AMERICA’ legible from right to left along the bottom, linked by their colour composition. Colour unites this shattered image, but also prevents symmetrical harmony, and obscures understanding.
Faith Ringgold, #1: Big Black, 1967, oil on canvas.
The first Black Light painting, #1: Big Black, stares out at us. The colours here break up parts of a whole, splitting his face into a nine-piece patchwork. The ultramarine is back to outline and shade his features. Big Black confronts us as well as himself, his eyes reflecting only black light as he floats on an undefined background. He is composed of recognisable features, in the same colours Ringgold uses to so realistically depict Black Americans, but his resemblance to a human face is uncanny and dissociated. Big Black is shattered like Ego Painting, the variations of colour and tone preventing him from unity.
Ringgold’s use of colour to unite, to divide, to describe, and to obscure, speaks to her personal rich understanding of colour as a Black woman in segregated America. She takes colour and the application of it seriously, using it expertly both for technical purposes and as a symbolic tool.
It is popularly believed that red, yellow, and blue are the primary colours, with no doubts or room for variety. This RYB colour model was originally derived in the seventeenth century and popularised by Franciscus Aguilonius, who concurred with his peers that red, yellow, and blue were the most useful colours for paint mixing. Theoretically, from mixing these and black and white in various ratios, one could derive all the colours in the world. This is untrue. You can’t get electric yellow, or gold, or magenta from these primaries. RYB was useful for the practice of oil painting, and in that context, they can generate almost all the colours you want. But the tiny world of oil painting cannot be the standard for colour, a medium so intrinsic to life and so universally beloved. So what is a primary?
Primaries are fundamental colours that order the world. Primary itself means ‘first’ or ‘most important’. Linguistically, we can look at primaries literally. In the sixties, Kay and Berlin of UC Berkeley figured out what the universal ‘first’ colours were. In almost every language, the first words for colours developed are words for light and dark, and then red. After red comes green or yellow, and then the rest come later. This is exemplified in the medicine wheel, a way of ordering the colours found in Native American societies. The Ojibwe wheel features black, white, red, and yellow as the fundamental colours, and attribute to them the four cardinal directions, the four sacred medicines, the four seasons, and the four stages of life. Each facet of life fits into this primary scheme. However, ordering the world through colour is not intrinsic to every language - the Canoshi people of the Amazon do not have any colour terms, and instead describe an object’s colour by calling it another object of that colour, or calling it a texture term. In this way, the world orders colour, instead of colour ordering the world.
Practically, we derive primaries from systems of thinking about colour. In Medieval Europe, colour was thought of as a scale from light to dark, with the midpoint being red and green. This system gives us four primaries: white, red, green, and black. The Hanuno’o people of the Philippines think of colour as two scales, one from light to dark, and the other from fresh to dry, generating five primaries: light, dark, fresh, dry, and the neutral midpoint. The way we think of colour post-Newton is as a light spectrum, each shade represented by a certain wavelength. This system gives us the RGB colour model, which mixes light (additive) instead of pigment (subtractive).
Primaries help us make sense of the chaos that is colour. They show us which are important, which to look for, and which are products of the others. In the early twentieth century, the Bauhaus school assigned shapes to the RYB model, they decided that the yellow triangle, the red square, and the blue circle were the fundamental primaries. Tying colour with other sensory experiences, like the perception of line and form, or wet and dry, is a huge part of how we experience colour. It is never an abstract concept, it is always tied to form, an object, a picture plane, or a beam of light, but it is almost always the first thing one sees. Colour is the most easily experienced part of a larger whole, and through that lens it becomes a universal language.