Isaac Newton was not a man of fashion. He spent more time on calculus than catwalks. Yet the great 17th-century scientist’s discoveries are the ultimate source of this season’s scintillating experiments in colour.
When Newton used a glass prism to break up a beam of sunlight in a dark room, he produced a spectrum of colours and proved that white light is a mixture of all the colours of the rainbow. He mapped these colours on to a circle and created a way of thinking about colour that has fascinated artists and designers from Vincent van Gogh to Gucci. When you look at a colour circle, it reveals relationships between colours and what happens when they are put next to each other – effects that seem all the rage this spring from Victoria Beckham dressing like a walking Van Gogh painting in blue and orange, to Gucci playing with pink and green.
Van Gogh and other 19th-century artists, from JMW Turner to Georges Seurat, were obsessed with the science of colour. The polymathic German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, refined and rethought Newton’s colour theory. Turner’s painting Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) uses his ideas to portray the morning after the biblical deluge in a visionary gradation of bright whites and yellows – a juxtaposition of light hues that Burberry’s subtle play of cream and white echoes in a much less apocalyptic way.
The buzzword in 19th-century colour theory was “complementary”. According to the “the law of complementary colours” that is (purportedly) revealed by a richly detailed colour wheel devised by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, colours that are opposite each other on the wheel are complementary: for instance, blue and orange, purple and yellow, red and green. Does Victoria Beckham keep Chevreul’s colour wheel by her wardrobe? She has certainly hit on a classic example of complementary colours in her spring look. The joyous meeting of orange and blue is a great image of the world coming alive in spring. When Van Gogh arrived in Provence for the first time in spring 1888 (arriving in February he saw the new season start), he responded to the light of the south in paintings that abound in blue skies complemented by orange or yellow.
All this is just a more arty (and scientific) way of saying that certain colours work together, something anyone can find out by trial and error. Gucci’s combination of bright pink and green may be outrageous, yet it’s also completely satisfying because these colours are opposites on the colour wheel.
It all gets stranger if you ignore the colour wheel and mix colours against its rules, colours that clash. Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings experiment with all kinds of bizarre, deliberately uncomfortable colours juxtaposed in misty horizontal bands. Blue, green and mauve? Black and red? Pink, yellow and red? To look at Rothko’s potent, mysterious, revelatory work is to throw away your colour wheel. The psychology of colour can’t be explained away by science after all, as Balenciaga’s Rothko-like combo of pink and purple testifies. Pink and black, as seen on the Alexander Wang catwalk this season, is another vaguely disturbing echo of Rothko.
Colour does not really change. It is a natural phenomenon, after all. It is amazing how this season’s fashions echo 19th-century art. Even the extreme and the cutting edge have their predecessors, because there are only so many colours and so many ways of combining them. Rothko tried them all until he could see nothing but black. So maybe black will be back next year.
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