Form, Color and the Utopian Idea of a Universal Visual Language

It’s in my nature to try and understand the basics when learning something. Knowing the beginning, the fundamentals, the infrastructure , etc. of any thing — a process, an idea, a system — is key to being able to efficiently use it or build from it. The Bauhaus understood that which is why the masters tried to unteach their students what they knew about art and tried to revert them back to the basics.

Wassily Kandinsky, a master at the Bauhaus, believed there was a universal visual language that connected the primary colors — red, blue and yellow — with the three basic shapes: circle, square and triangle. He surveyed his students to assign a color that best matched the shape, his end result was that triangle was yellow due to it’s dynamic nature, the static square was red and the serene circle was blue.

The idea has long been dropped — artists have criticized Kandinsky’s utopian theories including this idea of a universal visual language. In “The ABC’s of Bauhaus, the Bauhaus and Design Theory,” Rosemarie Bletter comments on Kandinsky’s survey, “Kandinsky’s specific reduction of forms to triangle, square, and circle and to the three primary colors, can be understood in terms of an older Western tradition in geometry and color studies… Kandinsky’s form and colors do not have universal meaning or correspondences.”

The explanation for the meanings Kandinsky attributed to the forms are based on cultural understandings — a bias in knowledge is what Kandinsky is claiming without acknowledging it. However, because color and forms are found in nature, there has to be some universality that can be explained through another means rather than just feeling or emotion.

Sacred geometry is, in part, mathematically perfected shapes, forms, patterns, fractals, etc. produced from nature. These shapes and patterns are created effortlessly by plants, animals, natural phenomena, the human body and even in the proportion and composition of things, e.g. rule of thirds and golden ratio. These truths exist without human need, they are discoveries rather than inventions by man. Therefore, their purpose excludes man’s intervention.

Color is also seen in nature. Light is what gives objects their color, without light everything is black. Isaac Newton discovered that white light breaks into a rainbow of seven colors when entered through a glass prism. The seven colors from warm to cool are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. However, there’s an entire spectrum of colors that exist.

Civilizations and cultures around the world, from beginning of time to the present day, have associated colors with meanings that sometimes may seem arbitrary and other times have some form of logic to them: White represents purity, yellow represents good luck, etc.

Kandinsky tried to find the connection between these two — forms and colors — that were a universally understood language. The critics that said he was being too culturally biased with his meanings were right. As much as Kandinsky believed in the international style and minimalism, his meanings for the forms and shapes couldn’t hold true in other cultures around the world.

Math’s universality offers gravitas to geometry and its shapes. Color, however, is more subjective in that it can be perceived differently by different people, both visually and their symbolic representations. The physics of wavelengths could lend a hand in Kandinsky’s utopian visual language when applying color meaning and connecting them to forms.

Wavelength science tells us faster moving wave lengths are cooler in color. Which means the hotter something is, the closer its color becomes blue starting from red. Therefore, a universally accepted color for hot should be blue. But that isn’t the case — warm colors, so they are named, are what we use to determine heat.

Color theory explains the temperature of colors split between warm (red, yellow, orange) and cool (blue, green, purple) and are generally accepted as that. But once we add more complex meanings we get in trouble. Red can express extreme passionate emotions of love and hate. Blue can be interpreted as awake-ness while also meaning depressive sleepiness. Neither of these are wrong nor right. They are all objectively true.

I started this blog post offering up the idea of trying to come up with my own connection between forms and colors. Instead it has intrigued me into studying color a little more closely. Color theory is a thing that’s already been done. And master artists have explored color in their paintings. But I want to see how these colors can play out in their symbolic interpretations against their own meanings.